Alexander Technique For Young Actors
I have spent my weekends the past seven years working with the bright and precocious young performers at The Playground Los Angeles, Gary Spatz’s first-rate young actor’s conservatory here on Avenue of the Stars.
Gary has assembled a truly unique and dynamic staff of teachers to run a program that is the model for other acting schools for young people the worldover. It is an extreme privilege to be a part of it and more often than not, I learn more than I teach while working with my students and colleagues at the school.
My primary function as a teacher at The Playground is to teach the foundational acting technique that the conservatory offers in its curriculum for students from reading-age up to young adults. Working with students in this broad age-range affords me a fantastic view of the artistic and psychophysical developments as they occur in young performers as they grow up.
“Psychophysical development” is a mouthful but it brings me to my second function as a teacher at The Playground, which is that of an Alexander Technique teacher. I wanted to write today about how the Alexander Technique can be a useful tool in the training of a young performer.
The Alexander Technique is an educational modality that focuses on the use and functioning of the human organism and how our habits affect us in activity. In simpler terms, it is a fun and practical way to look at how our thinking and unconscious choices affect our balance and coordination as people. Let me give you a little more background on the technique since I will be writing about it in future articles at length.
F.M. Alexander was a stage actor working in Australia and the United Kingdom around the turn of the last century who was plagued by recurring stage fright and voice problems that caused him to go hoarse and lose his voice with some regularity. For an actor trying to make his living performing eight times per week, this was obviously an occupational hazard. After visiting all the predominant throat and voice specialists of the day, nothing was working. He was considering giving up his career as an actor but decided to do some investigation for himself first.
Alexander had the suspicion that if he had no underlying physical ailments he must be “doing something” that was causing the vocal trouble. F.M. started working with a mirror and discovered that when he went to speak he was pulling his head back and down slightly and that he had developed this habit without even knowing that he had.
Alexander could see in the mirror that this unnecessary motion was creating stress on his larynx and causing undue strain on his vocal cords. Once he had discovered the unwanted habit he thought he had solved the problem. But much to his chagrin, after further experimentation, Alexander discovered that it wasn’t so simple…his habit of pulling his head back and down had become so familiar to him in daily life that it now “felt right” to him and that it was very difficult if not almost impossible to speak without doing it. Luckily for the world, Alexander’s curiosity led him to a life of study of the force of habit and it’s affect on us and our ability to learn, as well as perform the tasks of daily life.
The Alexander Technique is a process for us to work with our habits in order to achieve better balance, coordination, poise, and overall health and vitality. For performers, it can help specifically in increasing expressivity and control of one’s instrument, reducing stage fright and performance-based anxiety, boosting confidence, awareness, and general health.
The Technique can help anyone, but it is particularly effective in helping performing artists work with the extreme challenges that come along with working in such a demanding field. “AT” is taught all over the world and is a mainstay in the most prestigious acting and music conservatories in the world. So now the main question; How can it help children?
For the most part when we see small children even up into early adolescence their energy and physicality is marked with a natural ease and grace. Kids move freely, they imagine freely, they play freely and they are without a doubt the best learners on the planet. So what happens to this state of grace, this kinesthetic freedom that children possess? The answer is, that it is slowly eroded by habits that get picked up along the way as we grow up.
Sitting at a desk for hours, carrying a heavy backpack, over-use of technology, school and life stress, and most certainly the fact that kids mimic the habits of their parents, teachers and peers. All of these factors heated in the pressure cooker of adolescence and the body’s immense changes subtract from our natural poise.
Unfortunately, now with the rapidly increasing speed of modern life and the extensive use of technology, science is beginning to show that children are facing stress, tension and external pressures at a level unlike any we have seen in modern civilization. This is a factor for all children alive in the world today and that includes the young performer. Science is also showing that habits of misuse are happening earlier and earlier in young people. I see it often in classes at The Playground. New students arrive with stooped posture, attention challenges, tight shoulders and a loss of their innate awareness of how they sit, stand, walk, talk and bend.
Having some lessons in the Alexander Technique and or working with a teacher in a group class is a great way to identify these harmful habits and begin the process of “unlearning” them. It’s a wonderfully positive thing for a young actor or musician to have some exposure to the Alexander Technique and even a little can go a long way in their artistic and personal development. It’s my belief that it’s never too early to start and that prevention is almost always the best cure.
I think it’s unique and perhaps even a little groundbreaking that the Playground (a school that focuses on the younger actor) has two certified Alexander teachers on its senior staff. I don’t know another instance of this in the world!