Tension: Not too much, not too little

When I teach the Alexander Technique to an actor, the student and I choose which aspect of the work to focus on.

The most common starting point is teaching the student how to come to a balanced neutral. Not too much tension, and not too little. Just the right amount of tension creates a lively, dynamic state of being.

Cultivating this dynamic neutral usually means that the student needs to “relax” some parts of herself and enliven other parts. Most people have habits and patterns of posture, movement, gesture, breath and voice that are out of balance.

As the student and I explore the student’s “postural set” we find out where the bones are mis-aligned and where the muscles, tendons and ligaments can release out of either tightening or collapsing. We look in the mirror to see the postural set and how it changes with my hands-on guidance.  As muscles release into length and lively tone, the bones find a more efficient balance. It’s typical for students to feel “weird” or like they are almost falling forward when they come out of their habitual postural pattern. Often when I ask about that feeling, it’s a “good weird” or a “floaty falling” sensation.

The use of hands is one way that an Alexander lesson is different from other methods or techniques in actor training. As the student learns to refine her kinesthetic and proprioceptive (inner) senses, she is able to work with the principles on her own. But at first the teacher’s hands help the student understand the teacher’s verbal guidance, and help her actually experience her own proprioceptive sensations.

As students progress, we work on releasing excess tension in action. Here’s a typical example:

Mark is learning a role that requires anger and upset. As Mark goes over his lines for the first time in his Alexander lesson, he pushes his face forward and contracts his jaw and neck muscles. He is over-acting because he is over-efforting. His lines are strong enough; he doesn’t need the extra tension. The tension causes his voice to rise. The tension in his face and jaw make his expression look forced.

I suggest that he try the lines while staying in a more neutral state, as I use my hands to help him notice what he is doing muscularly with his neck and jaw. I suggest that he let the lines evoke some of that anger in him, but not force it.

This time, Mark’s voice is fuller, he becomes more intimidating as he retains his stature and his strength without contracting. Dynamic tension is there, but it is there in the right amount.

Another common Alexander lesson is in the realm of excess preparation before an activity. Before speaking or moving, actors will often “prepare” themselves by contracting and “getting ready”—thereby coming out of their neutral state.

Marla is working on a new monologue. Marla begins from a dynamic neutral state of being ready for action, but whenever Marla starts to speak, the area just under her skull at the top of her neck contracts. As I work with Marla, I put my hands gently on the back of her neck, where most people have excess tension. My hands helps her to notice when the muscles contract. Marla practices not tensing as she begins to speak. She continues to notice the area under her skull and can begin feel it tense even when my hands are not there.

I have her practice speaking without any concern for what her words mean. She counts to ten. Marla needs to soften and slow down so much that she feels like she is slurring, but we get her to make sounds without activating those necks muscles. I then have her practice normal conversation. She slows down to about 70% of her normal speaking pace, and I encourage her to allow her skull to be mobile as her neck remains free of extra tension as she speaks. When her neck muscles are too tense, her skull won’t move. When she has released some of the tension, she lets her head move freely.

When we progress to speaking her lines, Marla once again goes back to tensing her neck. And now she adds a new habit—she takes a short, quick breath each time she begins.

We go back to not-tensing, and not-preparing, and this time we bring in not-gasping before the speaking. Because we’ve now been working on releasing tension while speaking, working with the breath is easier. As Marla practices not adding the extra  effort of the quick intake, she continues to allow her head to float easily, her neck muscles to be long and lively, her jaw to be easy and mobile. It is a lot to think about!  Changing ingrained habits takes time, but more than that, it takes awareness and clarity of intention.

Marla now can speak her lines without excess tension, and her whole state of being shows the change. Her voice is clear and not rushed or raised. The lack of excess tension and effort shows in her spontaneous choice to move with her lines, which excites her.  With more openness, she feels a fuller expression and more freedom as she explores her role.

Working with an actor over a longer time in individual sessions, or over several semesters of a Directed Study, allows for a deep and more intimate relationship. The student will sometimes share how past history of abuse or trauma affects them in their acting. In Stephanie’s case, we explore how her habits of dissociation during stress can keep her from staying in character and/or being able to respond positively to constructive feedback or direction.

For many victims of long-term and/or severe abuse, dissociation is a survival skill that helped protect them from being fully present during the abuse. By “leaving the body,” the victim could “check out” and then “come back” when it was safer. At the time, dissociation was an important survival strategy. But after the fact, and especially over years, dissociation does not allow for healing or processing the trauma. And it interferes with a person living to the fullest.

As a survivor of abuse proceeds through life, particular situations or stimuli trigger the habitual reaction of dissociation.

When Stephanie is in a role that is (subconsciously) scary to her, or is working with another actor who is (subconsciously) threatening to her, or is asked by a teacher or director to “feel” something outside her comfort zone, she sometimes goes into a dissociative state. She is therefore unable to respond appropriately.

In Alexander Technique lessons, we work with these issues on many levels. The first is to become aware of when dissociation occurs.  When Stephanie notices that she can’t respond appropriately to a situation, she brings her attention to her body. She notices a lack of sensory feeling in her body. Or she may notice her breath is restricted or that her brain seems not to function as “normal.”

Then we practice bringing the internal senses of proprioception into awareness at will. Practicing sensory awareness during times of relaxation and comfort, and then in daily life and common activities, can build the capacity to practice sensing and feeling in more challenging moments.

Next, we practice breathing fully, creating choices in how to breath. For instance, the Alexander “Whispered Ah” exercise extends the exhale and allows the inhale to come in without gasping (or “taking it in”), which can tighten the throat. The “Whispered Ah” also quiets the nervous system.

We practice noticing when and how particular people trigger an automatic reaction of fear or anxiety. We discover how to meet that person’s energy with clarity and balance, rather than shrinking and protecting and tightening into tension, or even dissociation.

Then we practicing striking a balance between “too much” and “not enough” tension in posture and movement. This helps us to practice appropriate connection with others energetically and emotionally.

The mind-body work of the Alexander Technique teaches Stephanie life strategy skills that are immediately beneficial to her acting and enhance her overall capacity to work more fully with her talents.