That’s just the point – these two techniques are not stuck together but rather wound around each other like strings of DNA. I’m searching for ways to describe how actors can achieve the best results from working their way through these, seemingly, diametrically opposed acting systems. Is it boring? Let’s see… In Blog entry #46, before I went off on my diatribe about the NY Times criticism of Sam Shepard’s play, Heartless, I compared the differences between Method and Meisner to the way in which Freud and Jung approached the new field of psychology. This is what I said:
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.
The best way to clarify this incredibly complex idea is with an example. Not that the example is simple in any way, but more engaging than dry description and hopefully will make the whole idea easier to grasp. Two students, a man and a woman, have been working on one monologue apiece from a scene in G. B. Shaw’s St. Joan. This scene is the turning point of the play, just before the French literally ‘sell’ Joan to the British, although she has performed all sorts of ‘miraculous’ feats that have allowed the French to defeat the British enemy, who still occupy French soil. Joan, played by Actress A, does not know of the French plan and the Dunois, played by Actor B, so far her loyal general, will refuse to fight from this moment on. Shaw, being the great playwright that he is, has written two monologues, where none of the ‘facts’ are discussed. Rather, he allows the characters to speak ‘from the heart.’
Joan, the ‘maid’ of Orleans – not yet St. Joan, who will have already been burned at the stake and thereby probably learned a thing or two about diplomacy – is still innocent of the shrewd plotting that will soon cause her appalling death. Dunois, a few years older, a nobleman, and wise in the ways of the Court will betray her because… well, he would lose his position, his lands, and quite possibly his entire family would be wiped out if he didn’t go along with the King’s decision to throw in his lot with the British at this point. (Although Dunois is closely related to the King, he cannot afford to go against the royal plan.)
Now, this kind of research isn’t particularly encouraged in either Meisner or Method training – it might be considered a little ‘old fashioned’ to worry so much about nobles and peasants and French and British history of the 15th Century. Why not just update it to now? I’m not against that at all; however, one must know the facts of the original, in order to update anything. Some of it comes from a careful reading of the play, but Google fills in a lot more and is very accessible. There is no getting away from the fact that an actor must learn to do research, but that is not the subject being discussed at this point. Suffice it to say, Dunois’ relationship to Joan and her plight was a lot more complicated than Shaw describes in his play, but he got the essential points So, we move on.
Actor B is preparing a monologue in which he tells Joan that he will no longer fight for her. Basically, he says that God is unpredictable and that their side can only continue fighting if he believes that they can win, and now that he’s stopped believing that he has decided to quit the fight. Otherwise he will be sending his soldiers into an unequal battle to be senselessly slaughtered. Abruptly, he changes the subject and accuses the King, also present in the scene, of not giving him enough credit for his role in winning the battles for France up to this point. This suggests that he may be a little jealous of Joan and trying to win more credit with the King. Having been her devoted supporter, he now effectively switches his position and undermines her determination to fight until all of France is under one King.
The first big problem that Actor B faces in working on this monologue, whatever method he uses – since they all agree on this point - is figuring out the character’s objective. Here is a brave person who has fought hard for a leader he believes in – and now all of a sudden he’s changing his position, using an excuse that doesn’t really hold up. He never thought their side could win, he just believed in her. Why doesn’t he believe in her now? This is the kind of situation that causes an actor to tear his hair out. Here the character is letting down his comrade in arms and he’s whining to his ‘commanding officer’ that his contribution isn’t sufficiently valued. How does the actor get on track with this? First of all, what is the character’s over-all objective? He has to be clear about that before he can figure out the objective in the monologue. Meisner won’t help here. Well, maybe a little, but sense-memory will be a lot more effective.
Actor B can ask himself the question: when have I been in a situation like this? Then he can concentrate on the breathing and relaxation process, focus on his body and his senses, and see what comes up for him – what situation in his own life he slide into the character’s dilemma and believe in wholeheartedly. He came up with an ‘as if’, which we will get to very soon. And you will be surprised as it has nothing directly to do with generals and wars.In the next entry, I will discuss Joan’s position and what issues she is dealing with in her monologue. Then we will examine how their differing objectives lock the two characters in opposition to one another. One can use the Meisner Knock-at-the-Door improvisation along with the Method work-on-self. But the whole process has to be organized and each piece has to fit into the other. If the approaches don’t dovetail, the whole system breaks down in confusion and hopelessness. We’re all familiar with that! Let’s find a way out of it…