The Alexander Technique has revolutionised the physicality, presence and professional lives of generations of actors. By first asking you to identify your own acquired habits, the technique enables you to find new and beneficial ways of moving, thinking, breathing and performing, freely and without unnecessary tension.
Here, Penny O’Connor – a teacher of the Technique for thirty years, and whose book on the subject, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course, is out now – explains its history, how she first encountered it, and how it can empower actors everywhere to unlock the key qualities any great perfomer needs…
When I was first introduced to Alexander Technique, it was a life-changer. My teacher placed one hand on my head and one under my chin and said ‘Simply follow your head’ as he gently guided me out of a chair in a way I had never experienced before. I arrived at standing without knowing how I had done it. I had no sensation of muscular effort. I was sitting, and then I was standing. It was seamless. I have been trying to work out how that happened ever since.
I was about nineteen, training as an actor at Rose Bruford. And just by the experience of moving effortlessly for a moment, I had this very powerful inkling that life could be something very different from what I had thought it was. I wondered then if I shouldn’t be exploring more of this stuff and forget about the acting lark. I was so moved. But no, I was wanting to be an actor, wasn’t I? And, actually, I didn’t have a clue how to go about doing more of this stuff! So I stuck to my acting guns.
The Alexander lessons continued – a small group of four of us would visit a training school in West London for our lessons on a Saturday morning – and served me well in my chosen profession. My voice, confidence and transformational acumen, my ability to connect with fellow actors, all developed hugely. I got the lead part in a third-year show! But several years on, I began to run out of steam. I was extremely anxious, impecunious, and my personal life was not easy. At that moment, another Alexander teacher presented herself to me. I treated myself to an individual session, and I knew immediately that I had come home.
From then on I organised my life around this desire to learn more and pass on the teachings to others. Once the decision was made, many things conspired to help me: a grant, an opportunity, a space on a training course – it was as if all the traffic lights had turned green. I qualified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique in 1992, and have been teaching it full-time ever since.
But what is the Alexander Technique, and how can it help you?
How it all began
It started as a means to solve a problem. Frederick Matthias Alexander was an Australian actor who, whilst on tour reciting Shakespeare in the 1880s, began to lose his voice. The doctor diagnosed inflamed vocal cords and irritation of the mucous membrane in his throat and nose, and recommended he rested his voice for two weeks. Alexander’s voice came back in time for his next recital, but halfway through the performance the problem returned and by the end he could hardly speak. They agreed that it must be something he was doing to himself. But what? Alexander was determined to find out.
His observations took some months, but he eventually realised that, as he started to recite, he pulled his head back, depressing the larynx, and sucked in air through his mouth, which sounded like a gasp. At the same time, he was lifting his chest, thereby arching his back, which shortened his stature and created a pattern of tension throughout his whole body, including the legs. His elocutionist had suggested at one time that he should grip the floor with his feet and this he had faithfully carried out. All this amounted to a very strong pattern that he had cultivated, and he noticed it was something he did, to a lesser extent, even when he was talking normally, not ‘on voice’. So that was easy then: once we know which of our habits are causing the problem, we can easily stop them, right?
Habits, the greatest power in the universe, are like predictive text on a mobile phone. Alexander found a way of reprogramming his ‘predictive text’, creating new neural pathways from the brain to the muscle. By stopping and consciously redirecting himself, he found a natural movement and poise that freed the neck, so his head came up, his stature lengthened and widened, his legs released and his throat and breathing were no longer restricted. His voice returned!
When Alexander moved to London in 1904, armed with these discoveries, he began promoting this new method, working with the great actors of the day, including Henry Irving, Viola Tree and Lily Brayton. Writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw also became devotees. He continued to teach and develop his work internationally, and his legacy lives on: Alexander Technique is still taught in theatre and music schools throughout the world, as well as to individual acting greats, helping actors perform effortlessly and with confidence, free in their movement and voice.
Here’s what some actors say of his work:
‘With the best of intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander Technique has given me sightings of another way… Mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom…’Alan Rickman
‘[The Alexander Technique] is a way to transform stress to joy. It’s my way of keeping on track with work and truth and the world I’m in, which is working with people and creating.’Juliette Binoche
‘It’s beautiful, an art… it was about being still and relaxed in order to one hundred per cent listen to someone, to be present.’Hugh Jackman
‘Alexander Technique really helped my posture and focus during my stint as Othello with Northern Broadsides Theatre Company. Imagine how excited I was when I arrived at the National Theatre for Comedy of Errors and found I could have Alexander taught to me once a week, I was chuffed to little meatballs.’Lenny Henry
There’s an apocryphal story about Michelangelo being asked by a small child what he was doing as he chiselled away at a piece of marble. ‘There is an angel trapped in that stone, and I am setting it free,’ comes the reply. That is what it felt like to me when my teachers worked with me, allowing me to shed the unnecessary and reveal the essence. That is what I like to think I am doing when I work with an actor. Together we chip away at the old habits, the old patterns of use, to reveal the Inner Actor.
Making your own discoveries
I feel really blessed to have found this work (or that it found me), and that it has been such a big part of my life. This journey has now led me to write my new book, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course. My hope is that it will bring others to the work, to help them in their acting career and, for some, strike deep to the heart.
My book consists of a course of eleven lessons based on my years of teaching on the BA and MA theatre courses at the Arts Educational Schools in London, and on my own pathway through the work. I suggest it should take eleven weeks – one week per lesson, including theory, instruction and assignments – but it can be spread over a longer time frame. I have so ordered it that, if all you manage is the first chapter and first assignment, you will leave better informed, having learned something you can immediately put into practice and add to your actor’s toolbox.
As far as possible I have suggested a way for you to experiment on your own: after all, it’s your own journey. What you discover may not be what others will discover. It’s a personal journey to discover your habits, the way you use yourself in life, and to find a way of relinquishing those that are interfering with your performance. But you may find it easier to do this in a group or with a study partner, either face to face or online, depending on the circumstances.
Experiencing my personal Alexander journey, I find that I have become more myself, no longer limited by habit. We only change what we want to change, and it’s always our choice. Alexander returns us to self-awareness and conscious choice. We cannot always change the world around us, but we can change our reaction to it.
Habits are not necessarily bad things, but we need not be controlled by them. The Alexander Technique helps us become aware of them and gives us a way of letting go if they are limiting or restricting our performance. We can then transform effortlessly, speak clearly, move well in any shape we need for our character, receive and act on direction, and be electrifying onstage and on-screen. We’ll be embodying great presence, becoming vulnerable, sexy, unpredictable and intelligent, the four qualities a great actor needs.
Sound good? Then let’s start.
This is an edited extract from Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course by Penny O’Connor, published by Nick Hern Books. See more and order your copy here.
Penny O’Connor has been teaching Alexander Technique since 1992, in London, on the Greek island of Alonnisos, and globally on Zoom. She has taught the Technique at several London drama schools, including ArtsEd, where she was resident for eighteen years, and is currently assisting in training Alexander teachers at the South Bank Alexander Centre. Penny trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and has also worked as an actor, playwright, director and teacher.