“…in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…but be not too tame neither…” –Hamlet’s Advice to the Players
In Chapter 6 of An Actor Prepares, Tortsov, the Stanislavsky figure, is at great pains to demonstrate to his fictional students the profound negative effects of muscular tension for an actor: “You cannot, at the beginning of our study, have any conception of the evil that results from muscular spasms and physical contraction”. We think of muscular spasms as some kind of medical condition, but surely this is a translation issue: the full chapter makes it undeniably clear that Stanislavsky is talking about the garden variety muscular tension that afflicts actors constantly, and not a charlie horse.
And indeed, relaxation is vital for the actor. The actor’s “instrument”, that is, his body and voice, is charged with constant responsiveness to the world around her: she must apprehend with her senses, process with her mind, and answer with her voice and body. This is a sequence that must be constantly cycling for the length of the performance. And as Stanislavsky demonstrates in the chapter by having students attempt to add numbers while lifting a piano, physical tension inhibits mental activity. So the more tension in the system, the greater the risk that the cycle of responsiveness will be disrupted. When it is so disrupted, the the tendency is for parts of the body to check out by holding whatever muscular tension they have incurred at that moment. Rather than respond, they are seized with rigidity. This means more tension in the system, which in turn means greater inhibition of mental activity, and so on. Not the direction in which we want things to go.
It’s for this reason that approaches life the Alexander Technique are so valuable. They help the actor develop an awareness of tension, and to acquire a practice of cognitive self-coaching that invites the nervous system to reconnect with intrinsic design of the skeletal system so that tension is released. If this self-coaching is practiced over time, it begins to seep into unconscious habit. This is the ideal for the actor: that her neuromuscular system becomes trained to monitor itself for unnecessary tension, and to trigger the release of said tension. During a performance, she doesn’t want to be focused on muscular tension, but on the imaginary world of the play. So if the release of tension can happen “in the background”, to borrow a metaphor from information technology, then she gets to have her cake and eat it too: she can allow herself to be fully absorbed in the imaginary situation of the scene, and her unconscious mind keeps scaling back the physical tension, begetting the temperance that may give it smoothness that Hamlet referred to,
All well and good. Essential, in fact. But there is another side to this. Hamlet’s second admonition is “be not too tame neither…”. It’s possible to be too relaxed. The problem with this condition is not so much the relaxation; it lies with a couple of other things. One is self-consciousness: an actor who is trying to appear relaxed is being self-conscious, because his attention is on himself and how he is being perceived by the audience. It is a studied version of relaxation, and truly poisonous to acting. As uncomfortable as it can be to watch someone strain and push and overdo something, having to watch someone self-consciously relax his way through a scene is, in my experience, much moreso. The self-consciously relaxed actor is putting out a message that tells those watching him that nothing in his situation, the situation of the scene, is worth bothering about: move along, nothing to see here, this actor is announcing to the world. So not only is he (often painfully) self-conscious, but he is tacitly undermining the work of everyone else in the scene in question.
The goal is actually to engage the core muscles in the abdomen, the transverse abdominals and the ilio-psoas, to do what we are given to do as actors. The participation of these muscles in whatever we are doing attests to the importance of that endeavor: these are some of the most powerful muscles in the body, and are intimately connected to our breathing. And at the same time as we engage the core, to have the extremities, that is, the arms, the jaw, and the legs, engage as necessary but no more. As the Alexander technique teaches, we often use more muscular effort to accomplish whatever we are trying to do than we actually need, and the act of speaking is no exception. Often, actors overwork the jaw when they speak, which will usually mean that they will appear to be working too hard, and that the core is not participating as it could be, as the jaw is trying to do all the work. With no core involvement, we, the audience, understand that what is happening is not dangerous or urgent or vital.
Similarly with the shoulders and the arms. Many people are unable to gesture with the arms without the involvement of the shoulders. But the truth is that the arms are capable of moving and gesturing in most cases without any assistance from the shoulders. So there is unnecessary excess effort, but additionally, the involvement of the shoulders usually means that the core is not participating in the effort at hand.
Being able to engage the core (which should always be happening, even if in a minimal way) and to remain as relaxed and easy with the extremities as is possible is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach: it requires different parts of your body to act in what can feel like contradictory ways. It’s actually a challenge in coordination. But an actor who relies fundamentally on the core and whose extremities act to execute and complete impulses that originate in the core achieves integrity in their physical life while acting, which in turn affords them a physicality which is marvelously expressive and deeply satisfying to watch.