Alexander Technique and Non-harmful Expression of Emotion in Acting

By Dr Rose Whyman.

In my university drama department, the students and I enjoy exploring how AT can enable the authentic expression of emotion. How such expression can be achieved without hurting ourselves remains hugely important in actor-training.

Accessing personal experiences can be highly disturbing for actors. Stanislavski gives examples of working with emotional, or affective, memory.[1] For instance, in a scene involving an abandoned child, it becomes clear from the ‘flood’ of ‘turbulent emotion’ that the student Darya is drawing on her own personal experience of recently losing her own young son. Though there is guidance on how to play the scene without being overwhelmed because of concern ‘to spare her young nerves’, neither she nor her teacher reflect on whether the class could have been handled differently.[2] Could this ‘turbulence’ have been harmful for her?

In another example, the student Kostya witnesses a road accident in which an elderly man is killed. This makes a ‘terrifying, shattering impression’ on Kostya and he comes away with a memory of the scene that brings on a ‘painful mood’ that stays with him all day. In time, these feelings become less painful.  When Kostya reflects on how it has become possible to recall the accident and how he felt without being overwhelmed, the teacher talks about how memory crystallises such experiences so that they potentially become ‘beads’ of inspiration, resources for the actor in developing roles.[3] It is acknowledged that the technique of emotional memory can be precarious, as actors cannot always rely on it, and so should explore a range of lures for emotion.[4] Again, there is no discussion of the vulnerability of the actor, particularly the young actor.

If we are concerned for the student actor’s wellbeing we might question methods of engendering emotional experiencing [5] drawing on memories of painful events. Though Stanislavski indicates use of emotional memory should never be forced and recommends the use of lures, which mean the actor is not directly recalling emotive situations, there is still a problem. As an Alexander Teacher, I know that if our past experience involves pulling ourselves out of shape (or misuse, as Alexander termed it), then so does recalling it, whether the past experience was painful or not. Unless, of course, we learn to maintain the best use of ourselves as the basis for our wellbeing.

The theatre directors and actors Michael Chekhov and Vsevolod Meyerhold, both taught by Stanislavski, found emotional memory work difficult. Each had a troubled childhood and adolescence and found that accessing memories could bring back previous unhappy experience in an overwhelming, disturbing way. Through considering their own approaches to acting and training, they found different emphases for working with actors to develop authentic and inspiring performances.

In his method of actor-training, ‘Biomechanics’, Meyerhold is often thought to be saying that correct external expression for a character will mean that the right emotion will appear by reflex. For example, ‘to trigger the sensation of fear, a person would only have to run – with his eyebrows raised and pupils dilated’.[6] Indeed, writing in 1890, James had already suggested that emotion follows on bodily expression. The popular way of thinking, he writes, is that the mental perception of a fact, such as seeing a bear, excites the ‘mental affection’ that we call an emotion, that is, in this example, fear. This ‘mental affection’ would then give rise to the bodily expression (running). Instead, James suggests, the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact and…our feeling of the same changes as they occur, is the emotion.1890: 449).[7]  In other words, we meet a bear and because we run away, we feel afraid. Meyerhold has been interpreted as following James and (in my view incorrectly), indicating that all an actor has to do to convey a character’s fear is to run away – it is assumed that the actor will experience the emotion and communicate this to the audience.

After all, the idea that bodily expression directly influences the way you feel is widespread beyond the world of acting. Searching the internet for phrases such as ‘good posture and confidence’ brings up many websites with claims such as ‘Sitting up straight will make you happier, more confident and less risk-averse’ or ‘Good posture helps you look and feel amazing!’ In my experience, this is an over-simplification and as an Alexander teacher, I don’t want students to get this idea in relation to AT or to acting.

For Meyerhold too, there is more to it. One of his actors explains how concerned Meyerhold was for his actors’ health and wellbeing, writing that he said, ‘It doesn’t matter if they are acting in a sad play, they can themselves be happy, not focussed internally… if they get themselves into a nervous state to enter into the world of the play, it can lead to nervous problems’. When directing a play, Meyerhold might ask the actor to sit looking sad, if he wanted the line the actor had to say to come out with a sad intonation. But ‘the first thing for the actor is always thought. Thought makes the actor sit in a sad pose and the pose itself helps them become sad, thought makes the actor run and the running helps the actor become frightened’.[8]

This suggests that Meyerhold came to think of external poses or bodily actions as an aid or ‘lure’ in teaching or directing actors, because he wanted the actor to express emotions without hurting themselves. There isn’t a reflex connection between a position of the body and emotion. What Meyerhold emphasises is the development of the actor’s capacity to think, be aware, reflect and be in control of all aspects of their performance. This resonates with my work with students, where I want to enable actors to perform in a way that does not cost them anything, that they can enjoy.

AT offers the capacity for anyone, not just actors, to maintain equilibrium, a ‘calm centre’ as we call it, in relation to events or stimuli of all kinds. Even when something is perceived as frightening, we can choose an appropriate response. An actor might want to convey a character running away from a threatening situation; in everyday life we might be encountering all kinds of difficulties and challenges, while wanting to convey an engaged, cheerful presence. It seems crucial to me in teaching AT to help students express negative and other emotions authentically, without hurting themselves. At the same time, we’re developing ways to maintain wellbeing throughout a career and in every aspect of our lives.

[1] Affective or emotional memory is a term Stanislavski took from psychology, to indicate the capacity we have, on recalling an emotional experience, to relive the emotion as we recall the experience,

[2] Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work, translated by Jean Benedetti (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 339-343.

[3] Ibid., p. 205-7.

[4] Stanislavski emphasised that emotions should not be forced in acting, and used the term lures for a range of methods the actor can use to find authentic emotional expression, such as affective memory, or carrying out actions the character takes, while imagining the circumstances.

[5] Experiencing is a term used by Stanislavski to indicate that the actor should create the role afresh in each performance, responding to the circumstances of the character, as a person would in life, rather than representing a response with external gestures or actions.

[6] Mel Gordon and Alma Law, Meyerhold, Eisenstein and BiomechanicsActor Training in Revolutionary Russia (1996: North Carolina: McFarland and Co.), p. 36-7.

[7] William James, Principles of Psychology Volume 2 (London: Macmillan, 1890), p. 449.

[8] Igor’ Il’inskii, Sam o Sebe (Moscow; VTO, 1961) p. 155,158.