Monday, December 7, 2009

The Misunderstanding

Performance Date: 11.19.09
Horizon Theatre Rep, at The Flea Theater

Have you read any Albert Camus?  I haven’t.  Did you know he wrote plays?  Me neither.  But that’s one reason I’m doing this Year of Plays.  To get me some edumacation.

But I’m gonna leave the playwright of The Misunderstanding aside.  And the director and designers (friends and relations, some of them), and most of the cast (including the lovely Ellen Crawford), to focus on the actress playing Martha.  Because she had me riveted.  Something about what she was doing, perhaps something about her, was so different.  I liked it and I wanted to puzzle out what it was.

I don’t like to bother with too much exposition about a play – I get distracted and end up in Review-land – so suffice it to say that The Misunderstanding is not unlike a Greek tragedy, with Martha as the central character.  She begins as a quiet and unassuming daughter but ends up as something of an unleashed monster.  In between, she journeys through fear, desperation, anger, rage, incredulity, and finally pretty much just goes batshit crazy.

With these circumstances, it seems any talented actress would be well set-up to give a “powerhouse” performance.  And this woman did, in my opinion, with the emphasis truly on “power.”  Power of presence, power of intention, power of voice.  She had all of it going on quietly at the start of the play.  But by the end of the play, the power was turned up a notch.  She was like a wrathful, Tolkien-esque, spirit queen who rises from the earth, opens her mouth to a gaping size, and spews out a tidal wave of biblical proportions – complete with tridents and kraken and spirit boats filled with doomed sailors – to knock her enemies down. 

I have two theories for why she was so powerful.  One, it’s the woman.  She is actually part spirit queen and the kraken is just part of her particular casting package.  Two, and I really want this to be the real reason, it’s The Alexander Technique.  I didn’t pull this out of thin air.  The woman’s bio proudly states that she teaches Alexander, and I’ve latched onto that fact as the secret behind this woman’s performance.

What is Alexander and why do I so want it to be the cause of such ferocity?  Alexander Technique is a way of working with your brain and body to improve ease and freedom of movement, balance, support, and coordination.  When you learn Alexander Technique, you essentially learn how to rewire your nervous system for better physical use.  It’s used by actors, dancers, singers, musicians, athletes, and many others, and was introduced to me by the great Frank Ottiwell and Glenn Canin at ACT.

Believing in Alexander Technique is like believing particle physics.  The evidence is there, but somehow it just feels impossible.  In Alexander, what you actually DO is so small compared to what you are trying to GET.  In Alexander, what you actually DO is merely think, merely direct your brain to give your body specific instructions, and what you eventually GET is a golf swing that breaks 300 yards, a pirouette that holds it’s center, a voice that reaches the back of the house, a presence that commands attention with no movement at all.

It’s so hard to believe that just thinking makes it so.  And in truth it takes a long time of practicing this method before the effects of Alexander truly manifest.  Which is why it feels impossible.  And while you’re working with it, all you want is a short cut.  All you want it to muscle your way to the end result.  To end-gain, in Alexander parlance.  But when you do that, you just end up with your same crappy golf swing and straining voice. 

I do believe in Alexander Technique.  I’ve seen the results, in myself and in my friends.  And yet whenever I begin to apply the lessons from Alexander to new challenges, all I want to do is skip to the end.  To end-gain.  That’s why I want this woman to have gotten what she has through Alexander.  If it is true, then she can be a beacon for me.  A shining light to help me keep the faith. 

A particle and a wave.


  1. Hi Anna,

    Great post. As an Alexander Technique teacher in NYC,with professional actors as some of my students, I really appreciate what you say about this technique. You mention that it takes a long time before the effects of Alexander to truly manifest.
    To some degree that's true, although some effects can happen at the very first lesson.
    Keep up the great work,

  2. Anna, like the 'particle' analogy... and the whole thing.
    I wrote something years ago which I'd put on my blog if I had one. You can read it at
    Best wishes, Brian