James Donlon teaches his disciples how to roll with the punches of movement
Associate professor James Donlon teaches a theatre arts class Tuesday at SOU. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

The secret to James Donlon's success in theater — and in teaching movie actors and students how to move their bodies convincingly in their roles — is that he thinks of himself basically as a clown and the stage as a circus, a place where anything is possible.

A new teacher of movement in Southern Oregon University's performance major, Donlon is noted as a master clown, mime, actor and teacher throughout the country and the world. He has done extensive coaching with Hollywood notables, including Kathy Bates, Marsha Gay Harden, Benjamin Bratt and Frances McDormand.

Actors and audiences are habituated to looking at actors' faces and hands, a habit Donlon seeks to bend, as he forces them out of comfort zones and into a "sense of improvisation, spontaneity and poetic truth," such as clowns teach as they go to extremes to portray often-taboo realities that humans prefer to keep out of sight.

His students learn to be "really observant, to understand their place in the world, to humor people into letting their defenses down so they can talk about serious things," says Donlon, after an SOU class.

Using masks he made three decades ago and engaging five students at a time, he gets performance seniors to switch postures, masks and gestures every 20 seconds, working with masks representing menace, joy, grief and stoicism.

"Find your body of energy and keep playing with your arms and legs," he tells them. "Go somewhere with it, try to make contact with us!"

Student Blair Fraser notes, "He's so amazing, a master movement teacher. We learn so many new things every day, sometimes simple things, like how even a maid has a big part on stage, with body movements that are different than anyone else's."

Donlon demonstrates how completely covering your face with a knit pullover helps you focus on what the rest of your body is doing, as well as what your surroundings are and how you interact with them.

"A movement coach is like a behavioral coach, guiding you to your physical and emotional choices," he says, adding that in Hollywood, actors came to trust him because "they don't get a lot of feedback from directors, who are focused on the technical aspects."

Film has less language than plays and, he says, "my job is about what happens between the words — to help them understand and use the playing field ... to focus energy, concentrate on the sense of ensemble and the physical dialogue, then layer on more style."

The best screen actors, he notes, have "rigorous training" in this kind of theater and learn "how to express your point of view, how you feel about this topic, as seen in your actions, emotion and how you express yourself."

Clowns and the circus tell "how humans fit in the universe" in a setting where people stand on their heads and can fly — and, he says, because they have the freedom to express views not normally listened to, they are the first targets of the powerful.

TV news comic Jon Stewart actually fills that role on our national stage, he says.

Donlon began his career in 1970 at Humboldt State University and taught at American Conservatory Theater, Yale School of Drama and University of California at Santa Barbara — and held residencies at Mexico City's Bellas Artes and Prague's National Academy of Performing Arts.

Department Chairman David Humphrey says Donlon brings "a wildly dynamic imagination and creative spirit" to the university.

"I consider him an American treasure," Humphrey says.

Donlon came to Ashland from his Flying Actors Theater in San Francisco. With Humphrey, he's "laying plans" for a comprehensive festival of performing arts under a big tent on campus in summers.

"It's one of the reasons I came here. This is where culture meets nature. People would come," says Donlon. "You learn any space can be made into a theater space, out of nothing — and you become the wizard or shaman and put the audience in a trance."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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