April 11, 2012

Acting techniques for everyday life: Guest post by Jane Marla Robbins



While I'm on vacation in Sonoma, stuffing myself with cheese and wine, I've got a couple of guest posts lined up for you! The second is from actress and author Jane Marla Robbins, on how to use acting techniques to improve your presentations. Enjoy!



I was an actress for thirty-five years; I share acting techniques with my clients. The art of acting is, after all, the art of self-transformation. I figure that's why people come to me -- so they can transform themselves into strong, self-confident, attractive people, instead of shy, awkward, tongue-tied wall flowers.

A lot of people come to me because, in the middle of speaking, or in the middle of an important speech, they will suddenly not be able to find the word they knew yesterday. They grope for it. Where has it gone? With my clients, the usual cause isn’t Alzheimer's or early dementia, it's STAGE FRIGHT IN LIFE.

Here are some of the antidotes I share to combat the fright, so that people who first come to me as victims of their anxiety and fear can leave, having transformed their stage fright into joy and relaxation. Plus a working memory.

My clients have most often just forgotten to breathe. When we're afraid, if we see a lion coming towards us, up go our shoulders, and we stop breathing, usually not so much that we drop dead, but enough so that the oxygen that normally goes up to our brains, to help us remember stuff, is barely going there.

It was my brilliant drama coach, Sandra Seacat, who first urged me to pay attention to whether or not I was breathing on stage, so my oxygen wouldn't be strangled by my neck and shoulders, but that instead, the oxygen would have a clear passage from my lungs up through my neck to get to my brain. (For one thing, it's hard just to remember your lines if your brain isn't working.)

I learned to follow Sandra's advice when I was on a stage, and occasionally, silently ask myself questions like: "Am I breathing? Are my shoulders up around my ears? Is my stomach relaxed? My foot? My hip?" Because relaxation, with its openness and absence of fear, is a key to inspiration. Deep breathing is a direct route to relaxation. Which explains the latin root of the word "inspiration:" to breathe in.

So if our brains aren't working brilliantly, maybe we're not giving them enough oxygen. Too simple to be true? I love hearing that elderly patients, diagnosed with senility or dementia, who are barely making sense, can go to a hospital, get some extra oxygen, and suddenly be speaking in sensible sentences and make perfect sense.

There are other acting techniques to combat fear. The two I mention below have even been tested by modern science, proving they do in fact change brain chemistry, and therefore our feelings and behavior. They're inner monologue and sense memory. The first is basically silent self-talk, a phrase or a sentence people may need to repeat in their heads if they feel tense. And sense memory involves our remembering the right sensory images to make us happy -- for example, ocean waves -- remembering their smells, sights, textures, etc. (The medical establishment calls this "Guided Sensory Imagery.")

Here's an example of me using these two techniques. I was about to perform one of my one-women plays for the first time, at Lincoln Center in New York -- in front of twenty-four hundred people. I was terrified. I prepared all day, trying to discover which techniques might get me through what seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

I finally did a meditation, begging my unconscious to help. Suddenly I imagined myself on a magic carpet, which took me back to my home in California, in front of a wise old oak tree, from which I believed I'd gotten verbal answers before. (I know this sounds very woohoo/LA, but who cares where we think we get our wisdom?!)

The words I got were clear: "It's safe to shine." For too many reasons to list here, when I think I am going to be pre-eminently visible, I have been known to panic, my old wiring even tricking me into believing my life is in danger -- just by being seen.

When I got on stage at Lincoln Center, I imagined that big old oak in the back of the theater, and I heard the words, "It's safe to shine."
Actually, every time I felt myself tense up during my performance, I went back to the tree, and each time I did, my acting was riveting.

Yes, I took a pause to focus on the tree and hear the words. And that's the last acting technique I'll mention here: taking a pause. Many of us fear, if we pause for a moment, that people will think we are stupid. No! They could be thinking that we are thinking -- which does tend to impress people. Plus, it could be just the perfect time to take a breath.

Find out more about Jane Marla Robbins and check out her book Acting Techniques for Everyday Life at JaneMarlaRobbins.com.

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