The Alexander Technique: An Acting Approach
By Tom Vasiliades
"As long as you have this physical tenseness you cannot even think about delicate shadings of feeling or the spiritual life of your part. Consequently, before you attempt to create anything it is necessary for you to get your muscles in proper condition, so that they do not impede your actions." - Constantine Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares
Stanislavski understood that excessive and unnecessary tension interferes with creating the spiritual life of the character in performance. The Alexander Technique deals with this directly. It is a method that empowers the actor to become aware of the physical habits that impede performance and to transform those habits thus improving breathing coordination and vocal production, facilitating the creation of the physical life of characters with ease and allowing fuller emotional expression. The Technique is fundamental to the training of actors; it is an integral part of the curriculum at theater schools, universities, and conservatories in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.
In my work with student and professional actors, I teach them how to better use themselves. By 'use' I mean the relationship of the coordination of the muscles, sensory appreciation (the kinesthetic sense) and thinking. If an actor is performing with rigidity then the actor is not using herself or himself well. Both the actor and audience will typically experience this as poor vocal production, lack of freedom in movement and tense expression of emotions.
The negative impact on performance is obvious. Moreover, actors often have an unreliable sensory appreciation of their performance. They may not be aware of excessive or unnecessary tensions, or they may sense it but not understand how to change what is going on. Through studying the Alexander Technique actors become aware of their habits of 'misuse'. Alexander work includes hands-on work as part of the process. The teacher - with gentle touch - listens (in kinesthetic terms) to what the actor is doing and offer suggestions and directions for the actor to create improved use. Actors and non-actors have the capacity to self-direct themselves and change habits of misuse to improve their performance. Through self- direction the actor creates new ways of performing so as to not impede actions. Among the benefits are a lengthening of the musculature, improved general use and functioning and the re-kindling of accurate sensory appreciation.
During the Broadway production of Private Lives, I worked intensively with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. The play was a rigorous test for the actors, including strenuous fight scenes and the demands of being onstage for most of the production. Through our work together, Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan were enabled to have ease and lightness during the performance, despite the emotional intensity and physical demands of the roles. They created the 'spiritual life' of the part.
Of this experience Rickman wrote: "With the best intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with Tom and the Alexander Technique to untangle the wires has given me sightings of another way. Mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom."
There are many methods and approaches in the acting world. What is unique about the practice of the Alexander work is that it offers the actor the opportunity to assess what is happening during the performance and improve it. Understanding how you do what you are doing in an Alexander way is what Stanislavski spent his life's work exploring.
This article appeared in "Soul of the American Actor" Volume 7, No.3 - Fall 2004
Tom Vasiliades is the Head of Movement and the Chair of the Alexander Technique department at The New School for Drama (formerly the Actors Studio Drama School). He is also on the faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and the Juilliard School. He is the founder and director of the Alexander Technique Center for Performance and Development in New York City. Telephone: (212) 564-5472, website: http://www.atcpd.com
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique