by Helen Farmer When I moved to New York after completing my MFA in acting I bought several books that claimed to be New York actor survival guides how to build your career, how to audition etc. I quickly realized little information that help me in the way I needed. I was tense, unsure, and had no idea how to make use of my training when I was sitting in a casting office or worse, waiting for the phone to ring. I wish I had been able to carry Bill Connington’s "Physical Expression on Stage and Screen" with me then. For, Mr. Connington has written a book that both educates and inspires. Working through this book an actor will not only find their feet on the ground and their head moving forward and up, but they will reignite their creative fires and empowered to be the artist they want to be. A true ‘survival guide’ if there ever was one.
Mr. Connington begins as many Alexander teachers do with the story of F.M. the way he tells sets tone for the book to follow. He is not interested in being mired in the past. He touches briefly on the history of AT as well as his own experiences. These sections serve to contextualize the work, making it more someone who has never heard of Alexander or this kind of work. But this is a book for actors, not necessarily Alexander practitioners Mr. Connington moves quickly into the heart of the matter. With the suggestion that the results he has seen are: “Unique, surprising and unexpected” from an approach described as “organic, non-judgmental and open”, I would defy an actor struggling with any kind of block in their creativity to not dive right into the this book.
Basic Principles Brought to Life
In the early chapters Mr. Conninton begins to explore some basic Alexander concepts such as proprioception, end-gaining and startle response. Each explanation if followed by a clearly laid out experiential exercise that the actor can do on their own or with a friend. These exercises allow concepts to become integrated into the actor’s process. Being able to fully blend the Alexander technique into the daytoday lives of the actors and have it be relevant is clearly important to Mr. Connington and is manifested in several interesting ways. The most striking being the of the Alexander principles: Sensory Awareness, Inhibition, Direction, and Constructive Conscious Control. Instead Mr. Connington gives us: Sense, Poise, Flow and Choice. Reading this language I felt as if someone had opened a window in a musty room and let a little light in. The principles are all present, but the shift to less arcane language encourages a kind of accessibility I really responded to. The classical Alexander ‘directions’, become ‘flow thoughts’ and are dropped into the subsequent exercises that investigate both everyday (sitting, talking on the phone, typing) and more expansive activities (walking and talking, balancing, stillness), as well as breathing. Mr. Connington describes this work as: “a multi-platform self-improvement program” and through these exercises he offers concise, simple ways for the actor to gain more self-knowledge and freedom in their work.
Had the book stopped there it would be an excellent introduction to Alexander technique, but it is the second and third sections that truly set this book apart for an actor. In the second section Mr. Connington asks the actor to come out and play or as he puts it: “stimulate and develop your imagination and emotion.” While never losing sight of the principles, the second series of exercises gives the performer the opportunity to explore character building, vocalization and movement in an enjoyable non-judgmental way. Mr. Connington asks the reader to do everything from chanting, to creating a silent movie, to reciting Emily Dickinson. Drawing on such influences as Michael Chekov and Stanislavski, Mr. Connington clearly demonstrates through this expansive and fun section that the Alexander technique is not a stand-alone aspect of theatrical training, and can be used to broaden the range of an actor’s work.
In the third section Mr. Connington gets down to the nitty-gritty, how an actor is going to use the Alexander technique outside of the studio. This is an essential and oft-missed element of actor training; how do you take the creative exploration of rehearsal or class and put it to work in an audition or performance? Mr. Connington’s vast experience as an actor and working with actors is clear here. Using the Alexander principles he offers exercises that an actor can use in the mundane everyday work of being an actor. Exercises that will get one comfortable with a cold reading (essential if you want to audition for film and TV), or will warm up you up in three minutes or less (great if you are running audition to audition), or will allow you to let go and get some sleep at the end of the day (in case you ever want to play Hamlet). Moreover, he introduces the concept of constructive conscious control, or as he calls it ‘choice’ and offers it to his reader as the ultimate gift. As an actor it is easy to feel like you are not the one in control of your destiny. To be reminded that everything is a choice and that the ability to change lies within their grasp is a very empowering message and one every artist should hear.
It is that message of empowerment I take away from this book. Mr. Connington is offering to every actor a simple, concise, and fun way to fully realize their potential as artists and as healthy happy human beings, an incredible gift to say the least.