Friday, March 13, 2009

the trouble with Meisner

A while back I received an inquiry about my classes which contained the following:

I'm a Meisner-trained actor looking for
a scene study class with a minimal focus on technique. Coming
from a Meisner background, I want the class to be more about the
interaction between the actors, and staying truthful
moment-to-moment and less about script analysis.

This person's Meisner teacher had instilled in him a suspicion, a fear, a paranoia even, of "technique" and "text analysis." The first thing to say about this is Meisner is itself a technique. Techniques are nothing more than ways of approaching things, and they are nothing to be afraid of.

But beyond that, this teacher had imprinted upon him a prejudice about text analysis that is more disturbing. I once spoke to one of my mentors at Yale, Evan Yionooulis, about Meisner. Evan chaired the acting program at Yale for five years. What she said is that Meisner is great for learning to "take it off of the other person", but not so great for learning organizing principles of working on a scene or a role. "Organizing principles" has an abstract sound to it, but what she meant by that term was this: a set of priorities, when approaching a scene or a role. Or, a set of questions which point you toward the significant and urgent elements of the character's situation, elements that will unquestionably impact how you play the scene, such as: what do I most need? What do I expect to happen next, best-case and worst-case? What are my strengths? What are my vulnerabilities? What are the greatest losses or failures I have suffered? Who is the person I am interacting with to me? etc. Such questions often strike students initially in my class as not terribly challenging, but as we discover in the scene work again and again, being able to frame compellingly and appropriately for yourself things like who you are in a scene, what you expect, and what happened in the past are critical in rising to the challenge presented by any scene and embracing the imaginary circumstances involved.

The phobia about "text analysis" bespeaks the actor's perennial fear of being "in her head". And certainly, text analysis undertaken wrongly, as, for example, an exercise in literary criticism, will land an actor in her head. But that is exactly why it is appropriate for an actor's training to include a procedure for how to approach the text involved in a scene and a role, and how to work towards identifying what is essential to it.

I have had students in my class who are either taking Meisner classes concurrently or have taken them in the past. They complain about the way in which certain words are used in Meisner classes almost talismanically, without explanation, like "listening" or "doing". The idea is that a good actor "really listens" and "really does", but to say more about what is meant by this is to betray or profane a sacred mystery. Some students are fine with refusal to explicate, and can learn what is meant by these terms by following the way an instructor praises or doesn't praise students' work in the repetition exercises. And to be fair, the teaching of acting is always going to be in part an experiential affair: books on acting can be great, but they can never suffice all by themselves. Helping the observers in the class see the important things and understand them is inevitable part of a good class, no matter how you slice it. But there is a difference between refusing to explain ANYTHING and a willingness to enlighten when and where it is possible. I think many Meisner teachers tend towards the former.

Another quagmire that can develop in Meisner classes is that as the repetition exercises unfold, INITIALLY the emphasis is on receiving from the partner and answering him or her, but then, as the weeks go by, a premium starts to be placed on repetition exercises where an emotional escalation takes place. Students then begin to work for this type of display, and the focus becomes totally wrong. Any acting teacher worth his salt, Meisner or not, will tell you that the emotion in an actor's work is a by-product of engagement with others. When the emotion experienced by the actor becomes the focus of the actor's attention, she is experiencing HERSELF having the emotion, rather than experiencing the partner and the scene. The histrionic displays can be impressive, but they are a colossal red herring. That is just not what it's about.

Meisner is a great approach to study, no two ways about it. Properly taught, it is a great way to learn to put your attention on your partner. However, it has limitations and dangers, like any technique, and in the hands of an untalented teacher, it can be worse that no technique at all.

I met a Los Angeles talent agent not long ago who said that he didn't need his people to be good, he just needed them to be able to "carry on a conversation in front of the camera". That was what it took to get work in the acting chops department. And Meisner can be a great way for people to learn to talk and listen naturally. But there is a lot more to acting than talking and listening naturally. You don't get memorable and inspiring performances without a solid measure of boldness, insight and imagination as well. A technique that helps orient the actor toward the secrets of the scene carefully planted by the writer in plain sight, and invites the actor to use these secrets to enliven his imagination, helps him become not just a credible presence in front of the camera or on stage, but a luminous one.

(This post is from the blog of the Mother of Invention Acting School in Los Angeles and San Francisco ( an acting class in Los Angeles and San Francisco for serious, motivated students.

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