Reflections on Practice
I have always been interested in how the Alexander Technique was able to change my reactions, how this gentle use of the hands and almost invisible technique can have such a profound effect on a person. I am working on my final project under the working title of 'The Potentiality of Invisible Things.'
The idea of non-doing and inhibition have been common themes running through every piece of work I have done for the MA. It is impossible not to view every experience through the lens of my training as it has impacted significantly on how I view the world and my mental processes. I was particularly interested in how this work might affect an actor during performance with specific reference to inhibition and this was the topic of my paper at the beginning of term.
For the first workshop I delivered as part of the MA I explored the Somatic Arts and where the Alexander Technique stood in this lineage and also paid attention to the work of Betsy Polatin (The Actor’s Secret), Peter Levine (Somatic Experiencing) and Carl Stough (Breathing Coordination). This was well received by the group and many people said they wished it could have been longer. I experimented with getting them to listen to part of the workshop lying in semi supine, practising non-doing as part of a listening exercise. We also explored habits and the Primary Control and did a few simple breathing exercises to stimulate diaphragmatic breathing.
My second workshop with the first year’s group explored the idea of taking the basic AT principles and adapting them to group work. I used Adriana, a fellow MA student now on the MFA, as a pupil on the table to demonstrate classic AT procedures and then finished with some group exercises that explored The Primary Control and were heavily influenced by working with my mentor John Hunter.
I then participated in several placements, including six weekly workshops at The Actors Centre with Sara Khoroosi, working with Opera singers at The Assisted Studios with Penny O’Connor, working with singers at The London School of Musical Theatre (LSMT) with Judith Kleinman. I also took part in two CPD programmes one working with Young Musicians at Arts Ed and the other focused on working with Singers at the LSMT.
I feel each experience has enriched my understanding of the technique and shown me how to further adapt what I know to working in group situations. I also worked with Niamh in my first year, which was an invaluable experience, watching how she took the AT principles and applied them to working with groups of people, allowing classmates to work on each other, exploring such things as semi- supine and taking a leg by supporting it with the whole body on the floor.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to India twice in my first year and I used the knowledge I had acquired to run a two-day intensive Alexander Technique for Actors workshop at the Drama School, Mumbai. I took ideas from all of my placements and amalgamated them into a new workshop plan. I worked with a class of sixteen performing artists and it’s fair to say it was a bit out of my comfort zone as it was immensely hot and there was no AC, only a fan! It went really well, and I acquired three private pupils who I then saw for a series of private lessons. The feedback was that everyone would have liked to do a week-long workshop and I have been invited back to do some more work with them.
I also ran an introductory workshop into the Alexander Technique at The Jehan Numa Palace Hotel in Bhopal. This was also a wonderful experience and was the first time I had run a workshop almost completely off script. I had an itinery on the board, but I felt confident enough to just respond to whatever happened in every moment. It was interesting how relaxed and comfortable I felt teaching in India. I wonder if it’s because the mind body connection is such an established part of their culture that it felt as though they were already on board with the ideas of the technique. Sometimes I feel here that cynicism can be rife, certainly at the beginning of a workshop, people are suspicious, and it can take a while to get them to come around, I usually do this by exploring some interactive activities, so they can learn by sensation as I find that extremely helpful. I acquired some private pupils as a direct result of the Bhopal workshop and was lucky enough to be given a beautiful hut outside on the hotel grounds as a teaching space. I hope to return to do a follow up workshop later this year.
My aim when I started the course was to want to be able to work comfortably with groups and I feel that I have started to achieve this and realised that the more I do it the less frightening it becomes. I can be very shy, and I also tend to really sense and pick up on nervousness in a group and it can affect me quite strongly. I have had to learn to try and not let this affect me. Being as aware of what I let in at the same time as what I am giving out.
I think I will always be quite shy, it is just part of my nature and accepting this and using the nerves to my advantage actually makes things easier as oppose to trying to block it out.
In my second term I did a workshop with the second group which Kathy supervised. I taught the group the basic principles of the Alexander Technique through a series of interactive exercises and then experimented with working on Kathy in a Role Play situation. It was not agreed prior to the workshop who I would work on, but Kathy was the only person that was willing. I think there can be an innate fear in people that they might get it wrong, or perhaps I didn’t make them feel comfortable enough to want to volunteer, It may have been both.
I was interested to see if a person could respond differently to external stimuli from the guidance of my hands reminding them to come back to themselves with my hands guiding them around the space, both giving and receiving. There is a strong link between the hands and the mental processes. Kathy chose a scenario where she was walking down the corridor at Rose Bruford and everyone was calling out to her asking her for more stuff. Whether she’d completed a task, whether she’d marked something, whether she’d had time to read the report they’d sent her. The group kept adding more things so that she would feel under pressure.
We did this for a few minutes until I felt she was authentically addled by the situation, then I took her outside the room and worked on her for five minutes. We then re-entered the space and repeated the same exercise but this time I used my hands on her occiput and forehead to remind her of lengthening in stature and the forward and up direction of the head, thinking in activity as we walked around the space. Helping her to inhibit her usual response to tighten in reaction. As people made demands of her I used my hands to remind her to come back to herself and not to get pulled out of alignment. She remarked afterwards that she felt a subtle redirection of energy in her body from the hands-on work and that although the same things were going on around her response to them felt different.
I was pleased that Kathy reported responding differently in the same given situation and that the hands-on work reminded her to inhibit and to do less. I am always worried in these situations that people might say they don’t feel anything and it is such a short snippet of time to deliver something that is not a quick fix. Alexander work is very much about the journey and these scenarios always seem to rely upon some sort of ‘end-gaining’ or immediate outcome.
As the term developed I started to think I would like to do a workshop that further explored non-doing and inhibition, this time working with people on a one to one basis and getting them to do some simple psychophysical exercises. I termed this Walk with Me and wrote a poem to explain the idea. This included starting with people lying for five minutes in Semi Supine, entering the room individually and sitting in a chair for a few minutes whilst they read the poem I had written ‘Walk with Me’. Then I invited them to walk around the space with me as I gently worked on them for another five minutes. I then asked for written feedback on strips of paper which we turned into Mobius Strip wristbands. I collected these at the end as a good source of anonymous feedback. I then delivered a PowerPoint presentation to share my research ideas. I realise with hindsight that this was overly long, and I should have focused on the research outcomes from the psychophysical practice we had just done. I think it may have been partly due to a lack of confidence in myself that I didn’t look at the feedback until the end and actually it would have been much better discussed in the group. I was worried again that people might not feel anything and was really relieved and pleased when I did actually examine the outcomes that everyone had had a positive experience in some way.
This type of experiment was really interesting, but it felt like quite a lot of pressure on both myself and the participants. I was worried about the time restraints and realise although you can affect someone with a small taste of the work it is much more satisfying having time to explore the principles fully and with time to assimilate the experience. It was interesting how the work seemed to change people’s relationship to the space, by non-doing and inhibiting usual patterns of response. I think their approach to a simple task of walking was altered by this idea of using conscious control. It was also interesting to observe how slowing down affected people’s feelings and responses to themselves and others. Limitations were time, nerves, awareness of wanting to get it right, not enough time to build up a teacher to pupil rapport. People having a sense of not knowing, although this is a big part of initiation into AT lessons and worries about getting it wrong. The chair was a good diagnostic tool for me to see how people use themselves. We often start with chair work at the beginning of a lesson to do just this. It was also tricky to keep track of the time as I was focused on working on the person. Setting an alarm would have been disruptive to the calm and quiet of the space so I relied upon my phone but in hindsight a clock on the wall would have been a better option.
Through this process of investigation through practice I have decided to go full circle back to my original idea of examining how the Alexander Technique affects an actor in their craft. This is apt because again it reminds me of the Mobius strip. I would like to do this through a series of lessons with actors. Perhaps continuing to work with Adriana who I have been giving lessons to fairly frequently since my first year.
I am fascinated by inhibition and would like to explore it in more detail. I have also now had experience first-hand of my own process of taking part in the final MA show Let Me Shake Your Groove Thing and observing how my AT training has informed the development of my work.
I found I had a much better understanding of vocal resonance achieved through whole body functioning. I also felt I had the ability to suspend my usual response patterns and habits, so I could work and respond from a place of neutrality. I also find stillness comfortable and a preferred state. I felt I had the ability to better adopt the mannerisms of my character, to build upon these and respond in the moment. I wasn’t afraid of making bold choices or trying things out and then throwing them away. I was originally playing my character as a much older man and really enjoyed working with the physicality bordering on the grotesque. It felt like I could suspend my own limitations to fully embody another character. Switching from this to a much younger character was easier and I felt I could do both with conviction, like a child throwing themselves into play. I felt I had more choices in all aspects of my work and realised really my only limitations are myself and fear. I originally sought AT out for a combination of stage fright and vocal issues, but it has provided a holistic solution that far surpassed my expectations. Most notably curing my chronic RSI and allowing me to become a teacher myself. I look forward to the next chapter in my AT career and will keep exploring this discipline as part of my pedagogical journey.