The Vault

Exploring Our Responses in Personal Interactions

By Catherine Madden

 

Last winter, as the January 15 deadline in what became the war with Iraq approached, I found myself questioning what I had chosen to do with my life. I wondered whether or not what I was doing was of any help or any consequence to the world. What does the Alexander Technique mean to mothers whose children are killed in war? As I held my own children, I wanted to reach out to the Iraqi women whose children were hurt or killed, and to anyone who lost a loved one to the war. As I walked into classes or lessons to teach, I dedicated my work to peace, and my questioning continued—why was I teaching the Alexander Technique?

I thought of Alexander; I knew that he saw his work in a global perspective—so I went to his writings. I wondered how he responded to the challenge of teaching when the world was at war. And I remembered the piece entitled “After the Bomb” in Edward Maisel’s collection; it was also the preface to a book, Knowing How To Stop, and appears in The Universal Constant in Living. The sentence that jumped out at me was:

Mankind is now faced with new, unexpected, and tremendous problems. An all-important one is that of human relations, for the solution of this problem calls for knowledge of means whereby human reactions can be changed, controlled, and gradually improved.1

(F. Matthias Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living)

“An all-important one is that of human relations”—our associations with other people were something Alexander also felt needed to be addressed in relationship to his work. And he felt that his process provided a key that would allow human reactions to gradually improve; and that that improvement would lead to perhaps a better world. It was nice to see that phrase. It didn’t provide an answer...it did help me to see that my own sense that the Alexander Technique could contribute to a better world, and perhaps world peace, was shared by the Technique’s discoverer. And it encouraged me to continue the work I’ve been doing in classes that apply the Alexander Technique to questions surrounding human relations.

Acting Classes? For Alexander Teachers?

I didn’t begin teaching these courses with such lofty ‘global’ notions in mind. I started to teach them at The Performance School because we wanted to have a class that taught our teacher trainees the communication skills they would need to teach group classes. Since my training is in theatre, and since, as a director/acting teacher, I had had considerable experience in applying the Technique to the acting process, we decided to use acting classes as the vehicle to teach that information. I developed and taught an acting class, in which the Alexander Technique was a major tool for helping people learn new communication/acting skills.

To begin with, let me give you a definition of acting that is at the core of most of my own training and teaching. Acting involves behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances2 (a paraphrase of Sanford Meisner’s definition). And perhaps that is the first thing that a student in any acting course needs to know and understand. We set up situations (i.e. circumstances) that are made up; we respond to them truthfully. Because many people associate ‘acting’ with being false or phoney, it is important to understand this point. One of my former students, Vicky Menear, a homeopathic physician, wrote about her initial difficulty with this concept.

At first, my conceptions (or perhaps I should say misconceptions) of what acting and performance entailed led me to the conclusion that to regard my dialogue with patients as a performance would be counter to my goal of maintaining a warm and personal atmosphere within the patient interview. This was because I regarded acting as something false, as something one “put on,” an illusion rather than an honest human interchange. I saw no connection between what I regarded as acting and my work. In the two years with Cathy Madden I became aware that the process of preparation leading to an effective performance was a process worthy of study by anyone who wanted to understand, develop, and teach effective interview skills.3

People tend to respond in acting class situations in ways that initially mirror their habitual responses to situations in life. In an acting class, the students are then encouraged to find other truthful ways to respond to that kind of situation-ways that are outside their own communication vocabulary. What I find interesting about the process of teaching acting, with the Alexander Technique as a primary tool, is that it literally embodies the theory that the Alexander Technique can be a tool in improving ‘human relations.’ It is one thing to talk theoretically about this concept, and quite another to say to someone “Every time someone starts talking to you, I see you pull your head back and down, which is causing you to lean away from her, what would happen if you choose to use the Alexander Technique at that moment?” Or perhaps, “Each time things get a little strong, or there’s a little conflict, you start to put a lot of pressure in your body, what if, the next time we do this scene, you use the Alexander Technique as soon as you notice any conflict in the scene?” Some surprising things happen—people discover communication choices that they’d never even considered before. And they tell me that the work we do in class helps them observe and change their use in everyday communication situations, as well as in teaching, as well as in performing.

What will follow is a discussion of some of the elements of actor training and how I think they are useful for Alexander Technique teachers and others. Some of the key points of value are:

  • an increased consciousness of all the elements involved in communication and consequently an increased ability to work with these elements to create a constructive teaching/communicating situation
  • especially for those interested in group classes, or group presentations, a knowledge of how to handle spatial relationships—both for sightlines (so everyone can see) and for a more interesting visual picture
  • the role of rhythm and tempo in communication
  • an increased understanding of your responses to various stimuli— including how you respond to conflict, to emotions, to the unfamiliar, etc.
  • a wider range of communication choices so that you are not limited by habitual patterns of response
  • an increase in spontaneity, a livelier intuition
  • through exercises in creating a character an increase in observation skills, and perhaps an increase in empathy for your students. 

Course Structure

I have taught this course in a variety of ways—from one-day to 7-day intensives, to year-long programs. In year-long programs, we get to look at each concept over a number of days; in the shorter workshops, I introduce ideas, we experiment with them, and move on to the next—giving the participants lots of information to ‘process’ once the intensive is over.

Generally, the work is divided into four sections. The first section is often called instrument work in actor training jargon. It is the actor’s work on himself/herself. It includes physical and vocal warm-ups, and in our classes includes sensory and emotional ‘warm-ups.’ Most of this work is done individually.

The second section is a warm-up that involves interacting with other people. Observation skills, spatial and rhythmic awareness, basic communication exercises, exercises to develop imagination and spontaneity, and exercises that involve focus and expanded awareness (Frank Pierce Jones’ unified field of attention ) are included in this section.

The third section of the class explores the elements that shape what happens in any communication situation. Generally, we focus on one element at a time to find out how we respond, and how others respond to those elements. I’ll have more details on this aspect later.

In the fourth section of the class, we work on projects. In an intensive workshop, I’ll create a project that builds with each element we work with in the classes. In a longer class, students select projects they can work on throughout the term or the year.

Where is the Alexander Technique in the Course Structure?

Everywhere. If I’m describing an exercise and I see someone pulling down, I work with them. I work with them as they do their individual warm-ups. Essentially, I teach the Alexander Technique whenever it is the appropriate tool to deal with what’s going on in the class. Sometimes, clearing up an acting concept is more relevant than the Alexander Technique. Sometimes, the Alexander Technique solves all the problems. In some ways I think of this as an application course in which I’m supplying all the activities.

The Instrument Work

For me, this is the heart of the work. It is the few minutes at the beginning of class when each student is asked to take a look at themselves and perhaps get to know themselves better. It asks honesty. There are a wide variety of choices of exercises here. We usually begin with one called “How do I feel?” Students ask themselves “How do I feel?” over and over again; their answers can include any kind of feeling—physical, kinaesthetic, sensory, emotional. They also observe their use of themselves as they do this—does it stay the same? Does it change in relationship to some kinds of feelings? Does it improve? If they are stuck for answers, does using the Alexander Technique help them?

Once this exercise runs its course (generally a few minutes), we do an exercise that is sensory—something that asks them to notice what they can see, hear, taste, smell, touch. For Alexander Technique teachers and trainees, this section of the class is often a reminder that our sensory appreciation often improves as our use of ourselves improves. I find that my awareness of this concept helps me appreciate the comments of students in lessons when they say—“This may sound silly, but the apple I’m eating tastes better now,” or the musician whose first response to the Alexander Technique was—“The fan just got louder.”

The third exercise in what has become the ‘opening trio’ of class is one that involves emotional work that is designed to get constructive thinking going. Again there are a wide variety of exercise choices here. The first one I usually teach is “I like....” and students fill–in–the–blank over and over again, for example I like muffins, I like sunshine when it’s been raining , I like to dance, etc.

The intention of this opening trio is to get people ready to work. They acknowledge what’s happening with them, they come into the here and now in their sensory work, and they get in a constructive state...ready for more information. Again, I’ll quote Vicky Menear on how she has found these exercises useful in her work.

…By teaching me one of the “warm-ups” she uses with her actors she gave me a simple but effective way to “erase the slate” before I begin my day. This process consists of spending a few quiet minutes going through a pre-performance ‘‘check-in” of “How do I feel?...I need...I want...like...I love...” Each one of these questions or statements is filled in with as many responses as come to mind. Doing this helps me to take note of my baseline for the day and become more aware of those factors in my life that could possibly affect my clarity in the interview.4

I find this process of tremendous value in preparing to teach my own classes and lessons. It also helps students to begin to notice their use of themselves in relationship to their emotions. Since it is essentially a private warm-up, they also have some safety in which to experiment with employing the Alexander Technique to take the pressure out of their emotional responses.

There are a wide variety of exercises possible here and in other aspects of the class. I’m not going to enumerate them here. There are literally hundreds of possibilities. My purpose isn’t to give you a cookbook of things to do—that would not work very well because it requires training to teach acting responsibly just as it requires training to teach the Alexander Technique responsibly. What I hope this discussion does is generate questions about how each of us views the Alexander Technique in our personal interactions, and how we bring those perceptions to our students.

The 2nd Part of the Class: A Many & Varied Thing

The general movement in this part of the class is from individual work to work in pairs to work with the whole class. There is a gradual expansion from individual to large group interaction. Within this general shape, the exercises have a wide variety of ‘raison d’etre.’ There are many, many factors that go into the manner in which we communicate with each other and/or an audience. There are also many ways that acting exercises address these factors. As I describe the various categories of exercises that I might use in this section of the class, my intention is to give you a general idea of the possibilities and some ideas about their application to the process of teaching the Alexander Technique.

Good observation and listening skills improve communication, so there are exercises that train observation and listening skills. There are also a wide range of exercises—often games—that teach an awareness of spatial relationships. We also do exercises that play with different rhythms and tempos in movement. Learning these skills develops the ability to spontaneously stage a scene or a class in a visually interesting way, with the flexibility to vary the rhythm and tempo of a scene/class/lesson in ways that make the scene/class/lesson more effective.

Another set of exercises involves one-on-one verbal and non-verbal communication. These are very simple interactions. People may walk up to each other, look at each other for a moment, and then go on to another person to do the same thing; or their task may be to describe something simple they saw on their way to class; or to say a sentence that has a specific emotional content to another person. What happens to each student’s use in these simple scenes can provide clues to understanding what happens in the more complicated interactions we work on later in the class.

At first thought the exercises involving spontaneity and imaginative work may appear to belong to the realm of actors only. I find, however, that this aspect of the work has been important in teacher training. Questions from trainees and teachers have often been, “How did you get the idea to do that?” or “What do I do when I don’t know what to do or to ask next?” I think part of the answer for this question has to do with imagination, spontaneity, and intuition. Exercises in these areas require taking leaps into the unknown. They help students develop the confidence to make similar leaps in their teaching.

An important aspect of the work involves what Frank Pierce Jones described in the following way:

In order to move on a conscious level in which I could be aware of both doing and not-doing (of the inhibitory as well as the excitatory part of the movement), I had to expand my attention so that it took in something of myself and something of the environment as well. It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields—one for the self(introspection and another for the environment(extraspection)—to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.5

The ability to choose and focus on a task without actively excluding the rest of your environment is essential to theatre. And yet, many people habitually associate this kind of focus—concentration—with excessive amounts of physical tension. In each class there are some exercises or games that work best if you have the expanded awareness that Frank Jones describes. Students then can experiment to see what happens when they ‘pull down’ and “move up” as they play the game. Games seem to work well in this context— there are rules to follow so there is some intellectual content; there are ends so there is the additional challenge of sticking to the means-whereby rather than end-gaining. (In fact, some of these games prove useful in introducing the ideas of means-whereby and end-gaining to beginning Alexander Technique students.) In any case, it is a fun way to redefine thinking as a process that does not involve physical tension.

We don’t cover every element mentioned above in every class. I generally pick one or two each day, and vary them as the needs of the group and the progression of the class demands.

At the Congress, I led the group through a simple series of exercises to illustrate how this section of the class would work. The first exercise was a mirror game in which two people face each other, make eye contact with each other and start moving together. This exercise focuses on observation and nonverbal communication. I then did a large group exercise— definitely a game—called group juggling which involves experiments with narrow vs. wide attention.

Part 3: The components of any communication situation?

The third section of the class develops an awareness of each element of communication, generally highlighting one element for several weeks at a time. It is in this section of the class that we begin to develop more complicated scenes or interactions.

To give an idea of the range of topics possible, I led the workshop at the Congress through some questions Uta Hagen, in her book, Respect for Acting, uses to define what you “have to know if you want to recreate two minutes of existence.” Her questions are:

Who am I? Character

What time is it? Century, year, season, day, minute

Where am I? Country, city, neighborhood, house, room, area of room

What surrounds me? Animate and inanimate objects

What are the given circumstances? Past, present, future, and the events

What is my relationship? Relation to total events, other characters, and to things

What do I want? Character, main, and immediate objectives

What’s in my way? Obstacles

What do I do to get what I want? The action: physical, verbal6

I add another question—“What is my use of myself in this situation?” And you may think of other questions that you could include. At the Congress, I asked each participant to answer these questions for themselves. You might take a few moments to ask those questions of yourself now—I am always surprised by the richness of the answers I have when I do this work. And I generally discover something new about my own thinking and my use of myself.

There are many ways in which a consciousness of all these elements can help you when you are teaching. Many questions surface as we do exercises that focus on each element. What happens when you are a teacher in a particular situation? What happens when you are a student? What happens if a situation requires that you do something quickly? What happens if your reason for doing something changes? What happens when someone or something is in your way? What happens if I apply the Alexander Technique to this situation?

Let me take a moment now to give you an example of answering a few of these questions in relationship to teaching.

Who am I? An Alexander Technique teacher who studied with Marjorie Barstow, a director/acting coach, my identity/self-image is formed/influenced by my parents, my husband and children, my friends, my colleagues, my education, etc.etc.

What time is it? It is 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening—Tuesdays are what my children call ‘crazy day’ because I teach a lot on Tuesdays. It is early October. Through the window we can watch a magnificent sunset and the Olympic mountains. On a larger scale, it is 1991, time of great change and also turmoil in the world.

Where am I? In the United States (a significant fact for me, since only a few weeks ago I was in Europe), in Seattle which has been my home for 6 years and where I anticipate I will ‘settle,’ in Wallingford, a neighborhood near the University District, and just north of the center of the city, in a room rented from John Bastyr Naturopathic College by The Performance School. The building is actually a former elementary school, so all the chalkboards, bulletin boards, etc. are lower than they might be in an adult school. I’m sitting in one of the brown chairs near the window watching a student present their work.

And so on. As you can see, the answers to these questions become quite extensive. In my classes, we don’t stop at asking these questions, we recreate them, we ‘act them out.’ And then we may vary one element to see what happens. From the example above, for instance, how does the scene change if it happens at midnight during a thunderstorm, or what if it’s in downtown Seattle rather than in a northern suburb of the city? What if our space was above a restaurant?

The vehicle we use in these exercises is improvisation. Each student learns to think in the midst of action-thinking of use as well as what’s happening in the improvised situation. It seems to me that teaching is also an improvisation; there are a certain amount of ‘givens,’ but you never know exactly what’s going to happen. Just today, when I asked a student what she noticed when she was walking, one of the things she said was that her shoes were falling off her feet. I helped her with the Alexander Technique, and she began walking again, and suddenly said—in much surprise—“my shoes aren’t sliding off my feet any more.” I can understand how that could have happened, but it certainly wasn’t the answer I expected when I was teaching an Alexander Technique lesson.

One situation that trainees ask about is what to do when a strong emotional response to a lesson occurs. I think this improvisational work, which often deals with strong emotions, gives them experience in responding to such situations with good use, which then gives them a better chance to work with their student constructively.

The Projects

As I mentioned above, in the intensive workshops we don’t develop individual projects-there really isn’t time for that. What I do instead is to pick one scene or exercise that we will repeat throughout the intensive. Then, each time we add a new skill, or become aware of a particular element of communication, we repeat the scene, adding the new information to the scene. If I am teaching a workshop for Alexander Technique teachers, the scene that repeats is a teaching scene-often, the first two minutes of a student’s first private lesson. One student plays the teacher and the other the student, and then we reverse roles. In this way, we integrate the skills we learn as we progress through the intensive.

When I teach over a longer period of time, each student develops at least one project to integrate what we’re learning into what is most relevant for them. Performers develop performances, some people develop presentations, some people teach, some people paint-there are many possibilities. I find this part of the work quite exciting-the Alexander Technique, the communication principles, and ‘the stuff’ that makes each student unique-come together in the creation of the project.

Where to from here?

I like this work. I like bringing the Alexander Technique to questions of communication and performance. I like the fact that by using acting as the tool to teach communication skills, the process is an active one rather than a prescriptive set of do’s and don’ts. I like having a way to answer some of my teacher trainees’ questions about how to talk to their students. For those of my students who aren’t trainees, I like having a way to help them integrate the Alexander Technique into all aspects of their lives. I’m practically, and actively oriented so this is a great way for me to work.

This work has given me a tool to help my own teacher trainees as well as other Alexander Technique teachers and trainees bridge the gap between knowing something about the Alexander Technique and knowing how to teach the Alexander Technique. It doesn’t give them a list of rules—it gives them practice in watching their use as they respond to many and varied situations.A consciousness of these communication variables, and some experience in observing our own as well as other people’s use in relationship to these variables, increases the options we have in teaching the Alexander Technique.

It is also interesting to me that F. M. Alexander was an actor, and had the tools of acting at his disposal when he was teaching. Indeed, the main vehicle for his initial discovery involved communication.

A Challenge for Our Community?

What I’ve discussed so far looks primarily at how the acting work can help us learn to teach better. A corollary to that is that it also helps us make fresh choices in any communication situation. I hope it has been clear that the Alexander Technique is a much-called-on tool in this class, although it is not the only tool.

At the International Congress in Engelberg, we all had ample opportunity to b communication with each other in a wide variety of forums: crowding out the doors of the Ballroom (or climbing out the windows), formally in classes, talks, meetings, and work exchanges; informally in the restaurants, streets, and mountains. We all found ourselves dealing with the unfamiliar, with people from other schools, dealing with people we understood, and with people who didn’t necessarily make sense to us. How did we do? Did we continue to use our tools for good use in these situations? What happened to us when we were in controversy? And how did we apply the Alexander Technique to our larger individual(s)-to-organization or organization-to-organization communication? For myself, I know that I can identify times of constructive communication, communication based in love and respect, as well as those ‘other’ moments that were communication based in fear.

For me, addressing the question of human relations in our work is vital. If we cannot use the Alexander Technique as a means to communicate with each other, and perhaps heal, our own community, I begin to wonder about our means-whereby. To paraphrase F. M. Alexander, our community is now faced with new, unexpected, and strong challenges. An all-important one is that of human relations, for the solution of this problem calls for knowledge of the means-whereby human reactions can be changed, controlled, and gradually improved. 

FOOTNOTES

1. Maisel, Edward, The Resurrection of the Body, The Writings of F. Matthias Alexander, Dell Publishing Company: New York, 1974, p.87.

2 Meisner, Sanford, & Longwell, Dennis, Sanford Meisner on Acting. Vintage Books: NewYork, 1987.

3. Menear, Vicky, M.D., “The Alexander Technique in Action,” The Performance School Quarterly, Vol.1, No. 4, August 1988.

4. Menear, Vicky, M.D., “The Alexander Technique in Action,” The Performance School Quarterly, Vol.1, No. 4, August 1988.

5. Jones, Frank Pierce, Body Awareness in Action, Schocken Books: New York, 1979, p.9.

6. Hagen, Uta, Respect for Acting,Macmillan Publishing: New York, 1973, p.82.

BIOGRAPHY

Catherine Madden teaches at the University of Washington Actor Training Program and is a member of The Performance School. She began studying the Alexander Technique with Marjorie Barstow in 1975 and has been teaching since 1980 in USA, England, Switzerland and France. A director and acting teacher since 1979, she spent 5 years as the Artistic Director of an acting workshop company. She has a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Penn State and an M.A. in Drama and Literature from the Washington University in St. Louis.

 

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