The Actor’s Warm-Up – Part I

Bethany Simons
Bethany Simons

From foot massages to humming and jaw jiggling – the actor’s warm-up is as essential as it is eccentric.

If you’ve ever taken part in an acting workshop, chances are you’ll have heard the phrase, “Your body is your instrument, and just like any good musician, you need to take time to warm up that instrument!”

As an actor, there are countless reasons why you should take the time to develop and implement a good warm-up routine. Not only does it feel great, it will increase your body and spatial awareness, help relieve tension and prevent strain and injury. Warming-up prior to a performance will assist you to respond physically, vocally and mentally and will prevent you from forcing your work.

Throughout my recent regional tour, I was conscious of making my warm-up time a priority. I decided I would rather spend less time on hair and make-up in order to walk on stage prepared and responsive, than to deliver a stiff, forced and unfocussed performance. And do you know what? Those lecturers at acting school were right! On tour, I experienced the benefits of a dedicated actor’s warm-up first hand.

I did a lot of talking on tour (some would say I always do a lot of talking…) Still, speaking from the stage, chatting with audience members in noisy foyers, and winding down in the car on the way to the hotel or the next town could have put a lot of strain on my voice or damaged my vocal chords. My warm-up acted as a protective shield, preventing me from losing my voice – much to my colleagues’ dismay. Ryan and Andy, would often joke saying, “Beth…shouldn’t you rest your voice now?” No siree! My vocal chords were warmed up, relaxed and ready to go. I could’ve talked until the cows came home! (We saw a lot of cows on tour…)

Here’s another thought. Chances are, your character doesn’t move, walk, stand or speak exactly as you do. This is another reason why we warm-up, to neautralise the body, to create a blank canvas, an instrument that is ready to adapt, transform and play. You may have recognised certain ‘keys’ that help you get into character. For some people it’s all about the haircut, others need to find the character voice, and for some, once they have the shoes, they’ve got the character. No matter what your key is, you still need to warm up. It’s not wise to rely solely on your raw talent and brilliance! Explore your body’s needs, develop a routine that works for you and, most importantly, factor in the time to put that routine into practice.

As time and space can sometimes be an issue, I’d suggest developing a simplified version of your warm-up routine. Think of it as The Express Warm-Up – For The Actor On The Go (That is, the actor with 8mins spare and a disabled toilet for a dressing room). Your express warm-up may look something like this:

Breathe. The breath supports the voice, so it’s important to engage your diaphragm in the act.
Yawning – not only is it fun and apparently contagious, but it’s the best option if you have no time or space to do your full warm-up. Yawning on voice (with your tongue out, I might add, which is extremely attractive) will reveal the natural pitch placement of your voice. It’s very gentle and helps to open up the sound.

If there is space to do so, lie on the floor with your legs on the wall. Hum gently and then blow through the lips. Embrace the face tingle!
Finish with a spinal roll.

Ah, spinal rolls. Let’s finish by talking about tension. It’s just so tense, you know? As actors, we want to rid our bodies of any unnecessary tension in order to be as open, relaxed, and ready to receive as possible. A lot of people hold tension in their neck and shoulders, and a great method to relieve this tension is to perform a spinal roll or two. This simply involves dropping the chin to the chest and continuing to roll the spine downwards until your hands are dangling on the floor. This isn’t an exercise for the hamstrings, so you should ‘soften’ the knees to relieve that stretch. Remember to let go of the tension in your neck by ensuring that your head is dangling at the end of your spine. You may like to bounce your knees gently from that position before slowly rolling back up to standing, imagining each vertebrae being placed on top of the other until your head is the last thing to rest on top of the spine. Hey, presto! Improved posture and an increased awareness of points of tension in the neck and spine. It is highly recommended that you do this exercise regularly, even when you’re not performing just to keep your body in check.

I have a lot more to say, which isn’t a surprise really, so I’ll continue this theme in my next column. You may have heard it all before, but the question is are you putting your routine into practice? If this is all new to you, that’s OK! It’s never too late to discover the joy of the actor’s warm-up.

Until next time, happy humming, everybody!

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