Obituary: Litz Pisk

George Hall
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:55

None who worked with the movement teacher Litz Pisk, either as actor or student, will ever forget the sheer theatrical impact of her own movement, at once dynamic and sculptural, intense and totally possessed.

Amazement at such physical creativity was often mixed with despair at the thought of ever achieving anything comparable, but the despair was usually short-lived, for the purpose of the demonstration was not to dazzle but to inspire. However clumsy and uncoordinated we were, she convinced us that we too had it in us to become more alive physically, more transformable and expressive.

Her way of working had nothing to do with striving for a preconceived ideal physique; instead she was concerned to free the individual body she saw before her from all its constricting habits and limitations. Initially this process might involve a certain amount of chaos, welcomed by her as a first step on the road to what she called "a second simplicity". When you could stand before her relaxed and balanced you were ready to allow your imagination to shape your body.

Born in Vienna in 1909 - the curious first name Litz is a form of Alice, Alice in Wonderland (Alitzia in Wunderland) being her father's favourite book - Litz first showed a natural talent for movement when her parents, worried by the curvature of her spine, sent her to Isadora Duncan's sister Elizabeth for correctional help. This talent for movement was matched by the facility she had already revealed for drawing, her subject matter invariably the human body in motion.

Unable to decide which line to follow, she continued to study both subjects, and realised that the one sphere in which they could be united was the theatre - she would be a designer of costumes, sets and movement. Fiercely determined, she somehow enrolled at the State School of Arts and Crafts, although at 15 she was under age. She studied under one of Max Reinhardt's designers, Oskar Strnad, who described his subject as "stage architecture", and his preoccupation with defining space by using the simplest means was to remain a great influence.

Although she had a successful career in Vienna both as a movement teacher and a designer - she was responsible for the sets and costumes for the Viennese premiere of The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny, working with Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya - she came to England in 1933 and settled there a year or two later. Within days of arriving, she was engaged to do theatrical caricatures for the Evening Standard and the News Chronicle. Shortly afterwards, she started to teach movement at RADA - until then they had studied ballet and deportment - but although Sir Kenneth Barnes, the Principal, rather surprisingly welcomed this innovation, he drew the line at improvisation, whereupon a group of young rebels, headed by Harold Lang, Alan Badel and Miriam Brickman, persuaded her to run an unofficial, extra-curricular class, whose public performances caused quite a stir in theatrical circles.

So it was a logical step for Michel St-Denis, George Devine and Glen Byam Shaw to invite her to join them when they opened their radical but, alas, short-lived Old Vic Theatre School after the Second World War. Despite the brevity of its existence, the school had a profound effect on theatre training throughout the English- speaking world. Since Litz Pisk's work played a central part in its success, her reputation grew and her approach to movement influenced many who followed.

After the Vic School, Pisk had a spell at Bath Academy of Art, followed by a period as a student (and later a teacher) of pottery at Camberwell School of Art. But she continued to teach movement in Britain and Sweden and worked on several productions in the theatre and on television.

Then came a decade at the Central School of Speech and Drama (as head of movement from 1964) until her retirement in 1970, the third of her immensely influential periods in theatre training.

In 1966-67 she and I collaborated on a programme called Movement and Sound, rehearsing for a year to produce a 50-minute show which was subsequently televised. I am certain no one involved will ever forget the highs and lows of this extraordinary experience, or Litz Pisk's unsparing determination to make us all continue when we felt like giving up.

One of her closest working relationships was with the director Michael Elliott, and they collaborated on television, when he co-directed Women of Troy with Caspar Wrede; at Stratford, on As You Like It (1961-62), with Vanessa Redgrave; at the Old Vic, on Peer Gynt (1962); and several times in Manchester, notably on The Tempest (1969) and Moby Dick. Other partnerships were with Peter Hall on Camino Real, with William Gaskill on The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1962) and Cymbeline (also 1962), and with Karel Reisz on the film Isadora (1968), again with Vanessa Redgrave.

Litz Pisk remained active when she retired with her friend Barbara Coombe to their cottage in Cornwall. There were exhibitions of her drawings in London and in the West Country, and in 1975 she published The Actor and His Movement - she was working on a second book at her death.

Her students will always remember the heavily accented, nearly inaudible speech, the elegant hair that survived the most strenuous movements (in spite of a scattering of hairpins), the moments of pained sadness at our inadequacies which made us try that bit harder, and, above all, the quality Michael Elliott so memorably described as "a contagious seriousness that can create an atmosphere of deep concentration as if by magic, with a glance of the hooded eyes and a half-lost mumble".

George Hall

Litz Pisk, movement teacher: born Vienna 22 October 1909; died St Ives, Cornwall 6 January 1997.

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