Today in my training course(the ATTIC in Chicago directed by Daria Okugawa and assisted by Andrew Putnam McCann) I made a major discovery about how I use my my body that has once again raised the bar on my personal journey of discovery. I would like to share it with you as a concrete example of why I am studying what I am studying and of the benefit I believe that this work can have for the community at large.
As long as I have been acting seriously, I have been plagued by a pervasive tension in my shoulders and chest. It is present in my body at all times to some degree, but intensified to an exponential degree when I would act, and especially when I would sing or perform a monologue. This tension not only distorts the shape of my torso, but makes me prone to jerky gestures with my arms that seemed presentational and interferes with my breathing. I find that the tension tended to distract me from acting with my scene partners and being touch with my inner world. Teacher after teacher has commented on it and attempted to "fix" it for me. I have done Feldenkreis, isolations, stretches, meditation, T'ai Chi, massage, and many other relaxation techniques in order to try to release this tension. Nothing has provided more than temporary results, and my attempts to reproduce those results has had inconsistent and ineffective results. So I've taken this tension with me into my professional career and it has manifested to a greater or lesser degree in various characters I have played. It has definitely limited my expressiveness and naturality on stage and sapped energy that could be spent working on other things. It has also presented difficulty in my personal life, as I often find that this area compresses when under stress or when dealing with emotional circumstances(which is almost always when you are trying to make a career as a professional actor). People have often experienced me as intense or high strung even when I am at my most relaxed, and I have suffered from fatigue and sleep issues. Sometimes, I have even felt muddled in my thinking and ability to articulate when I find this tension is especially bad.
This term in class, we have been doing an acting unit, and this habit has once again reared its ugly head as a major hamstring to my acting. Fellow trainees noted the habit reported earlier in my torso as well as a tendency to lock my legs when I act that hampers my work. I have been quite frustrated with this process, as I have felt helpless despite extensive training to fight it. None of the work I have applied DIRECTLY to my chest and shoulders has worked.
Today, we spent some time working on a sequence of rib isolations sourced from a five-part physical warm up created by Paul Denhardt, movement teacher at Illinois State University and a trained Alexander teacher. I was immediately frustrated, as I have very little utility in my torso in this area as a result of my tension habit. We each took a turn demonstrating our work in front of the class. At first, I succeeded in isolating my ribs in front, back and side movements but only to a very limited range of motion. My shoulders and torso were rigid, and my legs and knees locked. Daria used her hands to inhibit my shoulder movement while a fellow trainee used his hands to stabilize my hips. When I carried out the movements with these "helping hands", I realized something that for me was quite profound--my thoracic spine(the area of your spine which is attached to your rib cage) was fixed in a place of extension(or arching) the entire time. I had previously thought that it was relaxed and sensed that it was possibly even collapsed--I had no kinsaesthetic way to evaluate whether it was in its natural shape. I worked with Daria on letting go of this tension, and all of a sudden it was like somebody had turned a key and unlocked my whole body. My shoulders relaxed. My breathing became slower and deeper. My voice became more resonant. My legs unlocked. And the range of motion in my torso increased by a factor of five. Like, I looked like a belly dancer. Most notably, I felt a sense of calm come over me that I was unused to experiencing, and everyone in the room reported tension palpably draining out of me. I immediate felt like I could have taken a nap at will--which if you know me, is HUGE--I can't remember the last time I could take a nap at will(though I will sometimes doze off AGAINST my will late at night).
In doing monologue work this afternoon and focusing on continuing my work in releasing my thoracic spine, I felt an ease in my work I have only felt at the apex of my very best performances. It felt improvisational and unrestricted, and I was able to access a joy and creativity in my work that I know is always there but often feels blocked with frustration . It never ceases to amaze me how seemingly small changes in posture and muscular use can be so meaningful to the way I work and live my life.
Hopefully, this has served to provide a small glimpse into some of the personal work I am doing right now and how learning about your physical habits can change your life the way it has changed mine. If you want to know more about the Technique, message me in the contact section or visit the American Society for the Alexander Technique's very comprehensive page at http://www.amsatonline.org/. In fact, just for fun, here is a video made by the Society explaining some of the uses of the Technique.
Till next time.