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Technology and The Actor’s Instrument: Part One

10.02.14 | Comment?


CATEGORIES actor training, movement, well being

IDENTIFYING THE ISSUE AND ADDRESSING THE REPERCUSSIONS

What is required of your body to do your job? As an actor, specifically a stage actor, the better question is what isn’t required of your body to do your job? I study the physical impact of specific careers on the bodies practicing them, but for an actor the rigors of the job change with each role. Yes, the job always requires the use of voice and body, but the repetitive motions of each character you play, within each production can be as diverse as those performed daily by a barista and a high school math teacher who moonlights as a semi-professional wrestler.

Training and maintaining a neutral pattern is a tremendous challenge for anyone who spends marathon rehearsal days and then eight shows a week in what equates to someone else’s body. Over the last three to five years there’s a new issue to manage – that of the impact of technology on your instrument.

Ten to 15 years ago, there was much attention paid to the impact of technology on bodies in relationship to the use of desktop and laptop computers. But the discussion went out of fashion and a Yoga studio on every corner seemed to be the fix everyone was looking for – in reality, businesses got smart about ergonomics and the phenomenon somewhat stabilized outside freelancers who officed in coffee shops and from their sofas.

Actors were virtually immune to this as you were on your feet and physically active versus sitting at a desk, staring at a screen. If you were holding something, it was likely pages of a script – something you did with one hand. But technology advanced again. Smartphones and tablets were invented, became affordable to the masses, and are having a significantly negative impact on the majority of the bodies using them, including those of actors.

Tech Neck
Tech Neck is broadly defined as Forward Head Posture, which is pretty much what it sounds like, the head is pushed forward of the body’s plumb line, causing the cervical spine (neck) to be in an exaggerated, prolonged extension. But Forward Head Posture is only part of Tech Neck as I define it in relationship to the physical repercussions.

[If you are reading this in public, look around and find someone reading or texting on their iPhone for your visual – if you are at home, place yourself in profile at a mirror or have someone take a photo of you in profile to study.]

Typical physical posture when using a smart phone.

Typical physical posture when using a smart phone.

When looking at an aligned body in profile, you will notice the earlobe, center edge of shoulder, middle of ribcage, hip, knee, and ankle just ahead of the “ankle bone” make a straight line– in fact you can draw a line from point to point. The ribcage should be set on the body evenly front and back, in other words, the ribs should not be tipped up or down, but look centered on the spine front and back – a student once compared the ribcage to a lampshade – it must not tip in any direction.

In a forward head posture, the head literally juts forward – ahead of the chest. Individuals who aren’t extremely body aware will have a noticeable shoulder roll forward, a defined rounding through the back , with the sternum appearing to push toward the back of the spine, also causing the shoulders and outside edges of the upper torso to curl toward each other along the front of the body. I refer to this as folding up on yourself, as you lose much of the width of the upper torso and the power and mobility that supports head/neck/shoulders and arms, and restrict the lateral extension of the ribs.

Actors as a whole are body aware. You recognize the shoulder roll forward and inward and (because many of you have also been cued for years to release your abdominals, which causes a hinge back at your lower thoracic spine, causing you to tilt your lower anterior rib cage toward your face) compensate by pressing your shoulders back. The physical pattern you develop via Tech Neck is a greater extension in your low back, and a pressing of the shoulder blades together within the previously outlined rib lift. In other words, many actors with Tech Neck fold backward laterally versus forward. Neither pattern is allowing proper and effortless use of our instrument.

Notice the forward shoulders and head posture and "popped" chest. The vertical line indicates misalignment as well.

Notice the forward shoulders and head posture and “popped” chest. The vertical line indicates misalignment as well.

The Repercussions
Our bodies are designed to move. There is nothing wrong with forward or lateral flexion, in fact, I urge clients to explore their bodies and move more. Unfortunately, if we spend a great deal of time holding our body out of neutral alignment, we actually train them to hold a specific dysfunctional pattern. Once our muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia acquire the tendency to hold that position, they begin to lose the ability to return to neutral skeletal alignment. The fascia of our upper torso becomes so dehydrated and “sticky” it holds muscles in engagement. After a period of time, we’ve physically trained ourselves out of alignment.

This creates pain, discomfort, and compensation patterns in anyone being held in permanent Tech Neck. There are potential nerve and disk repercussions and even just the lack of mobility can lead to injuries caused by reduced flexibility. It isn’t good for a teacher, nurse, marketing director, or bartender. But for an actor, the damage can be much more serious.

Look at the profile lines of this posture again. Once you are “fascially cast” into this position you lose shoulder, upper back, lower back, pelvic, and foot and ankle mobility. Logically, if I can’t move my shoulders freely, I change my gait pattern to compensate. If I limit my movement in my gait pattern, my mobility in my feet and ankles change, my attachment to gravity directly impacts my head and neck, and so on.

Is That the Character’s Body or Yours?
Consider how this impacts the physicality you are capable of creating for any character you play. Are you able to play multiple characters in one show without them all having your pattern of Tech Neck? Are you able to play a character with a physicality of the 1800s without looking like you should have an iPhone in your hand? How does it limit your decisions to age a character? Once your body becomes habitually misaligned, you limit your ability as a physical storyteller because you have lost access to your instrument.

Vocal Stress
A body out of alignment does not have access to a free, open throat, powerful use of breath and diaphragm, or the ability to push sound out with projection or intensity without compensating in some fashion.

Starting at the cervical spine, extreme neck extension puts stress on the front of the throat and forces air to travel further and “around a bend” so to speak as it supports the voice.

The ribcage lift is problematic on its own as it disengages the healthy, normal abdominal engagement we need to support our alignment, breath, and voice. But in relationship to Tech Neck, specifically with actors, the fascia of the chest wall becomes further constricted and dehydrated, pulling harder on the neck muscles, which in turn causes the lower back (already in extension from the rib hinge) to work even harder, and constantly. This line continues to reduce the power of your breath. You have also created fascial dehydration of the intercostal muscles and are losing your ability to expand your ribs laterally with the inhale, having to work harder to get the same amount of air.

Between the neck and ribs you are also creating fascial dehydration of the pectorals, biceps, and triceps. If you are spending any time in the gym, you are bulking the belly of those muscles versus using them from origin to insertion – no matter your intention, you don’t have a choice but to play out the pattern. This bulk continues to negatively impact your flexibility and ability to return to neutral.

All of this decreases your vocal resonance and forces you to work harder to speak or sing – your body no longer works effortlessly – everything is an effort and some of your daily aches and pains, the feeling in the front of your throat when you speak, and your overall sense of being tired has a great deal to do with how much harder your body is now working, just to be upright, breathe, and speak. And because fascial casting reduces blood flow and the ability for muscles to relax when not in use, your recovery time from rehearsals, tech week, and on Monday’s after an eight show week is significantly increased.

The patterns change again when you layer on the one or two times a year you must work with a respiratory infection. (another article)

Archives Allow Observational Proof
I began noticing an increase in Tech Neck among actors about 16 months ago and wondered if my awareness had just increased or if it was actually getting worse.

I started scouring the internet for photos and video of actors from 1950 to the present. There was absolutely nothing like Tech Neck through at least the eighties – not just in actors, but in anyone. Thinking I was actually onto something I needed to see more and I needed to focus on stage patterns.

I was given permission to dive into some theatre company photo archives starting in 1979 and found “The Actor’s Twist” (again, another article) but no Tech Neck. I kept going until I arrived at photo sets from 2010-11 and suddenly it was undeniable. Flash forward to this month, as evidenced both on stages and in every production’s first table read photo, and there are few people around the table without a serious case of Tech Neck. The challenge is proving technology is the cause. There isn’t a way to step back to a time before handheld technology, create two groups of actors, give one set smart phones as their primary means of communication, an iPad for their script (so changes can be sent frequently), while keeping all technology from the other half for a season, and measure alignment at the end. But we can recognize that this is a potential hazard you are all facing and begin to undo the damage and prevent further issues.

To be continued…SOLVING THE PROBLEM AND REPAIRING THE DAMAGE

Marcia Polas
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Marcia Polas

Marcia Polas is an occupational Pilates teacher and movement consultant. She focuses on the study of bodies at work and trains students to be effortless in their bodies, no matter how rigorous their job. She teaches workshops, group classes, and private sessions in person and virtually throughout the world. She is based in NYC, and firmly believes it shouldn't hurt to do your job.
Marcia Polas
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