I’ve Been Meisner-ized.

“Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” said legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner.

This weekend I attended a day-long intensive workshop that served as an introduction to Meisner’s strategies for developing the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. We spent most of the day pairing off with various partners to observe things about each other, say them out loud, and echo them back to each other. We began by taking turns looking away and then saying the first word of physical observation about our partner that came to mind, such as “tank top” or “eyes.” Our partner would repeat “eyes” and then we would echo back exactly what we heard as fast as possible. If our partner said “ice” instead, we were supposed to quickly adjust our own pronunciation to this subtle difference. If “eyes” eventually became “ay,” so be it. We continued until the teacher asked us to switch roles.

In practice, this game feels about as weird as it sounds, but like many simple-seeming exercises it had a profound effect. The oddest thing about it was that when I was really on a roll with my partner, really in tune, really listening and responding immediately to what I heard, I couldn’t tell which one of us was speaking when. Did I just say “teeth” or did he? The only thing that would trip us up was confusion over whose turn it was.

When we were in that zone, there was no audience, no studio, no time, and really, no me. I could hear the teacher in the distance occasionally giving us direction, but he was more of a force than a person at that point. After the first exercise where this happened, I literally staggered off stage and fell back into my seat, a little transformed, slightly terrified, and ready for more.

What does this loss of self have to do with being a good actor? Our teacher, Andrew, was able to offer us only a glimpse into Meisner’s reasoning in the short time we had together (and remember I’m a total newb, so don’t quote me while I’m trying to sort it all out). What I understood was this: When we get out of our intellect and focus intently on our acting partner, we lose our self-consciousness and all the overplanning, anxiety, and other muck that comes with it. We can just be. The goal is to “just be” so that what the audience sees us doing on stage is responding in the moment with emotional and physical truth to the other actors under the imaginary circumstances of theater.

Thanks to Andrew at Chicago’s Green Shirt Studio for a mind-blowing day. And thanks to Sandy Meisner for teaching me something real and new.

P.S. I’m thinking of starting a Meisner study group here in Milwaukee, using a series of workbooks that Meisner authorized to be written by one of his proteges. Let me know if you want to join me (via the email link in the upper right corner of my page or on Facebook).

September 17, 2012 Blog Posts