In August 2007 I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Inscriptions workshop, at which Meisner teacher, Scott Williams, was the special guest artist. The workshop was divided into two weeks: the first week was spent reading the various theatre scripts and screenplays that had been selected for presentation, followed in the afternoon by master classes with Scott. The second week was devoted to rehearsing scenes from the various scripts for a showing on the final evening.
Scott’s classes introduced us to the acting technique of Sanford Meisner. Meisner is regarded as one of the most important acting theorists of the twentieth century. Along with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, he was one of the original members of the legendary Group Theatre, which had a major influence on the art of American acting. But it was as head of the acting programme at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York where he began to develop his own acting technique, referred to today as the Meisner technique. Scott had the good fortune to study with Meisner himself at the Neighbourhood Playhouse, and now runs his own Meisner-based acting school in London.
As Scott explained to us, the goal of Meisner is to get actors to “live truthfully under a given set of circumstances”. In order to achieve this truth, the actor’s task is to “respond” to the behaviour of his or her fellow actors rather than on consciously “doing” anything to them. Because it is impossible to know what your fellow actor might do, it is equally impossible to know what you will do in response. All too often theatre is hampered by acting that appears too studied, or contrived, or lacks spontaneity. The Meisner technique aims to bring the spontaneity of improvisation into play as well as the richness of individual response, and thus create theatre that is unpredictable and vital.
In order to train the impulse needed to stay present and responsive, Meisner developed a series of repetition exercises, which Scott introduced us to. We began very simply. In the first exercise, two volunteers were invited to sit facing one another. One made a statement of observable fact about the other, such as “you have blue eyes”, which was then repeated back and forth by the two participants. The idea was for the two actors to respond to each other’s behaviour, however subtle, and thereby create a subtext between them. And indeed, as we observed each other doing the exercise, the words being said quickly become irrelevant and what held our attention was the subtle relationship emerging between the two participants.
In the second exercise, the participants were not limited to only making one observation but could make new ones with any significant changes in behaviour they observed. So the exercise might begin with the observation “you are moving in your chair”, and then move to “you are nodding your head”, and then to “you are smiling”, and so forth. This exercise encouraged complete focus on the other performer and made you very sensitive to even the smallest changes in your partner’s behaviour. Eventually we got on our feet, courtesy of the final stage of the repetition work, known as “The Knock on the Door”. This is where one actor exits the room and carries out a mental or physical preparation designed to change his or her energy state, then knocks on the door to the room. The other actor answers it and so the repetition exercise commences. It was interesting to observe how quickly listening and responding went out the window as we dealt with all of a sudden having this physical freedom we didn’t have when we were consigned to our chairs!
And that, in brief, is the Meisner Technique. As simple as it sounds, however, it must be said that it caused a good deal of confusion and questioning amongst the workshop participants, myself included. I do not think anyone disagreed with the goal of the technique nor in its assessment of the requirements for good acting, but there was dispute however, about whether it answered all challenges thrown up by acting, and some confusion as to how it would translate to script work. We fired questions at Scott throughout the workshop, such as “what if you aren’t getting anything from your fellow actor?” or “what if you have to perform a monologue or a soliloquy and have no fellow actor to respond to?”. Scott always had a ready made answer. You are always getting something from a fellow actor, he said, and as you rarely have control over the casting process you have to learn to work with what you’ve got in any case. In the case of monologues, Scott was not a fan of the one person show, which he did not regard as drama, as what is dramatic and what audiences want to see, is the interaction between characters. He also happily debunked many of the so-called “sacred cows” of acting, still routinely taught at most drama schools and deeply ingrained within the industry, such as “there is no such thing as character”, and that “an actor doesn’t need to warm up”, and that “an actor does not need to know what his actions and objectives are”. These assertions proved controversial to some, but Scott always had a persuasive and well-reasoned argument at the ready. He has been teaching this technique for decades after all!
To my mind, Scott’s most controversial assertion was that this technique could turn anyone into an actor, as all one really needs is the ability to listen and respond. I personally believe that an actor’s instincts can always be sharpened and his or her skill’s always extended, but I don’t believe the ability to make something rehearsed sound spontaneous can be taught.
The most dramatic moment of the workshop interestingly enough concerned safety and the responsibility of an actor to his or her fellow performers. In one exercise, the group was of a mind that a particular actor was not safe, and that this had the effect of taking us as an audience out of the scene, rather than of heightening the sense of danger in it. It was argued that if you followed through the goal of the technique to its logical conclusion, that is to follow your impulses as they arise, what is to stop an actor from actually punching, kicking, or hurting a fellow performer? Scott’s position appeared to be the more dangerous the better, that one should follow those impulses, but that it is a given that one actor should never harm another. I felt that there was an innate contradiction in this.
Scott was I think surprised at how argumentative we were as a group, noting at one time, he had never experienced the degree of questioning of the technique as demonstrated by us. I felt this reflected both positively and negatively on us as “Australian actors”. There is a healthy quality in our culture to question any technique that is held up as an answer-all, and a natural sceptism about anyone representing themselves to be a guru or a master, but at the same time I think as performers we can be resistant to stepping outside our comfort zone and of opening ourselves to new ideas and approaches and stimuli. Scott certainly came up against this, but dealt with it impressively, never dodging a difficult question, more often than not having a very persuasive answer at the ready, and at all times demonstrating grace and humour.
Fundamentally, I thought the technique had a great deal to offer, and it got me excited again about acting in a way I had not been for a good while. The emphasis on actors responding impulsively off one another is utterly right I think and the key to generating exciting theatre. Scott’s passion for acting and for the work of Sanford Meissner was infectious, and he was full of entertaining anecdotes and quips. And no doubt some of the resistance and confusion he encountered can be explained by the rate at which we were moving through his training, which under normal circumstances would be conducted over twelve months. I am grateful to Inscriptions for providing me with this experience to learn from Scott, and for demonstrating an understanding of the importance of professional development opportunites for industry professionals.