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Alexander Technique: its application in education and acting

An evening with Penny O’Connor: Friends Meeting House, London, 24th November 2010


By Stella Weigel


Penny began the evening by briefly introducing her Alexander Technique teaching of both BA and MA student actors at ArtsEd, particularly the challenges which working within such a qualification-driven establishment presents, such as the marking system (it was stated that most students obtain a good pass). She mentioned that she had been observing students during performance that afternoon, making brief notes about specific aspects of their use which she would later be able to use in her ongoing work with them.


Penny then asked us to jog around the room, touching the floor, lifting an arm, jogging backwards, and so on, and then asked us to stop and remain in the position at that particular moment. Upon stopping, we were then encouraged to think about the space around us, above, below and behind, about releasing at our ankles and freeing our hips and knees; we then commenced jogging around the room again and again we were asked to stop as we were and to give our directions. It was noted that whilst one was standing in such an unusual position, one nevertheless was freeing oneself at the same time and also the unspoken drama which occurred as a result of adopting such a  position and taking on all the characteristics of this. It certainly created a powerful atmosphere which remained in the room.


Penny then introduced some small balls, with which we played around for quite some time, thus demonstrating how this helps students to explore the concepts of stimulus and response/inhibition and direction. Lined up in two rows of six, we threw a ball between pairs, without saying anything and then saying the words "stimulus" as the ball was thrown and "response" upon catching the ball. Direction and inhibition were then introduced by using one’s choice as to how one threw the ball, did one throw it immediately, under one’s leg or when the other person was least expecting it?


This theme was continued when Penny asked six of us to line up in pairs and throw a ball to their partner upon asking a question, any question which came into their mind, such as "Are you happy" or "Are you hoping for Santa to come down your chimney this Christmas?". Upon catching the ball, the partner was asked to provide an answer, and, importantly, Penny mentioned that this choice/pause upon receiving a stimulus and the subsequent reaction, is that very same choice which actors have at their disposal whilst performing. The partner was then asked to return the answer followed by another question and a throw of the ball, thereby encouraging another answer/question and so on. As the questions/answers unfolded, so did each story and atmosphere, just as a story unfolds within a play, just as a ball had been thrown to and fro previously.


The final section of Penny’s talk covered her work with students at ArtsEd in more detail. She provided us with an "Alexander Quiz" given to students which chiefly covers a basic knowledge of anatomy. Penny also provided us with an overview of the assignments which are expected of the BA and MA students during their study of the Alexander Technique. The BA students study the Technique for two terms, whereas the MA students study for one year. Given the relatively short period of time available, certainly all the main Principles of the Technique are covered using a variety of learning tools:


·        a review of a chapter from an Alexander-related book demonstrating the student’s understanding of the Technique and how this relates to their work in and out of class and their work as an actor;


·        writing observational notes about themselves in respect of their habits during hands on sessions; this demonstrates that the student recognises personal habits that might impede their performance, that they have experienced themselves out of habit through ‘inhibition’ when working with a teacher, with good practice strategies being developed for themselves;


·        creating a presentation in pairs or groups of three that will demonstrate that the student has an accurate knowledge of the vocabulary and a clear understanding of the Principles (Primary Control, Use, Inhibition, Direction, Ends and Means, the Unified Field of Attention and Faulty Sensory Appreciation), differentiating between them and connecting them;


·        Balanced Resting State Report: students are expected to lie in semisupine every day during a vacation period and write a report on their experiences that will demonstrate that the student has had good insights into the regular practice of the semisupine position and the effects of this practice on their general use during this time;


·        Regular Individual hands-on work -two students to one teacher per half hour, during which students become familiar with their own habits and begin to come out of them. Students make notes on their discoveries each lesson which are handed in for assessment at the end of the first term.


·        Students meet in large groups for body-mapping and group experiments.


·        A week is dedicated to Alexander Thinking and students write a report on the results of this experiment.


Penny mentioned that she also used video at the start and end of the course to show students their habits, a medium which is used by other teachers in other areas of use of the Technique and it came as no surprise that it was also useful with acting students.


On completion of the Alexander Technique component a student should be able to demonstrate:


1.      An understanding of Alexander’s Principles;

2.      An accurate body-map of the self with rudimentary knowledge of how the nervous system and muscles work together to create our natural balance and habits;

3.      A recognition of personal habits which impede the co-ordination of mind and body;

4.      The means to work on these, thereby developing insights on how to apply the Technique to their personal needs as an actor.





 © Stella Weigel 2009



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