“To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that’s what we’re here to do.” *Sanford Meisner
This drive to explore the personal authenticity was one of the reasons why the renowned Sanford Meisner left the Group Theatre in the 1940’s. He was dissatisfied with the approach that was taken on acting. According to Meisner, the acting lacked believability and truth. Rarely was anyone truly listening or present, let alone being authentic.
His conviction to change that habit led to the development of certain procedures and exercises – now well-known as The Meisner Technique.
I was exposed to many different approaches and techniques during my acting school, but the more I researched Sanford Meisner’s technique and motives, the more I grew fond of not only the different techniques, but the heart behind them.
Meisner’s aim was to get actors to be free and spontaneous in their response, without having to think about what to say and do. ‘Listen and respond,’ or ‘Stay in the moment’ were common phrases he used when teaching his students to behave instinctively to the surrounding environment.
I know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in focusing on my own lines and performance, rather than listening to the other actor and responding. I have certainly not mastered the art of authenticity, or gotten complete freedom from caring about what other people think about me, but it is something that I desire to achieve, and Meisner’s views and principles on acting are definitely helpful tools.
He was convinced that ‘all good acting comes from the heart’, and in order to prevent actors from forcing, faking, rehearsed habits or line readings, he developed a ‘brick by brick, step by step’* procedure of self-investigation through the process of repetition.
Some of the ‘bricks’ that Meisner built his foundation with (and which stood out to me) were:
1. Repetition – In order to get actors listening to one another, Meisner introduced repetition exercises in which one actor states a personal, behavioural fact (not a judgement or opinion) about the other actor, who, in turn, simply repeats the observation. Only the last time needs to be remembered and repeated until an authentic connection is made. Here, the greater focus is the other actor and re-acting, as opposed to just reiterating the lines.
Bear in mind this exercise was and is only a means to an end, intending to lay the foundation. Many people have only been introduced to this first part and only associate Meisner with this particular exercise.
When I was introduced to this repetition exercise, it seemed a little monotonous and ridiculous, but through this, I was forced to really listen and respond. It gave no room for me to force my personal perception of what I thought the line should sound or look like.
2. Memorization – A good knowledge of your lines is absolutely essential. Even though this seems self-evident, this is often not the case. And it makes so much sense. If you don’t know your lines, you aren’t able to live in the moment because your mind is preoccupied with remembering the lines.
I could have made my life a lot easier for many scenes I had to perform. It only takes that little bit more effort that makes such a huge difference in the whole performance. In hindsight, I realize how my attitude was very poor, when it came to learning lines. I had a couple of small roles in short films, and even though there weren’t many lines, I still had to check the script every time before a new scene, and that prevented me from performing with security. Do me a favour, and know the lines inside and out.
3. Focus on a task, not the words – So much more tension and subtext can be created if your character is preoccupied with a task. Meisner stressed the fact that the tasks should be meaningful, urgent and difficult. In this way, more is at stake for the character. According to Meisner, ‘an ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.’**
I found that the smallest of tasks help me not to stress about my lines – this may look like fiddling with the buttons on your shirt, unpacking a bag, putting on shoes/coat etc. if it suits your character.
4. Don’t just ‘wing’ it – I think a trap for talented actors is to solely rely on their talent and fail to put a lot of thought or work into the character. Meisner certainly did not support this. While some may boast in their ability or confidence to just ‘wing it’, that should never be an excuse not to prepare. In fact, solid preparation supports spontaneity and gives more room to be flexible.
I experienced the effectiveness of this, when we were given an excerpt of a monologue and had to create a detailed background story of the character. I had put a lot of effort into that particular scene and planned every detail of it. When I actually performed it though, I was so immersed in the character, I was almost completely unaware of my audience – It was one of my biggest triumphs.
While I am not claiming that the Meisner technique is the only way to good acting, I do believe that it gives key tools – or in this case, ‘bricks’ – to equip actors in building a solid foundation and a certain confidence and courage to dare to be authentic. And while this might be a lengthy process in building the foundation – I urge you to do it well, and do it authentically!
Brick by Brick.