Relaxation of Muscles | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski
Relaxation of Muscles
An Actor Prepares
WHEN THE DIRECTOR came into the classroom he called on Maria, Vanya, and me to play the scene where the money is burned.
We went on the stage and started.
In the beginning, things went well. But when we reached the tragic part I felt that something inside of me faltered, then, to give myself some support from outside, I pressed with all my strength against some object under my hand. Suddenly something cracked; at the same time I felt a sharp pain; some warm liquid wet my hand.
I am not sure when I fainted. I remember some confusion of sounds. After that increasing weakness, dizziness, and then unconsciousness.
My unfortunate accident (I had grazed an artery and lost so much blood that I was in bed for some days) led the Director to make a change of plan, and take up ahead of schedule part of our physical training. A summary of his remarks was given to me by Paul.
Tortsov said: “It will be necessary to interrupt the strictly systematic development of our program, and to explain to you, somewhat ahead of the usual order, an important step which we call ‘Freeing our Muscles.’ The natural point at which I should tell you about this is when we come to the external side of our training. But Kostya’s situation leads to our discussion of this question now.
“You cannot, at the very beginning of our work, have any conception of the evil that results from muscular spasms and physical contraction. When such a condition occurs in the vocal organs a person with otherwise naturally good tones becomes hoarse or even loses his voice. If such contraction attacks the legs, an actor walks like a paralytic; if it is in his hands, they grow numb and move like sticks. The same sort of spasms occurs in the spine, the neck, and the shoulders. In each case, they cripple the actor and prevent him from playing. It is worst of all, however, when this condition affects his face, twisting his features, paralyzing them, or making his expression turn to stone. The eyes protrude, and the taut muscles give an unpleasant look to the face, expressing quite the contrary of what is going on inside the actor, and bearing no relation to his emotions. The spasms can attack the diaphragm and other organs connected with breathing and interfere with proper respiration and cause shortness of breath. This muscular tautness affects other parts of the body also and cannot but have a deleterious effect on the emotions the actor is experiencing, his expression of them, and his general state of feeling.
“To convince you of how physical tenseness paralyzes our actions and is bound up with our inner life, let us make an experiment. Over there is a grand piano. Try to lift it.”
The students, in turn, made tremendous efforts and succeeded in raising only one corner of the heavy instrument.
“While you are holding the piano up, multiply quickly thirty-seven times nine,” said the Director to one of the students. “You can’t do it? Well, then, use your visual memory to recall all the stores along the street from the corner to the theatre. . . . Can’t do that either? Then sing me the Cavatina from Faust. No luck? Well, try to remember the taste of a dish of kidney stew, or the feel of silk plush, or the smell of something burning.”
To carry out his orders the student let down the corner of the piano, which he had been holding up with great effort, rested for a moment, recalled the questions put to him, let them sink into his consciousness, and then began to respond to them, calling up each required sensation. After that, he renewed his muscular effort, and with difficulty lifted one corner of the piano.
“So you see,” said Tortsov, “that in order to answer my questions you had to let down the weight, relax your muscles, and only then could you devote yourself to the operation of your five senses.
“Doesn’t this prove that muscular tautness interferes with inner emotional experience? As long as you have this physical tenseness you cannot even think about delicate shadings of feeling or the spiritual life of your part. Consequently, before you attempt to create anything it is necessary for you to get your muscles in proper condition so that they do not impede your actions.
“Here is the convincing case of Kostya’s accident. Let us hope that his misfortune will serve as an effective lesson to him, and to you all, in what you must not do on the stage.”
“But is it possible to rid yourself of this tenseness?” someone asked.
The Director recalled the actor described in My Life in Art, who suffered from a particularly strong tendency to muscular spasms. With the aid of acquired habits and constant checking up, he was able to reach the point where, as soon as he set foot on the stage, his muscles began to soften. The same thing happened at critical moments in creating his part—his muscles of their own accord tried to shake off all tensity.
“It is not only a strong general muscular spasm that interferes with proper functioning. Even the slightest pressure at a given point may arrest the creative faculty. Let me give you an example. A certain actress, with a wonderful temperament, was able to use it only at rare and accidental intervals. Ordinarily, her emotions were replaced by plain effort. She was worked over from the point of view of loosening up her muscles, but with only partial success. Quite accidentally, in the dramatic parts of her role, her right eyebrow would contract, ever so slightly. So I suggested that when she came to these difficult transitions in her part she should try to get rid of all tenseness in her face and completely free it. When she was able to accomplish this, all the rest of the muscles in her body relaxed spontaneously. She was transformed. Her body became light, her face became mobile, and expressed her inner emotions vividly. Her feelings had gained a free outlet to the surface.
“Just think: the pressure of one muscle, at a single point, had been able to throw out her whole organism, both spiritually and
Nicholas, who came to see me today, asserts that the Director said it is impossible completely to free the body from all unnecessary tenseness. Aside from being impossible, it is also superfluous. And yet Paul, from the same remarks as Tortsov, concluded that relaxing our muscles is absolutely incumbent on us, both when we are on the stage, and in ordinary life.
How can these contradictions be reconciled?
As Paul came after Nicholas, I give his explanation:
“As a human being, an actor is inevitably subject to muscular density. This will set in whenever he appears in public. He can rid himself of the pressure in his back, and it will go to his shoulder.
Let him chase it away from there and it will appear in his diaphragm. Constantly in some place or other, there will be pressure.
“Among the nervous people of our generation, this muscular tensity is inescapable. To destroy it completely is impossible, but we must struggle with it incessantly. Our method consists of developing a sort of control; an observer, as it were. This observer must, under all circumstances, see that at no point shall there be an extra amount of contraction. This process of self-observation and removal of unnecessary tenseness should be developed to the point where it becomes a subconscious, mechanical habit. Nor is that sufficient. It must be a normal habit and a natural necessity, not only during the quieter parts of your role but especially at times of the greatest nervous and physical lift.”
“What do you mean?” I exclaimed. “That one should not be tense in moments of excitement?”
“Not only should you not be tense,” explained Paul, “but you should make all the greater effort to relax.”
He went on to quote the Director as saying that actors usually strain themselves in the exciting moments. Therefore, at times of great stress, it is especially necessary to achieve a complete freeing of the muscles. In fact, in the high moments of a part, the tendency to relax should become more normal than the tendency to contract. “Is that really feasible?” I asked.
“The Director asserts that it is,” Paul said. “He does add that although it is not possible to get rid of all tenseness at an exciting point yet one can learn constantly to relax. Let the tenseness come, he says, if you cannot avoid it. But immediately let your control step in and remove it.”
Until this control becomes a mechanical habit, it will be necessary to give a lot of thought to it, and that will detract from our creative work. Later, this relaxing of the muscles should become a normal phenomenon. This habit should be developed daily, constantly, and systematically, both during our exercises at school and at home. It should proceed while we are going to bed or getting up, dining, walking, working, resting, in moments of joy and of sorrow. The “controller” of our muscles must be made part of our physical makeup, our second nature. Only then will it cease to interfere when we are doing creative work. If we relax our muscles only during special hours set aside for that purpose, we cannot get results, because such exercises are not custom-forming, they cannot become unconscious, mechanical habits.
When I showed doubt at the possibility of doing what Paul had just explained to me, he gave the Director’s own experiences as an example. It seems that in his early years of artistic activity, muscular tenseness developed in him almost to the point of cramp—and yet since he has developed mechanical control, he feels the need of relaxing at times of intense nerve excitement rather than the need to stiffen his muscles.
Today I was also called on by Rakhmanov, the Assistant Director, who is a very agreeable person. He brought me greetings from Tortsov and said he had been sent to instruct me in some exercises.
The Director had said: “Kostya can’t be busy while he is lying there in bed, so let him try out some appropriate way of spending his time.”
The exercise consists of lying on my back on a flat, hard surface, such as the floor, and making a note of various groups of muscles throughout my body that is unnecessarily tense.
“I feel a contraction in my shoulder, neck, shoulder-blade, around my waistMM”
The places noted should then be immediately relaxed, and others searched out. I tried to do this simple exercise in front of Rakhmanov, only instead of on the floor, I lay on a soft bed. After I had relaxed the tense muscles and left only such as seemed necessary to bear the weight of my body I named the following places:
“Both shoulder blades and base of the spinal cord.” But Rakhmanov objected. “You should do as small children and animals do,” he said firmly.
It seems that if you lay an infant, or a cat, on some sand, to rest or to sleep, and then carefully lift him up, you will find the imprint of his whole body on the soft surface. But if you make the very same experiment with a person of our nervous generation, all you will find on the sand are the marks of his shoulder blades and rump—whereas all the rest of his body, thanks to chronic muscle tension, will never touch the sand at all.
In order to make a sculptural imprint on a soft surface, when we lie down we must rid our bodies of every muscular contraction. That will give the body a better chance to rest. In lying this way, you can in half an hour or an hour refresh yourself more than by a whole night of lying in a constrained position. No wonder caravan drivers use this method. They cannot remain long in the desert, so the time they can give to rest is limited. Instead of a long rest, the same result is brought about by completely freeing their bodies from muscular tension.
The Assistant Director makes constant use of this method during his short periods of rest between his day and evening occupations.
After ten minutes of this kind of rest, he feels completely refreshed. Without this breathing spell, he could not possibly do all the work that falls on him.
As soon as Rakhmanov had gone I found our cat and laid him on one of the soft pillows on my sofa. He left a complete imprint on his body. I decided to learn from him how to rest.
The Director says: “An actor, like an infant, must learn everything from the beginning, to look, to walk, to talk, and so on. . . . We all know how to do these things in ordinary life. But unfortunately, the vast majority of us do them badly. One reason for this is that any defects show up much more noticeably in the full glare of the footlights, and another is that the stage has a bad influence on the general state of the actor.” Obviously, these words of Tortsov apply also to lying down. That is why I now lie on the sofa with the cat. I watch him sleep and try to imitate the way he does it. But it is no easy matter to lie so that no one muscle is tense and so that all the parts of your body touch the surface. I can’t say that it is difficult to note this or that contracted muscle. And it’s no particular trick to loosen it up. But the trouble is that you no sooner get rid of one tight muscle than another appears, and a third, and so on. The more you notice them, the more there are of them. For a while, I succeeded in getting rid of tenseness in the region of my back and neck. I can’t say that this resulted in any feeling of renewed vigor but it did make clear to me how much superfluous, harmful tenseness we are subject to without realizing it. When you think of the treacherously contracting eyebrow of that actress you begin seriously to fear physical tenseness.
My main difficulty seems to be that I become confused among a variety of muscular sensations. This multiplies by ten the number of points of tenseness and also increases the intensity of each. I end up not knowing where my hands or head are.
How tired I am from today’s exercises!
You don’t get any rest from the kind of lying down in which I have been indulging.
Today Leo stopped by and told me about the drill at school. Rakhmanov, following the Director’s orders, had the students lie motionless, then take a variety of poses, both horizontal and vertical, sitting up straight, half sitting, standing, half standing, kneeling, crouching, alone, in groups, with chairs, with a table or other furniture. In each position, they had to make a note of the tense muscles and name them. Obviously, some muscles would be tense in each of the poses. But only those directly involved should be allowed to remain contracted, and not any others in the vicinity. Also one must remember that there are various types of tenseness. A muscle that is necessary for holding a given position may be contracted but only as much as is necessary to the pose.
All these exercises called for intensified checking up by the “controller.” It is not as simple as it sounds. First of all, it requires a well-trained power of attention, is capable of quick adjustment, and is the ability to distinguish among various physical sensations. It is not easy, in a complicated pose, to know which muscles must contract, and which should not.
As soon as Leo left, I turned to the cat. It makes no difference what position I invent for him, whether he is put down head first, or made to lie on his side or back. He hangs by each of his paws in succession and all four at once. Each time it is easy to see that he bends like a spring for a second, and then, with extraordinary ease, arranges his muscles, loosening up those he does not need, and holding tense the ones he is using. What amazing adaptability!
During my session with the cat, who should appear but Grisha. He was not at all the same person who always argues with the Director, and he was very interested in his account of the classes. In talking about muscle relaxation, and the necessary tenseness to hold a pose, Tortsov told a story of his own life: in Rome, in a private house, he had the opportunity of watching an exhibition to test equilibrium, on the part of an American lady who was interested in the restoration of antique sculpture. In gathering up broken pieces and putting them together she tried to reconstitute the original pose of the statue. For this work, she was obliged to make a thorough study of weight in the human body and to find out, through experiments with her own body, where the center of gravity lies in any given pose. She acquired a remarkable flair for the quick discovery in herself of those centers which establish equilibrium. On the occasion described, she was pushed, flung about, caused to stumble, and put in what seemed to be untenable positions, but in each case, she proved herself able to maintain her balance. Moreover, this lady, with two fingers, was able to upset a rather portly gentleman. This also she had learned through the study of centers of weight. She could find the places that threatened the equilibrium of her opponent and overthrow him, without any effort, by pushing him in those spots.
Tortsov did not learn the secret of her art. But he understood, from watching her, the importance of centers of gravity. He saw to what degree of agility, litheness, and adaptability the human body can be trained, and that in this work the muscles do what is required by a sense of equilibrium.
Today Leo came in to report on the progress of the drill at school. It seems that some substantial additions to the program were made. The Director insisted that each pose, whether lying down or standing up, or any other, should be subject not only to the control of self-observation, but should also be based on some imaginative idea, and enhanced by “given circumstances.” When this is done it ceases to be a mere pose. It becomes action. Suppose I raise my hand above my head and say to myself:
“If I were standing this way and over me on a high branch hung a peach, what should I do to pick it?”
You have only to believe in this fiction and immediately a lifeless pose becomes a real, lively act with an actual objective: to pick the peach. If you just feel the truthfulness of this act, your intention and subconsciousness will come to your aid. Then superfluous tension will disappear. The necessary muscles will come into action, and all this will happen without the interference of any conscious technique.
There should never be any posing on the stage that has no basis. There is no place for theatrical conventionality in true creative art, or in any serious art. If it is necessary to use a conventional pose you must give it a foundation, so that it can serve an inner purpose.
Leo then went on to tell about certain exercises which were done today, and these he proceeded to demonstrate. It was funny to see his fat figure stretched out on my divan in the first pose he happened to fall into. Half of his body hung over the edge, his face was near the floor, and one arm was stretched out in front of him. You felt that he was ill at ease and that he did not know which muscles to flex and which to relax.
Suddenly he exclaimed: “There goes a huge fly. Watch me swat him!”
At that moment he stretched himself towards an imaginary point to crush the insect and immediately all the parts of his body, all of his muscles, took their rightful positions and worked as they should. His pose had a reason, it was credible.
Nature operates a live organism better than our much-advertised technique!
The exercises which the Director used today had the purpose of making the students conscious of the fact that on the stage, in every pose or position of the body, there are three moments:
First: is superfluous tenseness which comes necessarily with each new pose taken and with the excitement of doing it in public.
Second: is the mechanical relaxation of that superfluous tension, under the direction of the “controller”.
Third: justification of the pose if it in itself does not convince the actor.
After Leo left it was the cat’s turn to help me try out these exercises and get at their meaning.
To put him into a receptive mood I laid the cat on the bed beside me and stroked him. But instead of remaining there he jumped across me down onto the floor and stole softly towards the corner where he apparently sensed prey.
I followed him every curve with my closest attention. To do this I had to bend myself around and that was difficult because of my bandaged hand. I made use of my new “controller” of muscles to test my own movements. At first, things went well, only those muscles were flexed that needed to be. That was because I had a live objective. But the minute I transferred my attention from the cat to myself, everything changed. My concentration evaporated, I felt muscle pressure in all sorts of places, and the muscles which I had to use to hold my pose were tense almost to the point of spasm. Contiguous muscles also were unnecessarily involved.
“Now I’ll repeat that same pose,” said I to myself. And I did. But as my real objective was gone the pose was lifeless. In checking up on the work of my muscles I found that the more conscious I was in my attitude toward them the more extra tenseness was introduced and the more difficult it became to disentangle the superfluous from the necessary use of them.
At this point, I interested myself in a dark spot on the floor. I reached down to feel it, to find out what it was. It turned out to be a defect in the wood. In making the move all my muscles operated naturally and properly—which led me to the conclusion that a live objective and real action (it can be real or imaginary as long as it is properly founded on given circumstances in which the actor can truly believe) naturally and unconsciously put nature to work. And it is only nature itself that can fully control our muscles, tense them properly or relax them.
According to Paul, the Director went on today from fixed poses to gestures.
The lesson took place in a large room. The students were lined up, as if for inspection. Tortsov ordered them to raise their right hands. This they did as one man.
Their arms were slowly raised like the bars at a grade crossing. As they did it Rakhmanov felt their muscles and made comments: “Not right, relax your neck and back. Your whole arm is tense”—and so on.
It would seem that the task given was a simple one. And yet not one of the students could execute it rightly. They were required to do a so-called “isolated act,” to use only the group of muscles involved in movements of the shoulder, and no others, none in the neck, back, especially not any in the region of the waist. These often throw the whole body off in the opposite direction from the raised arm, to compensate for the movement.
These contiguous muscles that contract remind one of the broken keys in a piano, which when you strike one push down several, blurring the sound of the note you want. It is not astonishing, therefore, that our actions are not clear-cut. They must be clear, like notes on an instrument. Otherwise, the pattern of movements in a role is messy, and both its inner and outer rendering are bound to be indefinite and inartistic. The more delicate the feeling, the more it requires precision, clarity, and plastic quality in its physical expression.
Paul went on to say: “The impression that remains with me from today’s lesson is that the Director took us all apart, like so much machinery, unscrewed, sorted out every little bone, oiled, reassembled, and screwed us all together again. Since that process, I feel decidedly more supple, agile, and expressive.” “What else happened?” I asked.
“He insisted that when we use an ‘isolated’ group of muscles, be the shoulder, arm, leg, back muscles, all other parts of the body must remain free and without any tension. For example: in raising one’s arm with the aid of shoulder muscles and contracting such as are necessary to the movement, one must let the rest of the arm, the elbow, the wrist, the fingers, all these joints, hang completely limp.”
“Could you succeed in doing this?” I asked.
“No,” admitted Paul. “But we did get an idea of how it will feel when we shall have worked up to that point.” “Is it really so difficult?” I asked, puzzled.
“At first, it looks easy. And yet not one of us was able to do the exercise properly. Apparently, there is no escape from completely transforming ourselves if we are to be adapted to the demands of our art. Defects that pass in ordinary life become noticeable in the glare of the footlights and they make a definite impression on the public.”
The reason is easy to find: life on the stage is shown in a small compass, as in the lens of a camera. People look at it with opera glasses, the way they examine a miniature with a magnifying glass. Consequently, no detail escapes the public, not the slightest. If these stiff arms are halfway passable in ordinary life, on the stage they are simply intolerable. They give a wooden quality to the human body, making it look like a mannikin. The resulting impression is that the actor’s soul is likely to be as wooden as his arms. If you add to this a stiff back, which bends only at the waist and at right angles, you have a complete picture of a stick. What emotions can such a stick reflect?
Apparently, according to Paul, they didn’t succeed at all, in today’s lesson, in doing this one simple thing, raising an arm with only the necessary shoulder muscles. They were just as unsuccessful in doing similar exercises with the elbow, wrist, and the various joints of the hand. Each time the whole hand became involved. And worst of all they did the exercises of moving all the parts of the arm in turn, from shoulder to fingertips and back again. That was only natural. Since they did not succeed in part they could not succeed in the whole exercise, which was so much more difficult.
As a matter of fact, Tortsov did not demonstrate these exercises with the idea that we could do them at once. He was outlining work that his assistant will do with us in his drill and discipline course. He also showed exercises to do with the neck, at all angles, with the back, the waist, legs, and so on.
Later Leo came in. He was good enough to do the exercises that Paul had described, especially the bending and unbending of the back, joint by joint, beginning with the top one, at the base of the head, and working down. Even that is not so simple. I was only able to sense three places in which I bent my back, and yet we have twenty-four vertebrae.
After Paul and Leo had gone the cat came in. I continued my observation of him in varied and unusual, indescribable poses. When he raises his paw or unsheathes his claws I have the feeling that he is using groups of muscles that are specially adapted to that movement. I am not made that way. I cannot even move my fourth finger by itself. Both the third and fifth move with it.
A development and degree of finish in the cultivation of muscle technique as it exists in some animals is unattainable for us. No technique can achieve any such perfection in muscle control. When this cat pounces on my finger, he instantaneously passes from complete repose to lightning motion, which is hard to follow. Yet what economy of energy! How carefully it is apportioned! When preparing to make a movement, to spring, he does not waste any force in superfluous contractions. He saves up all his strength, to throw it at a given moment to the point where he will need it. That is why his movements are so clear-cut, well-defined, and powerful.
To test me, I began to go through the tiger-like motions I had used in playing Othello. By the time I had taken one step all my muscles tightened up and I was forcibly reminded of just how I felt at the test performance and realized what my main mistake had been at that time. A numb creature, whose whole body is in the throes of muscular spasms, cannot possibly feel any freedom on the stage, nor can he have any proper life. If it is difficult to do simple multiplication while holding up one end of a piano, how much less possible must it be to express the delicate emotions of a complicated role. What a good lesson the Director gave us in that test performance when we did all the wrong things with complete assurance.
It was a wise and convincing way of proving his point.
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