Exercises For Actors and the Alexander Technique
1869 - 1955
Frederick Matthias Alexander first developed his now-famous technique as a system of exercises for actors in response to his own difficulties on stage.
He had a very successful acting career at a time when television, and even radio, were unheard of, let alone the vast array of entertainment options available to us today.
So, from a cultural point of view, acting was of vital importance in those days and, from a personal point of view, the ‘audible sucking in of the breath’ which marred his performance and the eventual dysphonia that he suffered were catastrophic.
He was up against physical difficulties that quite literally meant ‘curtains’ – his doctors could only recommend that he give up the stage.
Determined to figure out how to solve these issues and retain his career, Alexander set about a painstaking course of experimentation and self-discovery.
The process involved many years of minutely observing his ‘use’ from all angles with mirrors as he rehearsed in his dressing room. The keen eye he had developed over years of working with horses at a high level, combined with sheer determination, led him to discover fundamental truths about human balance and movement.
With time, he found that by using ‘conscious control’ of actions, by inhibiting wrong movements rather than trying to ‘do’ correct ones, and by focusing on ‘the means whereby’ rather than ‘the end to be gained’, his vocal problems and longstanding respiratory problems disappeared.
He became relatively famous for his wonderful voice and powerful projection and other actors began to seek his advice.
His special breathing technique gradually became well known within the acting community and today the Alexander technique is taught in most of the main theatre schools in the world, including RADA, Juilliard School and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Just some of the actors who have studied the Alexander Technique
Alexander lessons can help actors with the following problems:
- Improving stamina
- Forgetting the audience
- Acting with the voice and not the body
- Acting too close to your own personality
- Neglecting diction, articulation and volume
- Stage fright
- Breaking character when something goes wrong
- Fear of embarrassment, being foolish
- Showing off – when you get to a part and think 'I’m good at this bit’
- Remembering to breathe
- Increasing clarity of perception
- Creating fear
- Freeing up spontaneity
And much, much more.
It can help you transform the quality of the ‘action’, gain more control of your breathing, and enhance your freedom of movement and stage presence. Improved self-awareness allows you to change poor habits and develop a wider repertoire of skills to deliver your best performance possible.
Leading actors recommend Alexander technique exercises as the foundation for good use and freedom of movement both on and off stage.
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Alexander Technique exercises for actors – breathing
The breath is everything. It’s at the centre of you; it bouys you up, lifts and sustains you. It is the flowing current that supports your character on stage. How then can you attend to it if you are experiencing emotional or physiological challenges?
Whether it is stage fright or disruption, portraying fear, flight or fancy, or suffering a head cold, you want to give your best performance and therefore your breathing needs to be integrated.
Alexander’s breathing technique is different from all others in that it requires you to ‘do less’ with yourself rather than ‘do more’. He realised that tension held anywhere in the muscular system will affect the breathing and that by eliminating the muscular tension the breathing will improve.
You have approximately 750 postural muscles: muscles needed for balance and movement; muscles which you need control over for good acting.
Hundreds of those muscles are likely to be over-contracted most of the time, and even with the deepest self-knowledge and self-control, you are unlikely to notice because the habits will have been there for so long that you have become used to them feeling quite normal.
Lessons in the Alexander technique teach you how to identify and correct these habits. The more you learn, the freer and lighter you become.
Your back becomes an elastic, expansive support rather than a hard knot; your ribs and diaphragm are able to move instead of staying fixed, and your breath can come naturally, when you need it.
The process is revelational and truly uplifting.
Alexander Technique exercises for actors – direction
Actors are familiar with using body, voice and facial expression to good effect. The effort and scrutiny required is quite intense and hence actors tend to really ‘know themselves’. Learning the Alexander technique provides an even deeper level of self-knowledge.
The scrutiny goes beyond the complex task of conveying an onstage character to the person beneath.
You are the instrument. Everything about you is focused on building make-believe and when you are successful, you play your part in transporting your audience into a memorable story.
When you are able to simultaneously direct tension-free efficiency in your underlying use of yourself, this allows you to remain comfortable and separate from your character.
The exercise of direction unravels everything you have ever been, or have done, to leave you with a truly blank canvass on which to portray the part you are playing. An Alexander teacher can guide you in learning this powerful skill and you will never look back.
Some more of the many actors who have studied the Technique
Alexander Technique exercises for actors – inhibition
Inhibition is that difficult skill of being able to withhold consent to a given stimuli. It’s what gives you the ability to stay in character if something unexpected goes wrong on stage; the ability to overcome stage fright, to really embody your character and to create consistency.
Alexander realised that in order to prevent old habits of tension from automatically manifesting, a level of conscious inhibition is required before your slightest physical movement.
The decision to move stimulates messages to leave the brain, travel along the nerve fibers and activate the muscle spindles incredibly fast. If you don’t pause to direct a different course, then you will always react in the same way.
Inhibition is one of the key exercises taught in Alexander lessons – as with ‘direction’ it is a skill which is best acquired with the helping hands of a good teacher. The benefits are easily noticeable on stage but they also spread into your everyday life and are quite liberating.
Yet more actors who have studied the Alexander Technique
Alexander Technique exercises for actors – primary control
Regardless of the role you are playing, the length of time on set or the physical challenges of the day, if you are able to attend to your ‘primary control’ then everything will work better.
People’s muscular habits will always have the overall effect of reducing them. Everyone has the same initial pattern of misuse, probably because we inadvertently copy one another and also because we have a lot of stress.
The problem begins with over-contraction in the neck, which in turn pulls the heavy head into the shoulders, which in turn compresses the spine and narrows the ribcage, which leads to numerous adjustments throughout the musculo-skeletal system. We end up scrunched like a ball of foil.
With Alexander lessons, this head-neck-back relationship, or ‘Primary Control’ can be studied and improved.
When the neck can be relatively free, the head relatively poised, the back lengthening and widening, then all other movement is more comfortable and better supported.
Greater efficiency can be attained with less wear and tear, and you can feel as though you are occupying the space you were designed to fill, even before you begin to act.
When your primary control is free and light, not only will your performance be better but you will emerge intact, rather than exhausted or even damaged!
Even MORE actors who have all studied the Alexander Technique
Lessons with Jenny Davy
I have many years’ experience as an Alexander teacher and have taught many an actor, including the occasional famous one.
I have less experience of acting myself, the last time being aged four when I played the part (rather well I thought) of a shepherd in the school nativity.
My personal experience on stage has been in the form of singing and public speaking. Practising the Alexander technique gave me the confidence required for solo performance; it helped me to project my voice with ease and comfort and it helped me to feel comfortable in myself and thus be able to engage with my audience.
I find it thoroughly fascinating to help actors, and other performers, achieve their full potential; ridding them of the habits of a lifetime to make space for them to channel other characters, or music and dance; freeing them from themselves. It’s very satisfying to work with people to enhance their existing skills.
Whether you’ve already had some lessons and could do with a top-up, or are new to the technique, or even if your performing days are behind you, I would encourage you to book a taster lesson with me because it’s great fun and makes you feel marvellous!
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Some words from famous actors who have used the Alexander Technique:
In the hands of a good teacher The Technique is invaluable to anyone who seeks to maintain health, physical posture and alignment.
Ralph Fiennes, Actor
With the best intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander technique has given me sightings of another way... Mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom...
Alan Rickman, Actor
My voice was pretty good almost all through Othello. Alexander technique really helped my posture and focus.
Lenny Henry, Comedian and Actor
I find The Alexander technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.
John Cleese, Actor
The Alexander technique helped a long standing back problem, and to get a good night's sleep after many years of tossing and turning.
Paul Newman, Actor
I love the Alexander technique. It has corrected my posture, improved my health and changed my life.
Alec McCowen CBE, Actor
The Alexander technique has played an important and beneficial part in my life.
John Houseman, Actor, Producer and Director
Alexander students rid themselves of bad postural habits and are helped to reach with their bodies and minds, an enviable degree of freedom of expression.
Michael Langham, Director, The Juilliard School, New York USA
The Alexander Technique has helped me to undo knots, unblock energy and deal with almost paralysing stage fright.
William Hurt, Actor
The Technique's many benefits for actors include minimized tension, centeredness, vocal relaxation, and responsiveness, mind/body connection and about an inch and a half of additional height.
Kevin Kline, Actor
Of all the disciplines that form the actor training program, none is more vital, enriching and transformative than the Alexander technique.
Harold Stone, Associate Director, Theatre Department, The Juilliard School, New York USA
Question: Which book changed your life?
Answer: The one the teacher put under my head during the Alexander technique sessions at RADA. I grew an inch and a half.
Q&A: Jonathan Pryce, Actor, The Guardian, May 7, 2015
Describing the Alexander technique in an interview: "Incredibly good posture, with incredible relaxation."
Hugh Jackman, Actor
[The Alexander technique] is a way to transform stress to joy. It’s my way of keeping on track with work and truth and the world I’m in which is working with people and creating. It’s for anyone who wants to be in contact with their own body and the way we tense ourselves and relax ourselves. It’s another way of moving.
Juliette Binoche, Actor
Good acting is revealing yourself, not covering yourself up. If your body is free, your mind is free. [The Alexander technique allows] you to feel what it's like to stay open physically, and also stay fully involved in whatever you're supposed to be doing.
Annette Bening, Actor
Other famous actors who recommend the technique include:
Dame Judi Dench
Sir Ian McKellen
The list goes on and on…
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