Students appear in a trancelike state — some lying delicately on a table, others sitting bolt upright in a wooden chair, and others walking across the room, slowly. The setting is a classroom.
One student, Colleen Harris, sings a song from the musical “Nine” — or tries to. As she sings, the teacher is gently jabbing his fingers in her neck. Another first-year student at the American Conservatory Theater, Clayton B. Hodges, sings “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” but breaks off laughing as the teacher fingers Hodges’ temple.
The teacher, Frank Ottiwell, is trying to train their bodies in his specialty: the Alexander Technique. This is a method designed to help people learn how to improve their posture and body language in relation to their well-being.
Ottiwell, 73, has been teaching the technique to such students as Annette Bening, Delroy Lindo and Benjamin Bratt for 44 years, the last 38 with ACT, including its early years in Pittsburgh.
…”Let’s say you’re doing a scene from ‘Streetcar Named Desire,’ ” said Bening, who graduated from San Francisco State in 1980 and was at the conservatory from 1980 to 1985. “You’re running around the room, you’re throwing yourself on the bed, who knows what might be happening, and Frank would literally be shadowing you, behind you, with his incredible hands perched on the base of your neck guiding you around, allowing you to feel what it was like to stay open physically, and also stay fully involved in whatever you’re supposed to be doing.”
Ottiwell speaks of eliminating, or redistributing, tension from the body to create the most natural performance that will strike a chord with audiences, and that’s what he was trying to do with Harris.
“The other kids in the room could tell (Harris was tense) when she sang,” said the soft-spoken, gray-bearded Ottiwell. “We just made the tiniest little change — all I was doing with her is trying to get her not to tighten as she went, say, for a high note. One of the objects of Alexander was to ‘come to full stature.’ ”
Or, as Bening put it, “Good acting is revealing yourself, not covering yourself up. If your body is free, your mind is free.”
F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian actor who developed the technique when he was losing his voice onstage and discovered that the position of his head and spine was the key to solving his problem. Ottiwell, who never met Alexander, began learning the technique in 1955 after coming to America from his native Montreal.
Ottiwell said the technique is applicable to anything — “If you were digging ditches, I’d give you the same lesson.”
“I once worked with a young pitcher who had been signed by the Yankees,” said Ottiwell, who had the pitcher demonstrate his delivery with wadded-up paper balls. “He wound up and threw his pitch, and just as he let the ball go, he threw his head back. Well, I didn’t know a lot about pitching, but I knew that that wasn’t such a hot idea. So I sort of manipulated him a little bit and got him to throw the ball and not pull his head back.”
Clearly, though, Ottiwell’s continuing legacy is as a top-notch trainer of actors. And then there is his longest-tenured student who has never stopped learning: himself.