An Actor's Self-Exploration with the Alexander Technique

by Karen Libman

I attended the 2000 Annual Barstow Institute on the Alexander Technique, which took place in Crete, Nebraska, from June 17-24, 2000. I was able to learn a great deal, both about the Alexander Technique, and about teaching in general-all of which will be useful to me in my own teaching. I grew so much as a person and a teacher because I had this opportunity to attend the Institute. The teachers at the Institute are highly skilled, and I made several wonderful observations from watching their work.

I also had one very extreme moment of personal growth while I was working one-on-one with a teacher (which I will attempt to describe below).

During the Institute, we focused exclusively on the ideas of F.M. Alexander - that is, how one's neck and head relate to one's body, and how every subsequent movement and action stem from this very important connection. I spent a great deal of time working with my movement and becoming more aware of my body in space. I also worked extensively with the practicalities of excess stress. These ideas are, of course, vital in theatre (and life too!), and I will be able to work with my acting students more effectively because my understanding of the body has been increased, and my usage has improved. Because of the Institute, I can help my students to understand their bodies more fully and I can work with them to better use their bodies in performance.

Alexander is all about finding out what it is that you are doing by helping one to become more sensitive. Alexander is about thinking and doing, and how your thoughts affect what you do. This is key in theatre, as in all art forms, because awareness of the body and its affect on an audience increase an actor's effectiveness. I further posit that the ideas in Alexander, of thinking and doing, can be applied to all disciplines, because our performance work on anything depends on our thinking. The week was devoted to thinking about my thinking - and I was able to reflect on the fact that I am often too product oriented, forgetting the importance of process.

The biggest "ah ha" I made was this simple idea: pay attention to the how instead of the what. Actually, it was more of a reminder than a new thought, but I had forgotten how important a thought it is! The decision to pay attention is an action in and of itself, and the most important one. I was constantly reminded to make what I am doing with my thinking a little bit more important than what is happening. I then had the opportunity to stand back and see what happened. Inevitably, the what got better!! This is very important in my work with young actors because I do want them to improve.

I also became intrigued with one teacher's idea: that we are continuously experimenting. This word, experiment, made a huge difference for many of the other students at the Institute because it took the emphasis off of being wrong. So often my students are afraid to risk - yet without risk, there is no growth. I want to work with the word experiment as a way to encourage risk taking - "try a little experiment" seems so much easier and friendly a way to phrase direction and encourages students to actually try what you are suggesting.

Some of the ideas and words that were frequently used during the Institute included: gentle, delicate, let go, invite, notice, wishing, my, I awareness, and subtle. I made a list of these because I think that they will be helpful to my teaching vocabulary-inviting a student to participate, for example, and the ever-important idea of awareness as integral to growth of any kind.

My personal growth experience involved the release of my upper torso from by legs, allowing my entire body to grow "up." This release eased breathing and movement. I have been waiting for this release to happen for some time, as I know that I am "compressed" in my torso (I can see it and feel it). It was such a stunning moment that I burst into tears. I then worked on performing a monologue and found a whole gracefulness of movement had opened for me in a new way!!

Finally, I continue to contemplate the idea that one does not have to continuously evaluate what one is doing in order to make progress. Often constructive thinking will help more than evaluative thinking. Since young thespians frequently become trapped in the evaluation process, this is an important concept. When you're checking to see what you are doing, you are implying a subtle failure - you wouldn't be checking if it wasn't right. What happens if you leave that thought out of your work while you are working? Will your progress be better? The Institute confirmed this idea for me.

Alexander is also about the willingness to change. Often, I get stuck in a pattern that has "worked" in the past, although I know that I must continue to grow. This affects my teaching and my artistic work. The Institute, by focusing on my body usage (which I want to change), had a greater impact on me because it reminded me that change is about the whole person, not just a part, and I need to remember this for my students as well. I'm not just asking them to consider an idea in isolation; I may be asking them to change their wholeworld-view, and this can be scary and exciting.

I found the teachers most effective at the Institute. I was also intrigued by the small group work that is a part of the Barstow Method of teaching Alexander, and I believe I benefited from watching it in action.


Karen Libman holds a B.F.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and an M.F.A. from Arizona State University. She taught and directed stage productions for several years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Nebraska Repertory Theatre before joining Grand Valley State University's Theatre faculty in 1999. A nationally recognized expert in the field of Drama in Education, she established the Family Audience Series for the Nebraska Rep and has directed shows in New York, Arizona and Illinois. A prolific author and workshop leader, she is also a professional storyteller, performing frequently at national festivals. She is currently completing a major critical work on contemporary storytelling art in the United States.

She is active in many national organizations including the American Alliance for Theatre in Education, the National Association for Multicultural Education, and the National Storytelling Network. Her directing credits include last year's Grand Valley State University Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth, Unidentified Remains and the True Nature of Love (ACTF/Kennedy Center Award Winner), Miss Autobody, and the recent production of Jack and the Giant Beanstalk for the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.

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The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique