Some say we are what we eat. If you're a movement instructor, you'd say we are how we sit, stand, move. And while we may often associate movement techniques with training for dancers, these instructors list a surprising number of reasons why the actors who study with them profit as well. These specialists take the performer's instrument and finely tune it, producing effortless presence and free-flowing voices. When we see the product—the performers to whom our attention is somehow magnetized—it could very well be by their practiced application of these techniques.
For practitioners of Pilates, Alexander Technique, and Suzuki/ Viewpoints, understanding of and control of the mind/body connection promotes freedom—from physical tension, from lifelong bad habits, from "self." So, while never taking the place of acting class, "It can fold the physical life into the nuts and bolts of actor training," said one avid practitioner.
Free the Body
Actor and certified Pilates instructor Kimberly Morgan believes Pilates can assist actors in many ways. First, it improves the basic respiratory system. Explained Morgan, "If you have a strong respiratory system, you're going to have a strong voice. Breathing is supportive of a strong voice, giving it more power and control." In addition Pilates helps actors ground themselves, especially when they're nervous. It helps actors sit and stand properly; it also helps them lift and carry correctly. Morgan can also teach her students to walk correctly. With Pilates training, Morgan said, "You are free to move in any way you want. You develop an open and expressive body."
The technique can also help counterbalance unnatural movements a role may require, for example walking with a limp, slouching, jumping from heights, or doing stunts. It can prevent injuries by making the actor stronger before beginning rehearsals. It can also make the actor look and feel healthier: more toned, more graceful.
In the 1920s Joseph H. Pilates designed hundreds of specific exercises using large apparatuses, based upon his work with hospitalized patients during World War I. The patients remained recumbent; thus the use of hospital-bed-like equipment we see today. He aimed to develop the body uniformly, working in precise movements requiring proper control and form—the mind engaging with the body for total awareness. When Joseph Pilates came to New York, dancers became attracted to his techniques for strength and rehabilitation; later, actors liked the results they saw in dancers and began studying with Pilates and his disciples.
Morgan has developed a more inclusive form than the strict New York style of Pilates, which follows Joseph Pilates' exercises exactly. "We use the best ingredients: physical therapy techniques, traditional Pilates techniques, yoga, Alexander, anything that is helpful to our clients," she explained. But nothing explains the system better than experiencing it, so we began a workout by lying on one of Pilates' apparatus: The Trapeze Table, or Cadillac, as it's also referred to.
"The basic setup is to get you in alignment," Morgan began. To get the feel of the work, the new student lies face up with a large plastic ball propping up the lower legs. Morgan adjusts the student's head to form a straight line down the spine. "Most people feel crooked when they first get into alignment," she warned.
Breathing is an essential first component of the work. "Inhale, expand the ribcage sideways. We're working with the respiratory muscles, which are also the postural muscles. Pull the ribs out to the side, the abdomen down." Easier said than done. The newcomer to Pilates might think of it as an hour of doing nothing but lying flat on his back, but he'll soon find it's hard work.
Pilates works with the "core muscles," which stabilize the joints, Morgan explained. "We work from the inside out, from the smallest muscles closer to the bone to the larger, outer muscles—the global muscles everybody knows about [quadriceps, biceps, pectorals.]" The core muscles, also called the inner unit, consist of the abdominal group, the pelvic floor group, the diaphragm, and a back muscle called the multifidus.
With the lower legs still resting atop the huge ball, the student lifts the back, beginning at the tailbone, by rolling up the vertebrae one at a time toward the neck; the hamstrings and abdominal muscles begin burning. And it's just one small introduction to the years of training that makes an advanced Pilates practitioner.
Morgan believes actors should train their bodies at least twice per week, three times optimally. The large Pilates apparatuses are useful and fun, she said, but students can do all the basics on a mat. And while students can work at home by themselves, it is such specific work on alignment and technique that they derive more from practicing under the instructor's observing eye. Indeed, with a slight but highly practiced touch by Morgan under the student's shoulder blade, the body immediately and unconsciously shifts into correct placement. As Morgan likes to say, "You need someone to nag you."
Pilates in Los Angeles ranges in price from $40 to $75 per hour for private sessions, $10 to $25 per class for group classes of mat work. "It gets expensive for an actor on a budget," Morgan admitted, "but within the first session the actor's awareness changes." Count on studying it for a while, though: Morgan said it takes two to six months until the body begins to absorb the technique.
Another movement option is Alexander Technique, the best-known students of which include actors Ben Kingsley, Paul Newman, Patrick Stewart, Kevin Kline, Joanne Woodward, and James Earl Jones.
"I call it intelligent exercise," said Jean-Louis Rodrigue, a widely recognized master of Alexander Technique and a former actor. "It's a form of mental presence." Of course he works with newcomers, but he also works with established actors. A recent New York Times article cites his work with Hilary Swank for her recent film, The Affair of the Necklace. His website shows him coaching Juliette Binoche. Of working with pros, he said, "It's the same thing, except if they're really open they can go to even higher levels—if they're not being protective of what they're doing."
During an interview at his Center for Integrative Health, Medicine and Research in Santa Monica, Rodrigue described the technique as the study of our use of ourselves. We respond to discomfort by tightening, contracting, holding the breath. "All are the enemy of the actor. And good acting has to do with being available, responsive, flexible." With careful application of the technique, he insisted, levels of health increase, and so does the level of performance. The voice becomes deeper and freer, the body becomes available, and one is able to create different characters.
Between rehearsals at a mid-Wilshire studio, Sam Weber, world-renowned as a tap-dance master and teacher, offered a simple demonstration of the technique. With a steady hand on the pupil's neck, he moved the body's positioning upward, correctly aligning the head over the spine and seeming to hoist the body with it. It feels energizing, encouraging a light, speedy walk.
Weber explained the technique's history: F. Matthias Alexander was an Austrian actor born in 1869 who kept losing his voice. Studying himself in the mirror, Alexander noticed he would pull his head back and down—as if reacting in fear or avoidance—rather than forward and up. Alexander began analyzing the stances of children—young ones who stood correctly, as if happily expectant, and older ones who were beginning to adapt a "cool" posture, hips forward or to one side, heads hanging. Alexander called it having "good use" vs. "corrupted use," said Weber.
Another Alexander term is "inhibition"—different from the Freudian meaning, said Rodrigue. Here the technique inhibits the automatic response so it can be replaced with something that is more conscious. Said Weber, "Alexander would think of doing a different movement as he would begin speaking—such as lifting an arm—to inhibit the old response."
While new students often think of Alexander technique as good for their posture, Rodrigue said, "It's more profound. It's improving the manner of use." When you're better aligned, you're going to have better movement—and hopefully, a stronger performance.
In most plays, Rodrigue noted, most characters are not balanced individuals. "They're out of control, conflicted. Then they're interesting. How do actors become free, unconscious of the self, so they can lend themselves to their characters? We can be so busy with our own stiffness and 'stuff' that we can't play the character. We can play only our own distortions."
Rodrigue likened practiced application of the technique to baking: "The nervous system won't respond unless you have the right ingredients in the right proportions." So he works on three ingredients: awareness, pausing, and direction. "We increase the actor's awareness. The student becomes aware of his or her own habits and how they interfere. After all, the force of habit is the strongest force in our lives."
Pausing means taking time: "Rather than trying to fix it, I create an environment in which the actor can prevent the reaction." In that space and time, he said, he then helps the student redirect.
Direction works on a natural relationship, called "The Primary Control," between the skull and the spine. "We reestablish the freedom between the head and spine. That's what Alexander is famous for." The head is primal. "That's where the senses are," he noted. "The voice is not in limbo—you can't just fix the voice." If the head compresses the spine, the actor can't breathe and thus can't speak—either correctly or at all. Perhaps that is why acting academies in England, as well as some schools in the United States, include Alexander Technique in their curricula.
Rodrigue teaches private sessions and group classes. The groups run in seven-week sessions, and he prefers that students join for the first day and stay for the series. Classes include a "laying on of hands" so the student can feel the instruction, or direction. Most classes start on the floor with mat work, then rise for work on sitting and walking; others begin with the students upright. He begins with work on awareness: of tension, of shape, of bodies, thoughts, and emotions. Rodrigue encourages the students to ask themselves the questions. The first half of his class focuses on breathing; unique to his class, the rest is application—to a scene or song the actor is working on.
Throughout Los Angeles private sessions range from $50 to $85 per session of one hour or less; group classes typically cost $20 to $30 per class for a two-hour class. Tangible results can take from six months to one year to achieve. Some actors study for years. "Over one year, the person becomes integrated—more human. The mind, body, and emotions are integrated," Rodrigue observed. "The ultimate goal is for the student to take it and go on his own."
Seemingly at the other extreme of movement is Suzuki/Viewpoints. "I wish every actor had this kind of physical training," said Wendy McClellan, a Los Angeles-based actor, director, and artistic director of Oasis Theatre Company. Currently directing Oasis Company's Steel, opening Jan. 26 at [Inside] the Ford, McClellan said she auditioned for actors who use their entire bodies onstage.
"As Western actors we tend to act with our faces and hands, particularly in a city where we've got film and television. This technique lets you act with your toes, listen with your back," explained McClellan, adding that actors who use these techniques are unafraid to use space, to climb ropes and ladders. Those who have not had as much physical training are of course still usable, but McClellan finds herself having to do more work with them.
Still, she cautioned of the technique: "It's training; it's not something I would use in the staging of a play." She does, however, vividly recall seeing a production in which she was mesmerized, not by the actors downstage but by an upstage panel of judges listening in on the action. She later learned that the judges—Suzuki-trained actors—were not sitting but were instead hovering over their chairs, held aloft by the strength in their legs and lower abdomens.
The Suzuki Method is a rigorous discipline created by renowned theatre artist Tadashi Suzuki. With movement based on traditional Japanese theatre forms Kabuki and Noh, the method is oriented toward extreme muscle effort, which enhances extreme voice production. Viewpoints grew out of postmodern dance as a way of creating structure for movement improvisation. Saratoga International Theatre Institute and its artistic director Anne Bogart adapted Viewpoints, expanded it for the theatre, and melded it with the Suzuki technique.
Suzuki observed that actors had their "heads in the clouds," so his techniques are very much about connecting with the ground. McClellan thinks of it as a way to remember that we have a whole body—that we're connected to the planet, but that we also have a connection to God or a spirit. The technique emanates from the body's center: the lower abdomen. "And truth implies the use of the center," she said. These techniques, as with Alexander and Pilates, said McClellan, are tools for figuring out the truth.
Techniques include seated and standing exercises, each emphasizing "architectural and spatial awareness." McClellan demonstrated the famous "stomps": walking by stamping the floor heavily while the upper body floats along. The stomps progress: The practitioner kicks the leg straight out, then bends the knee and bring the leg back in—almost the opposite of the normal walk, which begins by bending the knee. A toes-in walk makes semi-circular patterns on the ground; a duck walk has heels kicking up and to the side of the shin line.
The floor work, called "sitting statues," may have practitioners sitting on the "sitz" bones, clasping the lower legs, raising the feet off the ground, and balancing: This engages the center, and the voice comes from "a different place," said McClellan. While demonstrating, she suddenly began to recite Dante. "It's locked in the muscle memory," she observed.
In the technique's "free-form statue," the actor sits on one hip, legs off to one side, arms counterbalancing to the other side, reciting a monologue. Standing statues—from squats to balancing on the balls of the feet—work on keeping the concentration as the actor focuses the gaze.
Another technique has one student sitting in the Lotus position (soles of the feet together, outsides of the knees on the ground), another standing on the seated student's knees as he or she rolls backward toward the floor while singing Japanese songs. One student said the technique releases huge sound production, incredible breakthroughs, and lots of emotion because the body is undergoing tremendous stress.
Again, McClellan cautioned, the method is not something an actor does onstage. It's about getting beyond the technique, being able to so internalize the principles that only the benefits appear in the actor's work. Through structure, one finds freedom, she said; creating an awareness of one's body also makes the actor realize how far one can push the physical self.
Students usually study Suzuki/Viewpoints through intensive sessions. A winter session begins this weekend through the Burning Wheel/SITI in L.A. at Shakespeare Festival/L.A. Each summer, a one-month, eight-hour-per-day workshop gathers renowned actors and novices. "Much of the L.A. theatre community has surrendered to the workshop," McClellan said. It began in a space donated by the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which soon withdrew its hospitality because the stomping knocked items off the walls. Still, McClellan quickly qualified, "It's not about vicious movement. It's about trying to connect to the body."
Fees are $225 for either Suzuki training or Viewpoints training; $375 for both, and includes one class per week for six weeks and a two-day intensive. Discounts are offered to returning students. McClellan began studying Suzuki at age 15 but believes it's right for anyone, noting that a good instructor will keep students from doing too little or too much for their individual capabilities. A minimum course of 10 classes per session gives a student an idea of the work but, like any other technique, becoming adept is always an ongoing process.
What's clear from talking to each of these movement teachers is that when taught properly and internalized by students, Suzuki/ Viewpoints, Pilates, and Alexander Technique enable the actor to stretch himself to greater artistic heights. Though rigorous at times, the results of these techniques are immensely rewarding. No matter how experienced you consider yourself as an actor, these methods of movement can only enhance your craft.
Many competent instructors teach movement techniques in the Los Angeles area. Ask your acting teacher or voice coach for a referral, or, better yet, ask another actor whose presence or look onstage catches your attention. BSW