For 25 years I have conducted an acting exercise adapted from Sanford Meisner’s famous ‘repetition exercise’. But despite that fact, I have always thought the acting process Meisner pursued was largely a waste of time. So, I set out to re-read his book ,“Sanford Meisner on Acting” with very low expectations.
To my SURPRISE at the end of the first 30 pages I was cheering, “Go SANDY!!!”
… art expresses human experience;
… acting is a process of doing, (its not about pretending … it is about the reality of listening and doing as yourself);
… YOU are the character;
… don’t do anything until something happens to make you do it
… and … acting is … responding truthfully to the other person.
These are wonderful, simple and common sense concepts. But is Sanford Meisner going to provide an answer to the question that interests me? Does he have a plan of attack for a scene? Will he have the key to understanding the character’s role in a scene and the scene’s place in the story?
He does have a number of valuable exercises.
An Independent Activity
One of his signature acting exercises centres around the ‘independent activity’. Essentially this is about being busy doing something physical while speaking the dialogue. It is a technique that has a great practicality. I believe this acting exercise can achieve even more productive outcomes than he outlines in his book. An independent activity Sandy says “has to be urgent, truthful and difficult to do.” In essence, these are fundamental ingredients.
The independent activity exercise is one of a number of techniques he applies to train actors to use their instincts. His work is solely focused on getting actors to simplify their processes and trust the impulses that their instincts generate. And this is the start of the ‘Meisner problem’.
In life, some instincts are entirely intuitively based on our primitive animal survival skills, BUT other instincts are acquired through training. In life, that training emerges largely from experience. The experience of picking up a hot saucepan from the stove creates instincts that suspect another pot on the stove might be hot. Our training about social etiquette develops instincts about ways to behave. All those instincts have logical origins. Instincts relating to a conversation and its objective have also been learnt and have a significant amount of logic attached to them. Yet Sandy never deals with those logical influences – in fact, he actively avoids them. So, he doesn’t train actors to use the whole range of impulses that are generated by daily life.
One natural outcome of this is that he doesn’t train actors to logically find their reason for the conversation (that occurs in a scene). And he doesn’t train actors to find the scene’s logical place in the story.
His concern is about actors failing to trust their impulses and not following their instincts. He is right. Trusting an impulse is an essential skill for an actor. But, in trying to resolve one issue he creates another problem of equal magnitude. When an actor asks him, “How do I know I have made the right choice?”
Sandy replies simply, “Instinct.”
So, in Meisner’s process, there is no way an actor can measure the validity of a choice, other than “instinctively”.
We all know our instincts can sometimes be horribly wrong!!
How does Sanford Meisner suggest you identify and rectify that problem?
Unfortunately he doesn’t have an answer to that very common acting issue. In his view, all the actor can do is wait for a director to correct them.
In his classes, according to the descriptions in this book, Sandy was the arbiter of choice. He is the director who corrects the problems. He tells the actor what would be a better choice than the one they made. But he never explains that there are alternative choices that will be equally valid. And in the vast majority of cases the choices Sandy suggests solely drive emotional preparation. They NEVER directly address the purpose of the conversation.
FINDING YOUR PLACE IN THE PLAY
In the final chapter of this book he announces a new emphasis. “Now we are beginning to edge up on the problem of playing a part,” he announces.
Are we going to learn how to find our place in the play, I wonder?
But my hopes are never fulfilled. He NEVER provides an answer to that question. Sanford Meisner merely, sticks to his pattern of dictating the appropriate emotional preparation or the choice of direction a scene should be taking. And that choice is always his personal one. Mind you, his choices are not unplayable. But there is never any explanation of why the choice he is making would be better than another alternative.
The closest, Sanford Meisner comes to explaining the story element of a scene is by the use of an evocative but very vague metaphor. He suggests that “The text is like a canoe, and the river on which it sits is the emotion. The text floats on the river. If the water of the river is turbulent, the words will come out like a canoe on a rough river.” And then later to clarify he adds, “The text is the canoe, but you must begin by putting the emphasis on the stormy river. I can’t be any clearer than that,” he says. THAT is the greatest clarity he achieves in the book!!! I would definitely need a life jacket and weather forecast before I got into that canoe.
Based on the explanations in this book, Sanford Meisner joins the growing list of acting teachers who supply little (or no) assistance to an actor around the crucial issue of finding their place in the overall play. If an actor can’t understand the role of their character in the overall play, I don’t understand how it is possible to determine a productive approach to playing a scene.
Read his book. See what you think.
But I’ll stick to my original assessment … when it comes to finding your place in the story, it’s largely a waste of time.