Term 4 half-term
I love sitting in the theatre waiting for the curtain to go up, and the low hum of anticipation as the audience gathers. As my training continues, I’m interested not just in the play ahead but in observing how the actors move and speak. The production I saw recently allowed me to do just that. Brecht’s Life of Galileo, was about a topical subject – science versus dogma – and presented the cast (11 actors playing over 50 roles) with a variety of physical challenges.
First they had to negotiate a narrow circular stage, poised between groundlings lounging on cushions in the middle and more conventional seating all the way round. At all times they had their backs to some part of the audience, so their voices needed to project without strain. Galileo, played by an actor of muscular physicality and energy, was on stage for the majority of the three hours, with long monologues – tiring for one performance, let alone the two back to back on matinee days.
The other cast members played multiple characters with constant changes of costume, ageing in body or shifting accent in each new scene. They stepped over sprawling spectator feet in the semi-darkness, or interacted spontaneously with the audience on the floor, remaining in character but with sufficient urgency to motion people out of the way quickly. And they moved through a range of emotions, from despair to jealousy, relief to disappointment, exultation to resignation. All the while they had to retain their self-possession, remember their lines, be sure of their footing and remain confident their voices would carry.
I reminded myself that FM Alexander was an actor and reciter, with voice problems that led him to develop the technique. We know that he kept up connections with the theatre when he arrived in the UK in 1904 and was often known as ‘the breathing man’. So it’s not surprising that the technique has become embedded in the world of performance and acting, and is taught at many of the major drama schools in the UK. Actors, and often directors, appreciate its value in supporting performance of all kinds.
It’s a good way for actors to find the stamina they need to sustain a show or a long run in the theatre. It encourages spontaneity, and the ability to deal with the unexpected, important in rehearsal and on stage. They say it increases presence, and the capacity to listen and respond as the drama unfolds. And it helps with breathing, voice control, spatial awareness and nerves. Actors use it to avoid injury, and to step into character as they go on stage, and quietly leave their part behind when the play is over.
Theatre is about illusion, so I don’t know if the show I watched was embodied Alexander or not. But I noticed the relentless physical energy, and recognised the toll it must take on the body. As the theatre emptied and the audience headed home satisfied, I hoped the cast were able to lie down in semi-supine, allowing their spines to lengthen and the tension of the matinee to release, so they could regain their focus, composure and energy for the next audience arriving in two hours’ time.
Read more about Alexander work in the theatre in Touching Lives by Alexander teacher Sue Laurie, who writes about her work with actors, directors and puppeteers at the RSC and the National Theatre.