Published on April 29th, 2014 | by BU News0
Theater class creates the actor’s ‘expanded self’
BU: Betsy Polatin’s subtle craft isn’t easy to describe. But after her course, her students say, they’re more focused, more confident, and more at ease in their bodies.
A longtime practitioner of the Alexander Technique and a master lecturer at the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre, Polatin refers to the century-old system as “a practical method for self-improvement.”
In the introduction to her new book, The Actor’s Secret: Techniques for Transforming Habitual Patterns and Improving Performance, Polatin recalls that after her first Alexander lesson many years ago, she thought, “This is still me, but not the me I always knew.”
Teachers of the Alexander Technique help people identify and rid themselves of habits caused by a lifetime of stress. As children, most of us moved fluidly, without self-consciousness or tension. But over time our bodies have a way of sabotaging our well-being with quirks in the way we hold our heads, sit in a chair, speak, sing, or lean forward to open a door.
We could all benefit from simple adjustments, says Polatin, who works mainly with actors and musicians.
Involving a light touch with a broad scope, the technique was developed in the early 20th century by Frederick Matthias Alexander, a Shakespearean actor who began losing his voice. When doctors could find no physical pathology to explain it, Alexander hypothesized that his breathing and body positioning were to blame.
“When we let go of some of our habits and patterns that keep us locked in a certain way, we see there are all these other choices,” says Polatin, who has been teaching the Alexander Technique for decades.
“The work is so much about changing those patterns.” For example, a person may walk a little bit hunched forward, but doesn’t realize it, she says. “And so when you point it out, and get them upright, it’s like the world looks different to them. Their vision is different. They feel different.”
The technique isn’t just about alignment and posture—it employs the terms use and misuse. “The concept is very valuable because the idea of posture implies that there is one particular place everybody should be in. But it’s kind of ridiculous to think that just one position entails good posture,” she explains. “So the term ‘use’ implies that I can be in many different positions and still functioning in a healthy way.”
“Before discovering the Alexander Technique, I was someone who approached life and my art through tension, and as a result it was tougher for my vulnerability to come through,” says senior acting major Jesse Garlick.
“Now, after working with the technique for three and a half years, I find that it is far easier to express myself in every walk of life because of the ease and grace I have found in the class.”
Moving and breathing
The technique is something that, once you learn it, you continue to do on your own, says Polatin. “One of Alexander’s ideas was that it didn’t make sense to exercise for an hour a day and for the rest of the time walk around all slumped over and not really caring about what you’re doing with yourself.” Through subtle, deliberate exercises, like head movements or slow, carefully aligned bends and squats, the technique, she says, “encourages you to think about what you are doing until you catch yourself and say, oh, I want to do something a little more efficiently.”
Breathing is crucial, too. “Most people tend to breathe shallowly—as students do things like texting, they hold their breath, or actors preparing to go on stage hold their breath, and the technique helps them realize that.”
Polatin used to be a modern dancer and has always been captivated by how people move. “How can you move to feel better?” graduated, she says, to, “what aspects of myself are involved in the way I move? If instead of narrowing in on myself, I live more in the world, I feel like a different person.”
Students come to Polatin expecting to learn ways to improve their performance, but her approach, which she calls “the expanded self,” can be quite powerful.
“What happens is the students will do a monologue and then we work, and we get more space inside, more opening in the whole body and less constriction, and they begin to speak, and all of a sudden they get scared because of the resonance, the booming sound of their own voice.” And then, she says, the students get used to that. “And that’s part of the work. Getting used to your own expanded self.”
via Susan Seligson/ BU Today | Images by Cydney Scott/BU Photography