I had the pleasure last week of taking a physical theatre workshop with Avner Eisenberg. He’s something of a physical theatre legend, he played “the jewel” alongside Michael Douglas in “Jewel of the Nile,” he was nominated for a Tony for his solo show on Broadway and he taught at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre–the premiere school for physical theatre in North America.

“Your body tells the story. Words just explain the story that your body already told us.”
-Avner Eisenberg

He talked a lot about breath, and it’s connection to the body and to acting. Although it was technically a theatre workshop, a lot of it carries over to acting for the screen. Every action, every emotion comes with a breath. You don’t believe it? Try not breathing for a couple of minutes and see how that goes for you. The thing is that most people never notice the breath, and never have to. Of course, actors aren’t most people.

As actors part of our job is to develop self-awareness. One of the easiest exercises that you can do is begin to focus your awareness on what is happening with your body, your voice, your face and your breath in everyday situations. See if you can notice those moments where you subtly hold your breath for a moment. Look for the emotional shift between doing an action with a breath in, and a breath out. How does the feeling in your body change?

In my experience, all to often actors forget to breathe. When we get nervous we unconsciously hold our breath, and our breathing gets more shallow. Because body and breath are intimately connected, that kind of breathing causes subtle tension in our muscles and faces that then shows up on camera. Film is visual first, and there’s no point in trying to come across as happy and relaxed if your body is telling us that you’re scared.

Breathing is an extraordinarily simple way to release nervous tension and ground your work back in the real world. Next time you’re on camera, take your attention back to your breath. Pause for a moment somewhere in the scene and just breathe–trust that what you’re feeling will come through on camera. Every movement and every emotion comes with a breath, and sometimes the breath is a perfect place to start.