In writing this blog over the past few years – and especially the last few months of 2012 - I’ve been sneaking up on the thorny subject of teaching Meisner and Method simultaneously. I mean, actually in the same class. I am fortunate in having a group of students with whom I have developed a rapport – and a few new ones, who have studied before and have some professional experience - on whom to spring this ‘bright idea’ of mine. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I think of Meisner as ‘method-in-motion.’
So, what’s so difficult about putting these two techniques together? Everything, actually. Each is incredibly complicated all by itself, so you can only imagine how tangled explanations can get! I’ve often tried to ‘put it all together’ before, but I, myself, have needed to develop a deeper understanding of the psychological root system that produces both techniques. One of the reasons for my eventual clarification of the ‘Meisner/Method connection’ is the brilliance of some of my students. Yes, good students benefit their teacher as much as the other way around. I think there’s an absolute mathematical ratio in how the learning curve improves on both sides for teacher and student, when there’s an enthusiastic and positive interchange.
And I’m extremely grateful to my friend and colleague, Jenn Lederer of Dream Management – with whom I had the incredible good fortune to hook up over the last year. She has provided me with a number of talented and interesting actors, the sort of students who produce this mutually productive interaction. And since it’s the New Year, I’m going to continue to give credit where credit is due, I would not have met Jenn if it weren’t for Piers Mathieson, whose skills lie in marketing for the performing arts; he happened across some of Jenn’s videos – the ones where she gives excellent tips to actors on marketing themselves. It occurred to Pier’s ever-fruitful brain that she might be interested in working with an acting teacher who knew a thing or two, and he took the trouble to get us together. Thank you, Piers!
Anyway, getting back to my thorny subject of Method/Meisner; calling Meisner ‘method-in-motion’ helps to keep in mind the integrity of each technique. In other words, the ‘method aspect’ remains embedded, intact, in the ‘observers’ pov’ while the ‘Meisner part’ fanatically attaches itself to ‘changing the other person or people.’ I know this theory sounds like gobbledygook, but if you think about it and work on it enough, it can be very useful. Making them work together is a bit like focusing the eye of a camera. The way you seem to just push buttons and the camera does all the work. However, it’s not simple at all, because we have to become the camera; which means we have to first understand and then manage a ‘mechanism’ by which we can be both one thing and its opposite.
There’s a play called I Am a Camera, (which, in turn, became the musical, Cabaret). It is based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical set of short stories, titled Goodbye to Berlin. The character, Isherwood himself, is seemingly passive in recounting the events he watched unfold. But the power of the story - one of the most evocative depictions by an Englishman of Berlin in the ‘30’s - is how he juxtaposes the determination of the characters, to lead the ‘gayest’ possible life – with double meaning of the word intact – against the hideous encroachment of Hitler’s fascism.
One of the reasons this story has enjoyed several dramatic incarnations is that the ‘gaiety’ and the ‘horror’ are equally real. Isherwood achieves this by writing his own character from two points of view: the impartial ‘camera’(objective master or cover shot) and the involved young man (subjective close-up). All his characters were living their lives to the fullest, including Isherwood himself, but a part of Isherwood acted as the lens of a camera; aware of the oncoming doom, not experiencing it consciously, but enabling it to record the ‘truth’ of the entire experience.
This is what a very good actor is capable of doing; going full bore toward an objective, but at the same time reflecting the inner obstacles that are pulling him/her back, AND fully interacting with the other characters. If all the entire cast is engaged with equal skill in this process, you get a wonderful result - like the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently in previews on Broadway. Scarlett Johansson plays Maggie like an total steamroller, without losing any of the aspects of the character. The first act is a tremendous challenge; Maggie’s character has the job of setting up the show, exposition, etc. while, as a character, establishing purpose, compassion for others and vulnerability. A pretty tall order! I saw one of the first previews, and I’m sure Johansson will loosen up and balance the pacing a little more, but she’s got my vote!
I know that none of this is particularly enlightening about how I will present the Method/ Meisner work in my seminar - but where would the surprise be if I told you all about it ahead of time? No, seriously, it’s impossible to explain, except in boring and wordy terms, how one is going to teach something until one is actually doing it. Afterwards, we can discuss how it was done, including the responses of the students and that makes it much more interesting. So the subject of integrating Method/Meisner will definitely be covered in great detail in later blog entries. I’ve begun a discussion of this process in earlier ones, so if you’re interested you can scroll through some recent headings which announce the contents of the blogs.By the way, one more detail, relating to Piers Matthieson and how he came to introduce me to Jenn Lederer. Years ago, when Piers was a teenager he was studying acting with me. For a brief period he was homeless - I had completely forgotten this - but he reminded me that I offered him my living room couch for several weeks or months. So, curmudgeonly as I may be, I must admit that there is something to ‘What goes around comes around…’