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A Class of Touch

If you've ever attended an acting conservatory, you're probably familiar with the Alexander Technique, a system of body alignment and correct posture and movement; most comprehensive training programs include it. If not, you may have wondered exactly what it is and why it's considered by many to be an integral part of actor training.

I took a few private sessions recently to get up to speed (well, barely—the recommended course is about one to two years, or, at the minimum, 20 to 30 sessions, one-half to one hour each). I also did a little reading, and I talked to a few teachers and an enthusiastic actor.

F. Mathias Alexander, an actor born in 1869 in Tasmania, developed vocal problems that interfered with performing. No doctor could help him, so he observed himself carefully in a mirror and discovered that whenever he stood in what he considered to be the right posture (and this was in the rigid Victorian era), his voice was at its worst. By teaching himself to sit, stand, and move in a natural, relaxed, and economical way, he freed himself of tension and regained vocal control.

He went on to teach his approach to others, believing that in modern Western society we have disconnected with our instinctive sense of moving and being. Perversely, we twist, hunch, thrust, lunge. Many actors have found that by unlearning these bad habits, they are more relaxed and therefore more open to impulses and have a wider range of physical choices. New body knowledge also helps them to prevent performance-related injuries.

So there I was, all out of whack, in the office of San Francisco practitioner Leslie Felbain, who studied with Jacques LeCoq in France, performed in street theatre, worked as a movement coach, and directed the New Pickle Circus last year. She started by asking me to sit down on a chair. I did.

"What did you notice your neck and head doing?" she asked.

Er, nothing much.

She presented me with an exaggerated imitation. My head, it seems, was going forward and up. Gulp.

"Stand up," she said.

Uh-oh. I should have been standing easily and gracefully without that vigorous and superfluous chest lifting. Furthermore what felt to me like a conscientious straight back was actually a harmful arched back; the more natural lengthened-spine posture felt, to my discombobulated senses, like slumping. No wonder I have stiff necks, lower back pain, headaches. Clearly, for me, a paradigm shift is in order.

"Our joints allow us to move in the hips, knees, and ankles," Felbain explained. Many people, like me, expend way too much energy, tensing muscle groups all over the place to accomplish a simple action. Felbain said she sees kids in playgrounds distorting their little bodies.

Don't Be a Muscle

What does this have to do with acting? "Knowledge of how your body works and a state of relaxation affect the quality of your performance," said Felbain. "If an actor's body is in a state of stress, it's not as available to being receptive, being creative, having energy to let go and play another character…. The actor is faced with millions of choices for physicality, vocalizing, rhythm, facial movement; but beneath all those choices must be functional movement."

If for no other reason, it's essential to have that functional movement so you don't end up with sore muscles when playing such extreme characters as the Elephant Man, or the hunchback Martirio in The House of Bernarda Alba, or even Tennessee Williams' limping Laura. Or, I suppose, when you have to throw yourself onto the floor like a sack of potatoes, as the amazing Berkeley Rep actors did in Charles Mee's Big Love.

Throughout my two sessions, Felbain gently rearranged my obstinate muscles into correct positions while I sat, walked, stood, and lay on a table. While she manipulated, Felbain talked. "Information gets transmitted verbally and kinesthetically," she explained. "When the practitioner lays hands on you, she's talking directly to the muscles. Not all the information has to go back to the brain for processing; there's a short relay station." She said that the combination of her realigning my muscles, telling me what she was doing, and showing me what it felt like to rest and move differently would gradually sink in if I were to be an ongoing client. That's basically it—very simple, very practical, no boring exercises.

I mentioned that Lee Strasberg was famous for his classroom relaxation exercises. How is the relaxation engendered by Alexander Technique different? Actors often do relaxation exercises faithfully, agreed Felbain, but as soon as we get onstage or before a camera, tension clicks in, and we don't even notice it, because we're so used to "holding" (that's a bit of Alexander jargon that refers to the tendency to hold tension in parts of the body even if we don't need to use those parts for the action we're engaged in). Sometimes we mistake that tension for emotion.

"If you're very angry, you tense the body," said Sydney Harris, a 24-year practitioner of Alexander in Ventura, Calif. "So you feel you're expressing an emotion when in fact it's just tension. It's difficult to get actors to trust they're more believable and the emotion is felt more strongly by the audience when they're relaxed."

Harris was sold on Alexander when, as a young actor, she attended a national theatre conference in Chicago. A young man performed a monologue that was flat and boring. Then, an Alexander practitioner put her hands on him, guiding a change in his alignment, and he repeated the monologue. This time, said Harris, it came totally alive.

Feeling, Not Flexing

At American Conservatory Theater, Alexander training has been part of the M.F.A. program since 1967, under Frank Ottiwell. "Alexander's idea was that what we perceive as an emotion is often actually pressure," said Ottiwell. So we're clenching, we're "holding," and our acting is general, not specific—yet we think we're experiencing deep feeling.

At A.C.T., students have group Alexander sessions and private tutorials, where they sometimes bring in monologues and scenes to work on. Or they might bring in a particularly physically difficult character, like Richard III. Or maybe their director wants them to assume a challenging posture, and they need help.

Occasionally, said Ottiwell, a director will ask him to work with particular actors, to make them "more truthful, more in their bodies." "Actors have a tendency to want to be seen but also a tendency to hide," he noted. "Training is about giving up your little secret hiding places." We hide, sometimes, through "holding." Ottiwell said that three or four sessions can help an actor with a performance-related problem—but only if they're familiar with Alexander work already.

Fiftysomething Bay Area stage and commercial actor Fred Ochs, who understudied Big Love at Berkeley Rep, was initially afraid he'd have to go through the rest of his life conscious of every move he made. He signed on for independent Alexander sessions two years ago when he decided he looked "lumbering," not graceful, on camera, and he's attended weekly sessions ever since. "In my case it was about releasing," he told me. "I was quite tight around the hips and my upper back." In the process, he learned to move more freely and economically, and now he likes the way he looks on camera: He has decent posture and is confident.

He also said that now when he's onstage he doesn't feel stiff, and if he has an impulse, he has the freedom to follow it, to move wherever he wants. Before, he felt uncomfortable. The training, he said, is extremely subtle. "It's not about forcing. It's a very gentle touch, along with words that reinforce what the touch is telling you. I think I respond better to that lighter type of thing. Movement and I have never been close friends." He also discovered that he doesn't have to think consciously about how he moves: "It's not intrusive, but it's sort of there."

It's a slow process, though. "Someone who wants instant results will get frustrated," warned Harris. She has found that musicians benefit most from her training. "They're the most self-disciplined. They're used to practicing their instruments in a systematic way." Unfortunately that's never been the habit for most working actors.

I asked Ottiwell if the A.C.T. students sometimes resist Alexander training. Some do in the beginning, he said. "It's like, I'm all right, why do I have to change? Which is natural. Once in a while someone goes through the whole program without getting it or using it. Perhaps they're unwilling to give up what they think is themselves. But the whole idea of the technique is to be more themselves." However, he added, most people are aware of where they're restricted, and Alexander gives them a way of perceiving that reality and of perceiving their potential for change.

In Alexander, as Felbain pointed out, there are no dramatic cathartic moments. It's simply a one-on-one method for unlearning bad habits and applying your new knowledge to everyday tasks—and, of course, to your acting.

You can reach Leslie Felbain at (415) 731-4132; her sliding scale is $60-$85/hour. Sydney Harris charges $60/hour with discounts for long-term commitments; call her at (800) 649-9213. For a complete list of Alexander teachers, log on to BSW

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