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Interview with Frank Ottiwell: the Early Years

Interview with Frank Ottiwell: the Early Years
By Pamela Blanc

Published in AmSAT News , Issue No. 67, Spring 2005

PB: When did you first hear of the Alexander Technique?

frankFO: It was 1954 – fifty years ago. I had just come back to New York after spending seven months in England. Almost the minute I stepped off the boat, I ran into an actress I had been in acting school with who was now studying at the Actor’s Studio. She started talking to me about the Alexander Technique and told me that many people at the Studio were studying it. That meant a lot because the Actor’s Studio was very prestigious place to study acting. My friend Pat told me about Judy Leibowitz and I went almost immediately for lessons, having no real idea of what the Alexander Technique was about.

When I look back at those days, it seems like a minor miracle that I threw myself into the work the way I did. I had just spent all my money living in England for seven months, studying voice and doing some physical things (but not discovering the Technique while I was there.) I was almost penniless by the time I got back to New York, but I went ahead with lessons.

The lessons were $5. And that was a lot of money then. I remember even 3 years later when I was just starting teaching, a woman came to me for lessons and when I said that I charged $5 (Judy then was $7.50), she said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly afford $5.” So I started her at $2.50. But, you know we’re talking a long time ago when money was different.

PB: Why did you want to take lessons?

FO: I started for vague, but inspired, reasons. There must have been something about the way my friend Pat spoke about it — a kind of excitement mixed with inspiration. I just knew I wanted to do it.

I suppose I must have been looking for something in my life. I think I went to try something new that seemed to have promise. I didn’t go out of a felt need or because I wanted to improve my piano technique or anything. It was just one person’s “word of mouth”.  

I studied with Judy, varying between one, two or three lessons a week, for probably a year and a half.

PB: Why did you stop?

FO: I don’t think there was a specific reason. I had been studying for a while.   Perhaps I wanted to see how I would do on my own. Maybe it had something to do with money, which I was perpetually short of.

Then I ran into Judy at Bloomingdales one day and we chatted. I said, “Oh, my gosh, I probably have forgotten everything.” And she said, “No, no, you haven’t forgotten. You’ll be back, and you’ll see.” She was right. I went back, and I did see. Thank goodness.

PB: When did you decide you wanted to train to be a teacher?

FO: I got the idea I would like to train while I was having lessons. However, there were no training courses in America. So, I wrote to Alexander to enquire about training. While I was waiting for a reply, Judy, who did not know I had written to Alexander, said she was going to start a training course. She thought I might be interested. I was, and I started with her when she began.

I did eventually have a response from F.M. with the details of the course at Ashley Place. Years later I thought it would probably have been wonderful if I had gone to train with Alexander but the reality was I had no way to pay for the training or to live in England for three years. It seemed a great blessing that Judy chose that moment to start training teachers.

Alexander died while I was in training. We got the cable and were more or less in a state of shock. I was selfishly very disappointed. I had thought I would go and do some work with him after I finished with Judy. Now even that would not be possible.

I certainly don’t regret having done that initial basic training with Judy. She was a wonderful teacher and she gave me something only she could have given to me. She had a great heart and a generosity that helped me to begin to believe in my possibilities.

This was Judy’s first training and it was exciting for all of us to be exploring this new territory.

PB: How was it set up?

FO: We went in the afternoons to her studio and worked for two or three hours. I don’t remember precisely. And I don’t remember how soon we worked with each other. Perhaps we worked with her individually in turn and listened while she talked to each of us. It was all very, very interesting. Very compelling.

There were many more people who started than finished. There were 13 at first — twelve women and me.

By the time we finished training there were just the five of us. Lee Firestone, Joyce Ringdahl, Debbie Caplan, Barbara Callen and me and we were the ones who, with Judy, later formed ACAT.

PB: What year do you think the course started?

FO: I think it was 1955. We didn’t get certificates at the time. That didn’t enter anyone’s mind. Later, when ACAT was formed and the first ACAT graduates qualified, Judy sent out certificates to people like me who had trained before we formed ACAT. Mine was dated 1960; but I know that I finished before that — some time in 1959.

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