A couple of students in a recent workshop experienced a bit of trepidation about the Meisner work. They had many questions about where the work leads, what it tangibly does, etc. It’s a common occurrence in Meisner classes, and Sommer and I got to pondering why that is.
Here is an email we sent to the students with some of our conclusions:
“Sommer and I have been talking a lot about the questions you raised both before and during class, and we’ve had a number of ideas come up for us. First of all, it’s important to note that the same kind of questions have come up in every Meisner class we’ve been in or taught, and the same kinds of questions are raised by the students in Meisner’s book and films. The questions seem to be a universal response to doing this work. So, why is that the case? We think it is because the work challenges deeply held ideas and feelings about what acting is, about art, about the role of intellect in our lives and about the way people are ‘supposed’ to live and behave in our world. When such vital things are challenged, it’s only natural for there to be big reactions. This work is not for everyone: It exacts a tremendous cost and the cost is personal. That said, it is also tremendously rewarding. But no written explanation is ever going to fully satisfy the deep questions that are borne from actually doing the work. When the questions come up for me, I find solace in remembering that many of our greatest actors, writers and directors have studied this technique. People like Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum, Sidney Pollack, Bob Fosse and on and on.
As to what the end result of Meisner training is, here are some thoughts: It’s important to remember that the exercise is not the art. Repetition is just an exercise, just as scales are an exercise for a pianist and barre work is exercise for a dancer. All are done as a means of training one to do something that is (and we should never forget that acting belongs in this category) very difficult.
There’s a Zen adage that ‘We make a pot from clay, but it is the emptiness inside that holds the water.’ We do the exercise so that when we are actually in performance we can get our conscious selves out of the way so that a space where the mysterious magic of true, impulsive, spontaneous creation can occur.
The Meisner work, unlike most other approaches to acting, gives actors a way of actually working and practicing their craft outside of performance. We practice Repetition regularly with each other and others who’ve had the training as a way of keeping our chops up. When real time is consistently put into working the steps of the exercise, many changes begin to occur. Some of the changes are obvious, some less tangible. We become more assertive, more confident, more relaxed, more present, more poised, more emotionally available, less self-conscious. Because I continue to do the work, I am more able to take each moment in life as it comes and respond to it from my genuine self. Our teacher Larry Silverberg says that, ‘the life of your acting depends on your ability to be available to and in response to everything that is actually happening as it’s happening.’ The exercise helps us get there.
You asked about approaching text using Meisner and about applying it when working with others who’ve not been trained in it. First, the exercise works on you and naturally changes the way you deal with texts and performance. So, in that sense, all you need to do is hold yourself to the standards you’ve practiced while working through the exercise. Additionally there are many Meisner rehearsal techniques, ways of personalizing given circumstances and of emotionally preparing yourself that you can work on your own. When it comes to approaching text, Meisner (again) has developed a very systematic and step-by-step approach that can be done alone or with a partner. For example, Sanford Meisner first has students write out the script by hand using no capital letters, punctuation, or stage directions as a way of taking away as many of the traps that might put an actor ‘in their head’ as possible. Then there’s a way of reading the script out loud for the first time, a way of doing the first read with a partner, etc. But the work on text comes only after putting in a lot of time on the foundational exercises.
There are many steps to the work and they all build upon the steps that preceded. The ‘simpler’ steps, while they may seem a million years away from actual performance, are essential stepping stones that lead to working on text. Ultimately, as in the exercise itself, it is vital for students of the work to remain present in the moment that is happening and not worry about what’s passed or what’s to come. After all, isn’t the singular present moment all we really have?”