a day at the museum

I went to the Getty Center yesterday to see the London Calling exhibit, an exhibition of works by painters in London in the post-WWII period.

While I was there, I tried to make use of my understanding of the Alexander Technique as I moved through the exhibition.  The Alexander Technique is not an acting technique in itself, although it is very relevant to acting, and actors in the MFA acting program at the Yale School of Drama are required to study it for the entire three years of the curriculum there.  My “elevator pitch” on the Alexander Technique is that it helps us to become aware of, and address, habits of  what I call “micro-scrunching”, subtle contractions of muscles that we make unconsciously that interfere with our ability to move through our lives with ease, poise, and presence.  For actors, this “micro-scrunching” interference causes a host of problems.  One of these problems is it obstructs the actor’s process of exposing his or her vulnerability.  The great psychologist Wilhelm Reich talked about the way in which our muscles often function as “armor” against the psychic blows we inevitably encounter in life.  This armoring undermines the actor’s ability to make palpable his or her own vulnerability, his or her own need for meaningful connections with the world.  The Alexander Technique is wonderful in terms of counteracting that physical armoring process.

Another benefit of the Alexander Technique is that it can have a subtle but undeniable effect on our perception of our environment.  By eliminating unnecessary muscular effort involved in perception (such as the process of fixing our gaze on something), we are free to have a closer encounter with our world.  At the museum, I found that when I invoked the Alexander Technique reminders, my experience of the paintings I was regarding changed significantly.  For one thing, I became more conscious of the physical surface of the painting; the textures presented themselves more strongly.  At the same time, to the extent that the paintings in question depicted a scene in three-dimensional space, I found that I had a greater experience of depth-of-field in the images.  This, in turn, asked me to look at what I was seeing not merely as painted figures, but as figures in three-dimensional space, which in turn asked me to regard them as people.   On the whole, I found that when I remembered to invoke the Alexander Technique, my physical and emotional experience of the painting was enriched, and I had a more vivid, sensuous experience, and as a less guarded, intellectual one.

A richer sensory experience can not help but enrich and strengthen an actor’s work.  The experience at the museum re-affirmed my conviction about the value of the Alexander Technique all over again.

a day at the museum2018-02-26T21:48:20-08:00

the truth is not what you think it is

The word “truth” is something actors hear a lot about. Meisner’s famous formulation that acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is invoked again and again, by me and many other acting teachers, whether they teach Meisner or not. Actors come to understand that truth is synonymous with good acting. But is that really saying anything?

What is truth, anyway?

I think a lot of people equate truth with believability. But this is begging the question. What makes an audience believe something?

The answer that I think most people walk around with in their heads is that a performance has to have the appearance of real life. It has to look like real life. It has to be life-like. It has to be natural. It has to appear real.

But let’s think about that for a minute.


the truth is not what you think it is2018-02-26T21:48:41-08:00

simon says

Social by Matthew LiebermanI finally finished reading Matthew Lieberman’s extraordinary book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect. I have written about it a few times already, namely here and here. The book makes use of brain science research, which has advanced in sophistication very quickly in the last few decades thanks to major technological advancements. (NYU, the alma mater of Michael C Hall and of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has recognized the importance of brain science for acting by collaborating with leading neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, as the Hollywood Reporter recently reported.) Lieberman uses these findings to demonstrate that the most fundamental human drive is social in nature. It is a drive for connection with others and meaningful relationships of all kinds. This insight has been an emerging consensus in psychology for some time now, but neuroscience has caught up, and Lieberman relates study after study supporting this view.

It’s an absolutely fascinating work, and should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding human motivation. But I wanted to discuss something that comes up near the end of the book. Lieberman describes a study that showed that subjects in an experiment who had been given a task to do regularly that challenged their visual-motor self-control, that is, their ability to respond quickly and accurately to signals and to immediately STOP responding when instructed (think of a game of Simon Says on a computer), showed greater ability to regulate their emotions than those in a control group, who were given no such task.

What we were interested in discovering was the effect of visual-motor self-control training on emotion regulation ability– even though these two things seem to have little in common. Indeed, there was a relationship for those in the training group. Individuals who had received self-control training with a visual-motor task had significantly better emotion regulation ability at the end of the study than they had at the beginning, even though there was no emotion regulation training in the study. To examine whether motor self-control could have been driving this effect, we looked at the relationship between motor self-control improvements and emotion regulation improvements. The better an individual got at motor self-control over the course of the eight training sessions, the more emotion regulation ability improved.

This finding is extremely important because, as Lieberman explains elsewhere, success in almost every endeavor depends to some extent on the ability to regulate the emotions. Now, acting is not about regulating emotions, exactly, but a trained or experience actor has acquired an instinct about what kinds of impulses within herself to respond to and what kinds to ignore or inhibit. And this process is something akin to emotional regulation. So these findings are relevant.

One part of their relevance points to the importance of physical training for actors. While that’s not the kind of training I offer in my classes, mostly, I do emphasize the importance of some kind of movement training for actors. I regularly bring teachers of the Alexander technique to class to introduce what they do: helping the mind and the body to harmoniously interact. I teach an exercise that my students have dubbed “eyeball-to-eyeball” that entails reading the lines of a scene aloud but only speaking when you have eye-contact with the partner. This means you have to stop speaking BEFORE looking down to get the next line, and, having looked down and gotten a line, you have to refrain from starting to speak before re-establishing eye-contact with your partner. Harder than it sounds, and most definitely an exercise in visual-motor self-control.

I also often remark to my students that acting is more a feat of coordination than they typically expect. We must engage our voice and body to affect our partners, but we must also be receptive. We have to alternate between these two modes, in the way that our exhale alternates with our inhale. We must continually open our senses to find the prompt for speaking in the messages emanating from the partner, but we must commit fully to sending messages in response. Our physical self, specifically, both core (abdominals) and extremities (jaw, arms/hands, legs/feet) have to engage in what we are doing. We have to leverage the strength and stability in our cores, even in our most delicate moments, and the extremities have to support and direct the energy generated there appropriately.

Vulnerability and emotional truth arise as a by-product of this integration of the parts. Out of the cacophony of noise that mind and body continually generate, the trained actor knows how to pluck out the sounds that will allow him to make music with the script and with his fellow actors.

simon says2018-02-26T21:48:45-08:00

be not too tame neither: relaxation and the #actor

“…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.

be not too tame neither: relaxation and the #actor2018-02-26T21:49:02-08:00
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