The American educational philosopher John Dewey, though a rock star in his day, is little known to 20th century folk. However, his ideas of 'learning through experience' have had possibly the greatest impact on modern education of any 20th century theorist. Dewey was a great supporter of the Alexander Technique. He came to it as a possible solution for problems with his health, chronic pain, and difficult breathing. By the time he finished lessons, he not only found relief from these, but had discovered what he called an embodied philosophy--a way of taking his theory of direct experiential learning and making it a reality. He saw the process of learning how to let go of habitual tensions blocking new ways of doing things and progression from the "known to the unknown" as "learning how to learn"--a way to free oneself to move into greater and greater psycho-physical space and unlocked human potential.
In fact he claimed: "It (the Alexander Technique) bears the same relation to education that education itself bears to all other activities."*
However he also said: "I had the most humiliating experience of my life, intellectually speaking. For to find that one is unable to execute directions, including inhibitor ones, in doing such a seemingly simple act as to sit down, when one is using all the mental capacity which one prides himself upon possessing, is not an experience congenial to one's vanity"
This dichotomy of coming up against ones basic limitations in order to make progress on complicated activities is one experienced by virtually all Alexander Technique Students. With years of experience, I still sometimes dread the beginning of chair work--the simple, empty form of getting in and out of a chair to observe ones movement habits and work on letting go of unnecessary tension which Alexander considered most useful of his procedures. The thought that I might still not have control of my right leg--my perennial problem spot which has a mind of its own-- or how my pelvis relates to my lower backno matter how sophisticated I get at external skills such as interpreting Shakespeare's text or calculus(this second example is theoretical) is discouraging. But it is because it is so 'basic' that the work is so valuable--the way I 'use' myself has an effect on everything I do. In the end, the material we use to create our own lives is our selves--and every physical tension, every blank spot on our self knowledge, every missed connection with ourselves has an impact on the quality of that creation. It is this 'universal constant'--our relationship to or 'use of' ourselves--which every Alexander session seeks to improve--whether the end goal is physical wellness and relief, increased mastery of a skill, or more openness to the blessing of life.
It is because of this close connection--because the learning is done so near to us--that students are sometimes puzzled after a couple of lessons. "I understand the concepts intellectually, and I feel change during the lessons with your hands and that I move differently afterwards, but how do I apply the Technique for myself?" they ask. It is an excellent question, well worth clarification and discussion. There are ways to practice the work outside of lessons--procedures such as constructive rest, monkey, DART work, lunge, and others can help to carry forward work on your own. But the best application is mindfulness. The Alexander Technique is far from 'Technical'--a word we associate with mechanical skill. It is a growth of internal awareness through direct experience. In order to 'apply' the technique, no extra effort is needed--merely allowing your altered awareness, conceptually and kinaesthetic, to filter into your life is application. We crave ways to actively strive in our lives--work harder and everything will come to you. We have a hard time believing that letting go--allowing--ourselves to function naturally can be effective--we like to feel the effort. In the end, it is an ego issue--an issue of humility. A lot of faith is required to trust that one's basic self is enough. But it is.
Because change in AT is so subtle and close, I like to refer to it as 'Glacial Change'--only the tip of it is visible, However, an enormous amount goes on below the surface. And though a glacier moves slowly, whatever it moves over is changed irreversibly and profoundly.
Are you willing to let go of your habitual life and find out what it is that lies beneath?
*Quotations are taken from Dewey's introduction to Alexander's third book 'The Use of the Self'. Other quotation marks indicate terminology commonly used by Alexander himself and other teachers.
There is an age old debate in acting: Do you use your own experience to create a character — essentially presenting “yourself” as the character — or is the character something outside of your experience that you create using your imagination and step into?
Both of these approaches can be limiting in their own way. The “imagination” route can sometimes result in representational acting — presenting ideas in a self-puppeting, superficial, self-conscious ways. This creates hollow artifice, and even if very skilled, an audience can “feel” something deceptive about it — that there is nothing behind the curtain. On the other hand, the “I am the character” method can create limited performances — recycled mannerisms and easily accessed emotions and actions which carry over from character to character without actually serving the story at hand. Which, after all, is the actor’s job: to use their self to serve the story, not the other way around.
So what is the solution to this problem?
When I started college at Boston University, I definitely was in the imagination camp. I was a shy kid, and I saw acting as a way to use my imagination to communicate with others in ways I couldn’t in my real life. As a result, while I let my imagination and my ideas cover my outside like a collage, my interior life was locked away safely. I would even say that I took a certain pleasure in feeling like I was “putting it all out there” while still being safely sequestered inside myself. But what I didn’t know was that very little of my rich, imaginative life was translating externally. Instead, I was stiff, stilted, and unbelievable on stage. My professors helped me to become aware of this and let this eternal shell go to the best of my abilities.
So I tried to do the opposite method, but soon ran into a different obstacle — when I thought of using my “self,” I realized the self I thought of was boring. I tended to be lead towards emoting and expressing a feeling of shame on stage, which I felt I could accurately inhabit (I had a lot of practice at this one). And my vocal work was cautious; I wanted to sound authentic, but I just ended up sounding flat. So, yeah, that didn’t work either.
Two classes made a huge difference in helping me to find the balance. One was a semester of Meisner Technique with David Demke of Shakespeare & Company. This taught me more than anything else that acting was not about “doing and creating,” but instead about being present and responsive. The other, which I’m going to focus on here, was the three-and-a-half years of Alexander Technique I took with Betsy Polatin.
Alexander Technique taught me to think of myself not in limited terms, but as a vast thing that could encompass experiences that weren’t even part of my personal biography. I realized a lot of what I identified as ‘me’ were habitual tensions — both physical and mental, which were associated with anxiety and fear. These tensions painted a picture for me of what I was and wasn’t, which I had become strongly identified with. By helping me to become aware of these tensions and ultimately let them go, Betsy erased this limited self and opened me up to a vaster potential. Alexander Technique helped in my personal life, too. I was able to be much more open, to feel new things, and to act differently with people.
When I returned to acting, a new universe was opened up to me. Instead of being restricted to imagining things that “were or weren’t me,” I realized that characters could have emotions, perspectives, and ways of moving that weren’t so much foreign to me as they were unexplored. Rather than a way of expressing a limited self, acting became for me a way of exploring a vast universe and my boundless intersection with it. Whether I was playing a blind, Welsh sea captain; a closeted, middle-aged Oscar Wilde-obsessed Irishman; or an Iranian civil rights lawyer, all of them were myself without being the same.
Betsy called this “stepping outside your habitual self.” As I have started working with Alexander Technique students of my own, I have come to think of it as helping people to work with an “expanded self” — a way of acting without the constraint of the habitual self. Through this, my students can find an ease in their acting — less of a struggle and more of an unlocking. They don’t have to force themselves there. They can just let go of their constraints and let the character come to them.
Next time you feel stuck while connecting to a character, instead of trying to find a way to find the character in yourself or create them, see what happens if you let go of whatever is keeping you from them, and expand outward, moment by moment, into someplace new and familiar.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.