Total Theatre Lab: Pretty boring name, actually. And sort of grandiose. It would have been nice to have been all clever and elliptical with something like ‘Telephone Repair Service Acting School’ or ‘Malibu Mines for Actors,’ but our primary purpose is to instruct, so our name, I think, should reflect our intention. ‘Elevator Repair Service’ and ‘Mabou Mines’ are the names of first-rate avant-garde theatres – they are producing art and their names reflect the off-the-wall nature of their creative output. But our purpose is to produce actors, who can act – and get jobs. It is necessary to state our intentions clearly, reminding us of our mandate to create a ‘laboratory,’ a place of experimentation and searching, related to the ‘totality,’ or all- encompassing nature of theatre. The fact that this ‘acting process’ is also appropriate for film and television comes, I believe, from the fact that acting is always basically acting, whether it appears on a stage or in front of a camera – much as the way in which both ballet and hip-hop are ‘dance.’ Of course, major adjustments are required to accommodate different media.
I had been teaching for well over a decade when I began to feel the necessity for naming the technique I was teaching. I have always believed that artists take whatever they can from teachers, but in the end what they gain from the teaching is more than the sum of its parts. Without really thinking about it, I assumed that I was doing the same thing – taking from the various acting techniques I had studied and read about, including the avant-garde methods that focus on the use of voice & body, and that my teaching method was an amalgam of these various influences. They were taught in separate classes – Meisner, Sensory, Voice & Speech, Cold Reading, Text Analysis with Subtext, Grotowski –based Physical Workshops, etc.
Eventually, however, the idea of an ‘amalgam’ proved too vague. In order to teach something, it has to be precise. Meisner, for instance, is ‘Working off the partner’ using ‘Repetition’ and ‘Knock at the Door,’ which is great, but when we get to ‘Preparation’ I was moving over to ‘Sensory Recall’ which is anathema to any devout Meisner-ite. I’m not saying Meisner ‘Preparation’ is wrong, I just don’t find it specific enough for the job nor is it a natural fit with the other more spontaneous Meisner exercises.
There is nothing wrong with any of these techniques in themselves, but it has been my experience that with every new generation the world changes and the way we teach artistic methods must roll along with the times. There was an era back-in-the day, when Meisner and Method, although they were at war with each other, could be employed separately and then stuck together. Basically, and this is a gross generalization, if you were an introvert feeler, it was better to study Meisner, since it pulled you out of yourself. However, if you were more in touch with the outside world, it was necessary to get into yourself through ‘Method.’ Obviously, these generalizations are crude, but they worked – sort of. Good teaching for receptive students of either methodology could help students develop into decent actors.
But the longer I taught, the more the world changed. Gender discrimination, racism, class distinctions, differences between old and young – were being significantly reduced, it seemed. Television, the great purveyor of fake homogenization, told everyone what to feel – but not how to think. (One of the reasons why people failed to notice the 1% taking off, while leaving the other 99% in the dust. Or is it 2% and 98%? ) This has been very confusing for actors – their characters no longer have ‘norms’ for their feelings. They have to actually separate one individual character from another. We’re no longer rich and poor, white and black, upper, middle and lower – it was always more complicated, but now that complexity, itself, is incrementally more complicated.
One might say of the great acting techniques – principally Meisner and Method with their opposite approaches, which are reflected in one way or another in most of the others, except for those that are primarily physically based like the Michael Chekov Technique - that all roads lead to Rome. By this, I mean that if you go all the way with one technique you’ll run into another at the other end. For example, if you do enough sense-memory, you’ll end up working spontaneously off your partner. The problem lies in the fact that the roads aren’t going to Rome any more. We need to get to London, Paris and New York and the methods have become too cumbersome for the journey.
I can see it may take several weeks to even scratch the surface of how the Integrated Acting Process came about. I hope you’ll continue the ride with me next week…