Evolving the Actor’s Neutral Body

Pages: 37-40
Year: 2012
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structural Integration – Vol. 40 – Nº 1

Volume: 40

As a Rolfer who has worked with bodies since 1993, I have observed that holding patterns and alignment in the body are a result of body structure, how we are taught to move, any injuries we have sustained, and what energy level we may have on a given day. Our parents or caretakers teach us how to move in our developmental years of infancy.1 If one leg is longer than the other, as is true for many polio survivors, a limp will result. If a person falls from a tree or sustains an injury through a car accident, any internal and external scars will inform how a person moves. If the primary caregiver has a structural challenge, the child will most likely take on or imitate the parent’s movement even if he does not have a physical challenge.2 If an individual did not get any sleep the previous evening because she was running a marathon (metaphorically or literally), she may be exhausted the following day and slump when she normally is erect. Or if a person receives the devastating news that his mother just died, he may round her shoulders and collapse physically. Life happens.

But what about actors, those who train to portray life realistically? Because of inevitable events in life, an actor must train the body to be ready to work as well as the mind. “You can’t just get up and do it and hope that miraculously your psycho-physical mechanism is fully operational. You need daily, regular actor-training as the ideal accompaniment to rehearsing a play.”3 Actors need to develop a ‘neutral body’ to successfully chameleon into any role and to succeed in playing any character from a time period other than our own.

As an actor, an educator, a Rolfer, and a student of somatic psychology, I find blending modalities effective and successful to create a neutral body. Let me introduce you to some history and application of movement training for the actor, define somatic psychology, and how these can combine to cultivate a neutral body.

History of Movement Training for the Actor

An integral being knows without going, sees without looking, and accomplishes without doing. Lao-tzu

Let’s look at seminal advancements to actor training in the recent century and how those methods intersect. Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) is the father of modern acting,4 the method, based in the idea that art echoes life rather than the centuries-prior practice of actors using prescribed motions or gestures to match an emotion. Along with this new way of acting at the turn of the century came other methods of training for the actor that prime the body for performance.

Playwright Anton Chekhov worked directly with Stanislavsky. Anton introduced his nephew, acclaimed young actor Michael Chekhov, to Stanislavsky.5 Michael Chekhov’s method includes what he calls the psychological gesture also known as PG, which encourages the actor to use a gesture to discover the essence of a moment or character: “A PG needs to be strong, clear and simple. Initially, it is an exercise to awaken us to our willpower and to prepare us for creative work.”6 From this preparation and exploration of gesture, the actor has an essence of what she needs and can infuse that essence into her work. Another movement innovator of the time, Meyerhold,7 broke down the parts of an action so the actor can increase her awareness around each detail of what she is doing to be able to augment any part of the motion.8 In Rolf Movement® Integration, breaking down the parts of a motion is helpful to be able to identify where the challenge in motion occurs.

After these great innovators extended their knowledge to Europe and the United States, their methods inspired and informed the growth of other movement training such as Feldenkrais® and Alexander Technique that later became popular to incorporate into performance training.

A distant relative of the type of training inspired by Stanislavsky is present in somatic psychology; specifically, Gendlin’s Focusing9 and Selver’s Sensory Awareness.10

History of Somatic Psychology

Sigmund Freud is known as the father of modern psychology and is often credited for beginning a new science. According to Hanna in his book Bodies in Revolt: A Primer in Somatic Thinking, “Freud taught us that we are much more than the aggressive, fractional part of ourselves which is the conscious mind.”11 Somatic psychology may best be understood through understanding that “’Soma’ does not mean ‘body’; it means ‘Me, the bodily being.’”12

Once the somatic channels for the satisfactions of the primordial human core become blocked, twisted or diverted, then the manner in which the inner energies of the human flow out an express themselves in conscious, active behavior will be deviated, inefficient and will be continually felt within the human as actual organic tension, anxiety and unhappiness. In its simplest statement, this is the psychopathology of Freud.13

What’s more, somatic psychology “is a holistic form of therapy that respects and utilizes the powerful connection between body, mind and spirit. How we are in this world, how we relate to ourselves and others, is not just purely about the mind or our thoughts, but is also deeply rooted in our bodies and our spirits.”14 So somatic psychology differs from traditional psychology because the process is not talk-centered, it is body-centered. In Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) sessions, I have found myself naturally using this body-centered process in sessions with clients. Sometimes I notice motions or gestures of the client that help integrate the event or sensation being explored.

Neutral Body and Awareness

Now let’s look at the definition of a neutral body, awareness, and then explore how to cultivate awareness. I define neutral body as a body that does not give any clue to the inner life of the person. We live in a continuum of evolution; a neutral body is highly adaptable and aligned, a body that employs economy of motion and is agile, with freedom to make new choices through motion at a moment’s impulse. These are the core principles of Rolfing SI. Simultaneously and inclusively, “[An actor] must have courage, but not merely the courage to exhibit himself – a passive courage, we might say: the courage of the defenseless, the courage to reveal himself.”15 A neutral body is a body in ideal alignment that functions absent of affect. A neutral body is free of obvious injury and does not imply a point of view. An actor needs to cultivate a neutral body in order to liberate the actor from being typecast in roles that echo the routine and modern life lead by that actor. Can you see how valuable Rolfing SI is for actors as a tool to cultivate the neutral body?

Awareness is defined as being mindful to sensations as they happen. “The first base is to make contact with your own skeleton and muscles.”16 An actor needs to be able to know where his or her body is in space before any selection of adjustments to facilitate acting choices. Sometimes patterns in the body impede other choices for body carriage because the musculature simply cannot lengthen or shorten to make the desired change. “An actor’s habits are not just physical habits leading to disorganization of the body, commonly thought of as ‘bad posture’ or ‘extraneous gestures,’”17 these habits are most commonly born from how we are taught to move or as a result of a trauma in the body that consequently decreases motion. On a side note, “One of the goals of trauma therapy is to help those individuals understand their body sensations.”18 Releasing trauma is often necessary to cultivate a neutral body and may require specific applications of movement, bodywork, and therapy. In much the same way, by spending time increasing awareness, strength, and flexibility, an actor is tending to his or her garden of possibility. Prior to being able to tackle the rigors of a role like Queen Victoria, an actor must first have a basic understanding of her instrument (her body), before advanced techniques of body movement or acting can be explored. However, young actors often push to force a result. “Once an actor forces any sound or movement, it is an opportunity missed to breathe deeper and find the energy to solve a problem.”19

The road to the neutral body is not easy. “The actor [has] to be willing to work extremely hard in order to develop any apparently ‘natural’ talent.”20 In other words, the neutral body for the actor is an empowering tool for artistic evolution, and developing it requires great courage, effort and perseverance. Neutral is not a new idea in theater. Jacques Lecoq created a form of neutral work for the actor using his model of the neutral mask:

Unlike a character mask, which has its inner conflicts, the neutral mask aims to achieve a state of calm without tension or contradiction. Since this mask aspires to being open, available and ready to respond to the world it encounters, the actor must be prepared to engage willingly with that world – a world that moves and will move him. Each encounter with the world creates a state of off-balance, since we experience something new and unknown. Human beings seem to possess a strong inner dynamic that creates a tension between a desire to enjoy the provocation of instability, and a fear of what this state of off-balance may bring. The neutral mask allows the actor to recognize – in a playful way – that the experience of calmness and openness can be achieved only by accepting the perpetual motion between balance and off-balance. The neutral mask invites the actor to enjoy the pleasure of going off-balance so as to find a new balance.21

At the inception of the historic and celebrated Group Theater in the 1930s, each member of the ensemble agreed to focus on self-awareness so that “a better understanding of himself would inevitably result.”22 Awareness is the first step to that understanding, the first building block of the neutral body. “Awareness has to be a constant. It is through awareness that we learn essential things about the body, its resistances, points of balance, its potential plasticity.”23 When an actor is able to discern what’s happening in her body, she can then make choices to change or enhance her areas of awareness. Knowing the body better allows more choices when creating a character because more of the body’s motion and nuance is available to the actor. “The separation of impulse from movement, action, gesture, sound, word is an analytical tool enabling us to break down the process of acting, rather as articulation breaks down an action in order to better understand the physical process.”24

Discovering what triggers inefficient holding patterns in the body is vital to increase awareness. “At war against an ideal state of freedom to choose how we shall use ourselves and embody our intentions, are our various predilections and aversions; it is as if we are prepared to use parts of our make-up and not others, and nowhere is this seen more strongly than in the attitudes and emotions which we choose to exploit, or reject, as actors.”25 Triggers are situations or sensations that inspire visceral reactions. “Sensory messages from muscles and connective tissue that remember a particular position, action, or intention can be the source of a trigger.”26 An example of a trigger might be the smell of bacon being cooked in the morning, which reminds the person of fun Sunday breakfasts with family. If the person also recently suffered the tragic loss of one of her parents, the trigger would have several layers.

Rolf encouraged clients to systematically establish awareness by checking into feeling or sensations in the body: “You start at the periphery. You start at the outside of the body and you start more or less at the ends of the body.” Movement training to create the neutral body (for the actor) begins the same way. Regardless of the movement method employed, classes often commence with an awareness check-in – each actor standing, looking at his or her body in the mirror. Awareness questions are asked of each student to internally acknowledge: Are you balanced right to left? Do you feel you’re leaning forward? Is one shoulder higher than the other? What about your hips? And so on. “Yet many actors, particularly in America, ignore the need to focus on and control the use of their physical being, both voice and body. This leads to severe limitations in their work, and by the time they become bored with the narrow spectrum of roles they are to able to play, it is usually too late.”27

Neutral Body in Performance

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

e.e. Cummings

If the body is the focus of awareness, the mind can follow. Thomas states this clearly: “I had created a place of understanding, where body, voice, and mind, and feeling (hopefully, soul, as well – I have to say it) could link and transform themselves into art.”28 For some actors, staying in the mind is the way they prefer to work, which often leaves the audience with a vague sense of unease because they have chosen to dismiss the clearest instrument the audience can perceive: the body. “On stage, movement is sometimes visible, reaching the audience through their eyes. Other times, the movement is invisible and directly penetrates their hearts, such as in the case of sensations that flare out beyond the stage.”29 Ideally, an actor is working to make seamless the melding of the body and mind when pursuing the action of her character. Only through the facility of a neutral body can this journey be supremely successful.

We…need to be able to ensure that even our smallest movements reverberate energetically throughout our whole body. We also need to be able to do this with a sense of ease. In order to awaken our will and develop our ability to energize the smallest movement, Chekhov suggests that certain gestures can help, and [his exercises] are about awakening the whole psycho-physical organism that is the actor.30

Lee laments, “it was difficult for me to believe that I could accomplish more with less effort.”31 This less effort comes from years of training and years of doing. The same idea could be applied to the practice of Rolfing SI. The body is a mirror of the mind. A neutral body requires dedication and years to cultivate. I wish I could point to an actor like Fred Astaire (who Rolf was known to hold up as the example of the only human who did not need Rolfing SI) as the prime example of how a neutral body looks. The truth is every person has his or her individual ideal that cannot be measured by comparison.

When employing Meyerhold’s system of Biomechanical actor training, the goal “is to acquire skills, skills which are fundamental to the craft of acting: precision, balance, coordination, efficiency, rhythm, expressiveness, responsiveness, playfulness and discipline.”32 Most methods of movement training would claim to have many of these skills as their goals.

An Example of Rolfing Sessions for an Actor

When I worked with an actress who performs on both stage and screen, we found many breakthroughs leading to alignment in her body through the Rolfing Ten Series. For example, freeing her breath in the first session was tantamount to her articulating some of her feelings around family and her years growing up. What she and I did was informed by somatic psychology, what she brought into the room, and the curiosities I had throughout our sessions informed by her physical and emotional responses. One of her goals was to open her shoulders laterally so her head could be balanced on her torso. By the end of session three, we had met that goal. Prior to our working together, she had come out of a mild depression that mirrored this change in her body. She reported feeling a new sense of optimism.

Around session five, she had an important audition for a guest-starring role on a hit network show. She was preparing to play a tough-as-nails cop who has someone break into her home. Her character had to be prepared to shoot the intruder. It was a great role that made the actress more anxious to do a good job in the audition, which was the very problem in her preparation. As we worked in the session the night before the audition, her anxiety was in the room. We talked about what was happening in her body. I made the suggestion to focus on the breath. I urged her to know she’d done her homework on the role, that the breath would allow and support emotions, and to see if coming from a place of relaxation and ease might be more effective when approaching the audition. We had a great session. Her pelvis was freed, she was walking with an engaged and lengthened psoas, and her low back was long.

She called me the next night to tell me that this audition was the first where she could remember actually feeling relaxed and feeling like she did a great job. She didn’t think she booked the role, but she felt great about what she did in the room – and that’s all an actor has control over. This actress said she had never breathed through an audition before. The world was opening to her in a new way because she was evolving with her body.


Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.

Oscar Wilde

T h r o u g h m o ve mn t ad s o m a t i c psychology methods, an actor can discover processes that refine her ability to notice her experience, physically and mindfully. Applying methods of somatic psychology and movement training with Rolfing SI will increase an actor ’s awareness.


Awareness deepens potential creative expression, moment to moment. Through awareness cultivated by Rolfing SI, Sensory Awareness, Psychological Gesture, or breaking down the elements of a motion, a neutral body is cultivated. By evolving a neutral body, an actor is investing in her potential as a creative artist as well as her potential as a human being.


  1. Rolf, I. P., Rolfing: Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1989.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Merlin, Bella, Konstantin Stanislavsky. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Chamberlain, Franc, Michael Chekhov. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Pitches, Jonathan, Vsevolod Meyerhold. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  8. Kubic, Marianne, “Biomechanics: Understanding Meyerhold’s System of Actor Training.” In Nicole Potter, Movement For Actors. New York: Allworth Press, 2002, pp. 3-15.
  9. Gendlin, Eugene T., Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press, 1996.
  10. Selver, Charlotte, “Sensory Awareness And Our Attitude Toward Life.” Sensory Awareness Foundation Bulletin, #15-I, Summer 1999.
  11. Hanna, Thomas, Bodies in Revolt: A Primer In Somatic Thinking. Novato, CA: Freeperson Press, 1970.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Tickner, Chris, Ph.D., M.F.T., “What Is Somatic Psychology?” (web page). www.bodymindpsych.com/id1.html.
  15. Growtowski, Jerzy, “Statement of Principles.” From his book Towards a Poor Theatre, 1968, pp. 211-218. Retrieved April 12, 2011, 2011 from http://owendaly.com/jeff/ grotows2.htm.
  16. Callery, Dymphna, Through the Body, A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre. London: Nick Hern Books Limited, 2001.
  17. Lee, Teresa, “Alexander Technique and the Integrated Actor: Applying the Principles of the Alexander Technique to Actor Preparation.” In Nicole Potter’s, Movement for Actors. New York: Allworth Press, 2002, pp. 65-84.
  18. Rothschild, Babette, The Body Remembers. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  19. Thomas, Caroline, “Breathe Before You Act.” In Nicole Potter’s, Movement for Actors. New York: Allworth Press, 2002, pp. 85-95.
  20. Chamberlain, op. cit.
  21. Quoted in Simon David Murray’s Jacques Lecoq. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  22. Cole, Toby and Helen Krich Chinov, eds., Actors on Acting. New York: Random House, 1949.
  23. Callery, op. cit.
  24. Ibid.
  25. McCallion, Michael, The Voice Book. New York: Routledge, 1988.
  26. Rothchild, op. cit.
  27. Thomas, op. cit.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Rumohr, Floyd, “Michael Chekov, Psychological Gesture, and the Thinking Heart.” In Nicole Potter’s Movement for Actors, New York: Allworth Press, 2002, pp. 16-26.
  30. Michael Chekov quoted in Chamberlain, op. cit.
  31. Lee, op. cit.
  32. Pitches, op. cit.

Evolving the Actor’s Neutral Body[:]

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In