11/12/12 – acting and relaxation


Richard Moore

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In today’s selection – Lee Strasberg, director of the Actor’s Studio, the most famous acting school in America, whose students included Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Dean, Anne Bancroft, Julie Harris, Marilyn Monroe and many others. Strasberg is best known for his own role as Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. He based his work on the ideas of the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski. Central to Strasberg’s teaching was the idea that an actor needed to closely attend his or her own emotional and physical state, and to focus on transitioning from tension to relaxation.  His ideas on relaxation apply far beyond acting: 

“The first thing Strasberg does, both in his private classes and at the Studio, is to check the actor for tension. Very few of us are fully relaxed in life, but we are not usually aware of tension until it becomes extreme and shows itself through pain. Tension can be so habitual that when relaxation is induced we feel actually as if a great weight had been removed, as if the pull of gravity were somehow lessened. Strasberg’s highly developed powers of observation enable him to point out the manifesta­tions of tension in actors’ bodies, voices, even in the expression of their faces.


“Long ago Strasberg enunciated his belief that ‘when there is tension, one cannot think or feel.’ But he also constantly empha­sizes the opposite and positive sense of this idea: the human being is naturally expressive. When he is relaxed and really thinking about or paying attention to something, or even when random thoughts move through his consciousness, impulses pass without interruption into pure expression. The voice changes. Distortions in the way the body or the head or the arms and shoulders are held disappear. The expression of the face changes. The person actually takes on a new appearance.


“Strasberg knows that calling the actor’s attention to his ten­sions is merely the first step in dealing with them. In the long run the actor must be reconditioned to function in a state of relaxation. This is accomplished by making him aware of the particular causes of tension in himself. Relaxing the tensions acquired in a lifetime and in years of wrong acting may take further long years of conscious hard work in which deliberate relaxation plays a part in all stages of activity. Relaxation is worked at as a separate activity, but it is also made a conscious part of all acting work. And as he comes to understand what causes his particular tensions and the extent to which he can naturally respond when relaxed and concentrated, the actor’s belief grows, and belief in turn encourages further relaxation. But it cannot be emphasized too strongly that tension cannot be eradicated by paying lip service to an idea.


“Tension is the occupational disease of the actor. Relaxation is the foundation on which almost all actors’ work is based. Stanislavski posited that relaxation is an actual professional activity for the actor. When you see good performers, one of the things that makes them good is a certain amount of relaxation. We may not always be aware of exactly what they’re doing. We may refer to their sense of ease or authority, but in fact it is relaxation that we are noticing.


“The ordinary actor sometimes achieves relaxation by himself as a result of working on the stage, but that takes about twenty years — literally. If you watch the development of an actor, you see that as he starts off he is young and energetic — and tense. After about ten years he begins to overcome some of the tension, but nothing really takes its place. After about twenty years a wonderful thing begins to happen. It has almost nothing to do with whether he is good or bad. He simply feels that when he comes on the stage he is there to stay. And he gains the wonder­ful ease that is part of the medal you earn by being in the theatre a certain amount of time.”


Author: Tape-recorded sessions edited by Robert H. Hethmon


Title: Strasberg at the Actors Studio
Publisher: Theater Communications Group
Date: Copyright 1965 by Lee Strasberg and Robert H. Hethmon
Pages: 88-89

Strasberg at the Actors Studio: Tape-Recorded Sessions

by Theatre Communications Group

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Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.  

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