Relaxation For Actors
Relaxation is the foundation upon which rests the “house of method”. Without this foundation, the house sinks into the quicksand of chaotic convention.
Stanislavski referred to tension as the “occupational disease” of the actor. Strasberg believed that tension is the actor’s greatest enemy. “Tension” for the actor, is the use of those muscles, thoughts and energies not necessary to accomplish the actor’s specific task on the stage, this task being the actor’s object of attention, or “object” , upon which the actor has chosen to concentrate.
Strasberg’s Relaxation Exercise was developed to help the actor learn to identify unwanted tension in the muscles of the body, including the neck (the final resting place of hidden tension) and the face (where mental tension manifests itself).
By systematic and deliberate exploration of these muscles, the actor will identify the tension in each of them, and release that tension through an act of will.
Sitting in a straight-backed, armless chair, the actor attempts to assume a position in which sleep could occur if absolutely necessary. After finding such a position, the actor begins to explore for tension.
It was common practice when I learned this exercise to first raise an arm above the head and begin exploring for tension in the fingers, thumb and wrist by moving the muscles in these areas one at a time, back and forth and in circles, slowly, while the mind asks the individual muscle, “Where is the tension there?”. When the mind has identified the tension, it is simply a matter of willing the muscle to “let the tension go”.
This process continues throughout every muscle in the hand, arm, shoulder, neck, chest, stomach, hips, upper and lower legs, ankles and down to the toes. Special attention is given to the facial muscles, especially the brow, temples and jaw, where years of holding back unspoken thoughts, words and emotions have created habitual patterns of tension.
Move the lips around, stretching them to their full limits. Stick the tongue out and move it around in circles, and in and out, extend the jaw and move it in every direction. Move the muscles of the brow up and down to release that habitual “worried” expression. While exploring in this way, be certain that you concentrate fully on identifying specifically where the tension is, so that you can willfully release it.
[Above] Daniel E. Young during the Relaxation Exercise, simultaneously exploring the areas of the neck, mouth, lips, tongue, and legs, while concentrating on preventing tension from “creeping” back into the rest of the body.
It should be stressed that while exploring, the actor must not allow tension to creep back into the areas where tension has been released. If the actor is executing the relaxation exercise, and is seen sitting motionless in his chair, it is obvious to the observer that tension has found its way back into previously explored areas.
When practicing the Relaxation Exercise, the actor may find unusually strong feelings welling up within. At this time, tension may re-manifest itself throughout the body, and especially in the neck and throat, resulting in a “choked” sensation in the vocal chords. The actor is encouraged at this point to help release the tension by vocalizing a long, sustained “ahhhhh” sound, or a short, staccato ” HAH!” to help release both the tension and the emotion.
After practicing this exercise faithfully every day for fifteen minutes to a half hour, the actor develops a “sixth sense” for identifying tension in his body, and this new awareness is especially useful on the stage, where, when the actor feels tension for one reason or another, he simply “identifies where it is, and releases it”.
Students have asked me why they can’t use meditation, or yoga instead of the relaxation exercise, pointing out that these procedures help them attain a high degree of relaxation. I agree with them that the procedures do indeed accomplish deep relaxation. But using these procedures onstage proves entirely impractical. In the first place, these procedures do nothing to help the actor learn to identify when unwanted tension, which often manifests itself in very subtle and hidden ways, has become a problem on the stage. But even if the actor did learn to identify this kind of tension, the actor obviously cannot stop in the middle of a scene to meditate, or start doing yoga. Strasberg’s relaxation exercise, when mastered, helps the actor identify the tension as it becomes apparent, then release the tension in a manner invisible to the audience.
This unwanted tension must be released, or it will block the pure expression of the actor’s instrument onstage.
Think of unwanted tension this way: If you place your forefinger on the top of a violin and your thumb on the bottom of the violin and squeeze with considerable pressure while the violinist plays, the violin will not sound its purest tone. Remove the unwanted tension, and the violin will sound tones as purely as possible, depending upon the condition of the instrument.
But learning to properly relax onstage is only a part of the benefit of the Relaxation Exercise. While the actor is learning to relax by identifying tension in individual muscles, he is also learning to develop and strengthen the powers of concentration needed to create the life of the person, animal or “thing” he is representing in the story the author has invented. Remember, to be concentrated, you must be properly relaxed, and to be properly relaxed you must be concentrated.
The extreme degree of concentration the actor applies to identifying tension in the body and mind during the Relaxation Exercise will make the exercise itself very tedious. Human beings don’t seem to enjoy concentrating for extended periods of time unless the object of their attention has some immediate mental or sensual gratification for them.
But the actor, not unlike the painter, the musician or the physician, must find a way to practice the more mundane elements of the art in ways that are stimulating, exciting and fun.