Teaching & Learning
Accessing Your Instrument 101: Training Actors
by Marcia Polas
At a play in 2006, I found myself studying the actors, fascinated by how they used their bodies to tell the story. But I wondered if the arch of a back, the lift of a shoulder, or where they placed their weight belonged to the character or was a personal pattern the actor unintentionally brought to the role.
That’s when I began watching performers in a different fashion, I chose seats allowing me to watch movement from the side of the stage, attended shows multiple times, and stayed for talk backs to see the actors in their own bodies. I grasped the length and physical strain of the rehearsal process and could recognize which performances compelled me to stop watching bodies and be swept away, but it was some time before I understood what bothered me in a movement pattern and what compelled me. There was also something vocally that either drew me in or interfered with my ability to suspend reality and become involved in what was happening on stage. Hooked, I wanted to see and know more, and to “fix” things.
Always a fan of theatre, I never had an interest in performing. This made it (understandably) difficult to find actors who were willing to let me study their bodies and get involved. I was an outsider who didn’t speak their language.
Undeterred, I kept researching and studying and built a practice I describe as occupational-based — my clients are primarily grouped by occupation. I’ve entered kitchens to watch chefs, studios to watch dancers, and once, a cockpit to study pilots. I honed my skills at discovering how bodies function at work and how to train and reverse train those bodies. As I continued to watch actors at work I took my ever-increasing knowledge of bodies-at-work and patterns, and began to catalogue patterns in actors. Eventually, I found actors and teachers willing to enter the conversation and invite me into rooms to observe and, later, participate.
While working with theatre and music students at the University of Denver and a few professionals, I spent much of last year (unsuccessfully) searching for acting companies, undergraduate, and graduate programs that practice similar work. My level of frustration grew as I saw real impact with existing students, but was failing to introduce the work to a larger audience.
Drew explains, “After years of grabbing students by the scruffs of their necks, and the mounting frustration of not being able to communicate to them how to make the physical adjustments necessary to achieve a neutral bearing on which character could be applied, I felt it was time to call in an expert. In a field that is as collaborative as the theatre, it’s important to know when to ask for help, and I felt that both my apprentices and I would benefit from having Marcia’s trained eye in the room, observing our patterns, offering hands-on adjustments, and creating in all of us a heightened sense of total instrument awareness.”
My first day at Powerhouse, which I jokingly called Theatre Camp before and now refer to as Navy Seal Training for actors, was overwhelmingly exciting and set the tone for the next eighteen days.
Retraining breathing and vocal adjustments…
In Drew’s text class and rehearsal process, I worked on retraining breathing techniques, vocal adjustments, self-myofascial release work, and practices to avoid exhaustion and injury and find a “safety” when their instrument had been compromised. From there, we moved on to discussions, demonstrations, and practices that allowed them to look at building the physicality of a character without taking their bodies out of alignment (demonstrating how to adjust physicality to remain structurally sound).
Actors are accustomed to taking direction, and the apprentices were eager to hone their craft. Each new tool was latched onto, experimented with, and led to greater understanding of how to use their bodies within character, without adding personal bias or patterns.
Each hour with the apprentices led to new questions dealing with the rigors of a professional theatre career. Drew and other acting professionals helped demonstrate that instrument awareness and upkeep must be part of their daily routine, sharing practical career examples which illustrated the value of the work.
Apprentices saw, felt, and heard significant differences when they used their bodies correctly. The concept that they should feel effortless in movement and vocally was a radical eye-opener for both apprentices and professionals. Allowing them to feel ease in their instrument frequently resulted in disbelief, laughter, and even tears. Re-educating a performer relative to breathing and alignment gives them powerful tools. But the idea that what you previously practiced might be preventing you from accessing and harnessing your power is difficult to wrap your head around. My experience with this work has shown that it’s easy to overwhelm students. Yes, they adjust quickly, but I’m also asking them to question everything they know. I was inspired by their vulnerability and courage.
Helping find their real voice…
One vital part of my work with apprentices is having a professional actor/teacher with whom to collaborate. I am not there to teach acting or direct; I’m there to see patterns and listen for their “real” voice. I look at bodies and performances from a different (studied) viewpoint. In many ways, I’m teaching them much of what we teach all Pilates students. I’m leading them to body awareness, release, the ability to engage “good” tension, and an understanding and ability to be in alignment.
I’m physically manipulating, adjusting, and sometimes literally holding a student while they work on text or are in rehearsal. (Daily, I was covered with the sweat of some combination of 42 apprentices!) What I’m not doing in this setting is teaching Pilates. There simply isn’t time within any existing curriculum. That said, the ideal is to teach actors/apprentices Pilates several times a week (training their bodies) and work with them practically (while they are actually using their instruments).
I returned with a renewed conviction that actors have an intensely mentally and physically challenging job. The passion, determination, and work ethic required to just survive in this field is something they have in common with Pilates teachers.
But did I have impact?
“Without question, Marcia’s involvement made a profound difference in our work. Having a better understanding of how our bodies operate through space and learning how to economize our energy so we’re exerting it only when and where we need it, can absolutely alter the outcome of a performance and help an actor get through the rigors of an eight show week without damaging their instrument,” explained Drew. “Anyone can be great once, but to be great in the theatre requires a real consistency, night after night, over a number of weeks, if not months, and Marcia opened all of our eyes to the importance of using everything we have at our disposal to its fullest potential.”
My Powerhouse experience strengthened my resolve to impact how actors are trained and teach them how to manage their instruments so that their careers are long, vibrant, and pain free.
1. The Powerhouse Theater Training Program, a collaboration between Vassar College and New York Stage and Film, is a prestigious training program for theatre students ranging in age and experience from rising high school senior through recent college graduate.