Alexander Technique applied to the rehearsal and performance of a play
Notes on the process from Penny McDonald – Alexander Teacher and Director of True West.
As I send this article to the editor, I am half-way through a season of a True West by Sam Shepard. I directed this play with two of my Alexander Technique students over 6 months, exploring the application of AT to rehearsals and performances. It has been a joy and the actors are doing amazing work.
Throughout the performance of True West, the actors are exploring many complex issues. Both brothers are dealing with unresolved issues of abandonment. Their father is an alcoholic war veteran who can’t hold down a job. We see the same pattern in the eldest brother who has a belief system of not being good enough, and therefore never seeing anything through. The youngest brother now has a wife and children, he lives in fear of doing the same to his wife and children, which after a few drinks becomes his dream. Both brothers want what the other has, and they will go to ugly lengths to get it.
I know this sounds depressing. Our job is to tell this story with a bit of hope, so that people leave the theatre with a clearer understanding of why people behave the way they do, and perhaps with some insight in how they can help make the world a better place to life.
I was keen to work on a whole play with actors, where the principals of the Alexander Technique underpinned the rehearsal process and performances. The way the Alexander Technique works is based on your imagination and intentions. You are learning to think in a different way that results in a free and connected way of working. It helps the actors develop the mental, physical and vocal stamina to perform a 1.5-hour play. To be truly alive in every moment, present and listening for the whole time, with a body and voice that is free of unnecessary tension.
The following quote from our ArtsHub Review which gave us 4 stars vindicates our process.
“Golding and Tooker are very good indeed. They are young and relatively inexperienced actors, yet it only takes a few moments for the audience to realise we are in safe hands. The two young men are so at ease in their roles, and in their bodies and voices.”
The History and Process
I taught the Alexander Technique in Melbourne for 23 years working in many performing arts institutions before moving back home to Lutruwita/Tasmania. During this time, I had the pleasure of observing many masterclasses by Larry Moss and Howard Fine. These two incredible acting coaches and directors both loved having an Alexander Technique teacher in the space to occasionally help an actor calm their nervous system, get more grounded, come to presence and find a freer breath. All of these are necessary fundamentals for the actor.
Both Larry and Howard encouraged actors to always be working, you can’t sit around for the phone to ring, you need to be taking classes and reading and doing plays. A musician, singer or dancer will work on their craft for hours a day, the actor needs to do the same. Two of my Alexander students in Hobart, Jacob Golding and Sam Tooker, are amazing actors with a thirst for the craft of acting, and have a healthy and disciplined work ethic. It was at Jacob’s 22nd birthday party that I was talking to them and realised they needed to do a play.
Step one – find a script. We chose True West by Sam Shepard. While the characters in the play are older than Sam and Jacob, it is brilliant writing and perfect for exploring how to develop characters, do good script analysis, and explore a rehearsal process where the craft of acting is held in the highest regard. Good writing is very important and it is a brilliant play.
I also wanted to give them the opportunity to explore everything involved in a production from acting, props and costume, venue hire, marketing, ticket sales, etc. A big task. That is why we decided on a 6 month rehearsal period.
Yes, 6 months. Daily Alexander, movement and vocal work are needed over this period of time to develop the foundations for a whole play. Sure, the actors could have a routine and do this by themselves every day, but most don’t. When you are working on a script, it makes the need for this discipline so much more real, and to my absolute joy the actors threw themselves into studying these foundations. Every rehearsal filled my heart with joy. I made sure we created a safe space to work that was free of any fear so the actors could truly be creative.
My only other requirement besides the daily work on their foundation skills was to buy and read Howard Fine’s book “Fine on Acting”. I think this is the best “how to” book for actors, and reading it while in rehearsal gave us a chance to deeply understand the book and the craft, especially how to avoid the traps that actors and directors can fall into.
Before our first rehearsal they read the whole play twice, reading each role, and cast themselves according to which character resonated with them. Then we met and read the play, making notes of any dialogue which needed researching in terms of back-story. From this we could work out where in America they grew up and lived now, where one went to university, what their relationships were like with each other and their parents, what was important to them, and what they wanted. And then there were lines that need improvising to develop the backstory, e.g. “I haven’t seen you for 5 years” – what happened 5 years go to make these two brothers so estranged?
Before we rehearsed, we quietened our nervous system by lying on the floor in constructive rest, we then did an Alexander Technique informed physical and vocal warm up, which builds strength and trust. Then we danced to free up the body. I believe the amazing work the actors are doing on this production of True West is because of the way they learnt to prepare themselves to tell the story. We created a safe space in which to create and find flow, and this opened the door to “being in the zone”.
Then we gently set up “place” and began moving through the play. The emphasis was to listen to each other, be present with each other and find a need to say the words. The first run of the first scene was pure joy to witness, their work was awesome and for them it felt comfortable. I witnessed two brothers talking to each other, and it felt real. When the intention is for presence, there is no effort or what I call “bad acting”. The only scenes that were carefully planned and choreographed were the fight scenes, apart from that the actors were encouraged to move about the space as they wish, knowing that we would never want it to be the same every time. As I sat in the director role I intended to only point out when they were bull-shitting or putting effort into the work. Why they were doing this needed discussing so they could deepen their understanding of what is going on for the characters. They had to learn to trust that if they keep trying to affect the other character, they will do what is needed, this means listening to and being present with.
3 months In
Venue booked, rights secured, dates set, it was getting exciting. My job was to help channel that excitement into a grounded energy so Jacob and Sam can keep doing extraordinary acting work as they also do the admin, design the website (including ticketing), and source the costumes, props and set (lots of trips to the tip shop). Alex Sangston joined us to play Saul and he is such a great addition to the team with his lovely energy, sense of humour and awesome acting skills. Alex had not done any Alexander Technique before and I was delighted when he said “this Alexander Technique actually works”.
I made sure they did a sensory exercise at the start of each run so “place” was as clear as possible. Before each scene I reminded them to think of “What just happened, what are they doing right now, and what's the first thing they want” (thank you Howard Fine). At the end we debriefed and I asked the actors “What worked, what didn’t and why” (thank you Howard Fine). I was delighted by the actors’ ability to analyse their work and work out how to solve what isn’t working.
Climbing out of the actor’s traps
If there was an actor’s trap to fall into, we did. We would not have made our way out of them without Howard Fines amazing book, “Fine on Acting, a Vision of the craft”. Here are some of our traps and how we climbed out of them.
We think in images
It is really obvious if an actor refers to a place, a person, or an event and they do not have an image for it. We think in images, there was a lot of google homework with this play as we researched and created our images.
The Why not the How
If ever there was a messy or unclear moment in our rehearsals it was usually because we were thinking about how to say a line instead of why, and more importantly, what we were wanting the other person to think, feel, do, or understand. When you are clear on the “why” the work is more authentic, but this requires a lot of trust. You have to trust if you are clear with your intentions that it will work.
Who, When, Where
The other reason for messy or unclear moments occurred if we lost our sense of who we are, where we are and what year, season, time of day it is. The more time you can spend on this and more specific you can be the better. This play is set in 1980 and so we had to get props together as soon as we could so the actors could get used to them, it was very funny to watch Sam and Jacob try and use an old circular dial telephone and encyclopedias. The one thing I regret is that we did not have 24 hours of living as if in 1980, so no mobile phone, no computers, no Wi-Fi, no google maps and the list goes on, but as the actors are also the producers of the play, they needed their technology.
Do I Care About You
If I don’t care about a character then I know something is missing. Even the “baddie” in the play is still a full person with hopes, dreams, fears, and disappointments. No-one is all good or all bad. If we want the audience to have some understanding and compassion for the characters, the actors need to give us whole people who have a need to say what they are saying. If we don’t see the need for the words we will switch off. We need to see the characters with a want and trying to overcome any obstacles in their way. This also keeps them listening to each other.
Those are the main traps we had to work through. Howard Fine also has many great games in his book to keep the text alive and enhance listening to each other. As the play becomes more and more familiar it is so easy to fall into familiar patterns and do the same thing every time. It has to be different every time and the conversations need to be as if for the first time.
Working on this play with Sam, Jacob and Alex has been an absolute joy and I would like to thank them for coming on this journey with me. It is proof that allowing the principals of the Alexander Technique to inform rehearsals and a performance can result in a production that is authentic and the actors can perform a heavy play and afterwards say “that was fun”.
Video Link: The Alexander Technique in the rehearsal process:
Video Link: to some of the reviews