Presence on stage

Alexander poster

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.




Spiral learning

course curriculum is an example of spiral learning
A spiral curriculum allows you to approach topics again and again – each time with new insights

Term 4

One of the most stimulating elements of our training is the way we learn through a ‘spiral curriculum’.  We revisit the same topics or activities, but approach them from a subtly different angle as our skills and capacities develop.

To explain, I’ll describe my experience with the lunge.  This is both a classic Alexander procedure, and a way of placing ourselves to move flexibly and easily.  When I first started, it seemed the lunge was a mysterious position that everyone else but me knew how to do. (On the course, new trainees can start in any term, so there is an ever-changing mix of experience in the room). This was the spiral curriculum at work, and I had entered at the bottom.

As I now realise, I needn’t have worried.  Before long the lunge came round again, and one of our teachers instructed me in the procedure.  This didn’t mean I could do it – I found it difficult and uncomfortable, I could get into it with instruction, but couldn’t spring back out of it and felt frustrated with myself. But I did have a sense of its possibilities, and could let it lie fallow until I was ready to take it further.

A few months later, my own body use had become freer and more flexible. When we next practised it, I could do it with more ease and minded less if it went wrong. I began to see my difficulties as something to work with, not a cause for frustration.  Now trying it again, I’m able to differentiate between the formal ‘procedure’ with specific steps, and the more dynamic position I can take up when working with someone on the table or in the chair.

I’m making links with similar movements in our weekly tai chi sessions, and I’m experimenting with it in daily life. I’m more able to play with it, and see what it has to offer me, rather than being determined to get it right.  Over time my body has changed and I have greater physical capacity. But I also perceive it differently at each turn of the spiral. What was difficult and frustrating to begin with has now become a puzzle that I’m looking forward to solving.  I’m less worried than before about how long it might take to get there.

With spiral learning I have to actively engage in the process for things to make sense.  But I can also let go of the need to grasp everything at once – it will come round again, and by then, I’ll be more aware of what it means.

Spirals and other shapes from the community Skip Garden in London’s Kings Cross

Snail in skip garden

Pine cone in skip garden

Honeycomb in skip garden

Sculpture 1 in skip garden

Sculpture 3 in skip garden

Sculpture 4 from skip garden

David Orman, Alexander Technique teacher

David Orman, MSTAT, Alexander Technique teacher in 2017 after graduating
David Orman MSTAT,  in 2017 after graduating (photo: City Alexander Technique School)

David Orman qualified as an Alexander Technique teacher in March 2017 from the school where I am training.  He told me his story.

“I was 17 or 18 and I could feel myself changing for the worse.  I had pain and many unpleasant sensations in my whole body.  I also had some emotional changes and I was irritable a lot of the time. Pain was an everyday experience, it was very severe “.  Eventually he received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, though he had none of the fatigue usually associated with the condition.  He rejected pain medication, not wanting a life on painkillers, and sought out other options – chiropractic, osteopathy and pain specialists.  “They all described me as ‘mysterious’, especially for someone of my age.  There was no way they could help” he said.

One chiropractor recommended the Alexander Technique, and after a couple of lessons he felt he was on the right track so continued for a couple of years. “I had a sense of lightness in myself, and a reduction in pain”. By now, aged 21, he had quit university and was unable to work because of the pain, though he could feel some things improving, such as sitting. “For years I had been very reluctant to sit down, I was in so much pain. This was a very isolated time – I had no job, no social contact except with my family.  I’d left school and university, I was in pain and isolated”. He read The Use of the Self by FM Alexander, and began to realise that by training to be a teacher he could apply the principles Alexander had discovered to himself and his own body use, and it could benefit him as well as his pupils.

He committed to the course, and to three years commuting from Kent to London.  “I enjoyed the social aspect, it was a positive experience and it felt like a little family. In the first term I felt quite light-hearted.  I was being trained by skilled teachers, I had social contact four days a week, and I was sure the exposure would help me. But as the year went on, my thinking changed. I began to see it as a mission that had to benefit me.  I had to get the pain to go in order to justify my training.  I had to use that emotional drive and motivation to look at the Alexander Technique in a wide way so it would benefit me”.

Closer to graduating, he recognised the responsibility of being a teacher, and part of a profession, and realised he had to find a way of making it work.  This was despite pain that continued when he put hands on people in teaching. “I expect that to go on for a few years.  I don’t feel it’s plain sailing, and I will have to factor that into my teaching”.  Looking back, he sees his training as a time of self-exploration.  “You get a lot of help from the teachers, but if you want to maximise the experience you have to be prepared to look at yourself”.

He wants to work with people involved with sport, and anyone with chronic pain, in Kent or in London.  “I’m clear in my thinking about my own pain, I understand emotional responses to chronic pain, I can provide a practical way to carry on living and get round the pain.” He recommends people try an Alexander lesson and see what happens.  “The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t appeal.  You won’t come to harm from it, so it’s worth seeing if it’s for you”.

David Orman’s website

David Orman in 2014 as he started his Alexander Technique teacher training (photo: Kamal Thapen)
David Orman in 2014 as he started his Alexander Technique teacher training (photo: City Alexander Technique School)