How Does the Alexander Technique Benefit Actors?
“I can immediately tell the difference between actors who have studied the Alexander Technique, and those who haven’t.”-Sam Mendes, Academy Award-Winning Director (American Beauty)
I think about this question a lot. Besides being an actor, I teach on-camera and audition technique to kids and young adults at Gary Spatz’s “The Playground,” an acting school in Los Angeles. I saw that studying Alexander Technique really made a difference in my work and in the work of my students. But the one thing I couldn’t pinpoint when I began to study it and then teach it was how did it make that difference?
When I read my first Alexander Technique introductory statement, and even when I took my first lesson, there was not a very obvious connection between artistic improvement and the set of skills to which I was being introduced. Sure it felt great to allow my neck to free up—I immediately felt taller and lighter and a bit more calm.
I couldn’t be expected to possibly think about myself while acting—that’s the opposite of what every acting teacher I ever had was telling me. And that word: inhibition! Why did this guy keep using that word? Did he want me to be inhibited? I’m about to get on stage and do embarrassing things in front of a hundreds of people! How’s inhibition possibly going to help me?
So I can understand performer’s confusion when it comes to this work. I’m going to try to explain why so many university, New York, Chicago, and LA acting programs have Alexander Technique as part of their curriculum, and why I integrate it into my classes at The Playground.
There are three main reasons AT helps actors (there are more than three, but we’ll keep it simple for time’s sake). The first and most fundamental is that it helps protect and maintain your instrument (aka you!) As an actor you are asked to do extraordinary things with your body and voice as a matter of course. Violent screams are repeated eight shows a week, a dangerous stunt is duplicated fifteen or twenty times in one day so that the director has his pick of angles and lighting. The emotional upheaval of losing a spouse or a child is explored for weeks during a scene study class.
Even something as innocuous as a very uncomfortable pair of shoes or a handstand on a hard floor can do serious damage in hours and hours of rehearsals and performance. In real life these things are experienced once and then the body/mind has time to heal and move on. Actors get to enjoy (and believe me there is joy) traumatic experiences repeatedly.
What Alexander Technique provides is a way to do all of these stressful things with the least amount of strain and tension possible. As you’ve probably experienced, a scream performed with an open throat or a fall taken when you’re not bracing for impact can be repeated safely a number of times. Alexander Technique is all about becoming aware of habitual tensions and then learning how to let those tensions go so that freedom and balance can be restored.
Second, Alexander Technique is state of the art when it comes to dealing with stress and stage fright. Stage-fright is nothing more than the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. Ever heard of it? Most people have, whether while doing reading for high school biology, watching Jeopardy, or reading an article about it. You probably see the Fight/Flight/Freeze response all the time and just never stop to think about it.
Ever caught a squirrel off guard? There they are, going about eating their acorn, and all of the sudden you lumber by. What is their reaction? They tense up, freeze for about a half second, and then fly up higher into the trees. (Although there is a squirrel in my building who once came at me at full speed – I was holding a peanut-butter sandwich at the time so that may have had something to do with it). The term “deer caught in the headlights” also sums up Fright/Flight/Freeze. The deer freezes when it realizes that your car is barreling down at it at 60mph, and then (hopefully) it bolts off into the night.
Actors (well, all humans really) experience this same response–specifically in the hypothalamus in close association with the limbic system of our brains. And in fact, if it had not been for our ancestors possessing healthy Fight/Flight/Fear responses, we probably wouldn’t be here today. According to Dr. Neil F. Neimark, “This response is hard-wired into our brains and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from bodily harm.”
But here’s the problem: As a performer you aren’t running from tigers or stalking antelope for your survival. But when you’re suddenly thrown up in front of that camera with all those lights bearing down on you and hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent each minute, chances are your first instinct is to contract in, holding your breath— and this is natural. You’ve over-ridden your body’s natural response to being put on the spot and so where do you end up? It’s as if you’ve pulled up the parking break on your whole neuro-muscular system. Now, on top of all this you’re expected to remember your lines, hit your marks, and oh yes—act really really well.
Alexander Technique not only helps to reduce stress in everyday life, it provides you with a systematic approach to help you let go right then in the moment you need to be the most free, fearless, and open to what your partner is giving you.
This is where that term inhibition comes in (that term that I scoffed at the first time I heard it). It’s not inhibition in the Freudian sense; in Alexander Technique it simply means to pause or to stop. Once the Fight/Flight/Freeze response takes hold you want to react to it!
Giving yourself some space in that moment to not react right then is key. This isn’t a denial of your emotional state or a squelching of your natural reaction to the given circumstances of the scene, it is only meant to be a pause, a moment to bring you back to where you’re really supposed to be—engaged with your partner and letting your imagination do what it does best. I’ll talk about this more below.
The last and most important reason actors study Alexander Technique has to do with authenticity. AT helps actors tune the mind into the body and the body into the mind. In fact it teaches actors to understand that there really is no difference between body and mind at all. Reason/thinking, emotional life, and physical life are all inextricably linked.
When you get nervous your palms sweat, your heart races and your mouth goes dry. When you get angry, tension builds throughout different muscles in your body. When you experience elation, a lightening takes hold and a tingling sensation courses through you. The thought, emotion, and physical experiences are bound together as one.
Actors who are told they are “in their head” or who are “overthinking it” can learn to let go, find spontaneity, and stop judging their performance as it is happening. This occurs because above all, Alexander Technique teaches you to be present now, in this moment.
By putting your attention on what is happening both internally and in the space around you, there is little room left for those thoughts that kill the electricity of your performance. So instead of thinking, wow, I really blew that moment—I didn’t even get the line right! You will be too busy focusing on allowing the tension in your neck to melt away and observing that the other character in your scene is about to lose it and you need to do something to help her before it’s too late!
But I also mean authenticity in a deeper sense. We are all incredibly unique—not just in how we look and think, but in the way we move and exist in the world. The Alexander Technique can help you shed those physical and psychological “tells” that make you— well, you.
In much that same way we can recognize a loved one across a parking lot because of the way they walk or behave, we actors often bring our foibles, ticks and habits with us into each character we play. Sure there are celebrities out there who have made an art out of playing themselves in every movie—and they’re fun to watch. But I’m much more excited by those actors who transform themselves into something unrecognizable from role to role.
We all carry around strange, unhelpful tensions. Some of us unconsciously lock our knees or tighten our shoulders. Others walk around with a bit of a slump that puts excess pressure on the spine and other important joints. Some actors tighten their jaws or put undue pressure on their voice in everyday conversation. These habits are not limited to just our bodies. We might not even realize it, but the choices we make in a scene could have less to do with the way our character might react and more with the way WE would.
When we can release out of these habitual patterns that don’t serve us, we automatically strip away those “tells.” We distill ourselves down into something more neutral and universal and become something new without even trying.
In the end it all goes back to that word inhibition and that idea of pausing. In a scene, when you take just a microsecond to put a space between you and your automatic response, you allow for there to be a window where something new, something magical, something you would never expect or would never think in your wildest dreams to happen. Inspiration is always lurking right outside your peripheral vision, and if you allow, if you stay present, if you make room for it, it might just decide to drop in.