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: February 14, 2013

Recently a member of my family passed away. It wasn’t sudden or unexpected. I had imagined and projected myself into the future to examine how it would be without this person in my life a million times. But in the end I was still completely unprepared when the moment came.

My personal experience of this passing didn’t have anger or fear attached to it– just a tremendous sadness, along with the understanding that this person who lived in joy and love and song was no longer around making the world a better place.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about how we physically manifest emotions like grief, sadness, anger, and fear. These feelings don’t just live in our heads and our hearts; they live in our bodies. At the funeral I looked across the room at all the people who had come to bear witness to the passing of someone who had touched their lives, I noticed the heaviness, the downward pull, a curling in, an armoring.

It’s no coincidence that many of the sayings we use to describe emotion are grounded in the physical world.

“He really lights up the room”
“She’s looking very down today”
“Why the long face?“
“The weight of the world is on my shoulders.”

Our physical experiences are grounded in our thoughts and emotions. It’s what is referred to as “mind-body unity”. When you think about it, you never experience a thought and/or emotion without some physical watermark. I know that simply pulling up my laundry list of things that need to get done today can make me subtly hold my breath. Remembering I have yummy leftovers for lunch makes my stomach rumble. In trying to recall an old co-workers email, my eyes pull into a squint.

Here’s an activity to play with today. Whenever you can remember to, take ten seconds to pause. Take notice of the thoughts you are having and see if you can observe how they are manifesting in you physically. Just this simple moment of awareness can be enough to help you release a clenched jaw or tight shoulder, bring you out of a slump or release out of an armored stance.

I’m back to my regular routine and back (mostly) to feeling myself. But then every once in awhile I see something that person would have thought funny, or I remember something I forgot to tell them, and what I assume to be grief barrels down on me all over again. Everything stops. Collapsed and down I go.

In those terrible moments when you are forced to live in emotional upheaval, or those days when life brings you the extraordinary situations that push you to rethink everything, see if you can stop and give yourself ten seconds of awareness. Don’t try to correct your posture or talk yourself out of how you are feeling. Just be where you are and notice. A little dose of the here-and-now can work miracles.

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

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