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Addressing Tension

February 28, 2011

Part of being a technically proficient singer and openly, expressive actor is learning how to release tension from the body. Tension gets in the way of the actor’s ability to use their instrument (their body) to express their inner thoughts and feelings. It hides the emotions behind a wall of muscle and, for singers, adversely affects the sound of the voice when tension builds up in the chest and jaw. Tension is something that most humans grapple with, and those that are sensitive and emotional (um, that’s me) are particularly prone to tension. In some cases, tension is good- it allows us sensitive types to co-exist in society without devolving into a blubbering mess.

Yesterday at my rehearsal for Twelfth Night I ran into some issues with tension, or more appropriately, the lack of relaxation. I was working on an intense scene where my character’s emotions were heightened, and no matter what the director asked for I couldn’t seem to relax. Worse than that, though, was the fact that I felt like I WAS relaxed. The frustration mounted, not because I couldn’t relax, but because I could not feel side effects of the tension. To me, tense feels normal. (Weird, I know. Heck, I promised idealistic, not normal.)

Several years ago, I kicked my career to the next, huge level with a feverish pursuit of improvement through training. Throughout this self-exploration and mentoring, I have come to regard myself as “a person who is tense.” I am noticing, more than ever before, just how much tension I’m carrying, and I wear the “I’m a tense person” badge as though it’s a global truth. And my body doesn’t disagree. My back and shoulders hurt all the time, and almost every moment I chase tension from one part of my body to another. Notice tension in my hands? As soon as I shake that off, I notice it in my hips. Tension in the legs? It’s only a matter of time before it’s in my neck. It’s uncomfortable but I’d considered “noticing tension” to be an asset and a signal that I was growing as an artist and human being.

But it occurred to me this morning, as I was in the stylist’s chair getting dye rinsed from my scalp and noticed the tension in my body- maybe I’m going about this thing all wrong. Before these last few years, I never really thought of myself this way- I never noticed tension. What if I am speaking tension into reality by constantly focusing on it? What if, instead, I start noticing relaxation?

For example, I sat there as highlights were being put into my hair, noticing that my shoulders were tight, and I instinctively wanted to relax them. But what if I, instead, thought, “Wow- my toes are totally relaxed now” and meditated on that. Perhaps if I focus on what is relaxed, I will coax my body into response, and I can start getting to know myself in another way. After all, I didn’t start thinking of myself as tense until I started correcting it. Maybe I’ll now start noticing relaxation if I invite it in?

It’s an interesting idea. I long have believed that what you resist, persists (thanks to some amazing training/work I did with Landmark Education.) Perhaps, now that I am tuned into my body so minutely, I can move to another level of self-awareness by looking at things another way. It certainly would be a kinder way to address myself: “Erin, you’re so relaxed in your pinky finger- nice work!”

I’ll keep you posted as I try this new perspective. In the meantime, I’m curious to know- what kind of role does tension and/or relaxation play in your career? Is there anything you do that helps you create relaxation in your life? Inquiring minds (and muscles) want to know!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Brandon Walker permalink
    February 28, 2011 6:44 pm

    I agree. If we think of ourselves as tense people, then it’s almost like giving up on the idea that we are capable of relaxation. So, I think that’s certainly a good starting place.

    By the way, I chase tension around my body like that, too. And I used to become more tense when I noticed tension. But for me, it was because I would criticize myself for being tense, rather than addressing… it. David Gideon (my acting teacher) refers to tension as “giftwrapping”. That used to help me – to think of the positive aspects of what could happen if I relaxed to find the gift inside. Because when it comes down to it, we become tense as actors because some aspect of our work is working for us. So, it’s always a good thing when tension happens. It tells us we’re alive. When I’m able to fully and easily relax with no difficulty at all…THAT’S usually when I panic in my work.

    Also, one of Lee Strasberg’s quotes was “Problems are for fixing.” That applies so well to this. He taught people to try to keep a constant awareness of their muscles and their bodies, so that when they noticed tension, they could connect to the muscle and relax it. But you’re absolutely right. Because we move through our lives immersed in tension, it’s hard to notice it if I only spend the time I’m acting to address it. But when you’re in a show, I’d advise you to just worry about the tension you notice. And in the rest of your life, you can investigate your muscles. After a daily effort like that for a long enough time, you will begin to notice tension and address it, almost as a habit. You will still have to pursue the habit, however, because relaxation is excessively uncomfortable. But the good news is that once you learn your body, it becomes easier to use it. It’s like an instrument. When you first pick up a guitar, you need a tuner and a book and a lot of practice to play a song. After years, as I know firsthand, you don’t even need the tuner. You begin to be able to do it by ear.

  2. February 28, 2011 7:17 pm

    It sounds like what you need is Alexander Technique. My introduction to this was in1996. It’s effect on me was remarkable. Here in 2011, reintroducing myself to it’s effects is remarkably focused on the 15 year alterations my body has built up. I had one session, in the past couple of months, where I was working on releasing a part of the body. With the help of my instructor the release came from letting go quite differently from how I felt the release should go. With that came profound release of tension from the part of the body we were working on.

    It is best too start with an instructor.

  3. February 28, 2011 8:03 pm

    Thanks, Brandon! And, great suggestion, Clinton. I’ll add that to my list of ideas to explore.

  4. February 28, 2011 10:10 pm

    Oh Mylanta can I ever relate to tension! I was in a speech class in college that really focused on knowing and understanding your whole body. I was crazy uncomfortable 98% of the time and even freaked out one day when we were releasing tension in a certain muscle. It’s amazing how much baggage we carry in our muscles. I’ve been wearing a night guard for years because when I’m stressed I grind my teeth so badly in my sleep, my dentist was afraid I’d break them!
    I’ve had to develop tricks over the years to release certain tension (chewing gum when I feel my jaw clenching, hanging upside-down over the couch to relieve the tension in my back) but I like this idea of acknowledging where I’m relaxed (she says as she sits at the computer massaging her right shoulder). I must say, my eyebrows feel very at ease right now…

  5. February 28, 2011 11:03 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote about this, Erin! I’ve never noticed that you’re a particularly tense person, if that makes you feel any better 🙂

    I, too, have often battled with tension, particularly in my jaw and neck. I can’t say that I’ve really “won” the battle, but we worked with “Miracle Balls” in one of my classes in college and I LOVE doing it to this day. You can get the book and the balls on Amazon here:

    I like your idea about focusing on where you ARE relaxed, though — what an interesting way of looking it! Very idealistic of you 😉

  6. March 1, 2011 6:02 am

    …alexander technique is app. ok….strasbergs main focus (aside from sensory, which is a continuation of same) is relaxation…from there everything flows….specificity, synthesising body, breath, voice and soul (expression) through whatever outward form required, contemporary, drama, comedy, prose, verse, song et al……

  7. March 1, 2011 4:37 pm

    These are all great suggestions. Through this post, I was also able to reconnect with a woman via Twitter who does breath and body work- she and another colleague who is a speech/dialect expert will be chatting with me to see how they can bring their work more closely to actors. I’ll be sure to let you all know the progress on their ideas!


  1. Flashback Friday: Addressing Tension | The Green Room

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