Christina Gutekunst is Head of Voice at East 15 Acting School in London and John Gillett is a freelance actor, director and teacher.. In their book Voice into Acting they describe how actors can bridge the gap between themselves and the text and action of a script, integrating fully their learned vocal skills.
In this excerpt Christina and John elaborate on the value and function of breath to the actor
‘Where our breath goes, our attention can also go. By learning how to breathe naturally – that is, by learning how to breathe vitality into every corner of our being – we not only promote the expansion of our inner consciousness, but we also stimulate the healthful, harmonious movement of substances and energies throughout our bodies.’
The Tao of Natural Breathing (144)
When we breathe we take air through our nose and mouth and this enters the lungs and fills little sacs called alveoli. From here it enters surrounding tiny blood vessels and through these the bloodstream, which carries oxygen to all the cells of the body, giving us energy to think, feel and act. Conversely, carbon dioxide waste is carried by the bloodstream into the lungs and then exhaled.
However, the lungs are not muscles. They are moved into action only by the muscles around them.
The primary muscles stimulating the deepest breathing process are the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the abdominal muscles and the intercostal muscles of the ribs.
The secondary breathing muscles in chest, neck, abdomen and back are smaller and thinner muscles, which tire much more easily than the more bulky primary muscles. Some of these are used in life-threatening situations or sport; some may create tension, for example, in shallow clavicular breathing, and are not useful to the actor. Others involved in posture, in the back and abdomen, have stabilizing and supporting functions and will be mentioned later.
The actor wants to avoid tension in the accessory muscles and allow the primary muscles to do the breathing movements. For this reason, we’ll focus below on the primary muscles.
We breathe because we have a physical need to inhale oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, and because we have a psychological inner impulse to express a thought, feeling or action.
Physiologically, breath is the fuel for the voice.
Psychologically, breath can connect us to inner experiences, reflexes and emotions.
How breath can enhance performance
The actor’s body needs to be unrestricted and free of tension to allow the breath to flow freely. The impulses and experiences that arise within an organic acting approach can be released by breath through the vibrations of sounds and words.
We say breath can do all these things. To actually do them we need to access deep breathing. It is important to realize that we have a facility to breathe both deeply and shallowly, for example, when we are in fight or flight mode.
Psyche, coming from ancient Greek, means breath, life, soul. Breath is essential for life and connects our impulses and experience to our bodies. It gives a rather wider meaning to the psycho in psycho-physical than the word psychological.
Breath connects us with the gravity centre below the navel in the lowest tan tien, where the intentions of the mind find responses in the body, and with the solar plexus, the middle tan tien. The solar plexus is a nerve centre, centre of energy and of the emotions – Stanislavski called it ‘the seat of the emotions’ (An Actor Prepares: 198). It is also within the breathing centre of the diaphragm. Through taking in breath we can also breathe in circumstances, action and language and make them our own. We return to this idea throughout the book.
The important thing for the acting student to realize is that we already have what we need in us. Nature has given it to us. Stanislavski saw Nature as the greatest artist: ‘But the actor is not his own master. It is his nature which creates through him, he is only the instrument’ (Building a Character: 299).
Jerzy Grotowski, the pioneering Polish director, saw actor training ‘not as a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks’, a via negativa, so that elements of ‘natural’ behaviour that obscure pure impulse are removed and inner impulse can immediately become outer action (Towards a PoorTheatre: 17).
The first step towards effective and connected breathing for an actor is to liberate the deep breathing rhythms that are given to us by the Autonomic Nervous System’s (ANS) respiratory centre (this is in the medulla oblongata, part of the old brain near where the brain meets the spine).
The ANS causes breath at all times, by day and night, from the first breath we inhale until the last we exhale when we die. From here nerve impulses are transmitted to nerves within the spinal cord that cause the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles to start inhalation.
'The respiratory system is connected to most of the body’s sensory nerves; hence any sudden or chronic stimulation coming through any of the senses can have an immediate impact on the force or speed of our breath, or can stop it altogether. Intense beauty, for example, can momentarily ‘take our breath away’ while pain, tension, or stress generally speeds up our breathing and reduces its depth.
The Tao of Breathing: 95
We receive constant nourishment from the oxygen provided by the incoming breath, which feeds every cell of the body and its organs. Also, the blood flows in harmony with the breath and all the inner organs are massaged and bathed by the free rhythm of the breathing movement.
Through breath we live and through breath we can breathe life into our performance.
Although breathing can be controlled by our conscious mind, it is the deep breathing rhythms implanted in us by the automatized action of the nervous system that can really guide us towards the most effective and connected way to breathe as the actor. However, we need to become conscious of how this process actually works in order that we can remove any obstacles that might have arisen to its free and natural movement and development. Then, in performance, the breath can connect with our deepest experiences, imagination and impulses, carry them through the sounds, words and thoughts of language and share them with our audience.
Breathing patterns can be contagious. When an actor breathes deeply and freely and is connected to a real experience, the whole audience will adapt and copy the breathing rhythm of the actor, and enter the experience as if it were their own. If, on the other hand, an actor is tense and breathing is restricted, the audience will feel this tightness in sympathy. They will lose trust and even start to worry about the actor. Oxygen supply is lessened in the actor and the audience. Experiences no longer come out of the depth of the actor’s experience but from more shallow places that are higher up in the body and have a strong link with stress responses. ‘We’ve got to get in to get out’, says one line of a song from Genesis. Shallow breathing will not get in touch with what we feel. In actual fact we might breathe shallowly in order to protect ourselves from experiencing what might cause us pain.
As we have seen earlier, it is essential to be still, balanced and focused in order to experience fully, and to keep a sense of centre and identity within the experiences of the part as if they were our own. Natural breathing rhythms will help us to achieve that, and to access our deepest layers of consciousness, which might have become buried under our defence mechanisms. To breathe out fully is to give back our version of what has been absorbed through the in-breath: to transmit our experience as the character within the imaginary world of the play.