There’s a reason the Alexander Technique is the only form of movement training that many drama schools require students to take. It’s an extremely powerful practice of body-mind integration that pays dividends on many levels. If you talk to an Alexander Technique teacher, they’re probably going to speak about the ease of movement and efficiency—both extremely important when it comes to acting. And while studying the technique certainly requires that you invest your time and money in the practice, Andrew Wood of Andrew Wood Acting Studio says it’s a tremendously worthwhile investment both for your work and yourself.
Want to learn more about the Alexander Technique? From diving into the technique itself to why it’s helpful to actors, keep reading to master this must-know movement training.
The Alexander Technique is a type of movement training actors learn to prepare their bodies (both physically and mentally) for upcoming roles. The technique uses relaxation tools and other breathing and physical exercises to make you aware of how you move and think. The goal is to release tension, develop good habits, straighten posture, and gain an understanding of every movement your body makes—both onstage and throughout the day.
“The Alexander Technique is terrific for learning to do what is necessary, but not more so that we manifest our emotional truth without clogging ourselves up with unnecessary tension,” says Wood. He also notes there are other advantages to the technique as well. “Through the study of the technique, you will gain an intimate understanding of the human anatomy and how it functions, allowing you to see more subtle possibilities as you explore a character’s physicality.”
A big part of the Alexander Technique is becoming conscious of the unconscious physical habits we’ve developed to get through everyday life. Most of these habits involve chronic tension or overexertion—using more effort than we really need to. Wood says this can have a major impact on our neuromuscular system: “The tensed muscles form a kind of body armor that we use to brace ourselves against the incoming emotional volleys we’re constantly subjected to,” he explains, adding that it’s a big problem for actors. “We need to be emotionally available to the impulses being directed at us by our scene partners, and the armor [that] chronic tension outfits us with obstructs this process,” he says.
So how does the Alexander Technique help actors break down this armor? “We can’t expect to be able to just throw a switch and deactivate the armor when we want to—or at least not without some training. It’s this training that’s one of the most valuable things that the Alexander Technique can offer an actor: the ability to consciously promote physical openness and receptiveness, which go hand-in-hand with emotional openness and vulnerability,” Wood says.
The ability to be vulnerable and fully engaged in a situation is essential to crafting a memorable performance. According to Wood, the Alexander Technique allows actors to do both—its tension-releasing methods prepare you before the performance and keep you open to physical spontaneity during it.
“The characters we play have needs, and we need to embody these needs and then take up the character’s struggle to get those needs met,” Wood says. “The technique’s capacity to help us become more emotionally available on the one hand and to assert ourselves without overexerting on the other are gifts any actor can derive enormous benefit from for fuller, richer, more memorable work.”
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For a specific example of the Alexander Technique helping an actor onstage, look to movement coach Jessica Wolf’s time working with actor Dianne Wiest on Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” The play, which requires a good deal of strenuous movement and prolonged standing from its star, ran the risk of Wiest unconsciously locking her knees, a common tick of actors asked to stand for a long time. “To avoid this potential problem, we continually investigated monkey [position], which is known as the ‘position of mechanical advantage’ in the Alexander Technique,” Wolf told Backstage.
“I taught Dianne how to fold at her hip, knee, and ankle joints, and swivel over her feet so her torso could be free to move forward over her legs,” she said. “We explored releasing her weight down to gain support from the ground. This balance expands her torso and frees her breath and voice. Bringing awareness to her lower body was very important because we were concerned her legs might go numb after standing for several hours during rehearsals.”
The Alexander Technique offers many ways to help improve an actor’s body and mind. Here are a few simple exercises that focus on mindfulness to get you started.
1. Whisper “Ahhhh”
Exhale, then gradually whisper an extended, controlled “ahhhh.” When your lungs are empty, breathe in through your nose quietly. Repeat, wherever and whenever you want.
2. Standing Up / Sitting Down
Much of the Alexander Technique involves focusing on controlling your motions while performing tasks you do every day. That includes the act of standing up and sitting down. To stand up:
- Sit in a chair. Release all tension from your neck and shoulders. Focus on your weight in the chair.
- Slide your feet gently toward the chair while leaning forward on the joints of your hips.
- Gently put weight on your feet and push off.
- Stand upright without (this is important) letting any tension back into your neck and shoulders.
To sit down:
- Soften your knees completely.
- Gently sit back in the chair, keeping tension out of your neck, shoulders, and knees.
- Lower your arms. Repeat, paying attention to any stiffness in your movement.
3. Constructively Resting
This is as simple as it sounds. Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Get rid of the tension in your entire body, paying special attention to how you settle into the floor. Combine this with a whispered “ahhh” and spend 10–15 minutes constructively resting every day.
The next few Alexander Technique-based exercises, recommended by teacher and movement specialist Belinda Mello, are particularly useful for releasing pre-audition nerves.
4. The Name Game
Look around you and name everything you can see in the room, either out loud or, if you’re already in the audition room, in your head.
5. Where’s the Floor?
Focus on the floor beneath your feet, paying attention to how it’s supporting you. “You can let go of excess tension because the floor is being hard and motionless for you,” writes Mello.
Exhale slowly, feeling tension leave your body. Let your breath meet a little resistance by letting out a quiet “shhhhh.”
7. Agree to Play
Simple as that, ask yourself whether you agree to be open to this experience, not whatever the end result may be. “When we agree to be playful, we’re letting go of the ‘no’ and our worry about being perfect,” writes Mello. “We set our sights not on the end result, but on the vitality of being inside the game.”
8. Up and Out
Relax the muscles in your neck and shoulders that control your head movement. Focus on standing up taller, “expanding up and out into the room.”