Yoga and The Actor
Everybody has a dream. Everybody has a body. Your body needs to suit your dream.
The plays of Eugene O'Neill are of a length and depth such that if you have the stamina to act O'Neill, you can act anything.
Liam Neeson, who played Matt Burke in Anna Christie on Broadway, told me in the context of an interview about acting O'Neill, that stage work requires a special "mojo."
For 20 years, The O'Neill Studio has been developing an approach to training actors for the stage with the extreme demands of O'Neill's works in mind.
We've arrived at Actor Asana, a process that is very much about building "mojo." Actor Asana is a training track that has the double benefit of being both a full-body and acting workout. Its goal is to build physical strength and flexibility while helping the actor access their deepest emotional reserves.
The Actor Asana workout combines with the Independent Artist Track in which the actor develops emotional flexibility and deep connection through monologue work. The workout adds an extra measure of connection as body work gets in the mix. For more on the Independent Artist Track CLICK
Actor Asana starts with the rigors of Pilates and then adds through intense hatha yoga,
1. Core Work
Everybody gets gut feelings. That's ‘cause we have more nerve endings in our core area than anywhere else, even our brains. Our bodies send messages to our brains seven times more often than our brains do to our bodies. They are meant to work as one. But when we get caught in our heads we disconnect from our gut.
A deep core connection gives emotional impulses vocal and physical energy. In core work, the area from your shoulders to your hips is strengthened. Having a strong, flexible core helps anchor breath connection.
Core work is also the foundation of good alignment. A recent study supports the connection between alignment and confidence.
No matter your character’s physical journey, a strong core will also ground your performance as you shift your body to specifically reflect your character.
For example, Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a woman who has lost the catholic faith of her youth and seeks refuge in morphine. She becomes progressively more self-medicated throughout the day on which the play is set.
Early on, she has the bearing of a church-going housewife, but it erodes throughout the play, leaving her adrift in girlhood memories by the day's end. The actress playing her needs to express this physical descent very precisely lest she play the physicality of Act IV in Act II.
Blanche Dubois, in A Streetcar Named Desire, is a faded debutante who is clinging to the attitudes of a privileged youth. The actress playing her needs to communicate both levels of identity with her body language.
Richard III, in Shakespeare’s play is a King with a royal hump. The actor playing him must keep his body loose while contorting it. His voice must also remain open and free so as to project Shakespeare's words expressively and with clarity.
Willie Loman, in Death of a Salesman, is a man whose shoulders tell the story of years of carrying weighty “samples” of the fare he sells. He is a "drummer" weighed down by life. His walk must have a weary gravity that becomes wearier during the play, while remaining energized throughout.
Each of these characters requires a body language that befits them, but that language doesn’t always fit the body. It can actually damage it.
David Bowie, when playing The Elephant Man on Broadway, so contorted himself for the part that a chiropractor was stationed backstage during performances to get him through the night.
Playwrights aren’t thinking of anatomy when they write characters with defining physical adjustments. Be it a limp or a hump, such details are catnip to the actor to play, but it is hard to keep your breath anchored when playing a physical affect. And since breath is what carries emotion, to lose your flow is to lose your feeling.
So Actor Asana begins a core workout into which acting exercises have been integrated. It is intended to help the performer balance the adrenal rush that comes with appearing in public with the need to be responsive in the moment.
Actor Asana develops strength and flexibility while building the confidence and performer needs to stay present onstage and off.
Along with core work, our workout includes yoga “asana.”
2. YOGA, THE ALIEN AND THE ACTOR
When you integrate acting with the healing arts, you get both healing and art.
I once produced an event with Sigourney Weaver sponsored by my project in New Haven, O'Neill at Yale. When I asked her what she required pre-performance, she said that she needed a quiet space in which to practice yoga.
How could anyone be so calm so as to be able to practice yoga before going on stage? But that was the point.
Yoga can tame the adrenal alien that can disrupt the actor’s performance peace.
After the show, Sigourney, (first famous for “Alien,”) took the time to meet with my New York acting students, most of whom had theater degrees. She shared with them how humiliating she had found her own conservatory training. Some of my students felt the same way about their own experience in college.
Even when the teacher is good, an acting student can be damaged in class. This is a point much discussed in our New York O’Neill Studio sessions in which actors work on monologues from the plays of Eugene O’Neill through an approach that draws on the teachings of Sanford Meisner.
I worked with Mr. Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse and with proteges of Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio.
These two men are in a high tier all of their own among American acting teachers. In “preparing emotionally,” Mr. Meisner tells us to use our imaginations, Strasberg, our memories. In the Meisner technique, actors imagine their worst nightmares, and in Strasberg’s “Method,” they relive their worst traumas to play tragic roles. The results can be majestic, but the cost high.
First to re-consider is the body work that goes along with acting training. At The Playhouse, they made us take classical ballet and the modern dance technique of Martha Graham, who had once taught there. Both Ballet and “Graham” classes involve the holding of energy. With the holding can come a constriction of breath and cut-off from the emotional flow. The breath can be further restricted through a secondary series of knots (shoulder tension can lead to jaw tension, for example).
Actors often refer to the personal workings of their inner art as “their instrument." I’ve since learned that once actors understand their bodies as instruments through which emotion simply passes, they have little trouble preparing for a performance.
In that an actor’s very being is in play each time he works, exercises are as to essential to them as they are to a pianist or violinist. Sigourney’s, of course, include yoga.
So as instrumentalists, they join the ranks of artists for whom flexibility is essential and exercises are required to maintain their "chops."
Acting training can bankrupt the actor spiritually, so shouldn’t that training also include ways in which they can restore themselves?
Self-inflicted pain tightens the very passages that are required for the release of inner life, which is the natural business of the actor.
3. THE ACTOR, ASANA and O'NEILL
There are beasts in us all but they speak with special force to actors, who are residents of the imagination.
We sometimes find irrational thoughts indistinguishable from truth. It is, in fact, our job. I think of the actor’s journey as a continuum of opening up. It’s an ongoing freeing up of the body and talent so as to be able to inhabit the world of any given play.
This is especially challenging in O’Neill’s dark and harrowing works. For two decades, I’ve watched actors struggle with O’Neill’s plays and have seen a few injured as a result. Such was the case of an actor known to millions as a beloved television Dad and to his colleagues as an “actors' actor.” He held himself to a standard of which O’Neill himself would have assuredly approved.
I directed him in an O’Neill play in which he portrayed a man who had shot his own son. After we began rehearsals, I learned that he had lost a daughter in real life. He was looking for personal catharsis through our production. Each day at rehearsal he would relive the worse day of his life. He was so immersed in the pain of his memories that he couldn’t remember his lines.
Only humiliation awaited him and the play, which was receiving its inaugural production. I declined having The New York Times review it.
When an actor has the opportunity to play a character with whom he shares a mental stance, it can be a great meeting of actor and role, but can easily consume both actor and play.
There are riches to be mined in tapping one’s primal traumas, but the success in doing so lies in how these reserves are tapped.
Had he been open to it (and had I known to do so), we could have worked through physical options for helping him draw on past wounds without incurring new ones in the process.
I would have tried to get him to relax through a body work series tailored for him targeted to unlocking grieving emotions that have nested in various joints and muscle systems. The knots have to be loosened so that a fixed stance can give way to freer emotional flow.
This is what I did with the student for whom I developed Actor Asana, a holistic approach to tuning the actor’s inner and outer instrument.
4. THE ACTOR AND THEIR CORE
One “Independent Artist” came to our Studio as part of a group of visiting artists that also included a body builder. Along with this other guy’s body armor came a resistance to everything asked of him.
The other actor also carried himself like a soldier, but seemed less attached to his military stance. He reminded me of some of the career airmen I knew growing up in an Air Force town. I always liked their unquestioning self-assurance. It’s a good quality in a pilot, but less so in an actor, whose vulnerabilities are what sometimes give them wings.
Actor Asana is geared toward throwing off extra armor so you can take flight with strength and confidence.
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