Actors and Performers

Acting Essentials: Introduction to the Alexander Technique

Introduction to the Alexander Technique, part of the brand-new Acting Essentials series, is the first textbook about the Alexander Technique written specially for undergraduates.

Written by Bill Conningtona lecturer in acting at the Yale School of Drama, this book addresses the student’s self as a whole and is suitable for beginning acting students in any academic setting, including those who take performance classes as an elective. Written in an accessible and energetic style, it includes more than 150 practical, easy-to-follow exercises that help students reduce tension and improve their alignment, flexibility, and poise.

Read an extract from Bill Connington’s introduction here:  

Bill ConningtonYou are studying acting. Something about the alchemy of theater and film drew you in. What attracted you to theatrical storytelling? Perhaps you acted as a child or in high school. Or maybe it was the allure of “becoming someone else,” the excitement of collaborating with other creative people, the fun of rehearsing and working toward a collective goal: the performance. And possibly the most powerful draw of all was the experience—even if you had it only once or twice—of knowing that the audience was leaning forward to hear you and really see you. It’s like nothing else. And yet sometimes something gets in the way. It’s hard to pin down. Some acting classes go better than others. Some rehearsals go well, others less so. Sometimes you land a role in the play, sometimes you don’t. Of course you can’t control when you get cast, but you can strive to always do your best work.

These are issues that almost every actor has to grapple with. How does one always do one’s best in class, rehearsal, audition, and performance? What is the key to staying connected to the truth of the character and the scene? What is the first step to unlocking and unblocking your natural talent so it flows naturally? If I had to choose two things that I see stop performers most often, they would be excessive tension and negative self-judgment. These two often appear in tandem. Every actor has experienced fear, stress, and anxiety at some point. It’s true: performance situations are always more heightened than everyday life, and it feels like there is a lot at stake. A state of excitement mixed with a bit of nervousness will probably always be there when you perform, but there is a point where nerves and tension get in the way. Teachers often exhort students to use their nerves in performance, but they don’t tell them how to do so. Nerves get in the way of artistic impulses, creativity, and spontaneity. It’s almost as if worry and anxiety clog up the actor’s instrument, which is the self. What can you do to unblock it?

The Alexander Technique is a method of education through which you learn how to recognize your unconstructive mind-body habits, consciously prevent them, and develop more positive and efficient ways of functioning by mentally cuing yourself. Many college and university drama departments and performing arts conservatories turn to the Alexander Technique1 as a vital part of a performer’s training. The technique is named after F. Matthias Alexander (1869–1955), an Australian actor and teacher. When Alexander was a young man, he was a one-man reciter of Shakespeare, which was a common form of entertainment before radio, TV, and film became popular. Alexander’s difficulty was that he suffered from chronic hoarseness when performing, sometimes even losing his voice. When doctors and voice teachers were unable to help, Alexander set out to solve the problem himself. At the time, he was working as an actor with his own theater company and running one of the world’s first drama schools. He decided to observe his own movement and functioning closely, both in daily life and when he practiced his orations at home, in front of a three-way mirror.

He discovered that his head-neck relationship was unbalanced. When he started to speak, his neck would tighten and his head would pull back and down toward his shoulders, which caused a chain reaction of downward pressure through his torso and the rest of his body. This series of tensions caused tightness and stiffness in his throat and indirectly caused his vocal difficulties. Over time he was able to stop himself before he tightened up. This pause would leave his neck gently elongated, his head balanced at the top of his spine, and his torso naturally at its full height. Indirectly this took care of his hoarseness, and he stopped losing his voice. When Alexander stopped interfering with his natural mind-body coordination (i.e., when he stopped tensing up), his use of himself—his functioning—improved markedly. After solving his own difficulties, Alexander then devoted the rest of his long life to teaching his mind-body method to others. He worked in London and New York with well-known actors and people in the fields of science, education, and government. He was at the vanguard of what we would now call somatic education. The legacy of F. M. Alexander continues to influence thousands of people working in the theater and film worlds. His work is like a pebble dropped in water, with ever-expanding outward concentric circles. His influence will continue to be deeply influential for the foreseeable future.

The Alexander Technique is ultimately very practical. It helps you catch yourself when you are slumping over as you learn lines or sit at the computer. It calls your attention to situations where your alignment is off or your movement is jerky or tight. It helps you become aware of when you are holding your breath, pushing your voice, or not listening to your scene partner. It is one of the most pragmatic ways actors can help themselves. This book will show you many ways that you can help yourself through the Alexander Technique, whether in class, rehearsal, audition, or performance. It will help you find the subtle balance and coordination that integrates all aspects of yourself: mind, body, emotions, breath, voice, and creative impulses. In essence, the technique can help you be more fully yourself. But don’t you want to be someone else when you’re acting? Partly. Because even if you are pulling off a major transformation and playing a character who is nothing like yourself, you are still “using yourself” in order to bring that character to life. It’s your voice, your emotions, your body that help create that character on the stage or film set. And you want to fine-tune the instrument that is yourself so that you can give the best performance possible.

One of the most important things you can learn in drama training is how to focus on the process of acting rather than the results. Giving your attention to the how of acting will indirectly affect the end result. Rather than attempting to be a “good actor giving a good performance,” you attempt to play your character in the character’s given circumstances. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get off track when you are trying to do a lot of things at once. The Alexander Technique will help you get on track and stay on it by reducing tension, freeing up your breathing, and releasing your body. Releasing your body will in turn help you release your mind, unlock your emotions, increase your spontaneity, and reinforce your creative impulses. The Alexander Technique does this by showing you that you have many more choices than you realize, in your acting and your life. And choices are the doorway to freedom: to act, to perform, to do whatever you want to do. You can work through this book methodically in eight weeks, as it is laid out on the page. Read one chapter a week, do a few exercises per day, and at the end of the eight weeks, you’ll feel like a different actor and a different person—or, rather, you will feel more like yourself than you did before. Or you can simply dip into the book wherever you like. Do whatever exercises you want, in whatever order you want. Either way, you will begin to realize how you might change yourself profoundly by being more profoundly yourself. After all, that’s what the audience wants to see—your most essential, unadorned self in performance. We’re all looking forward to seeing that.

Introduction to the Alexander Technique: A Practical Guide for Actors is available now from Methuen Drama.