Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Blog #46: Forging the first links between Method and Meisner

I realize that I have to go slowly as I attempt to develop this idea.  I hope that you will bear with me on this. It’s easy to generalize and toss around ideas about acting that seem to make sense but when you try to put them into practice they fall apart. I remember when I was first teaching, I wasn’t even aware that Method and Meisner appeared, not only on the surface but even as you penetrate more deeply into the whole structure of the art form, to be, well… diametrically opposed if not downright mutually exclusive! And they were meant to be, at first, for reasons I’m not going to discuss here because I’m not an expert on the history of acting training.  My area of knowledge, and the focus of this writing, is to make the ‘process of learning acting’ as clear as I can, but sometimes a little history doesn’t hurt.
          Another momentary digression – it has a purpose: my mother appeared in a play on Broadway directed by Lee Strasberg.  She couldn’t stand his direction, although I can’t remember exactly why. Perhaps she didn’t say, because it would have been obvious to the person, my father, to whom she told me the story.  Here’s another story that goes along with this one – and I’ll get to the point of all this in a minute. My mother and father attended the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire.  As they were walking away from the Schubert Theatre, they ran into Marlon Brando, who was sitting on a doorstep, looking very concerned about something. My mother stopped to congratulate him and tried to talk to him about the play. But Brando was completely immersed in showing my parents his finger, which had been hurt – apparently not seriously, according to my father – during the course of the show that afternoon.     
          Somehow the fact that my mother didn’t like Strasberg as a director and the story about Brando’s involvement with his hurt finger had become conflated in my father’s mind. I think it had to do with the accusation of ‘self-involvement’ that has always been hurled at Method Acting. My father was not an actor and had probably taken his cue from my mother. So why didn’t she like Method Acting? She was an established star by the time she worked with Strasberg, and I don’t think acting methods any longer interested her. It was a job, and she was entirely wrapped up in writing novels - and trying to have some family life in the time that were left over. If she had lived, I imagine she would have become interested in the ‘actual methodology’ of Method Acting.
          One criticism that can be leveled at the teachers of Method Acting is misusing the information that one inevitably acquires about the actors, whom one is teaching. Knowing something about someone doesn’t mean that one necessarily understands them or can ‘help’ them in any particular way. Obviously, acting teachers find out the sort of things therapists discover in the course of treatment, but don’t have the same kind of training. Teachers can help students psychologically in a human way, but not in a professional capacity – and they can be extremely harmful if they turn the information they have been given by a student against the student. Even with the best intentions, teachers often don’t realize how much power students give them, and they aren’t careful enough. I was guilty of this myself in the early years of my teaching. One must remember that back in the 1940’s when Method Acting was in its infancy, teachers made mistakes all the time, unwittingly. Another problem was the position of women in those days. Without even thinking about it, male teachers often assumed they were intellectually superior to the women in their classes; but even worse, women were apt to think of themselves as ‘below’ men, especially a famous, or not even famous, acting teacher. They gave them power – and they did the same thing with female teachers, of course, but for different reasons. Female teachers are often unconsciously viewed as ‘surrogate mothers,’ which is okay as long as the teacher understands that a transference can take place, but knows full well that she is neither the student’s mother nor a therapist!
          Here is a third reason that Method Acting got a bad rap; it was so new there hadn’t been time enough to begin ironing out the bugs in the ‘methodology’ behind the ‘method’. This is a subject I will pursue in depth as I go on with this analysis of Method and Meisner. Please note that I do not say ‘Method vs. Meisner,’ unless I’m referring specifically to the battle –which I consider no longer necessary - being waged between them.
          Consider the fact that Stanislavsky’s ideas backed both techniques (He introduced others also that became identified with individual teachers, including Adler’s script analysis and Grotowski’s physical/vocal disciplines.) This revolution in acting training was embedded in the transition from the 1800’s to the 1900’s. Looking at the whole picture, it becomes clear that Stanislavsky’s influence on the Art of Acting was part of a huge wave of political and social changes we call ‘Modernism.’
          Again, I am not any sort of historian, but as a child of the mini-revolution of the 1960’s, I have experienced a lesser version of these seismic shifts in art from one era to another. First the bliss of the surge followed by the inevitable recoil of disappointment from the problems that such a bold movement inevitably causes.
          I think that the split between Method and Meisner can be likened somewhat to the difference between Freud’s and Jung’s psychoanalytic views. Freud’s ideas created the first big break with the past when he unveiled the theory that we have an ‘unconscious mind.’ Jung then split from Freud by postulating the ‘collective unconscious.’ Freud constructed the first model for psychological analysis, and Jung, rather like Meisner, discovered that the space occupied by our psyche is a shared one – that as individuals we are part of a collective and are interacting even though we think of ourselves as being single.  I feel that in both cases – Method/Meisner and Freud/Jung - all elements have value and that they are ultimately interdependent. These comparisons are far from exact but they are worth exploring – and explore them I shall as I proceed with my analysis.
          Eventually, bridging the gap between Method and Meisner will give us a unified perspective that will greatly enrich our knowledge of acting. Splits are necessary and inevitable, but if we don’t heal them we descend into the chaos of perpetual civil war.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blog #45: Superlative Acting in Sam Shepard’s Heartless and Annie Baker’s version of Uncle Vanya at the Soho Rep.

Before I plunge in further with my plan to discuss segues between Method and Meisner, I need to talk about two superlative acting ensembles I had the privilege to witness over the weekend: Sam Shepard’s Heartless and Annie Baker’s version of Uncle Vanya at the Soho Rep.  
          It’s valuable to analyze why a work of art succeeds – and what we mean by ‘success’ in this context. A reaction to a work of art is not entirely ‘personal’; although I have often disagreed with the critics, they have helped me over the years to understand a ‘pattern’ that makes audiences and critics alike feel a very special kind of excitement when viewing a performance.  I strive to bring about work in my students that is able to transform an audience from passive viewers into active participants. I mean this in the sense that the audience actually feels what the characters are experiencing and that the play is in some way about them and their life.
          Heartless hasn’t opened yet and I don’t want to give away anything about the plot. Please go and see it for your own good. It is not an easy play to watch. We were seated almost under the stage and I had to crane my neck, which was already sore, in order to watch the action. But after a while I felt that my discomfort was actually contributing to my personal involvement in this superb play. Two outstanding elements make it, in my judgment, ‘successful.’ Actually three, now that I think about it. I was going to say the writing of the script and the sensitive acting, but then I realized that the brilliant direction connects these two like the third leg of a triangle.
          Shepard has always been able to boil down earth-shaking themes such as brotherhood, ‘familyhood’ and corporate greed and feed them through simultaneously believable and crazy characters  - and then make the whole stew go down easily with a liberal sprinkling of humor.  But here Shepard takes on a man vs. women theme with the intensity of a Greek tragedy and pulls it off through actors, who literally turn themselves inside out. There’s no preaching in this play. People talk, well… not naturally, but in the way people might actually speak when they have a lot on their minds, and they do plenty of interesting things and by the time they’ve reached the end of the play, they reveal that the qualities they seemed to project at first are the polar opposite of who they really are. The ensemble work of the actors is terrific; whether utterly attuned or viciously dissonant they continually speak ‘from the heart or heartlessness’ that defines their core. The emotional life is so tangible that we can’t disconnect for an instant. If we allow ourselves to listen, we are riveted – and when it is over we know that we are them and they are us – and in one way or another, the terrible arc of their lives is ours. I can imagine what it must have cost Shepard to come up with this kind of honesty, but it is hard to imagine how the actors go on night after night shivering with emotion like leaves in a particularly icy wind.
          Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep is another wrenching treat for theatergoers. Others more qualified than I have extolled the virtues of this particular presentation - how the stage area extends into the audience as if we are at times transported to, and at others literally trapped inside, a rural Russian living room of the late nineteenth century . And what goings-on we encounter!  I thought to myself, we, the audience, are a Greek chorus of helpless bystanders, only allowed some laughter and a hell of a lot of sadness at this so-called Chekhovian 'Tales of Country Life.' 
          Actually, I could write a dissertation on this wonder-inducing production of a play, I know almost as well as my own life from the amount of times I’ve worked on it with students. But in the interest of brevity, I will concentrate on the ‘core resonance’ of this particular performance, which, in my entirely personal view is built upon the axis of Vanya, fueled by fury and crammed into an armor of irony – except when he explodes like a bomb - in Reed Birney’s steely portrayal, and the sinuous, seductive, tubercular and ultimately achingly disappointed Astrov, unveiled by the masterful Michael Shannon.  Running courier between them is Eve Best’s adorably hopeful and equally despairing Sonia. The other characters definitely do more than ‘swell a progress’ but they are mired – and to some extent saved - by an ignorance of their desperate lot. The three prime movers, however, are acutely aware – Sonia only in the final moments – that they will never experience love and fulfillment in their lives. In this way, they presage the ‘end of days’ horror that will descend upon Russia in the next few decades and annihilate the landowning class. Vanya seethes with rage at the knowledge that he wasted valuable possibilities in his youth, Astrov is a man of action but the action leads nowhere because of the vast ignorance and laziness around him, and Sonia girds her character with faith in a spirit world beyond the grave to face abiding sorrow on this plane.
          Shannon’s portrayal of Astrov is astonishing; at times he was standing only a few feet from my seat, and I could see the curvature of his spine and the grimace of pain on his face. He was the embodiment of a man who masters illness, commits himself to courageous action and loves with all his heart. He is everything we admire and could wish for in a man today. These are his words, The Russian forests are literally groaning under the axe, millions of trees are being destroyed, the homes of animals and birds are being laid waste, the rivers are becoming shallow and drying up, the wonderful scenery is disappearing forever…
           Does anyone hear him? No. He is a voice in the wilderness, which will die out, as will so many millions of other Russian voices, those of the ones murdered by dictators in the years that followed. And the earth will be laid waste, most notably in Chernobyl. But Uncle Vanya will live one, interpreted by artists who truly understand the importance of reminding us that ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’ Or even more frighteningly, history will always repeat itself no matter what we do, because history is the result of Human Nature… 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Blog # 44: Daenya’s life problems halt our work on Berniece’s monologue. Moving on to figure out the steps for combining Meisner with Method.

As you may recall, in my last series of Blog entries, I have been examining sense memory technique as applied to the work of my student, Daenya, on the character of Berniece from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. At the end of July, Daenya abruptly lost her long-term job, when her dentist employer was diagnosed with diabetes and had to take an early retirement. In order to survive, Daenya took a severe cut in pay and is spending all her spare time looking for a second job to support herself and her daughter. I hope she eventually finds decently paid employment so she can have a better life and we can work together again.  I miss her; it was a pleasure to watch her considerable talent unfold over the years we worked together.
          But since this has happened, I will now re-focus the Blog to discuss a major aspect of acting training that I have touched on but needs to be explored in depth. I am referring to the integration of Method and Meisner. An appropriate synthesis of these techniques, along with other aspects of learning to act such as voice, speech, bodywork, etc., is essential to the kind of quick preparation required for television and film acting as well as the long-term consistency required for theatre roles.
          As I have said in earlier blogs, both Method and Meisner – as indeed most current training techniques – are derived essentially from Stanislavsky’s formulation of the Art of Acting.  But Meisner seems to have sprung from a schism with Method that engendered what amounted to a civil war, engendering recriminations and bitterness on both sides. Perhaps this opposition has quieted down recently - for years I remember trying to work with students who had previously trained in one or the other and were incapable of switching their allegiance.  These days Meisner appears to hold sway, mainly because it is suited to larger classes and on the surface might be easier to teach.  (As students often discover to their chagrin, many classes are based on the profit motive and employ simplistic teaching methods which profit no one.) The fact is that, as with civil wars, eventually compromises are reached; usually both sides are right about some things and wrong about others. But it is an individual matter, as it is with each actor trying to find his/her own path through the thorny do’s and don’ts of acting techniques. Of course, there are others training methods – most notably the Stella Adler technique - that focus on specific factors, which will enter this discussion, but the main psychological division is Method vs. Meisner.
          Instead of starting out with a theoretical discussion, I would like to begin the investigation of these complicated and incredibly confusing theories by using two examples of young people with whom I have worked recently. Let us give them the names Sam and Robbie.
          My first session was audition coaching with Sam, an actor whom I was meeting for the first time. His agent had told me about him, praised him to the skies – and I was not disappointed. He was everything she had described; very photogenic in a trendy way, smart as a whip, every line of his sides were memorized, and polite without a trace of arrogance about his looks and talent.  We talked for a bit; I asked the usual questions, about previous training and some stuff about family background. He had attended seminars but not received any consistent training, and the family on his mother’s side was from Belarus, which could be a clue since experience has shown me that often Eastern Europeans bring a lot of intensity and intuition to their work.
          But the readings of this young teenager, although solid with the text broken down into beats, actions, and objectives, remained unimaginative and uninspired. He took the directions I gave and adjusted quickly and professionally. The material was suspenseful; the character was basically attempting to avenge the death of his father with some supernatural help – a la Harry Potter. For a moment, I thought about just tweaking the workmanlike but rather pedestrian performance he had already achieved. Instead I found myself jumping in and spending most of the session talking to Sam about the need for learning about and using sense memory. He listened attentively and did his best to take in what I was saying.  In one short hour of coaching, however, there is no way he could have even begun to understand much beyond the fact that someone was telling him he needed to learn a big technique he’d never heard of before and didn’t sound very appetizing. We’ll see what happens.
          Yesterday, I saw Robbie, also a young teen, and one of the most outstanding actors I’ve had the privilege to meet. He’s already a triple threat, with years of training and performance as a singer/dancer under his belt.  He also likes to write – so his critical thinking is developing quickly, a skill which is absolutely essential for good acting. It’s amazing how this kid seems to know as much about his parents as they do about themselves. One factor contributing to his early awareness is the fact that both parents are in the business; one is a director and the other a screen writer.
          Robbie was preparing a monologue for a theatre program at a school. Unlike Sam, he had not attended a lot of TV and Film audition classes, so he had not picked up ‘tips’ about how to change his ‘delivery to make him sound more interesting.’ I have a phrase for this kind of haphazard approach to acting – ‘get rich quick schemes.’  Therefore, although Robbie is still unskilled, his monologue was connected to his inner self. We’ve been delving into sense memory for almost a year now, and as soon as he got the monologue, he had already begun to find connections to ‘objects’ from his life about which he felt deeply. It’s difficult with kids because everything is so present tense, as opposed to adults who have more distance into the past. In my next Blog entry, I’ll begin an analysis of connecting Robbie’s sense memory ‘objects, to the situation in the monologue through a Meisner exercise, which involves, ‘working off the partner.’ I just found out that Robbie was told on the spot that he got into the program he was auditioning for!