As if Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wasn’t a challenging enough piece in the musical theater cannon, Fiasco Theater decided that they would take it on as their latest project, performing it with only 10 actors who also play their own instruments. The success of the production brought it from the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton to The Old Globe in San Diego and finally to Roundabout, at The Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, where it currently is playing to critical acclaim through April 12.
Aiding the actors in the rigorous routine of eight shows a week is Kathryn Armour, a voice teacher and Alexander Technique practitioner. We spoke with Kathryn recently about her work behind the scenes with Fiasco, and learned how she helps the performers stay at the top of their game.
What was your introduction to the Alexander Technique?
I am a singer and trained actor myself, and I began studying the Alexander Technique years ago when my Juilliard voice teacher told me I had too much neck tension and needed AT lessons. As a child I had come to grief as a viola player, because my musicality and perfect pitch were way ahead of my physical ability to manage the instrument. I did not want to make the same mistake as a singer, so I signed up for an AT workshop at Manhattan School of Music and started private lessons right after that.
What is the Alexander Technique?
Let’s start by saying what Alexander Technique is NOT! It is not an exercise system, although it will help you to do yoga, or run or swim, or sing or act, or whatever you wish to apply your thinking and attention to. It is also NOT a philosophy. Alexander Technique is completely in the body and it is not an abstraction. It is taught by the gentle, non-invasive touch of a trained teacher, and then it becomes a “physical awareness practice” for the student. It is a learned “mindfulness” of how to be and move in your body, and this practice then serves as an efficient tool in whatever you choose to apply it to. Once you learn how to pay attention and direct your body, it takes a half a second to reorient and re-activate oneself on stage. Neuro-physics today totally corroborates Alexander’s completely practical method for using your mental and physical self to best advantage. AND it’s fun!
How does Alexander benefit performers?
The AT is a re-education of our physical sense of self. This is an awareness that is distributed throughout the body, unlike our vision or our hearing, which are specific to the eyes and ears. The fascinating thing is, when we learn how to pay attention to balance in our bodies, our other senses work better. We also experience a quality of wholeness and are more awake to our environment. Animals have this all the time. They don’t leave their bodies to contemplate physics or write emails. Actors and musicians benefit tremendously from the AT work, because their tasks are so physical, but are informed by so much training and thinking, which must be accessed without going AWOL onstage. An actor cannot just “get into the body zone” like a runner, since he has to remember lines and be with the music! Alexander Technique is a practical, reliable method for staying completely in the moment. It translates into a very palpable, easy stage presence.
In this Roundabout production we are using one of the traditional training methods of AT—table lessons—in a therapeutic way. Doing eight shows a week of a demanding musical requires tremendous physical energy. The Fiasco version is a tour de force, where some actors play multiple roles and all are continuously playing instruments and moving properties. The Roundabout theater management has generously arranged for me to come to the theater between shows on Wednesdays to give “hands-on work” to the actors. This allows the actor to quickly and easily shed the stress of the matinee and re-boot the nervous system for the evening show. It is both relaxing and re-energizing.
Some members of the cast also weighed in on their experiences with AT.
Ben Steinfeld plays the Baker in the show, and, with Noah Brody, is the co-director of the production. He has worked with Armour for the past few years in preparation for his role, and notes that the work has given him both confidence and freedom. "The way Kathryn links the physical ease of Alexander to the release needed for healthy vocal technique and acting has given me several tools, exercises, and images to use in warm-ups and in the performance itself,” he notes. “I'm making a healthier, fuller, more grounded sound when both speaking and singing, and my body has had less wear and tear than in any other show I've done." Watch Ben and Jessie Austrian perform “It Takes Two” from Into the Woods.
Patrick Mulryan, who plays Jack, says, “The work with Kathryn has helped me to stay grounded, centered, and free while still performing with passion and vigor. Being able to free my neck, find my feet, and keep my entire instrument open and available has helped me immeasurably as I navigate the intricate and demanding vocal lines Sondheim has crafted. The work allows me to stay centered in myself while remaining open and available to my fellow performers and the audience.” Watch Patrick In Performance on NYTimes.com
Little Red is played by Emily Young, who says Kathryn “helped me connect my breath with the ground in turn helping me to stabilize my singing.” Andy Grotelueschen, who plays many roles, including Milky White the cow, adds “AT helps relieve unwanted or unnoticed tensions, helping me be more mindful of my body. That mindfulness pays great dividends in creating the multiple characters I play.”
Kathryn, how did you become involved with Fiasco?
I taught voice for many years at the CAP21 Studio, when it was part of Tisch/NYU. One of my first students there was Matthew Morrison (“Glee”, Finding Neverland). Years later, another student, Molly Dunn, transferred from Tisch to Gallitin, and took Ben Steinfeld’s music theater class there. I attended her performances and was very impressed with the way that Ben worked with the young actors, and the way he also entertained and educated the audience. Ben and I began a conversation that is ongoing. Ben sent [Fiasco member and the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods] Jessie Austrian (who also teaches at Gallitin) and [Fiasco member and Into the Woods co-director] Noah Brody to my studio. They had Into the Woods in mind, and wanted to find a voice teacher and coach for the project. Since then, the Fiasco players and I have developed a way of working together grounded in the mutual respect that the Alexander Technique encourages. I am honored to be billed as an Artistic Associate of the Fiasco Theatre.
Can you talk about your work with Fiasco on Into the Woods?
As a voice teacher I work with each singer to find his own individual timbre and “ring of truth,” and of course I make sure that my students’ voices work well and without strain. I do not start with an idea of how a role should sound, but work to find out how it should sound in this particular singer’s voice. Since Fiasco chose the musical and divided up the roles among themselves, the very best way to work was from their own commitment to telling the story. Each actor has to make his role(s) work. The task of singing both Rapunzel and Little Red, for example, is quite a challenge, and Emily Young makes it look easy. She stays in the line of the story all the time, so we do not hear her shift gears from dialogue to song, from character to character to narrator. Further, playing the trumpet is an entirely different way of using the breath from singing, so she has to remain lively and specific.
Other than the above, what were the challenges?
Sondheim’s songs require a large range (and even larger if you are singing more than one role). Also, the compositional style is not linear (melodic) but harmonic (with many intervals or skips) and rhythmic. So if the singer just talks on pitch it can be very fatiguing. I insist on a constant underlying vibration (legato) and I take a very classical Italian approach to coordinating the speech. Of course, this technical craft is invisible: The audience is drawn into the story.
Where can people go to find out more about AT?
Alexander Technique is now part of the curriculum in most acting schools, certainly in England it is ubiquitous. George Bernard Shaw benefited so much from working with Mr. Alexander that he endowed RADA with funds to ensure that the AT was taught to all actors. I think a workshop is a great way to go, since it takes a number of hours of working with the technique until you can be independent of a teacher. Check out my website; I periodically offer workshops in my studio. The annual Freedom to Act Conference gives you lots of experience in one weekend in January. Then take some private lessons. There are lots of teachers in NYC.
What books can you recommend for those interested in learning more?
Betsy Pollatin, The Actor’s Secret
Any book by Richard Brennan (Back in Balance, for example.) Richard is very practical in explaining how the Alexander Technique works in life, which is a good place to start!
What other resources can you point people to?
I give intensive courses in Singing and Alexander Technique. My master classes at Lake Como, Italy (in late June) are the perfect way to learn AT and see how it might reorganize your ideas about singing. You do not need to leave your current voice teacher to participate. Visit www.KathrynArmour.com for more information.
2014-2015 Season, A Conversation with, Into the Woods