Interview with Frank Ottiwell: Inspiring the Profession
By Pamela Blanc
Published in AmSAT News , Issue No. 68, Fall 2005
Pamela Blanc: When and how did you come to be living in San Francisco?
Frank Ottiwell: In about 1965 or 1966 ACT (The American Conservatory Theater) invited Judy Leibowitz to Pittsburgh, where they were having their first season, to introduce the Alexander Technique to the acting company. Judy invited me to go with her. Bill Ball, the founder of ACT, wanted to create a theater company in which the professional actors were in a continuing learning environment. They were all very impressed with and interested in the work Judy and I did, and when ACT moved to San Francisco in 1967, I went with them as the company Alexander Technique teacher.
PB: Do you remember what/how you taught in those first lessons as a young teacher?
FO: It was pretty simple and straightforward. I introduced them to non-doing, to inhibiting and directing while doing my best to get necks to be free, heads to go forward and up and backs to lengthen and widen. I used chair and table work, monkeys and whispered ahs to do it. For the most part everyone was enthusiastic and willing. Of course there were some who were difficult in one way or another. All in all it was a trial by fire for me, and one that taught me more than I think I realized at the time.
PB: You were teaching whispered ahs?
FO: I was teaching whispered ahs mostly when I was working with the theater company. It was an obvious place to be teaching it, and it gave me lots of opportunities to work it out. There were a few things like that. It took me a long time to begin to get the real point of hands-on-back-of-chair. It was work with Walter Carrington that really made the penny drop on that one. So, I was working on all of those things myself and attempting to convey them to many different people each day. They seemed to be having some effect. People kept coming quite enthusiastically for their lessons and they learned and changed in a variety of gratifying ways.PB: As difficult as it might be to put into words, I am wondering about the essence of what you were teaching. I’m hearing you taught the forms and I understand the principles are taught within the forms. Can you say more?
FO: I think probably at that point, I was getting the most mileage from teaching non-doing. In addition to Alexander’s emphasis on non-doing, there was a big interest in Zen, and in the Tao, in San Francisco just at that time, and through those avenues non-doing was gaining currency rapidly. It became clear that it wasn’t only something that Alexander proposed, but a universal way of seeing the practicality of how things worked best. It’s an approach people aren’t used to at first, but my own feeling that this was something profoundly helpful and useful was constantly being reinforced by the way in which so many of the people I worked with were instinctively attracted to the non-doing way of working on themselves.
PB: When you went to ACT were you acting from the very beginning with them or did that come along later?
FO: I really left acting in 1956 to become an Alexander teacher, but soon after I got to ACT they were doing a play about the civil war and they needed a lot of men. I was offered a role, and so I slipped back into acting, more or less through the back door, without really trying.
The fact is, I learned one of my most lasting lessons from an experience I had in that play. I was standing in the wings one night waiting to go on and I thought: I should be directing! So I stood there giving my orders over and over, vaguely expecting that this was going to produce a brilliant performance and electrify the audience. Suddenly I heard my cue, walked on and went completely dry. I had no idea what my line was!. The thing is, I was to bring news that would change the whole course of the Civil War. After standing like a deer in headlights for a terrifying period of absolute blankness I babbled something incoherent and rushed off stage, leaving the Civil War to fend for itself.
It taught me a lot – in a hurry! Alexander used to say: let’s hope something goes wrong. Something certainly went wrong that day, and I learned. I learned not to mistake rote giving of orders for conscious alertness and being present in the moment. It was embarrassing, but worth it in retrospect.
PB: How do you work with the actors? Do you work with them in monologue?
FO: In monologues, in scenes, and I work with them in projects when they are doing a play. I’ll watch rehearsals and then they’ll come for tutorials or I’ll work with them in a class setting. By the time they’re in their second year they learn to come to class or tutorials guided by their own awareness of felt need.
The main thing I try to stay away from is directing or interpreting the material they are working on. This is actually quite important. My primary purpose, and the most helpful thing I can do for them is to help them have the experience, time after time, of doing their creative work with as little pressure and interference as possible.
PB: Do they get class work before they’re in a role that you’re working with them specifically on so that they have an understanding of the principles ahead of time?
FO: Oh, absolutely. They have a whole year of just class work.
Towards the end of that first year, I’ll just be beginning to work with them on text and singing. And, that’s quite a stretch for them because of course it means they have to stop acting and start being. For a lot of them it’s a very hard step.