01 January 2016 - The Feldenkrais Method
Victoria Worsley, Feldenkrais Practitioner

An Actor’s ‘Presence’

What is it that makes us want to watch one actor more than another? What quality do they have that moves us and engages us? Can we learn it? Here’s an idea:

Serena is often told that when she goes out and meets new people she needs to ‘relax’. When she is tense she is awkward. She lacks spontaneity. Her tension makes it hard for her to connect with others and can even push them away.

Some people think acting is something you generate on your own – working on character; going ‘inside’ to dredge up emotions – but really it is a social activity. As an actor, you need to connect both with your fellow actors and with a whole bunch of strangers called an audience. You need to engage, respond and give the audience some kind of way in. That’s what makes us want to watch you. So, like Serena, you are told to ‘relax’. But how the hell do you do that?

We think of relaxing as letting go of tense muscles, but actually we need some tension to stand up and not fall apart (literally), let alone move, so it’s more about reducing the unnecessary tension. Moreover, although she doesn’t know it, underlying Serena’s social awkwardness is a fundamental sense that she is not quite safe which means she physically cannot relax and connect. Under threat, her nervous system prepares to protect her with a myriad of changes to digestion, breath, heart rate, vision and muscle tone and even shuts down the facial gestures that enable easy social connection. *

This is what gets in the way for you, as an actor, too. So how can you enable your system to feel safe enough to engage?

You need SUPPORT. Support is something that you can lean on and that holds you up. In life it can be family, friends, social structures, but in a fundamental physical way it is also the ground you stand on, the furniture you sit, lie or lean on – and an arrangement of bones that means you are not a pile of mush on the floor. Ideally those bones are suspended in a perfect constellation by just the amount of tension needed and adjust constantly, creating new constellations of support as you move. But no one is perfect. One tension or another pulls those bony constellations out of shape, so your system resorts to activating any muscle that can help keep you upright. Those extra tensions create disruptions in turn and make it still harder to find effective skeletal support: a vicious cycle. However, if you can begin to unravel those habitual distortions and re- instate clearer, better ways of finding support, the unwanted tensions will fade simply because they are no longer needed. With proper support your system can switch over to safety mode, relax and enable you to connect and engage — and the audience can stay riveted.

Which Feldenkrais lesson does that? Every Feldenkrais lesson.

The parts most in focus are the points of support.
* See Stephen Porges ‘Polyvagal Theory’
Victoria Worsley’s book Feldenkrais for Actors was published by Nick Hern books in 2016.