How to Release Tension When Acting

This series of short exercises is best carried out standing up, weight carried mainly on the balls of the feet, legs slightly apart. You should be lightly and comfortably clad – don’t try it in the suit of amour or the corsets and ball gown you wear in Act Three. The object is to loosen and ‘twang’ the muscles in all parts of the body: to oil the machine and make the joints free, so that the whole body flows through the performance.

Shoulders face and neck

The head speaks volumes, even when the actor isn’t speaking. Consider this example:

I sentence you to death.

Release Tension

There is a pause … the actor’s head slowly droops on to his chest. Another pause. He gives a few brief shakes of his head.


Man-Mary! MARY!

She has her back to him. She opens her eyes wide; a smile of sheer delight crosses her face; slowly she turns her head to look at him…

Start with the shoulders. Stretch the arms upward, as far as you can reach, looking upward, then let the arms fall. Repeat this several times.

Shrug your shoulders, raise them as high as you can; hold for a moment, then drop them. Repeat several times.

Roll the shoulders forward in a circling movement, and then roll them backward.

Think of your chest as a heart-shaped balloon with great lifting power. Your feet can hardly stay on the floor. As you float upward let your head fall forward. Let it gently roll round several times, clockwise and anti-clockwise: be careful to do this without force. It often produces a rather nasty crunching noise, so do it gently.

Imagine a strong, slightly elastic cord running down from the top of your head, through your spine, and attached to your bottom vertebra. As the cord is tugged, it very gently lifts your head and straightens your spine: let your head and spine bounce very gently to the easy pull upward. Let the head float up without any help from the shoulders. Imagine that slow beautiful music is in the air all round you, constantly changing its direction – listen to it only with your head and ears.


We wear a mask of daily habit upon our faces, which reflects our thoughts, feelings, awareness and self-image. In our daily lives most of us compose our faces to try to look’ something we are not: interested, amused, understanding, at ease, adjusting to the situation we find ourselves in. This is rather different from the actor consciously seeking an expression. Yet actors don’t make faces; when they do, it’s called, unflatteringly, ‘mugging’. Clowns and broad comedians often mug, because their storytelling and expression of feeling is on a broad scale, and they must make their effects quickly and strongly. The face, like gestures, must follow thought and emotions, and on both the small and large screen the smallest facial expression seems false unless absolutely appropriate to the feelings which prompted it. Pulling faces is, though, a good way to encourage flexibility and responsiveness, so mug the most horrible and hilarious faces you can (Les Dawson’s ‘Gurning’ is always a favorite). Stretch and purse the lips, inflate the cheeks, screw up your eyes then open them wide, frown fiercely and release it, waggle your jaw, waggle your ears if you can – always a good party trick – try at the very least to get some movement into your scalp. Finally, start to shake your head and let your skin flop around your skull as if it were about to fall off; you won’t look very pretty doing it, but you will have a relaxed face.

Arms and hands

‘What do I do with my hands?’ says the inexperienced actor. From the centre of your chest to the tips of your fingers, gesture arises from thought or necessity – you pick up a suitcase, you describe a petal falling. To relax the arms and hands, swing your arms like a windmill, then slowly and flexibly flap them like a bird, then raise them and let them fall as though through water. Shake your hands like a loose bunch of bananas till your fingers flap. Play the piano with your fingers; rotate your hands from the wrist, clockwise and anticlockwise (more crunching noises). If this seems to be giving a great deal of attention to the arms and hands, it is because gesture amplifies the words you are speaking and is sometimes a language in itself. And gesture invariably looks spontaneous, except when the actor deliberately plays the phoney gestures of a self-dramatizing character. I saw a handsome, well-spoken and gifted Romeo playing a scene of loving, passionate eloquence with clenched fists, the hands undoing what all the rest of him was doing!

The torso

So far, we’ve loosened up the top of the body, now let’s consider the torso, centre of all our movement, and because it contains our breath, centre of our energy. Take a few deep breaths, lowering the diaphragm by letting the tummy stick out, quite naturally don’t protrude it or hollow your back. Breathe out quickly. Now a little bump and grind, rotate your hips one way and then the other. Those who are old enough will remember a riotous dance called the twist, where to fast and rhythmic music you rotated the shoulders one way, and the hips and knees the other way. It was wonderful for a flexible torso, if you survived! Standing with your feet a foot or so apart take a deep breath, and stretch up, and as you breathe out, let the top half of the body fall forward from the hips, first hands, then arms, head, shoulders and chest; let the spine gently curl forward. Hang head down for a moment, then as you take in a deep breath, slowly uncurl, and reach up with a catlike stretch. Repeat this number of times. The object of this exercise is to flex the muscles of the back, to make all the vertebrae of the spine flexible. Do it gently. The major cause of absenteeism from work is ‘back trouble’, and the spine, main-mast of the whole body, needs careful treatment.

Release Tension

Legs, ankles and feet

Shake loosely each leg in turn. Clench each foot, and release. Swing each leg like a pendulum. Run lightly on the spot, on the ball of the foot. Standing on one leg lift the other a little and rotate the foot from the ankle – more crunching noises. Do the same with the other foot and ankle. Now launch yourself into kicks with each leg; a good kick involves the whole body, even down to the fingertips, it’s an explosion of energy. If you watch a fine footballer, his whole body will be as graceful as a ballet dancer, the arms, torso, hips and legs contributing to that moment of perfect balance and energy.

Finally, bounce lightly on the balls of the feet, and then change your weight from foot to foot. Stretch up and breathe in once more. Stand still, breathe easily, look around you. With luck you will now be in that condition of ‘vibrant repose’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines vibrant as ‘thrilling’ – not a bad state for an actor to be in.

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment


About the Author: Cody Riffel is a regular contributor to MegaHowTo. She likes to write on variety of topics, whatever interests her. She also likes to share what she learns over the Internet and her day-to-day life.

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