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Dealing With Tension

Below I'll summarize some exercises you can do to eliminate unwanted tension. But first, here's another viewpoint on the topic: Chicago acting teacher and writer Ed Hooks agrees with the masters that tension is the actor's greatest enemy, but he says relaxation exercises won't solve the problem, because the root of the problem is not necessarily poor physical habits or stage fright but rather a critical lack of self-confidence. If you're confident as an actor, you're relaxed and centered.

Yet what exactly does Hooks mean by confidence? "Unless an actor believes in her heart that she belongs on the stage in front of an audience, she will tense up inside," he writes in a newsletter to his acting students. "It is sort of like trying to drive the car with the emergency brake on. Yes, the car will go forward, but it is fighting with itself to do so."

When he was a young actor, Hooks, like my New York friend Patsy, took classes in which relaxation exercises were part of the drill. But, he writes, students would get up off the floor all limber and tension-free—and they still couldn't act. Over the course of 25 years of teaching, Hooks has concluded that relaxation comes from the proper mindset: "acknowledging your destiny as an actor," as he puts it.

I agree that relaxing through muscular exercises won't turn you into a good actor automatically. But certainly they can't hurt. Here are some suggestions:

Moore advises striking any position or pose, noting which muscles are extraneous to that pose, and relaxing them. She also advises tensing groups of muscles and then relaxing them. Also: "Justify" your pose, she says; that is, imagine a specific circumstance that warrants the pose. "Because you have a motive and a purpose," she writes, "superfluous tension will disappear more easily." And concentrating on a specific thought will help you relax.

Shoulders tight? Raise them to your ears and rotate them backward and forward, suggests Hull.

In his book, Lewis recommends sitting, tightening a single muscle, walking around with that one tight muscle, sitting back down, relaxing, then choosing another muscle to tighten, and so on. This, he writes, is a good way to work on the physicality of old age, among other things. "You'll be glad you have muscular awareness when you later have to play that uptight military man or that laid-back rock star," he adds.

And don't forget about specific practices like the Alexander Technique. In her book The Actor and the Alexander Technique (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), Stratford Festival coach Kelly McEvenue points out ways to identify your bad physical habits, which is surely the first step toward overcoming them. Among the questions to ask yourself: Are my knees locked? When I stand, do I put my weight on one leg? Am I tightening my fingers? Tightening my jaw? Holding my breath?

I really like Lewis' suggestion for how to circumvent tension—the type that's caused by nerves—when you're feeling it onstage, which often happens when you make your first entrance. (I remember once being so tense on my first entrance that I addressed my co-actor by the name of my own character!) Lewis recommends immediately touching a physical object—a prop, a piece of scenery, even, if it works for the moment, your partner; of course, you have to justify doing so. That concrete sensorial experience somehow grounds you. Don't worry; your tension won't rub off on your partner. But the nerves that can cause muscle tension will dissipate as you turn your concentration to the reality at hand.

Did you return to acting after a long hiatus? If so, I'd like to talk to you for an upcoming Craft column. Contact me at

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