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The Actor and the Alexander Technique

The Actor and the Alexander Technique

by Kelly McEvenue, Patsy Rodenburg (Foreword by)

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F.M. Alexander developed the Alexander Technique of movement in the early 20th century. Combining vocal clarity and body movement, Alexander developed a performance coaching method that is used by dancers, actors, singers, etc. In The Actor and the Alexander Technique, Kelly McEvenue writes the first basic book about how this unique technique can help actors


F.M. Alexander developed the Alexander Technique of movement in the early 20th century. Combining vocal clarity and body movement, Alexander developed a performance coaching method that is used by dancers, actors, singers, etc. In The Actor and the Alexander Technique, Kelly McEvenue writes the first basic book about how this unique technique can help actors feel more natural on the stage. She provides warm-up exercises, "balance" and "center" exercises, spatial awareness exercises. She talks about imitation, the use of masks, nudity on the stage, dealing with injury and aging. She talks about specific productions that have successfully used the Alexander Technique, such as "The Lion King". With a foreword by Patsy Rodenburg of our own phenomenal The Actor Speaks this is a book that belongs on the shelf of every working and studying actor.

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“Destined to become a classic for the working actor's bookshelf.” —Library Journal

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St. Martin's Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.39(d)

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The Actor and the Alexander Technique

By Kelly McEvenue

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2001 Kelly McEvenue
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8633-9


The Alexander Technique in the Theatre

How the Alexander Technique Became My Vocation

My understanding and study of movement is based on the Alexander Technique. From the age of six, I was involved in amateur theatre. My most fulfilling hours in high school were rehearsing and performing school plays. Then, like many teenagers, lost in liberal arts, I found myself enrolled in a general theatre studies programme at the University of Toronto. There, I was introduced to the modern theories of the stage, including those of Stanislavsky, Grotowski, Meyerhold, Artaud and Brecht.

I went off to San Francisco in the late 1970s to witness the post-hippie movement of Haight-Ashbury, the pre-Aids heyday of gay liberation and to experience a 6.0 earthquake! My naive Canadian consciousness was raised beyond my expectations.

I was only twenty-two years old when I undertook the three-year Alexander teacher-training course under the guidance and direction of Frank Ottiwell. He is an actor as well as an Alexander teacher. Frank's Alexander Technique teacher-training school is located at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Frank was a member of the ACT acting company and also taught in the conservatory actor-training programme. Frank was a brilliant mentor for me. He taught me a way of applying the Alexander work directly to the acting training process. At that time, there was no other Alexander Technique teacher-training course in the world that offered both a master teacher in the Alexander Technique and Ottiwell's theatrical experience. In the last half of my training Frank brought me along to observe, and then to assist, him teaching his Alexander classes with the acting programme. Frank prepared me to focus and marry my love of the theatre with my Alexander teaching.

Frank Ottiwell invited other master teachers to come to his school and share their expertise. Patrick Macdonald came from England annually while I was training. He had been trained by F.M. Alexander in the 1930s and his teaching style was very disciplined and seemed quite formal to me. He was one of the early teachers who felt that Alexander had passed down the mantle of his work to him. About fifteen years ago a series of international congresses was instituted that have been held from Australia to Israel, and points between, bringing together Alexander teachers who might otherwise never have met or worked together. They have been instrumental in opening communication and have gone a long way towards saying the Alexander world wasting its energy in petty protectionism and other politics.

It was in early 1978 that Frank Ottiwell and his training class made their first connection with Marjorie Barstow, then a seventy-eight-year-old from the American heartland of Lincoln, Nebraska. 'Marj' had been on Alexander's first training course in London. Her teaching style was quite different from Patrick Macdonald's, though the basics were of course the same. What interested me about Marj's teaching was the fact that she taught in large groups while giving every individual a period of her full attention.

She placed an emphasis on applying the Alexander principles to performance and simple activities, and on encouraging all of the group participants to learn by improving their observation skills as they watched each other work. Marj challenged her students to be present and alert and to 'do some constructive thinking' to replace the more familiar kind of doing, which is usually pushy and abrupt, without breath or consideration. Marj taught this thinking process to the singer, the violinist, the flautist, the tennis player through to the aikido practitioner by applying the Alexander Technique directly to the activity. The knowledge and experience in her hands was profound and the changes that the student would undergo were fascinating to observe and to experience.

Marj's emphasis on 'delicacy' and the subtlety in her teaching made a big impact on Frank Ottiwell's work and, in turn, the training of teachers. At this point, my insight into the Alexander work was just beginning to take shape. Marj Barstow's teaching had a clear emphasis on movement. Her manner of observing and applying Alexander's principles directly to performing an activity was right up my theatrical alley. I studied extensively with Marj. The next few years of training were exciting and full of debate, as to what the Alexander Technique was and how it should be taught.

On April Fool's Day, 1980, I returned home to Toronto as a newly certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. At that time, only a few people were teaching this esoteric movement principle to the Canadian public. There was a virgin market in Canada for Alexander Technique teachers. There I was, just fresh out of school, green and keen. Fortunately for me, the Alexander Technique had already established a considerable worldwide reputation in the fields of music and theatre. Within a year, I was teaching at the Stratford Festival of Canada, the most prestigious classical repertory theatre in North America. I was dropped into a professional theatrical arena that embraced the notion of ongoing training for the actor. Now, nineteen years later, I realize I grew up teaching at the Stratford Festival. My teaching education developed in a 'hands-on' manner in response to the needs of the classical repertory actor. Finding my way to support and contribute to the theatrical process with the Alexander Technique has been a rewarding experience. Plugging into the professional theatre world at such an early stage in my career was a godsend, and it helped to shape and focus my teaching for actors in film and on stage.

The Alexander Teacher's Role in the Production of a Play

On the first day of rehearsal, an energized, outwardly positive group of artists, open and ready to leap into the adventure of storytelling, meets in the rehearsal hall. The enthusiasm is palpable, but one can't help but sense the undercurrent of terror. This group includes the entire cast of actors, maybe numbering more than thirty, the director, designer, composer, lighting designer, stage managers, fight director, choreographer, voice coach, movement and Alexander coach, as well as a production team of design and technical staff. The play will have a design and a conceptual plan which the director and designer will present to the group. There will obvious problems to solve. What is the period of the piece? Does the director see the play in a certain acting style? What will the costumes entail: corsets, robes, swords, veils, trains, wigs? Are there dialects? Is there a period dance or a sword fight? What about the venue: is the play staged on a proscenium, does it have a raked stage, or is it played in the round? How large an audience will fill the venue? All these questions will have answers to be worked out by a variety of experts and artists that make up the team of the theatrical collaboration.

Actors that I work with in Stratford come to the Alexander work from a wide range of training backgrounds. Although many of them have had previous experience with other Alexander teachers, it is unusual for them to have a teacher constantly available throughout the rehearsal process, when they are focusing on specific roles.

Each actor brings to the rehearsal a unique acting process and methodology. I have never found two actors who work in exactly the same way, so my challenge is to learn from them how they work. The classes are voluntary, the actors come because they choose to and they come with a variety of motivations. Each one has an individual physical history, deriving from the wear and tear that comes with a career in the theatre. Actors are keen to explore the Alexander Technique because an old injury haunts them, or they suffer issues of tension, or experience vocal fatigue, have a fear of falling when on stage, want to open up the chest, relax the jaw, take care of their knees, cope with ageing, arthritis or lower backache, or they simply want to tune in to their body.

For my part, as an Alexander teacher working for the theatre, it is my job to help solve the individual's movement problems as well as explore the physical problems that come with playing the character. On that first day of rehearsal, my attention will turn to the individual actors and the problems of playing their characters. I will consider the individual's personal movement and the vocal habits that they bring with them on the first day. I will observe the actor animal in his prosaic everyday mode, noticing how he uses his voice and body out of performance. I begin to gather information and observations prior to the actor's first class.

When the actor is scheduled for his first class, I will begin with a 'hands-on' introduction to the Alexander principle or a renewed acquaintance with the work in private, one-on-one tutorials with the actor. We will talk over their physical history -- i.e., whether they have any past injuries and what mode of fitness or exercise they practise -- and examine their awareness of problems of tension and physical or vocal habits. We will probably discuss how the actor is considering the physical life of the character and whether the play presents any movement problems, such as fainting, limping, running, fighting, costuming. We would proceed by applying the Alexander Technique to simple movements of walking, reaching, bending and speaking. This is a time to plant the seeds for change and to heighten awareness relative to the need of the actor. We embark on the work with goodwill and curiosity.

When rehearsals have been under way for several weeks, the actor will have established working relationships, good, bad or indifferent, with the director and fellow actors. The actor's character is beginning to take shape and he will be receiving some specific direction from the director in rehearsal. In private tutorial, the actor will receive technical and practical guidance from the Alexander teacher in order to achieve the actor's objectives for the character. At this point, the director may turn to the coaching staff for assistance and discussion of what the director would like to see from the actor in the play. The director may see some potential that the actor is failing to realize and will express his vision of the character. The coaching staff have the luxury of time outside the rehearsal room to focus privately with an actor on the perceived problem. This can provide the actor with more time to explore the dilemma away from the pressure of the rehearsal hall and hopefully to work out the problem under the objective eye and support of the teacher's expertise. For the actor, this might be the most exciting yet doubt-filled and frustrating period in the creative process: knowing what is wanted, staying open to direction and playing with options, and finding one's way through the play.

With the first dress rehearsal, all the elements of the theatricality of the production are brought together: the wigs, costumes, music, sound cues and lighting. Any big technical problems with the show will reveal themselves at this point. This is often a stressful and emotionally charged time, as it is the point when the director might make big changes. The director might cut a scene, song or dance, shorten a fight sequence, kill a costume, change sound or technical effects. It can be upsetting for actors to let go of a sequence or scene into which they may have invested their hearts, but it is exciting to see the many elements come together in the theatrical experience.

Mostly, the problems are of a technical nature. Often, the added element of costuming helps the actor bring the character to life. Details in movement and breath can often be affected by costuming such as corsets, shoes and hats. The actor will make adjustments and adapt. Often, after the first dress rehearsal, actors will come to me to work out the physical and technical issue of costuming. I might help them release some tension and find their breath in a problematic corset, adapt their balance to walk in a period shoe, or move more confidently and comfortably in a cape with a sword. There are many situations that upset an actor's balance. A raked stage can cause lower-back fatigue, and lifting or carrying another actor is always problematic.

Notes and reports about vocal clarity or audibility will begin. The specific technical details of movement or vocal problems will be processed with a voice or movement teacher. In Part 4, I will discuss how Alexander work can help to address a variety of technical issues for the actor.

By now, most decisions have been made by the actors and director, and the cast will feel the need for feedback from a live audience. At this point in rehearsal, most of the inside observers -- director, designer, coach or technical crew -- are overly exposed to the actors and the material. Especially in a comedy, the actors need exposure to fresh viewers, who will respond to the comedic business. They will be starved for an audience.

Now is the time to support the work that has been accomplished by the actor and to help build the confidence necessary to allow the actor to fly. In my experience, the actor needs to be nurtured and reinforced with positive energy. Judgement is trying, and most actors need a boost of self-confidence and reassurance. The Alexander teacher working in the theatre has to be flexible to accommodate actors' needs and process. It is important to allow the actor to ask for help and to set the learning agenda to his needs. The actor may continue to invite challenging input or may require a rest from processing feedback. The actor will want to feel a solid marriage with his character and ownership of the character's story.

As the actor meets the first audience in previews, he may be suffering from too much or too little input from the director. The actors will be processing too many opinions at this stage: the artistic director, producers, designers, dressers, voice coaches, movement coaches, other actors and publicity people will liberally share opinions of how they feel the play is going. This theatrical creative process can be fraught with anxiety and the need for approval. The old adage 'An opinion is like an asshole, everybody has one' is apropos when it comes to the difficulties of producing plays in repertory.

During the previews, the Alexander teacher can contribute a 'hands-on' input to calm the actor 's nerves and fraught energy. The seasoned actor will be using this initial contact with an audience to work on the finesse of the craft, focusing on the fine-tuning of a performance.

This is too often the period where injuries occur from over-fatigue or the actor pushing himself. The Alexander teacher will often be dealing with the ongoing problems of fatigue or stress in the actor's body from the physical demands of repertory theatre. The teacher can provide the actor with a maintenance programme for the body's well-being. Sometimes there is the unforeseen injury that can occur inside or outside the theatre. An actor may strain a muscle or fall off his bike en route to the theatre, and the Alexander teacher can be a helpful hand on the road to an actor's recovery.

Opening-night jitters are palpable. It is my job to offer a calming, quiet, lying-down table session to help the actor relax and connect with his breath and focus attention in the body. Staying composed in the body, allowing a connection to breathing is the best thing the actor can do for himself prior to an opening night.


Excerpted from The Actor and the Alexander Technique by Kelly McEvenue. Copyright © 2001 Kelly McEvenue. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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From the Publisher
"Destined to become a classic for the working actor's bookshelf."—Library Journal

Meet the Author

Kelly McEvenue is a certified teacher of the Alexander technique. She is one of the main acting coaches for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.

Patsy Rodenburg is Director of Voice at London's Royal National Theater and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

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