A million years ago, when I attended the National Theatre School, myself and the other two playwriting students in my cohort sometimes got tossed into classes with the acting students. There was rarely much explanation for it, and though the administration claimed to have an immaculate plan for our education, I suspect it most likely arose because of scheduling synergy. If a visiting expert happened to be available during a timeslot when the playwrights were free, then suddenly that subject became a cornerstone of our dramaturgical development.
Mostly, I didn’t mind. Getting to take tai chi was delightful, and unquestionably valuable for playwrights. The seminar on mask-based performance seemed less useful, although I’ll cop to having included masks in at least a couple of my plays, possibly as a result of that class. Then there was butoh, the gruelling fusion of repetitive gymnastics, boot camp, and Japanese masochist-nihilist-performance-art. Even the actors couldn’t quite fathom why we were all being subjected to that. I’ll describe it at length someday, when the psychic scars have finally healed.
Today’s post is about the Alexander Technique. I sat in on a grand total of one class, and was only allowed to observe. It looked underwhelming: an instructor held each student by the head, chin, or shoulders, lightly guiding them as they performed ordinary, simple motions: sitting down, standing up, looking from side to side. From the preamble, I gleaned that the goal involved an increased range of motion, and maybe something to do with posture? I didn’t even get a chance to ask questions, and that’s probably why I’ve always been curious about the method. Shouldn’t something related to posture be made accessible to playwrights, who spend 90 per cent of their craft slumped in front of a screen?
After washing out of NTS, I returned home without having a chance to slake my curiosity, and since there were no Alexander practitioners in Edmonton, I gradually forgot all about it. Reminders are few and far between; there is an impressive list of actors who have made use of the Technique, but they rarely seem to discuss it in interviews. There’s a lustre of mystery surrounding the Technique, almost like a religious cult, or a drug that you just have to experience first-hand, dude.
It doesn’t help that the Alexander Technique isn’t really about acting. Its namesake, F.M. Alexander, was an actor, and he invented the approach as a solution to his chronic laryngitis, which would obviously pose a serious problem to anyone in the profession. Essentially, Alexander couldn’t find a doctor able to diagnose or cure him, so he invented a solution of his own. He addressed the most basic physical elements that he could identify: how he carried himself, how he used his muscles to move, where he was tense and where he was relaxed. When he returned to the stage with all his voice problems gone, his colleagues sought him out as a voice coach…but then gradually realized that the Technique was good for an enormous range of problems, from headaches to back pain to stage fright.
That was in the early 20th century. The Alexander Technique has spread from F.M.’s homeland (Australia) to all corners of the world. I even saw an office door in Lille with “Alexander” on the nameplate. And, from what I gather, a great many of the practitioner’s “patients” aren’t actors, or even artists of any kind. Indeed, the philosophy states that anyone can transform their lives by applying the Alexander Technique. And it is a philosophy, probably more than it qualifies as a medical practice. There is no certification process by which one becomes an Alexander teacher – but if you do it for long enough, then you can teach it to others.
This week, I drove to Halifax for a long-deferred one-on-one session with just such an Alexander practitioner. He’s not an actor, but a musician – he discovered the Technique as a means to cure repetitive stress injury from playing the double bass. He has written a book about Alexander, and his biography includes a long list of “first generation practitioners” that he has studied under. I found his house in a bucolic suburb, tucked into the trees beside an old stone church. The first floor was entirely Alexandrian: on the walls, diagrams of the spine and skull, with a padded table-bed in the centre of the room. It could have been a massage therapist’s office, or a chiropractor’s.
The session had a tiny bit in common with both experiences, but as my instructor pointed out early on, the goal of the Technique is very different. Whereas a chiropractor does something to your body to fix what they percieve to be wrong, an Alexander instructor starts coaching you to be more aware of your movements and your posture, so that over time, you can identify what’s wrong – or even just what is. For actors, this heightened awareness opens up all sorts of possibilities for increased range of motion. But the advantages are clear for non-actors, too – assuming it works, that is.
The first step involves inhibiting automatic responses – trying to stop and take note of your habitual physical responses, whether it’s nodding when somebody is telling you something or tensing up when you’re doing something stressful. With that general rule in place, the rest of our session involved the same stuff I remember from NTS – being guided gently up and down from a chair, or from sitting up to lying down on the table. During these exercises, I was asked to “situate myself” behind my eyeballs, but also to focus on staying grounded and balanced, with a relaxed spine and an awareness of my fingertips. That’s a lot to stay aware of at once, even for a meditator like me.
And that was my final takeaway from the session: it’s sort of a whole-body approach to meditation. With enough practice and dedication, I could imagine an Alexandrian moving fluidly through life, constantly mindful of their actions and reactions in ways that allow stress to wash right over them. To me, it conjures images of a liberal-artsy Neo from The Matrix, dodging the anxiety-bullets of everyday life. It’s pseudo-sciencey as all get-out, but if the goal isn’t a particular physiological outcome, but rather just an overall increase in one’s self-awareness, then maybe it could work? I’ll keep you posted.