I had a great day with some of the actors up at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme recently. They are doing the new Alecky Blythe play “Where Have I Been All My Life?” a very interesting ‘reality theatre’ piece based on interviews with contestants in Stoke’s Talent show of 2010 from teenagers to retired miners. The actors perform with ear-pieces delivering the interviewees’ words verbatim. Of course they also have to embody the interviewees and that’s where I came in. In a production like that with many characters you have a group of actors playing more than one person, so a retired miner in his 80s who is also blind and has breathing difficulties was played by an actor in his 30s while another young actor needed to clearly differentiate two different young men he was playing and a third had to find how to convince as someone with a hip replacement that hasn’t worked out well. For another the main physical description of the character was ‘bandy legged’. I had a matter of hours only to help out.
I was invited in by the director Theresa Heskins partly because of my history as an actor and movement director and because I have worked with her before, but also partly because I am a Feldenkrais Practitioner, and it showed me what a wonderful tool Feldenkrais is for finding that key that enables an actor to make a discovery – and how all the hands-on experience a Feldenkrais Practitioner has of enabling older people to move better, improving ways of moving with arthritis and so on, is incredibly valuable for understanding the kinds of patterns of movement that tend to go with those conditions at the same time as appreciating their specificity in relation to the individual person and so being able to really help actors find their own individual way of embodying those kinds of difficulties accurately rather than generally.
It was a successful afternoon I thought, partly because Theresa is always so good and clear about what is needed, partly because the actors were such a treat to work with, learning fast and being able to integrate and run with their discoveries straight away and partly because Feldenkrais is so damn helpful. The basic understanding that comes from Feldenkrais for me is firstly, that if one place in a person changes, every place in them has to adapt and secondly, how that adaption happens depends not only on the difficulty involved but also on the person. For example, often with an issue like a hip condition actors often don’t know exactly where their hip joint actually is, how they themselves use it normally and how it relates to other parts of themselves and they get, very valiantly, as far as doing something with their leg and maybe their pelvis that provides a generalised idea of hip pain – but interestingly what really sorted it for us on this occasion was what this actor found his chest needed to do! First we had to look at how the actor himself naturally walks so he could feel what he usually does and how he uses his leg, hip, back, chest and shoulders to walk. With most members of the public that’s a long job, with a good actor (like this one) it can be minutes. Once he felt how he used his hip joints, pelvis, back, chest etc to bring his leg forward in his own normal way of walking, I then asked him how he could bring the leg forward without the involvement of hip joint and what that might have to do with his back and chest -and very quickly and with only a little suggestion, the actor found a way of pulling and lifting with one side of his chest to bring his leg through which was exactly right – and yet his own discovery.
For the actor playing the man with ‘bandy legs’ too it was a case of feeling what turning the legs out did to his pelvis and crucially to his chest to make it work as a whole pattern of movement and give him something he could really integrate and play. For the actor playing two different young men it was all down to what he did with his pelvis and back and how that affected where it put the weight on his feet: for one character we stuck close to the actor’s own pattern of walking with his pelvis back over the heels, and a side-to-side rock as he walked and for the other I helped him feel how he could move his pelvis more forward over the balls of his feet and use a twisting pattern more than a side to side one. Immediately a swinging, spring-toed, ‘cocky’ walk appeared that he could have a lot of fun with. It was a slightly different process for the 80 year old blind man – we really had to get into the whole sensation of retaining and regaining balance being the big issue and what trouble with breathing does to your chest but he did a fabulous job. All of them were so quick to find things, integrate it and use it to play.
I wish I could have been around to see the final product but based on those few hours I am sure they did a lovely job especially with Theresa H at the helm – but it was so interesting for me to see how accurate a tool Feldenkrais is for that kind of job and how useful (and fun) for actors it can be.