Rethinking The Actor’s Instrument: It Shouldn’t Hurt


We are not doing a great job of teaching our actors to care for their instruments properly. This is clear to me when I read (regularly) about an actor in a particularly difficult physical role answering questions with an attitude of “of course my back hurts every day,” “I have an inversion table,” or “I see my chiropractor to ‘pop’ things back into place frequently.” Social media has almost made me an insane person between reading Tweets about an actor on Broadway waking up and not being able to move his neck, and hearing about yet another actor on vocal rest. For an actor who lands a Broadway contract, we have teams of physical therapists and the best vocal physicians on call, but we still do little to catch a problem when the actor can solve it. We just aren’t giving them the tools to recognize and prevent injury, let alone those needed to thrive.

The story we are telling actors, those working at all levels and those studying in our BFA/MFA programs, is that a chronic level of physical “discomfort” is the norm if you want to work in the field. And because our 16-25-year-olds are walking into programs already banged up from life (read Technology and the Actor’s Instrument), and learning from working artists who have not been introduced to the feeling of absolute ease in their own instruments, it continues to be accepted that it is not an option to feel effortless and do the job.

It is not supposed to hurt to do your job. If I could get only one new idea into the realm of actor training, that would be it. Acting is a physically rigorous job, but we need to forever eradicate the myth that the rigors of the job will result in constant chronic, nagging discomfort. It is time to change the future relative to longevity and thriving within the field.

One of the primary issues we deal with – as humans – is that our bodies are amazing little adaptors. A body will do anything to stay upright and keep moving. If something goes wrong, we teach our bodies to “override” the dysfunction and we turn off our awareness (to the very thing going wrong) at a speed almost imaginable. We adapt – another part of the body takes over and begins to handle the situation. As soon as that happens, we are working less efficiently and certain parts of the body are getting overworked while others aren’t working at all.

This is a norm in bodies and life. It is an issue Pilates teachers deal with all the time. A body working out of alignment is prone to injury. In clients who aren’t performing artists, frequently we can find that source of the original injury or dysfunction and quickly solve the issue to put things right again. But those non-performer bodies generally have one or two physical and/or vocal things to do on the job and can limit their physicality or adjust an activity as they relearn efficient use of their bodies. Performing artists don’t have this option. Perhaps the extremely financially successful can take a month off and simply focus on rewiring his or her instrument, but I find it hard to imagine many artists (much like Pilates teachers) who want to or can say no to work.

This is one of the biggest problems I deal with when it comes to working with actor clients –budgets (time and money) are tight and they almost always make the choice to put off addressing the physical issue they feel (or that which has been identified for them) in favor of something more important – work.

Another big problem is the frustration (often greater than with my non-performer clients) my actor students experience as they are pursuing the work of realignment. I believe part of this comes from a greater ability to recognize dysfunction when it’s identified. Actually, I think most of my performing artist clients know something has been going wrong – they’ve just pushed it away because they don’t think there’s a way to solve it.

The other reason for the frustration is the humility forced on someone who is a professional mover when he/she realizes they don’t have the control over their body they think they should. Pilates is great at teaching humility in that fashion.

We’ve spent a lifetime training our bodies into the alignment, power, and endurance we find them in when we approach change. We have to recognize that it will take more than a session or even month to make real change. Frustrated or not, my actor clients are often the quickest to gain new awareness and succeed in realignment and integration of new patterns in their work. I think that is because of all the things that go right in the training and craft of acting!

Where to Start
I can take you through a list of what I call “actor patterns” and identify why these issues occur and the negative impact they have on instrument access, wellness, longevity, and the ability to be compelling. But as an actor friend pointed out, “that just overwhelms us and pisses us off.” Instead he asks what everyone I meet and evaluate in person asks, “Just tell me what to do first.”

1. Gain pelvic stability.
This is the first step to correcting the root of most of the issues you deal with vocally and physically. I’ve discussed before a neutral spine and how to find yours. Practice neutral on the ground. Take a Pilates class (yep, I’m really just going there) to gain tools to stabilize and engage in neutral. Learn how to take that information and translate it to standing in real life. And build your pelvic floor, adductor (inner thigh), and hamstring (from origin to insertion) strength. This will impact your cheat out. Much of the instability found in an actor’s body is a result of not holding lateral stability of the pelvis when cheating-out. And yes, we do need to actually properly teach a cheat out without dysfunction.

2. Learn about your fascia.
Learn to release and care for your own fascia. Learn the fascial patterns common among actors. Work on myofascial release daily. And if you can’t get back to healthy fascia on your own, hire someone trained in myofascial release and get it done once. Then create a daily routine to keep up with it.

3. Check your alignment daily.
As you regain structural alignment, develop a practice of using resting position and engagement on the ground daily – twice daily if you are in rehearsal or anywhere in the production process. We frequently miss the subtle change or issue that becomes a major dysfunction because we aren’t checking in. By doing so twice daily, you return to your own body each day, and will be more aware of taking on character patterns.

4. Stop overtraining in the gym.
Please stop overtraining in the gym. So many of the issues I deal with are a direct result of too much time in the gym. I’m not opposed to building the instrument you want. If you want to put on a ton of muscle mass and you have that body type and testosterone level to do so, that’s great. But building muscle on a body already out of alignment is going to make it harder to correct your dysfunction. And building bulk versus a balanced body with muscles trained from origin to insertion (and healthy fascia!) will give you less access to your instrument. We are destroying vocal resonance, creating vocal issues and injury, and decreasing flexibility with this body type. We are also only telling one story physically. I hear and manage the concerns of actors in the midst of a training program and those in the first decade of their career who are being encouraged to “go to the gym, casting directors are looking for ‘that’ type.” Some just haven’t reached physical maturity to even put that kind of muscle on their frames. And both those who can and those who are building “big guns” and a huge chest are alarmed that they can’t actually straighten their arms. They should be concerned because – as mentioned earlier –overdevelopment at the belly of the muscle is going to negatively impact flexibility. Specifically, overdevelopment of the chest and biceps are helping to create forward head position, a dowager’s hump, and vocal strain and injury.

Recently, as if designed as a vehicle for me, someone Tweeted the following:
“If only I took care of my body half as well as I take are of my cooking knives and cast iron skillets.”
Followed by:
“In fairness, I treat them with excessive reverence.”

All I want is for us to train actors (current and future) to take the best care of their instruments possible – to have the choice to treat them with “excessive reverence” so that they can physically and vocally have complete access, and gain power, endurance, and flexibility as they age. Oh, and to get the idea across that it isn’t supposed to hurt to do your job.

  • August 24, 2015
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