Movement trainer takes Hollywood and West End in his stride
Movement trainer Michael Brown's passion for his craft is paying off in theatre and film, writes Gloria Chan
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who looks more in love with his work than Michael Brown when he talks about film and theatre. "I was asked to join a theatre production of Hamlet when I was 21 and have had the acting virus ever since," he says, his eyes sparkling. "I'm still looking for the antidote."
Best known for his role as movement director and trainer in the West End production War Horse and in last year's Oscar-winning film Gravity, Brown says that his career has been a result of serendipity, accidents and trust. "The nature of our work is to stay open and follow things that interest you. Work then sort of comes along."
Brown recalls how Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Gravity, became fascinated with the puppetry movements in the War Horse production in London and asked for the artists involved, including Brown, to work on his space epic.
Born in the US, Brown studied philosophy at the University of Texas then took a master's degree in classical acting training at the University of Wisconsin. He went on to London to train with Jacques Lecoq, a prominent French actor and acting instructor, at the London International School of Performing Arts.
Charged with helping actors become more expressive with their bodies, a movement trainer needs to be observant and meticulous, spending hours every day studying the movements and behaviour of the subject they are attempting to mimic. "That way, the audience will see that thing on stage without it actually being there," Brown says of working on War Horse.
"We had to think how those little moments - the breathing, that twitch of a tail - can bring a massive puppet to life. Then the audience will stop seeing the puppet; instead, they'll see the horse."
He tackled the same challenges on Gravity - except this time the challenge was to find ways for the actors to manoeuvre as if there was no gravity. Brown worked closely with stuntmen, ensuring that puppeteers controlling stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney moved the actors seamlessly. Planning the movements for a few seconds of film would take a day or two, and mastering the zero-gravity movements took a few months.
The need for such detailed examination of kinetics helped Brown re-learn the importance of observation. "I think all great art, no matter painting or music or theatre, comes from seeing something more clearly or a little more deeply than it has been seen before," he says.
Brown has been in Hong Kong for almost a month working on theatre production Jason and the Argonauts with Vicki Ooi's youth theatre education group, AFTEC. Coaching and directing local actors as young as 14, Brown says he has had "a great time".
As the father of a young child himself, Brown loves seeing the growth of these youngsters, whom he met last year in Hong Kong through the Bravo! acting workshop. "I think it's a great progression for them to go from a classroom to a stage in just a year and a half. What a journey for them."
Having worked with actors from across the globe, Brown believes they all share the same trait: a playful and adventurous spirit that is open to experimenting with different things. "One of the things theatre offers us is the pleasure to play as a child - to see something that isn't there but to pretend and react as if it is. None of us ever lose that."
Although Brown works on both film and theatre productions, his heart belongs first and foremost to the theatre. "The pleasure of theatre is that we don't have the toys films have. What we do in theatre is not that we try to give it all to the audience: we say here's a little provocation for your imagination, now you complete that picture with us, you make this world with us in your own mind," he says.
"We cannot nor do we want to do it all on stage. In that sense, it goes right back to the beginning of storytelling: theatre still has that direct link to the person who sat around the fire and told a story in such a way that everyone began to imagine it. For me, both as an audience member and as a theatre maker, that connection is such a deep and profound one.
"With film, it's almost as if that happened somewhere and was recorded. Film doesn't require me to take a leap [of imagination]; it was sort of there for me," he says.
"Theatre requires me to do something - it requires me to take a step and at the same time I'm aware I'm taking a step, I'm aware it's just those people and that fabric on stage. But for a moment I see something else. There's nothing like that - the pleasure to do it, create it, and know that you are creating it at the same time."
Jason and the Argonauts , final performance today, 3.30pm, Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre, 111 Shau Kei Wan Rd, Sai Wan Ho, HK$100, HK$160 Urbtix. Inquiries: 3184 5777