Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Moving into Performance: Using the Principles of the Alexander Technique to Underpin and Enhance an Actor's Training

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Moving into Performance: Using the Principles of the Alexander Technique to Underpin and Enhance an Actor's Training

Article excerpt

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!

Born in Tasmania in 1 869, Frederick Mathias Alexander was an actor. In his first book, The Use of the Self, he quotes Hamlet with all his optimism and belief in the potential of mankind. However, like Hamlet who finds that 'Man delights not me', Alexander continues:

But these words seemed to me now to be contradicted by what I had discovered in myself and others. For what could be less 'noble in reason', less 'infinite in faculty' than that man, despite his potentialities, should have fallen into such error in the use of himself, and in this way brought about such a lowering in his standards of functioning that in everything he attempts to accomplish, these harmful conditions tend to become more and more exaggerated? In consequence, how many people are there today of whom it may be said, as regards their use of themselves, 'in form and moving how express and admirable'? Can we any longer consider man in this regard 'the paragon of animals'?2

Plagued with severe tension and vocal strain, Alexander noticed that in performance he experienced hoarseness and chronic vocal fatigue. He and his doctors eventually realised that it was something in the way he used his body on stage that caused him to lose his voice. By observing himself in performance and in everyday life, using a mirror, he noticed that as he spoke he shortened the back of his neck and pulled his head backwards, depressing his larynx and sucking his breath through his mouth. In performance this habit became exaggerated, putting pressure on his vocal folds and creating tension in his neck, shoulders and arms. The tension had a knock-on effect throughout his body and he came to realise that the voice, breath and body were all closely related and could not be dealt with separately. He realised, too, that he was doing something in his use that interfered with the natural engagement of his vocal mechanism. He recognised that his use affected his functioning.

Many of the problems in performance are the direct result of the way actors use their bodies; how they do what they are doing. The way they consciously or unconsciously do things in their everyday life affects the way they function, and therefore the way they perform. Consider this in relation to the voice: a young actor slumped in a contemporary posture, hands in the pocket of low-slung jeans, gaze dropped, shoulders rounded and collapsed into the front of the body. In this posture, the actor is compressing the spine and the ribcage, squashing the diaphragm and leaving no space for the efficient working of the breath. Even a slightly collapsed and compressed spine and ribcage cause excess pressure and create tension in the diaphragm and on the delicately suspended larynx. How, then, can this actor recreate the posture and voice of a character without collapsing?

Contemporary voice practitioners such as Patsy Rodenburg,3 Cicely Berry,4 Kristin Linklater,5 Barbara Houseman,6 Rob Macdonald7 and Jane Ruby Heirich recognise that the voice is affected by physical use. Each therefore begins voice training with attention to the body, emphasising that an awareness of posture and physical tension is paramount to understanding the way in which the functioning of the voice is affected by the use of the body. If the tension in the body is released, there is an immediate impact on the vocal facility. The sounds are fuller, richer, deeper and more resonant and the words themselves have colour, texture and depth. Because the breath is not interfered with by habitual tension, it is more supported and the body itself more connected and grounded.

Rob Macdonald acknowledges the role of posture in voice work:

Because the voice is suspended in the body, its free activity depends on the postural mechanism working efficiently; any inefficiency of the postural body will impose limitations on the voice. …

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