Denise’s professional training as an actress had been based on improvisation “as a creative act involving the whole being – body, mind, emotions ... creating a role, a situation by starting from some physical action, a song, anything ... and letting oneself be taken into unknown territory”.
Hard bodywork had been an integral part of that training, “challenging work which I liked very much. This involved physical training in action and reaction, exercises in swift flexible adaptation that took us beyond the limits imposed on us by habit and stereotyped behaviour – in a search for more organic movement”.
One day Denise took part in a Feldenkrais workshop:
“It really hit me! I was used to the tough bodywork I had experienced in my training as an actress, and I knew the results I could get through the blood and the tears of that hard work. In the workshop we did very small, soft movements, and I found that through very gentle, differentiated Feldenkrais exploration we could get similar results. It was an amazing confrontation of internal awareness of movement inside the body and the experience of moving in outer space – a real trip! I remember, for instance, standing on all fours and moving the toes up and down, and in the end I could follow the whole movement up to the eyes. I was so astonished! So I did several workshops to deepen my understanding of that kind of work.”
“Why I decided to do a Feldenkrais training? My aim was to find a meeting-point between the theatre work I was doing and the subtle things I was discovering through Feldenkrais. I also wanted to be able to integrate those discoveries into my work with actors. Every actor has particular talents and charms, unrealised potential, habits and weaknesses.
With Feldenkrais I felt actors would greatly expand their range of possibilities by adding new tools to their repertoire.
Actors need to project their voice from all sorts of positions, postures, movements
My work at present has different aspects. One thing is setting the voice. Actors need to project their voice from all sorts of positions, postures, and movements. I often find an actor is able to get out his voice loud and clear in one posture, but in another the voice has completely gone. He can’t project it because his throat is tight; the chest can’t act as a sounding-box because it’s squeezed. Actors are often incapable of imagining that they have other possibilities. For instance, that they can use their back or other parts of the body as a sounding-board. One idea I got from Feldenkrais is that every squeezing or tightening means an opening somewhere else in the body.
Feldenkrais offers a lot of material there such as differentiation between movement and respiration. Often people are stuck in that respect. So I tend to focus on that and on the sounds they produce. The quality of sound they produce gives them very clear feedback. When they hear that the voice is suddenly changing, we can try to find out where they can let go... For instance, there was an actress who had problems with her voice. I could see that they were caused by her pelvis being rigid. At one point in the play she had to dance and sing at the same time, and it was always when doing one particular turn that her voice faltered. She needed help in integrating her pelvis into her movements. By learning to differentiate chest and pelvic basin she finally got the trick and in the end she knew what she was doing when her voice got squeezed and how to avoid that.
Developing kinaesthetic awareness and body-memory
Development and use of body-memory is another aspect I am interested in. The theatre work I did in my own training was predominantly improvisation on a theme. For example, two people meet in a desert. One is sitting by a well and offering the other some water. There is nothing on stage to suggest the scene – no props at all. So you have to evoke the whole thing for the audience with your own means in the interaction with the other person. Out of this kind of improvisation the director then takes the moments that were most genuine and powerful, and that is how the play is gradually developed. The biggest job, when you proceed in this way, is to recreate this authenticity, making it repeatable – and that’s where Feldenkrais work can be very valuable.
When I watch an improvisation I can see people’s movement patterns and help them develop their kinaesthetic awareness and body memory so they can use these patterns as an anchor when they get lost or try to remember what they were doing during the improvisation. Of course, there are other anchors too, such as a certain feeling, an image, the quality of interaction with others etc.
When actors are studying a role, you can give them small hints that may be very useful to them. We know from our Feldenkrais experience that if you have a specific body-pattern – say, your head is always slightly down as you look into somebody else’s eyes – it gives you a certain feeling about yourself in relation to others and about how you communicate with them...whether you tend to hold back or be open etc.
The capacity to change focus intentionally: Just being on stage – and yet fully present and ready for action
Another example: Switching from acting to just being on stage – but passive – is often difficult for actors. It is quite easy when you are in the limelight, acting your part, but what do you do when the focus moves elsewhere? You can’t switch off; the spectators still see you; you are still in your role and it’s important how you relate to what’s happening on stage. And that’s where Feldenkrais work can also make a big difference. For instance, actors can learn to be aware whether their focus is narrowly goal-oriented or wide. This awareness and the capacity to change focus intentionally gives them a chance to be fully present.
I also find it very thrilling and helpful to teach an actress or actor who find themselves in a situation where she or he has to be passive that it is possible to be attentive and aware of more than one point inside the body. This mobile awareness or awareness in movement permits the actor to be present and ready for action.
I remember one particular actor in a group I was teaching. They were rehearsing a play. doing very demanding bodywork, and having Awareness Through Movement lessons with me. When that actor had to be passive on stage, he showed very small reactions to the action around him but great presence in his body, and that was due to his awareness. So even when he wasn’t acting, he was there with all his being.
The importance of grounding and relating to space
I also recall an actress who was almost too flexible. The other actors in the play always had the feeling they couldn’t rely on her. At one moment she was there, at the next somewhere else. The grounding work I did with her made her much more conscious of how her feet touched the floor. I had her explore a lot of different ways of walking – on the heels, toes, inside, outside edges of her feet, fixing one toe, stiffening an ankle, and so on. Her feet became much more sensitive – and much more curious about the surfaces they got in contact with. Such curiosity and sensitivity is very good when pretending you are walking on uneven, stony ground, for instance, making the audience sense what that feels like. Another dimension I investigated with that actress was our relation to space. I got her to experience what it means to divide a room into two parts by walking through it. I also helped her to develop her sensitivity for what was going on behind her back by walking behind her, letting her sense at what moment I was ready for her to turn to me etc. We also played with altering the field of vision, narrowing and expanding it, focusing on several points at once. As a result of all those games and experiments she became much more grounded, and also more reliable.
Some actors love such subtle work, others find it very difficult.
How actors respond to Awareness Through Movement depends on the individual. Some just love it as I do. Others find such subtle work very difficult. I once worked with a very fiery Basque actor who had a lot of resistance to Feldenkrais. He thought it was a complete waste of time. I could see how much he might learn by experiencing some objective feedback about what he was doing. So with him I did the ‘Bell’, getting him to softly open and close one hand while he was getting up from the floor, going down again, turning, and things like that. As you know, with this ‘Bell’ movement you can sense in your hand what you are doing in your body; you really become aware of the moment when you hit the holding-pattern or suddenly stiffen somewhere. You can’t cheat with the ‘Bell’; it reveals a lot about yourself. He was very much struck and fascinated by what he discovered about himself. First of all he got terribly confused and very aggressive. But then the subtle work began to captivate his interest. Eventually he discovered that one place in his spine was really stiff. Once he could see and accept that, he began to find ways of softening that place a little. And when he succeeded he knew, because the quality of the ‘Bell’ movement he was doing with his hand began to change dramatically, getting much softer and lighter.
Feldenkrais can help actors to change their ‘Body Schema’ more consciously
What I would like to do is work with young people who are still studying to become actors. I would like to see what would happen if they were introduced to this work from the very beginning. They would probably acquire many more tools than people who have all their habits in place already.
An actor or actress has to be able to portray many different characters instead of being themselves whatever the role they are in. Their own personality is not important. This means that actors have to be able to change their ‘Body Schema’ and Feldenkrais can help them to do this more consciously.
With this method, I believe, actors can become much more attentive to the functional laws applying to all of us. Instead of remaining centred on their own person, they can learn to see and develop subtle observation and awareness, and that will help them to explore and expand their expressive potential.
What is really touching about great actors is the authenticity of their performance.
(This interview with Denise Alvarez-Braunschweig was first published in the FELDENKRAIS JOURNAL U.K.)
“With Feldenkrais Actors Can Greatly Expand Their Expressive Potential”