The other day an acting student asked if Feldenkrais helps by enabling you to find ‘neutral’ and then whether you could use Feldenkrais for character work too. In a sense the answer is simply ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ but there was something in the question itself that brought me up short. I am not sure this is really what he meant, but underneath the question I felt an assumption that the job was finding neutral and then finding a character from there. Its an assumption I have noticed before and would like to challenge.
Firstly there is a question of what ‘neutral’ actually is. What does it mean? One idea is that it means ridding oneself of all personal traits of moving, talking or being and becoming a blank sheet on which to draw a character. It is often thought that that involves learning ’correct’ posture and that this ’neutral’ then provides the base from which we can build character.
If so, then presumably it is thepercieved job of Feldenkrais to first help us iron out all our habits so we can stand or move ‘correctly’ in ‘neutral’, and then help us find other characters’ movement on top of that. But there is a difficulty with this way of thinking in that it can never really work. We can never iron out all our habits and we will never stand perfectly so we will always fall short of an ideal like this. One might say you just have to accept it won’t be ideal, but there’s something about that way of thinking that seems to me upside down. Why should an actor work to get rid of their habits? After all people pay good money to see actors because of the unique habits/patterns/ qualities that they bring to a role. The audience want to see Johnny Depp play Captain Jack Sparrow, Geoffrey Rush play the Marquis de Sade and Cate Blanchett play Queen Elizabeth – or whoever it is they want to see play whatever it is – because what those actors bring to those characters is, in some sense, quintessentially them. No one else could do (or would even imagine doing) exactly what they do, simply because they aren’t them. Another actor would have a different set of habits/patterns/qualities and would do it differently. I don’t think The Feldenkrais Method aims to help you get rid of your habits and Feldenkrais certainly didn’t think correcting your ‘posture’ was the way to help yourself in any way - in fact he didn’t even like to use the word ‘posture’ at all. (more on that later).
Lets take an example. Imagine a young actress who stands with her head tilted to the right. Its so compulsive she doesn’t know she does it until she wants to become an actor and every teacher in drama school tells her to stop standing with her head on one side. She begins to notice it makes her look questioning, weak, a little off-balance and unsure. Its not a story she always want to tell when she comes on stage or onto camera. She doesn’t want to be cast like that all the time (in fact she has her eye on Lady Macbeth). She decides she needs to work on a more ‘neutral’ place, somewhere more in the middle. So she tries to correct it. She spends all day pulling her head to the left and it hurts after a while in the top of her shoulders and back somewhere and actually she feels a lot more unstable doing that and sometimes her right knee aches and now she is being told off for not breathing in a connected way. Worst of all if she doesn’t think about it all the time her head simply tilts again. And it doesn’t see to be helping her do anything else better or differently either, in fact it difficult to do things if she tries to hold her head in the middle at the same time.
So what does the Feldenkrais Method do for her? Well it helps her feel what her habit involves for a start. She learns that actually she can bend in her ribs to the right really well, and that she can lengthen in the left side of her ribs really well. She starts to notice that she can rock onto her left hip when she sits and lift her right really well – much better than the other way around. She notices that she can arch her back on the right side and bring her arm up on that side or even behind her really well and so on. She is invited to play with exploring those movements and noticing all the places involved so that its clear what she can do really well and so that she can find them better on the other side too. She slowly learns to bend and arch and twist and roll and rock with all of herself better in many different directions. And the funny thing is that at the end of any of these ‘explorations’ she notices she breathes better, stands more equally on both legs and that her head tilts less, even though she has does nothing to practice ‘being neutral’ or ‘being in the middle’ or ‘standing correctly’. In fact she has practised the opposite, she has practised going away from middle in many, many different ways and developed a variety of possibilities in every direction and that has allowed her to find middle, to find a more neutral place. Not the other way around. If you can only bend to the right in your movement then your posture will reflect it with a tilt to the right. But if you can bend to the right and left more or less equally then your posture will be pulled more into the middle. Posture is simply the sum of how you use yourself not the other way around.
In discovering all these different movements she develops the tools to play weak, strong, and every nuance in between. It is the journey of developing variety that both enables the skills for finding character and allows a neutral place to emerge as simply the midpoint of all the different possibilities. For our actress it is not about correcting herself and trying to hold herself in a particular way: she’s already tried that and found it didn’t work. Neutral turns out to be simply the’ home’ she comes back to between movements. And it doesn’t mean losing her habits as such: she can still find the pattern that involves tilting her head and use it when she wants to, just without being stuck in doing it all the time. She can be herself in so many more ways. Her neutral will never be the same as mine or yours or Johnny Depp’s, or Geoffrey Rush’s or Cate Blanchett’s – it will still be uniquely hers (luckily because she actually has some very lovely qualities audiences will enjoy!) and she has learnt to go in many more directions and make many more different choices. Feldenkrais used the word ‘acture’ not ‘posture’ to reflect exactly that. He said that good ‘acture’ is when you can go in any direction without any ‘preliminary adjustment’ (altering position). That’s worth thinking about as an actor. No preliminary adjustment. Being there present, ready, in the moment, able to go in any direction, able to respond. Pretty helpful for actors –and a very different idea of neutral to the one we started with.
Those 3 actors I mentioned came to mind as examples partly because most people know who they are and partly because they are not known for being trapped in their habits and playing everything the same: in fact they all play a big variety of parts in very different ways, and yet with all 3 we see a version of them – very specifically them – in every part. And that is part of the pleasure: they can use their wonderful selves in a wonderful variety of ways. And of course that’s not to say Feldenkrais wouldn’t open up even more possibilities for those actors too. There is always room for development however talented and successful you become. It may even be the very moment you need it not to get stuck in a whole different way.
However, before I finish there is something more to say about ‘neutral’ because while I think this was the simple meaning of neutral asked about by this actor, most young actors these days will be familiar from their training with neutral masks. Developed by Lecoq from an earlier heroic mask they are not exactly blank but are not character masks either. They are simple, well-defined, somewhat stylised and idealised faces in natural leather or white usually. I work with them as a learning tool whenever I get the chance. I don’t usually get to use them in the Jacques Lecoq way – interesting and valuable though that is –mostly I use them simply because of what they reveal. In putting on the mask your habits and patterns become very loud. Of course you could say that using the masks is ‘practising neutral’ but the mask doesn’t encourages you to ‘correct’ yourself or to hold yourself in a particular way: I think it is another tool for exploring. We learn a lot from the attempt to embody the mask. The mask helps you clarify what you do (like Feldenkrais) and in addition it reveals when you do anything that is imposed, disconnected, unnecessary or gets in the way. Even in the Lecoq tradition it is used, as I understand it, not to find a table rasa as such (even though he says it does in one place in his book – elsewhere he admits that everyone will have their own personal traits), but to explore and reveal. For example the student may be asked to attempt to embody the essence of something like an element - fire, air, water, earth – in all their extraordinary difference. And because the mask reveals all so brutally, the performer has to find each very different element in a very different but utterly connected, wholly present and transparent way to make it work with the mask. And for me that is the value of working with neutral. Not because it asks you to rid yourself of your habits but because, like Feldenkrais, it illuminates them so honestly and so profoundly and simply invites you to connect to yourself more and to explore.