Alexander's Band: Two New Books Elucidate the Popular Sensory-Awareness Technique That Isn't Just for Actors Anymore

By Bloom, Michael | American Theatre, January 2015 | Go to article overview

Alexander's Band: Two New Books Elucidate the Popular Sensory-Awareness Technique That Isn't Just for Actors Anymore


Bloom, Michael, American Theatre


THE ACTOR'S SECRET

By Betsy Polatin. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Calif., 2013. 296 pp., $17.70 paper.

PHYSICAL EXPRESSION ON STAGE AND SCREEN

By Bill Connington, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, New York, 2014, 200 pp., $24.65 paper.

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SOMEWHERE UP IN THEATRE HEAVEN, FREDERICK Matthias Alexander must be smiling. There are more than 75 books in print promoting his technique--and not just for movement, voice and acting. They also cover dance, weightlifting, pregnancy and childbirth, back problems, running, swimming, massage therapy and aromatherapy, even jazz and classical guitar. One author has written at least 15 Alexander manuals on subjects as diverse as violin, piano, French horn, flute, clarinet, multiple sclerosis, tennis, archery and target practice with a rifle. Can an Alexander guide to cooking be far behind?

This renowned method of unlocking habitual behavior and building acute sensory awareness--developed by an actor who lost his voice whenever he tried to speak Shakespearean verse--has maintained its popularity since the middle of the 20th century. If anything, the Alexander technique is now having its moment, as the concept of mindfulness is everywhere in the Zeitgeist, from employee training to nearly every form of wellness. Though TedTalk superstar Amy Cuddy has awakened laypeople to the mind-body relationship with "power poses"--her talk has been viewed more than 20 million times--actors have known, probably since Thespis, that our "nonverbals" affect our own emotions as well as other people. But this isn't just about acting: As an organic, graceful and healthy approach to freeing oneself of physical and emotional limitations, the Alexander technique has enthusiasts who claim life-changing results.

In the classroom, Alexander teachers famously realign students with their touch. The irony of the proliferation of books propounding the Alexander technique is that communicating in print the essence of a hands-on movement pedagogy has limited benefits. Yet into the teeming Alexander market have stepped two more authors, both of whom are acclaimed teachers.

At least since Freud the word inhibition has had a bad name, but it is, according to Betsy Polatin, a professor at Boston University, the actor's secret. For Alexander, inhibition meant withholding a habitual reaction to a stimulus. The more healthful response is to give your body the chance to pause and substitute movement that engages the cohesive action of the entire body. Polatin's guide, The Actor's Secret, is clear and well organized, complemented by photographs of what Alexander called "use" and "misuse." Beginning with his five principles and progressing through breath, movement, voice and text, Polatin employs a holistic approach that also draws on the breath coordination precepts of Carl Stough and research into trauma by Dr. Peter Levine.

Polatin makes a solid case for including an understanding of trauma as part of diagnosing misuse; when students remember a traumatic event related to physical repression, they are on their way to correcting it. The word "trauma" may put off readers who believe it should be reserved for extreme cases of overwhelming stress. And when Polatin helps a student overcome misuse due to trauma, the process sometimes appears too easy, as if recalling the event were enough to dislodge its physical vestiges. One wishes she had described the redirecting process in greater detail.

In the prevailing American training method, actors are urged to seek connections between a character and themselves. Polatin offers an alternative method: "To understand another character, it makes sense for you first to understand your own." An actor does so by examining her own patterns of behavior, personality or movement. Once she becomes aware of the patterns, she is free to adopt or build new ones for a particular role. …

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