Well, I can say that I approached the whole Seminar thing with a lot of trepidation! Through a credit card glitch I lost the space I had reserved two months before and had to squander the time I had put aside for final preparations on a frantic search for a new venue – one that would be both affordable and appropriate to my needs. I was lucky when Shetler Studios came to the rescue with the Bridge Theatre – my home for classes and productions back in the beginning of the century!
My biggest worry was how to fit all the work into seven hours. I kept searching for a format that would integrate both methodologies. I was sure of one thing; starting the seminar with what I am now calling ‘sensory meditation’ – a phrase coined by my student, Vince Bandille (he is kindly allowing me to use it). After relaxation and sensory exercises, the class would be ready for Meisner improvisations; ones that deal with ‘objectives’ and ‘activities.’ [If you’re interested in reading some background for this process, take a look at Blog entries, #11-#13, in which Total Theatre Lab’s Integrated Acting Process is introduced along with my views on combining Method, Meisner and other basic acting techniques.] My concern was whether students would be able to absorb such opposite approaches in so few hours.
For some time, I had been preparing for the seminar by training two students in using both techniques to practice scenes; later we started researching monologues – both drawn from one play - in the same fashion. They would prepare with knock-at-the-door-exercises followed by their characters’ monologues. [Blog entries #49-#52 are a step-by-step chronicle of how we pursued this work.] So I thought I could do something like that in the Seminar. But how would I be able to pick the right scenes for everyone, when I had only briefly met – in person or on Skype - with some of the actors who would be participating? And what if someone cancelled at the last minute – how would I pair off the remaining partner with another appropriate scene? And then I had a Eureka moment!
I suddenly remembered working on the Spoon River Anthology in Mordecai Lawner’s class. (Morty trained as an actor and later as a teacher under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.) This collection consists of over two hundred poems, each written from the point of view of a different person. They all take place in Spoon River, a fictional town in Illinois still recovering from the Civil War and deal with the social and political changes of the nineteenth century as it moves into the twentieth. I’d forgotten exactly which poem Morty had assigned to me, but recalled how sincerely I’d labored over the adventures of a very discontented woman, breaking the verses down into actions, figuring out my objective and desperately trying to tie it into my own life. All the characters in these poems are deceased; some were miserable when they were alive, while others wished they’d had an opportunity to further their experience of life.
For the life of me, I was unable to think of the author’s name! I searched my bookshelves for the Anthology; finally discovering it under M for Edgar Lee Masters, I grabbed the grubby paperback, blew off the dust and began feverishly reading through all the poems. To my delight, I discovered that I was enthralled by Master’s richly endowed perceptions of this mid-Western small town. Although it was published around the time of the First World War, the focus was more on social and political issues related to the ravages of the Civil War, and the inevitable changes; a primary one being more freedom for women. And the backlash it produced.
It occurred to me that I could use these monologues instead of scenes for the Seminar! Even though they weren’t characters in a single play, they were often obliquely or directly connected to each other. Masters’ point of view on relationships was psychologically sophisticated and deeply human. Sarah Brown speaks to her lover from the grave telling him to go to her husband and explain that she loved both of them, and that There is no marriage in heaven, there is only love. The writing is deft in its depiction of human foibles and the inescapability of suffering. Mrs. Benjamin Pantier chafes at her husband’s lack of artistic feeling and odious sexual advances, but in another poem Benjamin is defined by the love he felt for Nig, his dog, and how his wife’s rejection caused him unbearable grief. There is humor too, dry as a bone. For example, Lydia Puckett states that her lover didn’t run off to the War to avoid being arrested for stealing hogs (!) but rather because he was told of her affair with a married man. Immediately following is a poem from the hog stealer’s point of view that says nothing about the Lydia affair, only that he would have preferred being arrested and going to prison over dying on the battlefield! I stayed up all night for two nights reading the poems and picking out three possibilities for each student.
When the actors arrived for the Seminar, I handed each one a packet, which included a strongly worded suggestion to pick out neither the most difficult nor the easiest poem, but the one that attracted them the most. Everyone spoke their poem aloud, followed by a short discussion, after which the class was directed to ask three questions. What is this poem about for me? What is my objective and, finally, who am I talking to? I cautioned them not to hurry into any decisions about the questions, although obviously ideas were beginning to form. Then I guided them through a physical relaxation and sensory meditation during which their ideas became more concrete. The final step of the morning session was a second reading of the poem. It turned out quite as I had imagined from previous experience of working in this manner; the results were subjective and mostly held inside.
While everyone was eating lunch, I divided the group into pairs. In the afternoon, we put the characters ‘into motion’ through improvisations that followed the basic ‘knock-at-the-door’ exercise: one person with an objective while the other concentrated on an ‘activity. No one in the group was new to acting although they had varying degrees of experience with different techniques. To my great relief, however, they all worked well together. The improvisations were lively; I won’t go into detail at this point, but everyone threw themselves into their work. And when the seminar concluded with everyone reciting their poems a second time, it was clear that the partner work had helped them gain more ‘outward’ focus, while retaining their inner intensity. It seemed that the two methods had been combined successfully into a unified approach.