Posted: September 17, 2013

“Can you slate your name for camera, please?”

If you are a professional actor, you’ve heard these words more than a few times. You know, it’s that thing you do before you begin your audition so the casting director and producers can keep track of you. Simple compared to the three pages of sides you’re about to launch into. But what about those first five precious seconds – how significant are they?

“It takes only three to five seconds to make a first impression, but it can take a whole career to undo it,” says Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don’t Know Can Kill Your Career.

Your talent, your ability to assume a role, your preparation, and even the conscious choice you make to dress appropriately are all incredibly important elements that casting directors keep their eye out for, but whether the director and producers realize it, they have already categorized and made decisions about you that are difficult to undo. Before you’ve said the first line of dialogue, a permanent impression of who you are and whether or not a director would enjoy working with you has already been set.

Your body language speaks volumes – and actors know this. Performers are trained to be pretty conscious about the way they use their bodies – most professional actors know how to make their way into a room without slumping or tripping over their own feet! But what is surprising is how many actors puff themselves up, appearing overconfident (and insecure) or have a subtle self-consciousness about their movements that betrays their nerves and uncertainty. Actors who try to come off as cool and collected can often appear “bored” or “low energy” to a casting director.

As an Alexander Technique teacher here’s where I come in. My specialty is helping performers to become aware of habitual patterns, both physically and in their thinking. And most importantly, we figure out together how they might be getting in their own way when the nerves kick in.

You see, that uncomfortable feeling you get at auditions (or perhaps when the cameras are rolling) begins with the fear response (also known as fight-or-flight, or as I like to all it, Fight/Flight/Freeze). An unconscious tightening of your neck which pulls your head back and down on your spine cascades into a raising up and tightening in of your shoulders, a holding of your breath, sweaty palms, shaky knees, weird tics… you get the picture. Many actors I speak with say they always do their best work when they don’t care whether they book the job – and that is usually because the nerves aren’t there to trip them up. One popular coping strategy actors tell me they use is that they “pretend not to care” whether they book the job. But when you think about it, that’s kind of a crazy system, isn’t it? How can you possibly do your best work when you are telling yourself again and again that you don’t care if you get the job!?

What I’m here to tell you is that the nerves are not a bad thing to have in an audition situation! Adrenalin, quick thinking, and heightened senses can strengthen and enhance your performance. Most importantly, the fear response can help you stay present, and when you think about it, isn’t that where your best work lives?

So Jenn, this all sounds great. But HOW??? How do you find clear-headedness, confidence, ease and authenticity the moment you need it most? How do you walk in, greet the casting director, and slate as your best self?

The first step in giving a great and lasting first impression is understanding what is physically happening to you when you “lock up”. As I described above, when Fight/Flight/Freeze is triggered, there is a tightening that occurs right where your skull meets your spine at the atlanto occipital joint. This place is actually higher and deeper in than you might think. This is where an Alexander Technique teacher begins – by helping you to pause, take note of the tension, and then using their hands in a gentle manner, help you learn to release this excess tension at that spot and throughout your whole neck. With this hands-on guidance, actors immediately report feeling lighter, taller, more balanced, and available.

So back to the slate and that dreaded first impression. The actor who can walk into the room in a present, alert, focused, yet easy and authentic manner is the actor I’d like to work with (and notice I didn’t say the actor who looks present. This work is about being, not pretending to be). And beyond that first impression, the actor that is present, alert, and focused is going to do his best work every time.

Posted: March 20, 2013

Doctors who study pain have hypothesized that there is a link between stress and chronic pain. Recurring pain can cause a sustained stress response, which in turn contributes to the pain, which in turn creates more stress, and so on.

A new study has found “that basal levels of cortisol (i.e. stress hormone in humans) were higher in chronic back pain patients than in healthy individuals….[these] findings are in accordance with the emerging perspective that the limbic system involved in fear, learning, and motivation would be the neural networks mainly impacted by recurring pain.” In other words, “Stress management might be a new avenue of dealing with chronic pain sufferers.”

Perhaps this is why so many chronic pain sufferers find relief by studying the Alexander Technique.

Here’s why: One of the things a student explores in an Alexander Technique lesson is their stress response (otherwise known as fight-or-flight, or the fight/flight/freeze response). Ever heard of it? Most people have somewhere in high school biology or on Jeopardy or read an article about it sometime in their lives. You probably see and experience the fight/flight/freeze response all the time and just never stop to think about it. Ever caught a squirrel off guard? There they are, going about eating their acorn, and all of the sudden you lumber by. What happens? They sense you, tense up, freeze for about a half second, and then fly up higher into the trees. The term “deer caught in the headlights” also sums up fright/flight/freeze. The deer freezes when it realizes that your car is barreling down at it at 60mph, and then (hopefully) it bolts off into the night.

Humans also experience this same response. Our unique problem as a species is that we don’t get to fight or fly when fight-or-flight is triggered. Instead, we hunker in, pulling our heavy heads down onto the delicate column of our spines and stay there. Next time you find yourself late for an important appointment, fighting with a loved one, or asked to give a speech at an event, notice what happens to your neck and back (are you putting yourself into a stress response trying to get this article read quickly before getting back to work?)

In an Alexander Technique session, you and your teacher will examine your head/neck/back relationship and see what unique patterns of tension and stress you are maintaining. They are probably patterns that up till this point have been unconscious. Once these habitual patterns are brought into awareness, your teacher will help you work out a way for you to undo them. In other words, you’ll re-train your brain to be more conscious of your unconstructive habits – whether they are postural, mental, or emotional – or all three.

So in a sense, when you take an Alexander Technique lesson, you are attacking pain from two angles – you are learning to observe your stress response while simultaneously learning to release muscle tension and experience new ways to delicately release back into your natural length.

Have you found yourself in a pain loop? Do you fear triggering an episode, or find you spend time worrying over your pain? Leave a comment. Then see if the Alexander Technique is right for you.

To find a teacher in the US or Canada, visit: alexandertechnique.com/teacher/northamerica/

For more on the study mentioned above, click here.

For a great 5 minute segment on pain and the brain, click here:


Author
Jennifer Schulz is an AmSAT certified Alexander Technique teacher. She maintains a private practice in Los Angeles, CA

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