Teaching Feldenkrais in Vocational Drama Schools

This was my (uncut!) talk at the ‘(Re)storing Performance’ seminar on Feldenkrais for Performance, organised by Thomas Kampe at Bath Spa University back in June. Obviously I didn’t get to say all this in the time so here it is uncut. I have many more thoughts to share about Feldenkrais for actors and acting in the book I am writing (due out in the spring): this is a little piece and is specifically about teaching in drama schools. The audience consisted mostly of teachers of either Feldenkrais, dance or performance, some professors, some performers and even the odd student! Its quite long for a blog post and has no pictures, so its really for the hard core!

‘From the Coal Face’: Teaching Feldenkrais on Vocational Drama Trainings

It’s been very difficult to know how to pitch this. My guess is that still relatively few of us are actually teaching in vocational drama schools as opposed to teaching on University drama courses, dance courses or performance courses with a broader artistic remit, and I think that all these situations are different to teaching the public and all have a slightly different flavour. So I thought I would talk about my own experience of drama school (conservatoire) teaching over the last 9 years and hope there would be enough interest in it for you.

Vocational drama schools have very particular demands. Students in these schools have pretty much one goal in mind which is to be good enough to make a career as a professional actor. Obviously many of them, in fact, will end up writing, running theatre companies, teaching or exploring a bigger canvas in some way, but at this point in their lives they are usually very focused on training as a professional actor for a future in The Business. That’s why they are in drama school and not anywhere else. It is my job to be very clearly part of a training that can enable them to become good and potentially successful actors, and they will judge my class mostly by how much they think it is helping them to that end.

Secondly they have come to my class because it is part of their curriculum and they have to be there whether they like it or not, and they have to stay in my class whether they like it or not. Some of them may know something about the Method, but mostly they have never heard of it and have no idea why they should be doing it, how it might benefit them, or what it has to do with making them better actors.

Then of course some students arrive at drama school with an instinctive understanding of acting as a physical process but many of them are surprised by the idea that acting involves so much movement training let alone something as profound as Feldenkrais. They may come expecting to be doing acting classes pretty much all of the time. They may come expecting to dance, get fit, get in shape and work out. Indeed they may be disappointed that they are not doing as much hard physical graft as they expected. But whatever their expectations, they probably don’t include lying on the floor and feeling what happens in their pelvis when they roll one leg or noticing where their hip joint is. That mostly comes as a surprise.

A big part of the job is to help them bridge that gap so they can be available enough to even start to learn.

It also has to be borne in mind that we now live in an age where people pay or find funding for their higher education and so they are classed as consumers as much as they are students. My class is assessed by them and its relevance marked and commented on through feedback forms. Of course it is right the students should have a say in their own education (and it often works very strongly in the teacher’s favour) but the consumer culture brings assumptions with it. It can easily tip into “they pay and you deliver”. Of course we have to create the conditions for learning and that requires great skill from the teacher, but finding how they can think of themselves as learners becomes another big part of the job. It can become a vicious circle where a student is struggling with the work, so doesn’t engage with it and then gets little result from the lesson and consequently decides it is just not useful rather than looking at what is hard in it for them and how they can learn from it. Of course this can be a difficulty with learning full-stop, but the consumer culture seems to legitimise it. Again it does mean that as a Feldenkrais teacher, finding how to create a learning culture in the room and how to make it possible for those who find it hard becomes very important.

It is probably also worth stating the obvious: vocational drama schools are not academic. There is very little essay writing or written exams. So, however intelligent and interested the students are, in this context, the theoretical aspects of Feldenkrais won’t count as useful learning for its own sake. It needs to translate into an experience that they can appreciate as useful in a fairly immediate and very practical way. In my experience, to justify my continued place in a packed school curriculum I need to be able to create a situation in which I can in some way reach the students who find it most difficult, not just the handful of natural ‘feldy’ types who will fall in love with it immediately. Sometimes a whole class can get in the felde groove as the doubters get swept up in the enthusiasm of the rest, however it is also easy as a teacher to be seduced by the voices of those who love it, and not really acknowledge the ones who are lost and who simply seek to disappear, disengage – or simply fall asleep.

Finally, schools really differ, and the situation of the teacher will differ within it, which may account for some very different teaching experiences among us. You may be a respected movement teacher there already whose students will follow you trustingly when you introduce Feldenkrais. You may be brought into a school where Feldenkrais is a natural fit with the values and processes the school nurtures. You may be brought in as a novel idea by the head in a school that doesn’t really know what Feldenkrais is other than a less boring version of ‘Alex Tech’ that can be done in bigger groups or perhaps where the movement teaching is on a very different track so that you find yourself struggling to make the work understood at all. Sometimes it is only the voice department that welcomes you which can leave the students very confused as your lessons are ‘Awareness Through Movement’. You may be welcomed and integrated into a department where the tutors readily include you as part of a team that works together, or you may be brought in as an outside extra along with yoga or pilates and find yourself very much on your own with little idea of what else is going on. I have been in or been around all these situations.
It does mean that of course when someone asks ‘how do you teach Feldenkrais in a drama school?’ for me the traditional Feldenkrais answer applies……. “IT DEPENDS”.

So what do I do?
Firstly I try to address all the things I have just laid out:
• I try not to teach in schools where I will have one arm tied behind my back. (Although sometimes you don’t know till you are in it.)
• I always contextualise the work and relate it to other aspects of acting so the students can, as far as possible, get what it is for, and I frame it in as many different ways as I can so that if they don’t get it one way they get it in another.
• I look for ways to intrigue them, engage their curiosity and give them strong experiences they are less likely to forget.
• I try to validate any kind of experience they have, even – or especially – if it is an experience they don’t like or find ‘weird’. In fact I try and get them to understand that this is as much about experiencing themselves in different ways, of tuning themselves to notice fine differences and developing a sense of nuance as it is about becoming good at movement, standing nicely or improving their voice.
• I keep shifting it away from teaching and towards learning as much as I can by asking them a lot of questions, getting them to pick out themes from what we are doing and giving them time to tell me why they think its relevant or how it is affecting their work or life
• I try to reach the students where they are.
• I try to never give up on someone but I accept that I am not going to succeed with everyone all of the time.

Ok a little fleshing out.
There are a great number of ways I use to contextualise and frame the work for them. Most of them form the chapters in the book I have just written called (imaginatively) ‘Feldenkrais for Actors’ (scheduled for publication in spring 2016 by Nick Hern Books)
For example, very obvious things like posture and alignment – the words they will know- will become an obsession for many of them and can be a great place to start especially with first years.

I don’t need to tell you that have we have very useful ways of thinking about this in a simpler, less prescriptive and more dynamic way than is sometimes taught or than they might expect. Only having a ‘correct’ way to stand is particularly unhelpful for actors who have to play people who don’t stand like that, and the idea that posture involves being sensitive to the relationships between parts of themselves and that those relationships can shift, rather than imposing a fixed order, is something they will find very helpful for the variety of possibility they will need. I link it to other ideas they will be dealing with like ‘grounding’ and ‘centre of gravity’ as they will do Feldenkrais lessons that give them a clearer experience of what these terms actually feel like. I invite them not just to feel differences but to see them in each other by observing something relevant to the lesson in pairs or groups before and after. I invite them to hear the differences in their voices too. In fact I often use voice during the lesson so they can feel where they do something that interferes with it to help establish the link between voice and movement, and because for some the difference in their voice will be the clearest outcome some days.
From here it is easy to move away from posture for its own sake to what it means for their presence on stage – that elusive quality. I try to bring out how this more dynamic idea of posture involves the ability to go in any direction at any time and to reverse easily and to begin to see how that translates into a readiness and any ability to listen, respond and play- and how an audience responds to that simple openness and availability. So I might frame a Feldenkrais lesson with an exercise where all they have to do is come into the space and introduce themselves to the audience as simply as possible and keep contact with us until they feel the moment arrive that they should leave. We look at the difference in their ability to do less, be more simple, and to their presence and availability to the audience before and after the lesson. I use neutral masks sometimes for the same kind of purpose. It’s often very striking and they usually get it.

Of course awareness is key to all this and the whole theme of the habits and patterns we have in movement and in the way we are in the world forms a more over-arching context that the group will keep coming back to as they begin to realise at least some of what that means. Obviously scans, working in pairs and groups, observing each other, making drawings and just developing a sensitivity to difference over time helps. However despite everything, some of them will have real difficulties with feeling what they do or noticing differences at all and this is where giving them some strong experiences comes in.
At the moment one kind of tactic I often use is to start with bigger more dynamic lessons first like a variety of ways of getting up and down from the floor so that they can have a clear experience of how much more easily and fluidly they can do it at the end of each lesson, feel change and difference on a more obvious level and have some fun with it. We can then notice how that affects their posture and breath and voice as well, and begin to move towards some of the details. That usually buys me permission to go into lessons with a much smaller movement range and while some of them prefer the smaller lessons, many will find starting with something bigger an easier route in.

Another thing I have started using recently to help them feel – very graphically – how differently people hold themselves, is a box of sand. I did it first on a workshop at Sadlers Wells with professional actors but it’s great with students too. When someone leaves their prints in sand the depth of the print reveals how the person carries their weight as well as how the feet are angled. Someone else trying to match their feet to those prints will have a very strong experience of how differently that other person supports themselves and of how strange and difficult it can be to accommodate that organisation in themselves. Jaws drop. This may be the first time they really get what you mean by different patterns of being upright. The shock is not forgotten in a hurry.

This begins to lead us more into what makes up character, which is something that always interests them. There are many ways of course, but an example they can get hold of is through an examination of walking. Again there are many possibilities here, but one way I have found of doing it clearly in a relatively short time is to take how we walk apart through planes of movement: Bending/arching, side bending, twisting. I use classic Feldenkrais lessons to get into the detail of how the movement of the leg connects to the back in these planes. Of course here you can get into how this is about the person not just the walk, so I ask them to feel what kind of person they are, what the world feels like, how they feel about other people and so on when they walk in one way or another or at the end of a lesson. This is something that is more likely to catch their attention than just technical detail about their leg and back.

To help them really get it I will often accompany this with a project in which they observe a person outside school and then copy that person’s walk for us in class. They may do this kind of copying in other classes, but the way I do it is usually different because of the level of detail I am asking them to feel in themselves first and observe in each other too. This allows them to work at a greater level of subtlety and precision. In fact this is an example of why Feldenkrais can be so valuable in a school. It is the specificity and level of detail, of fine difference, of nuance they get from it which is like nothing else but which can support everything else. As part of this exercise, we as audience in class discuss who we think the person being presented is. We may or may not be accurate about the person they saw – it doesn’t matter. The point is we get something from what we see, often from little but very specific things, once again bringing home the understanding that small differences make all the difference and that how we are and who we are are not separate. This can be a very big step for acting students who wish to simply act out some image they have in their head. Interestingly one or two of the young struggling professional actors who come to me at home have realised that this is exactly the piece of learning they have managed to miss despite 3 or 4 years of training. They wrote movement lessons off as ‘wanky’ or just didn’t take enough of an interest and never really appreciated that movement is fundamental to who we are. And this is the enormous piece we can offer as Feldenkrais Teachers, in a way they can usually get.

From here the step to understanding that emotion is a physiological process not just a mental process is not huge . I have nice ways of bringing that out but for now I thought I would read you this little bit of a draft of my book instead:
“Through learning to listen to yourself with increasing accuracy during Awareness Through Movement Lessons, you can learn to notice little shifts and changes in your breathing, heart rate and muscular tone and it can form a very background awareness against which you can navigate through a play or find the moment in front of a camera. We discussed this in the chapter on awareness. It is not a self-consciousness but a connectedness to what is going on inside you. It enables you to sense the ebb and flow and physical shape of the ‘currents’ of feelings and emotions you, as the character, travel through. Once you have a sense of what that shape and flow is in a scene or even a whole play, something in you will seek it, shape it for you from within as you go. It’s not a conscious thing because, as we have said, it is part of that background ‘being in your skin’ thing while you are out there being with the other actors in the scene, but when I think back to what I did as an actor I am sure that this was a big part of it: some deeper part of me was tuned into the physical feeling of where and how I was and it helped me find and re-find what I needed. As I sit here writing this I can still recall Rose of Sharon’s empty despair towards the end of Grapes of Wrath which I played 30 years ago. But what I recall are the sensations in my belly, chest, jaw and throat – even down my arms, behind my eyes and what it does to my breathing even now – and with it comes the emotional sense of it. Very different to the feeling of her earlier in the play: perky, spoilt and newly married – a light, bright, full, sensual, hips and lips kind of feeling. It’s not that I didn’t do other kinds of actor prep too, but that actually on stage the changing physical map was always there in the background. I say it not to hold myself up as any good example but because I don’t think I am alone in it and you might recognise the feeling if I describe it….. Feldenkrais can do a great deal to tune you in to that possibility.”

I am aware I am really skating over some things to give a sense of just a few of the places I go with our work .There isn’t time to go into much more but I would like to mention one more thing because it is possibly contentious…..

Recently I have started consciously meeting students where they are in terms of their desire to be fit, strong and look good. Ok. I know. Those are words that carry baggage that Feldenkrais often calls into question. But this is a place where a number of students are or will be pushed by the pressure of the business and while you can’t always serve everyone, the more people you can reach where they are and take somewhere more useful the better. Also fit and strong is not a bad thing to want to be per se. We sometimes forget that our founder was very strong himself and our method is rooted in martial arts, so actually we have really great lessons to help them approach this so much better. In fact these days not all gym training is nonsense. There is a strong movement towards functional training and integrated strength training that doesn’t rely on machines or seek to train isolated muscle groups, but uses body weight and skills work and might incorporate some free weights on top. Many of the students know at least something about this kind of training already because its sexy – Parkour (free running) is part of that movement for example – and Feldenkrais actually contains the foundation work for much of that kind of training. I have to say that I have found relating to these kind of students a great deal easier since I did a study of bare foot running and even more so now that I am close to my black belt in a pretty tough form of traditional Okinawan karate. I now really get what drives people to train and what it means to just take that away from them and I can build bridges for them to our work much better. Also I suspect that a few of my students can relate to my teaching much better if they suspect I might train as hard or harder than them (and even that the little old lady might just be able to do some damage!) – and yet Feldenkrais is the thing I teach and that I credit with enabling me to do the fairly extreme things I do. Full on sport or martial art is not every Feldenkrais Teacher’s bag, but it doesn’t matter. The lessons are there for all of us to teach and, if you just don’t stand in silent judgement and allow students who train to feel scorned – which will only alienate them – you can enable them to approach their training in a more varied, nuanced and useful way and to consider more carefully what strength and power might involve for an actor.

Obviously every lesson helps them feel the support of the skeleton and the ground which is the big deal for strength as well. I also use many of the ones clearly drawn from developmental movement which is now – surprise, surprise – becoming big in functional training methods too. I use any of the reaching, pushing, pulling, kicking kinds of lessons; lessons towards jumping, even lessons that help with squatting which is the basis for weight lifting amongst other things… there are many, many more you can use it just depends how you frame them and what you bring out of the lesson. I use one of Jeff Haller’s breathing lessons that helps them push more effectively, and on the other hand I use the ‘basis of hopping’ to also help teach relationship of the head for voice. Then of course some of these lessons also contain the fundamentals for animal work that most acting schools do, and clearly help with their fight classes and aspects of dance. Obviously these sorts of lessons are never just for those who like to train, they are great for everyone in a myriad of ways just as every Feldenkrais lesson is and we spend time noticing what they do to the clarity and power of their presence, to their voice, to their ability to be simpler, to be more efficient in their use of self and to experience themselves in a different way.

Well that’s as much as I have time for. I can’t say everything so I have tried out pick out a few things. I took a whole book to write only part of it so a short talk is really, really hard. However I did want to finish with a quote I often take as another contextualising theme. It captures something of what our work can do very well, and maybe why Peter Brook may have chosen to work with Dr Feldenkrais.It is John Heilpurn from his book ‘The Conference of the Birds’ on Peter Brook’s) famous journey through Africa with his theatre company, Centre International de Recherche Theatral (CIRT)
“Brook told me that if you watch any cat, it isn’t just that his body is so relaxed and expressive. It’s something more important than that. A cat actually thinks visibly. If you watch him jump on a shelf, the wish to jump and the action of jumping are one and the same thing. There’s no division. A thought animates his whole body. It’s in exactly the same way that all Brook’s exercises try to train the actor. The actor is trained to become so organically related within himself, he thinks completely with his body. He becomes one sensitive responding whole, like the cat.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *