Thoughts & Quick Exercises
The other day, a screenwriter friend of mine, who is curious about acting, and even attended my class for a bit, asked me “Why is the breath so important to actors? Why does all training begin with the breath and people act like it’s so important?” I thought that was an excellent question, and one to which I am sure there are many answers. Upfront is the obvious; speech, the ability to project into space, technical proficiency at dialects and other vocal skills. All true and very valuable to any actor who is serious.
QUICK EXERCISE: Repeat these words out lout. “The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue.” Try it a few times. Take a deep breath and then see how many times you can say it until you run out of breath. Keep count in your mind, go as fast as you can.
As my friend and I talked, his question started to bring up other ways in which the breath animates the actor, with or without vocalization or even audible sound. If you think about it, the breath is a 3 dimensional space, that moves into us, and then out again. It has rhythm, volume, it changes us moment to moment form the inside. Breath moves our bodies. Breath is voluntary and involuntary. We can gasp at the sight of a dead mouse, and we can audibly breathe in sharply to appear as though we are so surprised! Some times we play our breath and sometimes it plays us. And it turns out, once you start looking into human experience, and then into the psychological reality of being human, the breath is suddenly a focus. The breath contains a lot of information.
QUICK EXERCISE: Take a breath, and notice how your shoulders move when you breath in. Take a second breath, and try to let your belly and ribs balloon with the breath, but your shoulders do no rise. Try this breath again. Then take a fourth breath, but this time image you have a small balloon or ball in the center of your pelvis, below your belly, and as you inhale, imagine you are inhaling right down into that balloon and it fills as you take in air. You can even place your hands over your lower belly and feel the expansion. Then exhale normally. Do this 3 more times. Good. Notice how you feel.
Every emotion has an accompanying breath. A sleeping breath is unmistakable. Crying offers a multitude of breaths; long breaths, fast breathing, gasping, moans, laughter, small hidden cries. Each lives in the body differently, and breath is central, in every sense of the word. As humans we have evolved to learn how to ‘get a read’ on other people. Many people are unaware that we make judgments, or assumptions when we first meet another person with in 7 seconds or less, and much of that ‘first impression’ sticks with our opinion of that person even as we get to know them more.1 This tells me two things, first impressions matter, and second, we are really good at reading each other very quickly.
QUICK EXERCISE: Let's do this one together. It involves pressing play and closing your eyes.
Breath is also the ultimate medium to create in. It has everything, shape, movement, mass, color, pitch, variety and a shared intimacy. Breathing is intimate. You can’t help but work from a deeper place with in yourself if you let your breath go deep. Something from in you is mingled with the breath of all life, and constantly mixing, before your next big sip of air.
QUICK EXERCISE: Take the deepest breath you can, and then count 1 to 20. The odd numbers you will say in the highest pitch you can muster, and the even numbers as low as you can go. Count at a good pace and when you reach 20, take a deep breath and immediately just say AHHHHHHHH, with voice, not just the sound of a big sigh, say it as loud and and long as your breath goes. Hear the pitch of that AHHHHHH. That is the natural pitch of your voice.
It’s a little gross to think about actually, the mingling of all of life in your next deep breath. Which is why it is so wonderful that breath can be involuntary. When I run around the track fast, I’m not thinking about my communal breath or the process of breathing at all. My mind is free to concentrate on what spurs me on toward my goal, and my breath, my constant companion, is right there working hard, integrated into the larger goal, my finish line. When I ride a rollercoaster my breath goes through many iterations. Calm breaths, quick panicky breaths, screams, holding my breath, and a slight hyperventilation when its all finally over. Even though I am clearly traumatized by roller coasters, they are a great ride, so I keep going!
QUICK EXERCISE: Notice people and children through out the day and notice how they are breathing. Just notice. You may note their age or circumstance, but no need to draw conclusions, just study what you see. Notice yourself at different times of the day, and note what activity or what thoughts are in your mind. Nothing to change or do differently, just the act of noticing is the exercise.
Acting can feel like a great ride. And much like my run around the track , if I can focus my attention on my goal, my breath will accompany me accordingly. And if I am lucky enough, the performance I am doing is a play ground for my imagination. When my imagination starts to percolate, and mixes with the other actors, the scene, all the ‘things’ in this new world, I know am in for a great ride. My breath acts as the connection between my head, my heart and my guts. When I take a deep breath I am integrating my experience and all the new information constantly flying at me. As an actor I allow myself to be ‘moved’ by the scene, and my breath supports every reaction I have. My breath carries me from moment to moment, allowing me to feel fully present in this waking dream, this practiced fiction, this artificial moment. If I can become comfortable with my breath moving as it sees fit, and my body is flexible enough to allow itself to be moved, I am in for a great ride. And that is living magic.
QUICK EXERCISE: Find a piece of text that you like, a book, a song lyric, a poem. And speak it out loud many many times. See what kind of ride your breath will take you on if you allow it to be full and flexible. See how your imagination is stoked by the words and images, but held up by the breath. Never mind the sound of your words, feel your body move, experience how your emotions and your mind, move.
What brings you in?
Everyone has their own reasons when they walk into an acting class. One thing I have learned from teaching, children are different, everyone is that everyone who chooses to come to my class, regardless of age, experience, ambition or goals, comes for one reason. They all, at some point, in some way, have had a sneaking suspicion that they are more than they think they are. And they are right. Acting offers a way to test that theory. In a great acting class, there will be exercises or games or material that asks you to react honestly, and at times technically.
I know my own reasons. I've been wandering or some times running into classrooms, workshops and productions since I was 14. I got really lucky, I went to a public high school that had three theaters. That is unheard of. We did 11 shows a year, with audiences between 200 and 2000. Being a kid, gives you the permission to play anything, anyone in any time. A squirrel, a grandmother, a talking baby. As a student you are given room to challenge yourself. You get to investigate from the inside out. What was Sherlock Holmes thinking? Why did Medea kill her children? What was it like to be an immigrant in the 1920's in Boston? I loved the theatre and acting when I was a kid because I saw what a wild ride it could be. Every six weeks we worked on a new life, a new place, a new time, a new history, a new person. We would choose shoes for this person and work to understand them so much that we could defend their lives honestly and with conviction. To me that was exciting. Constantly learning, constantly being exposed to new things, Constantly thinking about what is like to be other people, and in the process finding out what it feels like to be me. I have returned to acting class my whole life because as I grow in experience, I have to keep my acting skills alive and always challenged. Acting isn't easy. People on television make it look easy. And sure, there are some who will say it is. I guess they know something I don't. My experience tells me that great acting, the kind that moves people, that burns a story into your mind, that triggers your suspension of disbelief, that kind of acting is hard to do because it requires vulnerability. I'm going to write a whole other blog on vulnerability, so check that out too. But for the purpose of this blog, vulnerability is tough for people like us. We have been raised in a culture that teaches you to be polite and hide the way you really feel about most everything. We play some of our cards very close to our chest. Some cards, we've held on to for so long, we don't even know they are there. By cards I mean memories, emotions, ideas, beliefs that we keep so secret we forget that they ever happened at all. Often in stretching to play a character that is unlike ourselves we access our own memories or emotions. This can be as exciting as it is scary.
So why do you come into acting class? Maybe its to focus your mind, test out your skills, learn something new, do some thing daring, or following an dream you've had for a long time. What ever brings you in, in the end you encounter yourself, a whole integrated self that is free to create.