Tension creates a lot of problems for actors. It can block impulses, cause injury, and protect the actor’s ego and emotions. As one of my mentors often reminds me, tension is wasted energy. The energy it takes to hold tension in your body could be used to release your body into the world of the play. So why does tension happen? It is a protective response for when we feel vulnerable (think of what your body does when it knows you’re about to get punched in the gut). Sometimes, we build tension into our bodies when we exercise and don’t properly breathe, or if we don’t stretch afterwards. It may also come from a strong impulse that is not fully acted upon. It’s a physical form of hiding–and while it may seem like a protection, it is actually more of a hinderance than the thing it is blocking.
Places where tension is often found: in the forehead. In the shoulders. In the belly. Actors require access to every part of their body, especially these places. When I have tension in my forehead, I know I’m using the muscles in my face to show emotion rather than allowing for it to manifest itself. I subconsciously let myself off the hook from looking messy and ugly in a situation… this way I always look “nice”… this way I am always likeable. Shoulder tension is a safety net, with which I physically protect myself from receiving outside stimulus. If my shoulders are up, my heart is not exposed, and I am safe from anything unpleasant or out of my control. Belly tension is a silent killer for me– stemming from the subconscious wish to look slimmer when in front of people. When I release belly tension, I am suddenly flooded with the emotions I’ve been holding there, and I have immediate access to my full breath capacity.
There are plenty of ways to release tension: I think about allowing. Allowing for stimulus, allowing myself to feel vulnerable and exposed, allowing for a state of relaxed readiness. When I feel myself hiding behind tension, I like to wiggle my body around the source of tension and breathe deeply. I imagine a bright light shattering the tension. I try to relax and lovingly accept any thoughts that emerge once the tension releases.
Tension can result from a number of causes, and these are just a few I’ve noticed in myself. If you’ve experienced an injury recently, it’s a good idea to see if the healing process includes placing tension to protect the injured place. A useful resource I love that describes ways in which tension inhibits the actor is Freeing the Natural Voice, by Kristin Linklater. She says the “[natural voice] suffers equally from emotional blocks, intellectual blocks, aural blocks, and psychological blocks” in addition to physical blocks (p.8). While this book specializes in voice work, I find it incredibly helpful to consider that the journey of finding my “natural voice” is parallel to finding my natural, freest self on stage. Even if voice work does not interest you, this book is a great tool for exploring the actor’s physical instrument– as Linklater states, “to free the voice is to free the person” (p.8). Click here to view Freeing the Natural Voice on Amazon.
Every time I release the tension in my body, I give myself permission to feel whatever I feel and have moments happen however they happen. Every actor can explore where tension hides in their body, what might be causing it, and how to rid themselves of it forever. After all, the juiciest moments on stage never came from forcing anything to happen.
Mantra: I will relax. I will allow for any possibility.