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