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

STOP! in the name of doing it better

Interesting piece on NPR this morning about a photographer who has photographed every New Hampshire primary since 1980.

What caught my interest was this:

Cole has a rule he follows when out on assignment: No matter how crowded the press gaggle gets, he never takes a picture while he’s touching another photographer. The point is to force himself to think of a different approach to each shot.

Take, for instance, a campaign appearance by George H.W. Bush at Nashua Airport in 1988: All of the other photographers followed the then-vice president on board an airplane.
Vice President George Bush waves from the cockpit of a World War II B-17 bomber at a quick campaign stop at Boire Field in Nashua, N.H. on Wednesday, July 15,1987.
Jim Cole/AP

“I stayed outside, and with all the luck in the world, Bush stuck his head out the pilot’s window and waved to everybody,” said Cole. (click here to view the picture)

With this rule, which does not allow him to take a picture if he is touching another reporter, (in other words if he is stuck in a scrum of reporters all taking the same picture ) Cole is practicing what in the Alexander technique is called inhibition. While inhibition might not sound like a good thing, in the context of the Alexander technique, it is. In the Alexander technique, inhibition is the ability to suppress one’s habitual response to things in order to open up the possibility of a different kind of response. Since many of our physical habits are the results of trauma or other kinds of negative input, it’s important for actors to engage with their physical habits and develop new habits that maximize expressive capacity and presence.

While the Alexander technique works with physical habits, in class at Andrew Wood, we work in part with mental habits, particularly the habits that we have involving how we understand and frame human motivation. Knee-jerk attempts at stating the motivations of characters often entail negative judgments and are focused on goals about the future (what we call plot objective), rather than on the present moment. At Andrew Wood, we learn to “inhibit” these initial ways of looking and thinking, and to find ways of understanding and framing what characters are after that are empathic and oriented towards the here and now of relationship rather than the future. Actors are forever enjoined to “be in the moment”, but aren’t asked to think about motivation in ways that promote this focus them on the here and now of interpersonal dynamics.

It’s what makes this kind of difference.

STOP! in the name of doing it better2018-02-26T21:48:37-08:00

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

on physical characterization


Day-Lewis quote















“When are we going to work on creating characters?”

This refrain arises from time to time in the course of my teaching. I might be tempted to reply “What do you think we’re doing?”, as we strive to come to terms with circumstances, need, plot objective, action, and the path. We look at the decisions that a character makes, and the actions that follow from these decisions, as revealing character. So by studying the circumstances in which a character finds herself, some of which are a consequence of her own decisions, we can learn a lot about her character.

But that isn’t what the student is asking. The student who asks about when we are going to work on character is asking about physical characterization, the taking up of various physical and vocal idiosyncrasies that define character in the popular imagination. Darth Vader’s character impresses itself on us in large part through his voice. The temptation, then, is to assume that the main work of the actor is the finding of the right voice, and the consistent application of it across the role. This ability to change one’s vocal and physical demeanor is a kind of miracle to the lay person, and also to the aspiring actor, and indeed, there can be something miraculous about it. But it is not the deepest essence of the actor’s work, to my mind. And that deepest essence should be the basis for such physical and vocal mutations.


on physical characterization2018-02-26T21:48:50-08:00

before and after

This post displays a bunch of before and after pictures of people who went on a month-long Buddhist meditation retreat.

If you click through and look at all the before and after pictures, there is an undeniable change that happens. There’s greater openness, and a softening.

I think this makes a great case for actors getting strong physical training. Meditation is a kind of physical training, make no mistake about it. There is a prescribed posture, regulated breathing, etc. When we practice a movement discipline over time, it inscribes itself on our bodies, like a trickle of water hollowing out a stone. Our whole neuromuscular system is altered. “We are what we repeatedly do”, said Will Durante, paraphrasing Aristotle. In Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilization. which I have blogged about several times before, Rifkin explains how it is that couples who spend a lifetime together come to resemble each other. In everyday communication, we constantly mimic each other’s facial expressions, without even realizing it. It’s a kind of compulsive sign of solidarity with whomever we happen to be interacting with. If we spend the majority of our time with someone, then their facial habits become our facial habits, and ours become theirs. Over time, these habitual movements and positions of the muscles imprint themselves on the physiognomy of the person making those movements and striking those positions.

In class we learn to produce behavior by directing our minds to appropriate stimuli. But physical training, among other things, works to help the self we bring to these things become freer. more responsive, and more open. Some acting teachers like to talk about the actor’s “instrument.” I don’t like that turn of phrase myself, but in this context it is suggestive. In class we learn what to do with ourselves. Some kinds of physical training redefine and expand the selves that we are.

before and after2018-02-26T21:49:34-08:00

New Mantra:

“Balanced, well-grounded alignments often end up making you look more alive, responsive and appealing than purely cosmetic postures that turn you into a life-sized glossy of a human being. “–John Gronbeck-Tedesco

New Mantra:2011-10-10T15:15:03-07:00

New Mantra:

This is a new series in this blog, inspired by Bill Maher’s New Rules.

This week’s mantra:

“Muscles no longer obligated to protect and suppress are free to become motile and react to whatever the world offers.”–John Gronbeck-Tedesco

New Mantra:2018-02-26T21:49:36-08:00

Blink-182, the abdominal core, and ecstatic release

Blink-182’s new album is out. And so is the first single from the album, “Up All Night”. I was watching the video and saw some striking movements and gestures that exemplify the kind of simultaneous power and receptivity that performers of all stripes need to cultivate. I have made some clips of the moments that stood out to me, so I can show you what I mean. Since the moments are fairly fast, I have repeated them five or six times so you can get a good look.

This first one features drummer Travis Barker and guitarist Mark Hoppus:

These two gestures are striking because they both clearly begin in the abdominal core, that most powerful complex of muscles in the human body, but in both cases, their upper torsoes and heads just go along for the ride, in a kind of whiplash effect. This is the way a pitcher in baseball powers a pitch: from the core. In the best acting, ALL impulses are born in the abdominal core and THEN travel outward to the extremities, whether it be the jaw and neck (for speaking or moving the head), the arms (for gesturing or touching or handling an object), or the legs (for traversing space). The muscles in the core are deeply engaged, and the extremities are engaged only as necessary, and not more. This is not easy, as it involves the kind of coordination that patting your head and rubbing your stomach does. This is particularly clear in the case of Hoppus, the guitarist, as you can see his head bounce at the end of the movement: again, the head is just a long for the ride. There’s something very satisfying or cathartic watching these gestures of release, and that is what we want from actors as well.

Here’s another clip of Hoppus:

What I like here, first of all, is the freedom in the hips on display as Hoppus rocks back on forth. We saw in the previous clip that he can summon considerable power from his abdominal core (oh boy, if these guys ever read this they would have a field day with it ! 😉 ), but he is also capable of allowing the hips to move freely, he does not get stuck in the place of engagement of the abdominal muscles, he is totally capable of letting go of them as well. I also love the way his arms move with such liquid dexterity. Someone less physically assured might feel the need to constrict the arms because of the rocking on the hips, but Hoppus’ arms move effortlessly up and down the guitar, so that the guitar itself seems to hover in the air.

Finally, there’s this one of Travis Barker, who is called the world’s greatest drummer by some:

I love the way Barker seems to be ecstatically absorbed in listening to the music even as he plays. This is true receiving. His arms are obviouly busy, but his spine remains long and expansive. You get the distinct impression that he is allowing the music to play him.

These are clearly guys who have put in their 10,000 hours, and are consummate musicians, regardless of how you may feel about the pop-punk genre or this new album. They have been and continue to be a source of inspiration and energy to me over the years, and I am deeply grateful.

Blink-182, the abdominal core, and ecstatic release2018-02-26T21:49:36-08:00

feet flat on the floor

For various reasons, actors find themselves seated a lot, often at a table.

We may be playing a scene in which we are supposed to be seated in a restaurant, or behind a desk. Also, when we read at auditions, we often find ourselves seated.

So it’s a good situation to be prepared for. But do we really need to be prepared for it? Sitting is something we do all the time without even thinking about it. So what’s the big deal?

It’s true we sit all the time, but we don’t sit in front of an audience or a camera all the time. That’s where things can get a little tricky.

What I often observe is that actors seated in a scene, particularly at a table, often seem to want pull their feet back, either to cross their legs at the ankles, or as if they were preparing to stand up. Often, the first position is a result of a desire to withdraw from the encounter with the partner, to kind of curl up a little bit, as if into a fetal position. The second position is often a symptom of the actor’s discomfort with the situation: stagefright, and fear of the intimacy and/or vulnerability with the partner called for in a scene. So unconsciously, the actor is actually physically preparing to bolt.

These are both defensive crouches, and bring with them some significant problems, or, at the very least, challenges. When the feet are resting flat on the floor, with the knees more or less at a right angle, the actor is grounded. It’s like we can feel the floor below us, supporting us. This supports our sense of personal power and strength. We are at rest, but the power of the ground to push off of and stand if need be is available.

When we pull our feet in towards us, we almost certainly introduce muscular tension into our legs. This means we are holding up part of our skeleton, rather than being pushed up by being supported by the earth. The result is that we are less grounded. It’s hard to overstate the consequences of this. This tension blocks the flow, the dynamic equilibrium in our neuromuscular system, so that the pelvis, what Joseph Pilates referred to as our “powerhouse”, loses the effortless support of the ground beneath our feet. Also, the feet pulled in below us can invite the spine to pitch forward, further obstructing the connection between the ground and the core. This pitching forward of the spine in turn can invite the chin to thrust forward and collapse the neck, which is actually the top of the spine. All of these effects are further constrictions. The actor is shrinking away from an open confrontation with the partner, and often preparing to flee.

Don’t people in real life shrink away from adversity and even flee from danger? Yes, they do. But you want to be sure that if you are having impulses like that, they are arising from the unfolding circumstances of the character and not from actor’s performance anxiety. Also (this is a little more complicated) there is a sense in which acting is not only an imitation of reality; it is simultaneously an imitation of reality and an illumination of it. Groundedness and length in the spine are important elements of that illumination part of the operation. But mightn’t we be asked to play a character with a hunch or curved spine? Yes, but delivering the illumination in that context is extra challenging.

In truth, all of this goes for standing as well. In scene work, actors often shift their weight to one side or the other. In the language of the body, this is a non-confrontational stance: I’ve half moved out of your way already. And I have watched these same actors in real life, and they generally don’t stand around with one hip popped. This posture also has the effect of undermining groundedness. Another common difficulty is habitual tension in the legs or the pelvis while standing or walking. This can similarly undermine our sense of strength and stability. The Alexander technique is a great way to develop awareness of these tendencies, and ultimately reverse them.

“The nature of any tree begins at the root. The body must adjust to the foot.” Carlo Mazzoni-Clementi, Commedia and the Actor

feet flat on the floor2018-02-26T21:49:42-08:00
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