“You’re stiff.”

It’s one sentence that no actor wants to hear. It’s not a sentence that I ever would use, as a director or a teacher. I would find a way to come at the problem by giving the actor something to pursue or attend to that might free them up. But how I would address a problem like that is not what I am setting out to discuss tonight. I want to talk about the problem itself, and how the actor can address it.

The obvious thing that an actor might do, upon being made aware of such a liability, that is, the stiffness and paralysis that performance anxiety can engender, is to try to relax. But this effort is probably futile. Even if the actor succeeds in letting go of the stiffness by willing herself to relax, and that’s a big if, since often we aren’t even aware of the muscular tension producing the stiffness, but even if the actor can activate her volition to remedy the tension in question, her attention is then on herself and her own neuromuscular condition, and her attention is not engaged with the imaginary world of the scene when that is the case. This can, paradoxically, mean that her self-consciousness is heightened. An actor who has been instructed to “relax” may succeed in relaxing, but the self-consciousness that the effort to relax provokes can interfere with her acting in a profoundly unsatisfying way.

If she succeeds in relaxing, but then turns her attention back to what is rightfully primary for her in her scene, that is, her partner and the world of the scene, chances are good that the achieved relaxation will evaporate and the tension will return. Acting requires engagement, and that means muscular engagement. Unfortunately, the untrained actor will not have the coordination to engage only the muscles he needs and no others to accomplish a given action. So when he goes to engage in the playing of the scene, he will most probably do a lot of unnecessary engaging as well, summoning the stiffness we have all seen so much of.

What is the solution? There is no magic bullet. There is no royal road to graceful, fluid, expressive movement. Stiffness, or lack of physical freedom, is a problem that needs to be attacked on a number of fronts at once. One extremely valuable modality for dealing with habitual physical tension is the Alexander technique. The Alexander technique is an approach to coaching ourselves physically, based on a set of commands that we can give ourselves, to help ourselves move through our lives, and that includes our acting, with greater ease, efficiency, awareness and freedom. Sounds good, right? It is. It’s great. But like any practice, it requires great investment to reap great benefit from it. That’s not a reason not to do it; I think every actor should study the Alexander technique. But it is by no means a quick fix.

In some sense, it also addresses only part of the issue at hand. A significant part, but a part, no less. The Alexander technique is really a meta-technique; it’s a technique to use to help you execute some other technique in an optimal way. When you study the Alexander technique, you typically use simple movements like sitting in a chair or walking across the room to practice. But what happens when you are trying to engage a technique for something more complicated, like ballroom dancing or karate, or, say, acting? The Alexander technique would be invaluable for all of these things, but we only have so much psychic bandwidth, and so attention we are giving to coaching ourselves through the Alexander commands is bandwidth we can’t devote to the activity in question. As actors, we want to be able to be fully engaged in our acting and move in a fluid and optimal way.

Practice goes a long way towards making this happen, but I believe that it is best for actors to take up some other physical practice, such as dance or martial arts, so that they can work at being physically engaged (which dance or martial arts certainly require) and practice making use of the cultivated physical relaxation of the Alexander technique at one and the same time. Acting could also be that physical practice, but ultimately, with your acting, you want to be able to become completely absorbed in the scene, in what you need, and in how you are trying to affect your partners. In performance, you really want the Alexander work to be a habit that your muscles have acquired, not something that requires much awareness while you are doing it. So having a physical practice to engage in simultaneously with the Alexander technique gives you a context in which you are engaging physically and fully, and in which you can do the conscious work of maintaining Alexander awareness and freedom while being physically engaged. That way, when you act, this optimal way of moving is effectively second nature, something that requires your awareness only occasionally.

The truth is that relaxation is only half the battle when it comes to fending off stiffness for the actor. The problem is resolved, or shall we say dissolved, when the actor can engage parts of herself that are needed, and maintain openness and ease everywhere else. As Hamlet puts it, in the Advice to the Players:

for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Acting inevitably involves entering into extreme situations, situations where you may have to, in the world of the play, confront a lover who has betrayed you, or commit acts of violence. You cannot act these situations well if your body is wracked with tension, but neither can you act them well if you fail to enter into the extremity of the moment, if you, so to speak, “underplay it”. To act well, the actor must always engage the abdominal core, the Pilates core, among the most powerful constellation of muscles in the body, but maintain relaxation elsewhere. The Alexander technique is great, but for it to really serve you as an actor in such moments of sound and fury, of Sturm und Drang, you have to have the virtuosity, yes, the virtuosity, to be able to continuously re-engage the abdominal core and maintain the relaxation elsewhere. No mean feat, to say the least. If you lose either value, your acting will be significantly marred.

There is a saying: the only way out is through. It has different meanings in different contexts, but in this discussion, it means that stiffness can only be fully addressed in situations that provoke stiffness. That’s why activities like dance and martial arts are the best arena for developing this ability to be simultaneously engaged and relaxed: they require full physical exertion, which can promote excessive tension, so if you can find the ease and grace in doing that, then you will likely be able to bring that balance to your acting as well.

There is another way in which the problem of stiffness can be attacked that I alluded to near the beginning of this piece, which I have written about at length here. The premise of this proceeds from Uta Hagen’s essay “Animation” in her book A Challenge for the Actor. Her basic point is that what animates the actor’s body, what keeps it from being captured by stiffness, is intentionality, or, as we would say it in my acting tradition, need. At any given moment, the actor, as the Who-Am-I, has both desired outcomes and outcomes they wish to avoid, “nightmare” scenarios. In the process of receiving off of the world, we constantly measure which way the wind is blowing, what we are expecting to transpire, and what (physical) action we await or may need to prevent. Becoming clear about these contingencies is something we do instinctively as people, not so much as actors pretending to be other people. The more clear we are in a scene about what we may be expecting, promoting or preventing in the way of immediate physical outcomes, the more our body will automatically prepare for these developments, and will hence be animated and not stiff. Stiffness arises from the feeling that you ought be doing something, together with a lack of clarity about what is to be done. The more clear you are about what you might need to do, the more your body will instinctively arrange itself accordingly.

The actor needs to work to develop fluidity and expressiveness in her movements on both fronts at once, that is, to play both ends against the middle. He needs to study the Alexander technique and another physical discipline to develop the coordination to be engaged and relaxed simultaneously as needed, and in his acting work he needs to heighten his awareness of his physical environment and the outcomes that may unfold within that environment at each moment, so that the body knows what it is supposed to do. By working on both of these fronts at once, the marriage of mind and body in the actor comes ever closer to consummation.