Theatre in Motion: Movement Direction with Cha Ramos
In Theatre in Motion, we discuss theatre's movement across stages, through time, and within communities with its creators and practitioners.
We talked about movement literacy, intimacy and fight direction, and choreography with Dramaturgy alumna Cristina ‘Cha’ Ramos ’21.
Cristina ‘Cha’ Ramos (she/her/ella) is a multidisciplinary theatre artist focused on the storytelling power of movement. Cha works primarily as a fight and intimacy director for the stage, but can also be found in rehearsal rooms as a dramaturg, playwright, and performer. She made her Broadway debut as the Associate Intimacy Director for both Company and Jagged Little Pill. She is most drawn to queer and Latine work, and is especially adept at working at the intersections of multiple movement styles (intimacy, stage combat, and dance, among others). Her second original play, Fire Burn Them—a 2020 finalist for the [email protected] New Play Reading Series—was developed under the guidance of Playwriting Concentration Head Leslie Ayvazian and had an invited reading at Riverside Church. Her third full-length play is an adaptation developed under the guidance of Adjunct Associate Professor Morgan Jenness. You can find more about her work at www.CallMeCha.com
Could you tell me about your background as a theatre maker and performer, including how your movement literacy developed?
Cha Ramos: I like to say that my first foray into anything theatrical—which is especially important to this conversation because it isn't actually theatrical—is Latin social dance. My parents are Cuban immigrants. Both of them were born in Cuba; my brother and I are the first generation born here in the US, and we just grew up dancing. There's a really adorable picture of me and my brother as toddlers, literally dancing salsa together. So,to me, the thing that got me excited about anything even vaguely theatrical was dancing, and specifically dancing in these social situations. From social dance, I fell in love with the marriage of movement and music, and my mom immediately put me in dance classes: flamenco, ballet, tap, and jazz.
What was cool about it was that I was never the most exceptional dancer. But because I had social dance, it sort of didn't matter that I wasn't; I wasn't gonna be a professional dancer— although I was a professional Latin dancer for exactly one year of my adult life, which was a wild experience and perhaps a story for another time. It was through dance that I discovered theatre. All of a sudden, it was like: oh, theatre is a space that includes not just music and movement, but music and movement and storytelling and other kinds of physicality. Discovering theatre expanded what I thought was possible with the human body. I started working as an actor in high school and college. In college I also returned to Latin dance, including during my time at Columbia, so dance has never been far from my training or my mind.
After college I decided that I wanted to pursue theatre as a career. I went to acting school for a year. Because I had a background in dance, when it came time to take a formal movement class, I didn't want to take another dance class. I'd done that my whole life, and I wanted something new. Instead, I took stage combat and that began my love affair with this whole other type of movement-based storytelling, which was much more narrative than dance had ever been in my life—but it was not unlike dance in that it was choreographed, and it was about the relationship between partners. It brought me back to the partner dancing that had been so important in my childhood. Through stage combat, I found intimacy direction. And I realized that, wow, there are just so many ways that we can use the body to tell stories on stage. To me, the ways we can use bodies to tell stories are the most expansive and exciting practices involved in making theatre.
Wow! That brings me to my next question: I know you wear many hats—you're a performer, writer, dramaturg, movement and intimacy director, and more. How does your knowledge of movement-based storytelling inform the other disciplines that you work in?
CR: I think it stops me from getting trapped in dramaturgical rules as easily as some of my text-based colleagues. I think folks who grew up in the theatre from a text-based perspective have certain ideas, specifically Aristotelian ideas about dramaturgy, that I think having grown up in movement allows me to keep an outside perspective on. I've learned a lot about text-based dramaturgy and Aristotelian concepts of plot and character and so on, but when I'm working on a piece that is text-based, my brain starts from a movement perspective. It starts from a non-Aristotelian, non-narrative place. I think what that allows for is just a more expansive view of what a story even is, and what we mean when we say “storytelling.”
The plays that I write have dialogue, but actually the most important scenes are often movement-based. A lot of my plays are very stage direction heavy, which is a testament to how I think about storytelling in the medium of theatre. It’s a physical thing; it's in space. Then as a dramaturg, like I said, I tend to think in non-Aristotelian ways, which I think can be helpful for a lot of folks who want to break out of those norms. As a performer, so much of what I do is movement work. Discovering what is possible, like finding how much narrative you can actually get into a fight scene that has no dialogue, as an actor, is so freeing. It's very liberating to realize that the way I hold my sword tells you a thousand things about my character, her relationship to the other character(s) onstage, the history between them—everything can be in just the lift of the sword. And that feels very exciting as a performer. As a choreographer, I have the honor of helping an actor find the lift of that sword and all the meaning behind it.
Have you ever found a language barrier when working with performers of varying levels of movement literacy? How do you communicate movement to someone who doesn't have the same background as you?
CR: It’s been really helpful to engage in many different styles of movement, because it helps me to have an arsenal of vocabulary to draw upon. There are times when I’ve used baseball terminology to get the right hand position for a slap. I'll use dance terminology if that's what's accessible, or stage combat language if that’s what’s accessible. If we're talking about intimacy, things as simple as an open hand versus a closed hand on a cheek will tell very different stories. Being able to break down movement with a lot of different vocabulary from various movement styles can help get to the story we want to tell. I'll often try three or four different ways of describing the same kind of movement to an actor.
I think what's often the biggest barrier for me with working with actors who don't have a movement background is inviting them into conversation with their own bodies—conversations that they maybe have never had. Actors who are new to movement will express that they don’t know how to tell their bodies to do specific things, even when they understand intellectually what I’m asking them to do. It’s likely that they’ve never asked their bodies to move in the specific ways I’m asking of them. How we practice and have a dialogue around movement is by recognizing what they do and don’t know about their bodies in a respectful way, often by comparing what they feel they’re doing and what I’m seeing from an outside perspective. There should be moments of realization, like: “I've never realized how much I stand tall rather than lowering my weight. Or, I've never realized how I don't extend my arms fully when I reach.” Being able to find those realities in ways that honor the expertise and experience the actors do have is one of the big challenges for me, but it is also really exciting and rewarding to watch an actor discover their body in a new way.
When you are setting any kind of movement on actors, do you come in with the choreography already planned out, or do you prefer to work more collaboratively in the moment? Does the movement you choreograph change depending on a performer’s comfort level, perhaps even on a daily basis?
CR: All of the above, honestly. For both my violence and intimacy work for the stage, it's based in a consent practice and a collaborative conversation. Communication is really important. I find that it's really helpful to come in with an idea, usually based on an early conversation I've had with the director, or, if it's a musical piece, with the director and choreographer, around what the story is that we're trying to tell. What are the stage pictures that feel really important to the creative team? Then in the room with the actors, I always keep their boundaries and their needs in mind. I'll usually have a one-on-one with each actor about what's off the table for them physically and what they don't want to engage with story wise. When I come in to set movement, then I can marry everything together to create movement that everyone feels comfortable engaging with.
I'll come in with an outline of what I think the “guideposts”—like point A, B, and C—can be for the scene. In the room, it’s all about discovery, which to me is the joy of theatre as a collaborative art form in general. The ideas the actors and I are going to have in the room together are going to be better than anything I could have thought of alone in my office. The guideposts are helpful, because that way I'm not putting the onus or the responsibility on the actors to make a choice, especially in intimacy work, which can feel really vulnerable. If I come into the rehearsal room with a question—“what if this moment is this kind of touch?”—then I can spark a conversation with the actors that leads to us creating the movement together. Having the plan helps us have a starting point. There are things that I do have a hard time throwing away, movements that I've fallen in love with, that aren’t working for the actors in the room. But I let go of things when I have to. So my process is a bit of early planning, and then being willing to let go of the plan in the room for what best serves the story and the people telling that story.
In terms of story then, is there anything that you find in theatre that you prefer to see in movement versus in text or dialogue? Is there anything that resonates for you more as something that moves versus something that's spoken?
CR: I do think this is a bias of mine as a movement person, but I would prefer to see things unsaid, in general. I also recognize that Western theatre, American theatre certainly, is more of a text-based theatre, and it can be uncomfortable to move outside of that. But I find, thinking as an intimacy professional, that a lot of romance and sex, in real life, leave things unspoken. I think that's why I'm so attracted to stage violence and stage intimacy, because much like in musical theatre, they deal with the moments where spoken words fail us. They’re moments when we need to touch, we need to hit, we need to punch, we need to scream, right?
I see a lot of romantic scenes in theatre that are spoken that I just wonder: would a person really have the wherewithal to say those words? I'm sure some people do. I'm sure some people are very eloquent in their moments of passion, expressing that they’ve never loved someone as much as they do in that moment. But I also think a lot of people wouldn’t speak in those moments. Instead, they move those moments. It’s similar with anger; rather than saying, “I'm so angry right now, I could throw this chair,” can we just throw the chair? Then, of course, you need to answer: what does it take to throw the chair? Part of the reason I actually went to school for dramaturgy was because I once talked a director out of a fight scene; it takes a lot to slap someone in a scene, and I didn’t feel like the characters in this particular scene had earned the slap. I expressed to this particular director that I didn’t think a slap would happen, based on how the scene played out. I thought that a threat of violence could happen, but I didn't think the character had gotten to the point where they would actually put hands on another person. That director was the first person to call me a dramaturg.
I think it’s about finding a balance: sometimes we are trying to say in words what actually happens, in life, in movement, and other times there's movement written in the script that I think needs to be earned in the dialogue and the way the scene progresses. You need to earn a slap, you need to earn a kiss. It's not that easy to lean in and kiss someone. And so what does it take to get to that moment? It can happen without a single word spoken, but those moments need to be earned.
Can you identify a time when theatre moved you as an audience member?
CR: There are so many. What's funny is the thing that's coming to mind, of all things—because we're having this conversation about movement, and because I come from a dance background and I’m thinking about the trajectory from my childhood exposure to theatre to where I am today—is the first piece of theatre I ever saw, which was Cats.
I couldn't have been more than four years old when I saw it. I don't know, as an adult, how I feel about Cats as a piece of theatre, or whether or not it deserves the legacy that it has had. But as a four year old experiencing the very specific movement language of that piece, and how those actors embodied the cats, it was really magical. Cats is a piece in which every gesture matters, and every gesture is in a language that the entire company is involved in and onboard with, and the company creates an entire universe with that movement. Love Cats or hate Cats, the movement universe of that piece is deeply specific. Every stage production of Cats—I still haven't seen the movie, so I don't know about the movie—has that movement language. They all have that very specific, viscous physicality.
I think there's something almost indescribable that, to me, is my greatest joy when I'm watching physical theatre, even in a piece that is otherwise text-based. I'm thinking of a moment in Ionesco’s Exit The King in which the king just walks forward slowly. But it’s more than that, because it’s a moment of movement in which the specificity of it can not only tell you things about plot and character, and, again, the Aristotelian dramaturgical structures, it can quite literally create a world. It’s a world that you can't necessarily pin down as plot, character, diction, or rhythm; it’s instead a sensation—a feeling of a universe. That feels magical to me. That feels like actual theatre magic. So yes, Cats is the piece that comes to mind. Because it does exactly that: it creates a universe through movement that is palpable and that you feel in the space.