'Fish don't believe in water, they swim in it'
This is one of the many mantra's passed on by my first and only real Meisner teacher, Scott Williams (The Impulse Company) when I first encountered the technique. Meisner really has become the focus of my work since then. It's a beautiful expression, one which I'll happily unpack in a short while, but allow it to sink in first.
The Meisner technique is derived from the teachings of Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York, America. By all accounts he was famously not a happy or pleasant man, but regardless his technique is rather individual, and for the "trained" actor, can be difficult to grasp on to. I find myself more often than not instructing people to 'stop acting', quite a contradiction considering I am taking money from people under the guise of an acting coach. But this is what we do. The definition of acting given to us by Meisner is this:
'to live truthfully under an imaginary set of circumstances'
'to live truthfully under a given, imaginary set of circumstances'
or more preferably:
'to live truthfully under a given set of circumstances'
Why might it be preferable to be rid of the word imaginary, I hear you ask. I can offer a number of solutions. 1. Of course it's imaginary, unless of course you think Macbeth is real in which case it might not be an acting teacher you need to talk to. 2. As soon as the word 'imagination' or 'imaginary' or the moment arises when an actor is asked to 'imagine' something, you disappear in to the one place we do not want you to be, in your head. The intended aim of the technique is to take your attention away from yourself and put it on to the other actor(s), therefore be present. We can take 'a given set of circumstances' to assume the world of the play as prescribed by the writer, the knowledge of the characters, even indeed the staging if any is set by a director and so on. Leave the imaginary to the audience.
'Fish don't believe in water, they swim in it'
Therefore I am not asking you to 'believe' in the imaginary (your water). Simply swim, and see where the journey takes you. It's fun to be a fish, or at least enjoy the swim. This means to exist in the present, rather than invest in imagining things, that's hard work.
I say this can be challenging for the "trained actor" in that, the technique goes against quite a few of the methodologies that are banded around at the moment. Take actioning it's one particular method, where you, the actor, are required to imbue a line/thought with a particular transitive verb with which to transfer the line to your partner (example 'I attack you, I insult you etc). When this was taught to me at first I thought 'this is it, this is the pinnacle of technique!' But on reflection my brain was never then truly invested in the moment with my scene partner. I was either busy recalling my objective or my action, my attention was split. Beyond this, I was planning the future, rather than being truly reactive and responsive I had a stencil already mapped out within which I had to fit. What was initially freeing had become stuck and challenging. With Meisner, the strugglers are the actors who refuse to let go of their methods and therefore don't allow themselves the chance to experience and live as opposed to 'act' but it is possible, and the rewards are enormous. That's not to say I believe Meisner is the ONLY way to act. Inevitably every actor will experience different techniques and it's up to them to decide which one clicks, or if they want to take elements of each and form their own method. If you have a preferred technique, tweet me or comment, I love a good chat about any form of acting method. What my work, and that of any good Meisner teacher does, is to take your attention off yourself and focus it on to the other person. You become an observant and responsive actor to the behaviour of that actor. From there, we become able to live truthfully.
Two lovely Actors, Amy (@missamyjensen) and Faye (@fayejayx) they had only met on this day for the first time. And in this exercise became furious with each other, not faked, but real. They were literally shaking with anger, pulses racing afterwards (and you cannot act that). We can allow the other actor to generate real feelings in ourselves if we allow them to affect us. They hugged not long afterwards and it was all smiles again.
If Meisner technique interests you, or you are interested in my work. You can email me on email@example.com. I am currently running an introductory course on Tuesday evenings in Angel, details can be found here:
-Scott Williams and the Impulse Company.
Artistic Director Scott Williams trained with Sanford Meisner at Neighborhood Playhouse in the 1970s, relocating in London in the mid-1990s following a San Francisco-based career as a teacher and director. He now teaches and directs internationally and has shared his commitment to helping actors become the best they can be with thousands of practitioners all over the world.