Contraction and Release

"Theater is a verb before it is a noun, an act before it is a place." ~Martha Graham

"The body says what words cannot." ~Martha Graham

Quick Sketch

Contract and Release for sharp turns and/or an alternative structure in your script.

When to Use


An Effect

Martha Graham was a Twentieth century modern dancer and choreographer who revolutionized the field and propelled it forward. One way she pushed the envelope was in terms of the type of movement she created:

Graham identified a method of breathing and impulse control she called "contraction and release." For her, movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle, and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. This method of muscle control gave Graham's dances and dancers a hard, angular look, one that was very unfamiliar to dance audiences used to the smooth, lyrical bodily motions of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In her first reviews, as a result, Graham was often accused of dancing in an "ugly" way."

This "ugly way" is now regarded as beautiful, meaningful, and evocative. Several methods of training to employ contraction and release are linked below. This exercise explores two methods one could use to keep in the spirit of contraction and release (without the physical movement playwrights are not necessarily known for while writing). Clips of dancing can be found on the web if you don't have access to a library with full performances. Also, the Google Doodle honoring Martha Graham contains an interesting explanation for each particular movement and the creation of the dedication.

The Exercise

Take the idea of Contraction & Release and extend it to playwriting. There are many possible ways to do this, I've suggested two such ways below.

If you haven't caught onto a theme with these exercises, I think that it's important to set rules to a core idea that is borrowed from elsewhere.

Structure of Release
  1. Re-read your play.
  2. Structure your play as follows:
  3. It may be helpful to draw a graphical representation of your play.

NOTE: This will contrast with the typically employed structure.

Explosive Characterization
  1. Re-read your play.
  2. Take one (or more) character(s) and give them a vocal or physical reality:
  3. Wash, rinse, repeat.


Perhaps this explosive form of movement/speech created a character or characteristic that you hadn't before considered. Perhaps the structure of contraction and release created a different type of story from what you're more familiar or comfortable creating. Perhaps this inspired you to write in a different way. Perhaps it inspired you to quit writing and just dance. To invoke a modern saying: "Just do it."