Fitness for the Actor: How to stay strong, maintain endurance, and promote health without interfering with your released actor’s instrument.
For all of us, it is important to be strong, have physical stamina, and maintain a healthy instrument, but this is especially true for actors. Oftentimes, however, actors develop a fitness regiment that is working against their craft without realizing it. At the Maggie Flanigan Studio, so many of my students ask me what they should to do stay in shape as they begin their Meisner training. Very often, my first response to an actor who is serious about their training is nothing. I encourage them to let their movement class be their only physical discipline for at least the first year of the Meisner Technique. It takes a long time for an actor to learn to articulate physical release and to begin letting go of habits that have taken decades to develop. So, in general it is best for them not to be sending their body mixed messages.
That being said, this isn’t a final solution for the working actor. It doesn’t take into account the obvious benefits of an active body. In fact, actors need to have an active body. For a theater actor, stamina and endurance are of upmost importance. Hamlet is about 4,000 lines, almost 3 hours, and that actor is on stage almost the entire play! A healthy and active instrument also increases “castability” and range for an actor. A performer wants to be capable of doing anything that is asked of them – on set I’ve been asked to do fight choreography, jump on a moving train, ride a horse, contort and convulse for special effects units for over 8 hours. I’ve played dancers, demons, and shot mad-cap races take after take. All of this requires a dynamic, flexible, and strong instrument. So, the right fitness program can actually help an actor in their craft.
However, it’s not enough to just be strong and have endurance. Above all, an actor’s body must be released. A released instrument helps an actor process their emotional life freely. Release gives an actor presence and makes them beautiful to watch. Without working on release, an actor will be unable to truly and authentically take in the imaginary world. They also won’t be able to extrovert their experiences – leaving all of the crafting they’ve done locked up inside of them. So, for the actor looking to stay in shape, I tend to suggest workouts that minimize tension and increase fluidity and release.
Of all the workouts that interfere with release, heavy weight lifting takes the cake. An overdeveloped actor who lifts a lot of weights is only creating a shield, a coat of armor that is keeping out experience and locking in their impulses. What’s more, it limits an actor’s casting opportunities. Think of your favorite actors, the ones you truly admire, and ask: “how many of these guys/gals look like Schwarzenegger circa 1985?” Probably none. If you have to lift weights, I’ll call you stubborn and then tell you to go for more reps of lighter weights. Avoid repetition and anything that creates fixed tension like pilates, pole dancing classes, pure-barre, or crunches. Doing the same exercise regiment over an extended period of time, will form structural and postural habits that will interfere with an actor’s ability to be open. Variety of routine will help to break down some of those blocks.
On the bright side, there are plenty of activities that promote articulation, freedom of movement, and flexibility. Good options would be swimming, yoga, boxing, martial arts, or contemporary/improvisational dance. And another way to insure that you are keeping your body open is to stretch! All the time! For very minute you spend strengthening and shortening muscles, spend just as long lengthening. Inflexibility is fixed tension, and in my field, tension equals blocked experience.
Ultimately, the most important part of an actor’s physical training is release. Any new actor should first and foremost prioritize developing an artist’s body – not a shield, but an expressive, dynamic, responsive instrument. A body that will support their inner life, rather than restrict it. Before any fitness endeavor, ask “Does this support me as an artist?” After an actor has a developed dialogue of release with their physical instrument, they can begin to strengthen in more specific ways that support alignment and physical health. But this requires a strong foundation of physical training.
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