Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blog #58: Introducing Meisner: how the Rx of ‘repetition’ can immerse the actor in a maelstrom of conflict.

First, I would like to thank everyone in my class for their kind comments about my teaching. I am deeply touched by the originality of their perceptions and the care that went into each contribution. Every actor in the class deserves all the individual attention I can possibly give. Working with them makes me feel that I have one of the best jobs in the world: i.e. imparting what I believe to be important artistic truths to receptive people for whom I feel boundless affection. Several responses also included references to confusion caused by the Meisner ‘repetition’ exercise, which was the focus of the second group class in a three-month series.
            Why is the ‘repetition’ exercise so damn difficult? ‘Repetition’ was my introduction to Meisner – as it usually is for everyone – but it turned out to be the last element that made complete sense! Therefore, the weight of the more advanced exercises and my attempts to use them, first as an actor and later as a teacher, produced a result that felt wobbly and unfinished.
            There are reasons for this that speak to the heart of the ‘problem with Meisner.’ I would like to say, however, that I have nothing  but great admiration for the inventor of this technique. The principles that underlie all its aspects – including ‘repetition,’ ‘naming behavior’,  ‘knock at the door’ improvisations and the use of the fabulous The Spoon River Anthology - require nothing short of genius to enlist them in training actors.
            However, let us put ‘repetition’ under a microscope. Pure ‘repetition’ isolates ‘following one’s impulses,’ and therein lies the reason why I couldn’t master it for so long – and why most people find it so difficult. It is counter-intuitive to isolate any one element of the human psyche. But repetition is the only acting exercise I know where it is useful to do just that. We are all familiar with the expression to be ‘beside oneself.’ I think that in ‘pure repetition,’ one enters a state of total reaction, which mimics being at the extreme of anger or, less likely, hurt – with fear attaching itself to both. (Positive emotions are not discussed here, since we are talking about feelings that relate to conflict.)  And obviously, being ‘beside oneself’ is not the same as being ‘inside oneself.’ In other words, we have separated from ourselves as we know ourselves to be. It is a state of attack that is rarely attained – fortunately – in normal life.
            Even if one has a quick temper or a tendency toward hurt or depression, it is unlikely that we will be flipped easily into these states by another actor pushing us. Why not? Well, most actors aren’t crazy – despite all evidence to the contrary. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) Like most everyone else, we have our guard up against the dangers of extreme emotion. So our deeper inhibitions keep resisting the requirements of the ‘repetition’ exercise, speed and strength – dare I say ferocity - of reaction.  According to whichever our tendency is in life, we will err on the side of withdrawing from the conflict or pushing ourselves into it, instead of reacting truthfully to the negative stimulus that is coming straight at us.  There is no way to speed up our ability to do this exercise; we can only practice it and follow the critique given by a – hopefully –  informed teacher.
            In the way that I teach the technique, we move on very quickly into ‘naming behavior.’ This is very confusing to the student – and from this point on, my use of Meisner’s great discoveries would be anathema to a strict Meisnerian. What I am doing is quickly integrating aspects of Method training with Meisner.  Why drive everyone crazy by doing it so fast? Well, an easy explanation would be a comparison with cooking a lemon filling. The eggs have to be spun about immediately with the butter, sugar and lemon – otherwise you get lumpy yolks, more useful for a salad than a pie.
            Now for the long, boring explanation. Sorry but I’m still figuring out how to make this really clear. In acting techniques which do not include systematic memory recall, it is believed that memories comes up automatically and inform everything we do. Yes, as long as what we are doing is ‘real.’ But acting is only partly ‘real.’ That’s why it’s called ‘acting,’ not ‘reality.’  I suffer from both a terrible temper and depression, which caused a lot trouble when I was learning to act. And I’ve had students who couldn’t control their rage and who were unable to drop the anxiety and grief when they weren’t working specifically on their acting. The former type I had to let go from my classes and the latter usually drop out of their own accord.
            So acting isn’t just ‘natural feeling’ and scripts have to be analyzed in order to uncover the appropriate spectrum of emotional responses for each character. Even if scripts were completely ‘real’ and not artistic compilations of fact and imagination, we would still have to analyze them; the difference would be that the element of conflict would not be constantly present. Characters would not continually mislead, often unintentionally, as people do when they are in conflict.  Sometimes, characters lie on purpose, but they only do it because they believe on some level that this is necessary for survival. Rarely can anything that is said in a good script be taken at face value. Characters say the opposite of what they mean, and without close analysis of the text, an actor can become totally confused. So how does the next step in the Meisner technique, ‘naming behavior,’ help with all this?
            Our upcoming Saturday class will be coping with this question, and I’ll be back with new information in our continuing exploration of integrating Meisner with other acting techniques…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Blog 57: Three Month Group Class in the TTL Integrated Process now underway…

It sounds pretty grand, doesn’t it? By the way, I’m sorry I’ve been desultory about this blog recently – well not exactly ‘desultory,’ just incredibly busy trying to get everyone and everything together so this class will work. There are good reasons why most classes don’t combine techniques in this fashion. Meisner and Method, in particular, seem to be at war with each other. But I don’t see an alternative; if actors learn different techniques separately, how can they be effectively combined in practice – especially at a moment’s notice, for an audition? How can you be working moment-to-moment off a partner that’s actually in the room with you (Meisner), while you are concurrently remembering someone in your past who brings up a deep, emotional response (Method)?  Of course, this is not actually what you should do at all – but if you take the two techniques and attempt to simply cobble them together, it’s is a recipe for total failure.
This can be especially daunting when the actor opposite you – or reader, if it’s an audition – fails to make you feel anything at all!  I, for one, have the greatest admiration for both techniques - but combining them can be a problem that many actors wrestle with their entire creative lives. However, with some significant alterations one can arrive at a ‘doable’ solution, in which both schools of acting can be employed successfully. This is one of the major issues I am endeavoring to confront through the Integrated Process. Each class is four hours long and there are supposed to be twelve students – one dropped out so another is doubling. This allows for six couples to work on their scene, each for a half hour, while leaving an hour for warm-up, break and wrap-up.  For me this is the barest minimum amount of time in which to develop richly complex material. Even simple scenes are difficult unless one has already attained a strong technique, but, in spite of everything, we managed to accomplish quite a lot in the first class.  
These are the playwrights and plays we are working on: Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, Theresa Rebeck’s The Contract, John Logan’s Red, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.
All the participants were personally invited; for this particular three-month workshop I chose students with some knowledge of acting, even if it is mostly intuitive, and a sense of humor about the work and themselves.  In addition, I looked for two very important characteristics – which are the first qualities I try to access in any prospective student – i.e. a heart that never stops opening to an ever-increasing multitude of emotional discoveries and a mind that steadfastly grapples with wildly contradictory information and systems of logic. A tall order? No one ever offered actors a rose garden…
          For our first class, I began by asking the actors what they hoped to learn over the next three months. Several mentioned, in various ways, the problem of synthesizing and taking further what they already knew about acting, and the newer ones expressed anxiety over identifying with their characters and the situations in which these characters find themselves.
          We read through all the scenes and discussed each one in some depth. I chose scenes with particular actors in mind, so the difficulties would be great enough to give each actor something to reach for, without creating so much stretch that the less experienced would be confused and fail.
          For example, I gave the Pinter scene, Ashes to Ashes  – almost indecipherable in its complexity - to Teresa and Richard, who already have a strong grasp of ‘acting in general’ although they are not entirely familiar with all the methods we’re employing. Teresa is easily able to exteriorize her feelings – and the character is clearly in deep pain about events which are not set up in logical succession and often seem to directly contradict one another. The actress playing Rebecca has to figure out exactly what is happening in the text at all times and support these choices from events in her own life.  
          But the value of this scene for Teresa, in particular, is related to what I call ‘the math of acting.’ This refers to working on a scene in the way you might assess a math problem in, say, addition.
          Your ‘objective’ would be the ‘answer’ to the problem.  One should know everything that supports or, in a sense, ‘adds up’ to the objective or answer – a combination of researching the script and then basing this knowledge in one’s own life.
          Next you decide on the beats, or in other words the various approaches, which the character employs in trying to reach the objective. This could be compared to placing each number into the equation.
          Each beat has an ‘action’ that puts pressure on the numbers moving them toward the ‘answer’ or ‘objective.’   
          Lastly, you have to know the value of each digit – in other words, its exact size and weight – and I think of that as the ‘subtext,’ which I will describe ad nauseumin a later blog.
          I want to reiterate here, so there is no misunderstanding, that all this work will come out dull as ditchwater or dry as, well, a math problem, unless it’s drawn from the actor’s ‘real life experience’ – i.e. something personal the actor believes in – which is arrived at by doing ‘sensory meditation.’ Another main factor is a precise technique for moving the intention (action) toward another actor or toward ‘objects’ it places on the fourth wall. This latter part can be rehearsed and understood through the ‘Meisner’ repetition and knock-at-the-door.
          Now that all this is clear as mud, we can move on. No, seriously; the only way I can make this material comprehensible for the actors in my class or you, gentle reader, is by constantly moving between the particular and the general. It does make sense, and it can be metabolized very quickly, once the actor has worked and worked and worked to personalize all the factors that go into ‘the doing of acting.’
          A very famous Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, with whose group I had the incredible good fortune to work both in NYC and Poland many years ago, called actors ‘doers.’ Think about this word ‘doing;’ how many people actually ‘do’ - or ‘act upon’ -as opposed to ‘talk about.’ Actors must strive to ‘do’ in every possible way, since ‘acting upon’ is the most all around ‘act-ivity’ there is.
          Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of my ‘Group Class in the Integrated Process…’