Learning to Relax

A few Tuesday’s ago Cay sighed and commented that “the more I do this, the more important I see relaxation is.  I’m may be turning into one of those teachers who’s only note every week is going to be “see if you can relax’.”

Part of drill class with Fred is a weekly 15-20 minute sense memory exercise. Recently he asked me to come up with two pieces of music to “listen” to and for the life of me I couldn’t seem to find the freedom to just relax and let it happen. Week after week I would try, and each time Fred would point out that I seemed self conscience.

“Fred” I argued, “I’m not self conscience. I once ran an ultra marathon naked. I’m fully capable of being vulnerable.”

“Ahh, but don’t you think perhaps running naked is it’s own form of defense mechanism?”

Drill class wisdom. Yes, it certainly is. But I’ll probably still run the next one naked if it’s an option.

In Cay’s defense relaxation does seem to be the key half the time between a good rehearsal and a difficult one. On this day Cay was talking to Annie about a bumpy first run of her “Other Desert Cities” scene with Johnny two weeks ago. After a few pages Cay had stopped the scene and asked them to get in touch with themselves, start taking in their partner a little more, and most importantly, relax a bit.

“What’s different in your rehearsal today compared to what you were doing on your own?” Cay asked.

“I think it’s a sense of privacy. I feel like I had it in my rehearsal yesterday and up here I can’t find that.”

A sense of privacy is one of the most difficult things  we are asked to achieve as actors on stage. Vulnerability, permeability, is the magic of a truthful performance, the key to behaving realistically under imaginary circumstances, but it also comes with the burden of opening ones self up to deep connection in front of an audience of people. It isn’t easy. What we do is hand crafted, and this is where it happens.

One of the exercises she gave Annie was to use her partner to find that sense of privacy.

“You have to fall a little bit in love with something in them on stage.”

It’s a technique I used myself while working on a production of Woyzeck last October. We had a 4 month rehearsal period, unusually long in modern theatre. The advantage was a sense of trust and comfort with the material like I’ve never had before. But after awhile rehearsals started to feel stale, spontaneity fell into repetition.

To keep the performance fresh I would work each night to find something new in the actor who I had been standing across from for months, something to fall a little bit in love with. Sometimes it was a freckle or blemish I had never noticed, sometimes the way his cloths hung from his body. Once it was the shape of his jaw line, the way it tracked from behind his ear and down to his neck. It feels like when you’re sitting across from an actor you’ve worked with a hundred you couldn’t possibly find something new in them. But you can. And that pleasant surprise when you do manage to find it gets the engine going in a wonderfully immediate way, and brings with it the sense of public privacy.

Relaxation came up again in the Monday night class I visited two weeks ago. Frank and Owen were rehearsing a scene from “Red”, a play about the artist Mark Rothko. For their rehearsal they had printed out massive copies of Rothko’s paintings and hung them around the stage, turning it into a full fledged replica of the artist’s studio. Frank was having trouble early on getting his mouth around the opening monologue. After a few lines he stopped entirely.

“I want to start again.”

“That’s alright honey, don’t obligate yourself,” said Cay. “Be easy with it.”

When the scene finished Frank admitted he was feeling out to touch.

“I felt tense. I felt like this.” He held his hand up and pressed the back of it into his jaw, forcing his mouth to clench shut.

“I saw that” Cay replied. “But there were good moments. At this point it’s just about getting more comfortable, learning to relax. How did you feel Owen?”

Owen, who has a combat background, thought for a second. “It feels good when I do it right. It doesn’t feel presentational, it feels natural.”

Frank as the artist Mark Rothko with Owen as his assistant

Frank as the artist Mark Rothko with Owen as his assistant

“I’m sure it does. You’ve cut that presentational groove in yourself so the water goes there first. Stage combat has cut that groove, Shakespeare has cut that groove. You just need to deepen this grooves so you have the option. What do you guys want to do?”

Frank said that it would be a shame to let the scene go like this. Owen agreed and asked to do it one more time with relaxation in mind.


The second time through they reached a moment after Frank’s opening monologue in which he tells Owen he thinks the artists of his generation are trying to kill him with their work.

Owen: You think Jasper Johns is trying to murder you?

Frank: Yes.

Owen: What about Frank Stella?

Frank: Yes.

Owen: Robert Rauschenberg?

Frank: Yes.

Owen: Roy Lichtenstein?

Frank: Which one is he?

Owen: Comic books.

Frank. Yes.

When they reached the moment where Owen fights back against Frank’s characters distain for popular art Cay stopped him.

“I see you prepping an argument already. Has a night like this ever happened before?”


“Good. He’s feeling old and vulnerable. That’s what this day did to him. How does that make you feel?”

Owen thought for a second. “Scared.”

“Great. And what scares you here?”

“Well…he’s a popular artist. He shouldn’t be talking like this…”

Cay clapped her hands, “See the way you’re talking to me here? You’re formulating an argument. You’re not making a speech.”

Owen nodded and took a deep breath. His weight shifted from the balls of his toes to a much more relaxed open stance, and they finished a rehearsal that was less inhibited, more spontaneous and much more fun.