Meisner, Movement & Presence

Everything Acting and Embodied

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Acting & Vulnerability

Lately I’ve been watching TED talks by Brene Brown. She really nails it about the courage to enter the arena…and to, as she says, dare greatly. Knowing you may fail. Knowing you will be emotionally exposed. Knowing you are vulnerable.

Marci Phillips of ABC gives workshops and always talks about her love for actors and the need for something in our lives to sustain us through the ups and downs, the inevitable rejections. As an old coach of mine once said to me, “Some people just won’t get you. And some…definitely will.”

The joy of acting is how alive we feel when we tiptoe, walk or leap to our own edge, when we try something new, when we allow ourselves to be seen. There is no escaping the need for this…the most successful actors in the business constantly seek to find another role that scares them, that pushes them. This is not a field in which you can coast and do good work.

What I love about the Brene Brown talks is the focus on values. Because just like choosing an aesthetic that inspires your particular talent–I loved Meisner immediately for the sharing and connectedness that is its focus–you have to be inspired to keep acting. You have to believe in it. I always say that actors live in the choice between the gods of ego and the gods of humanity. Ego is the cotton candy of life…feels good when you first taste it, but holds no nourishment. Ego is about name-dropping, and aggrandizement. Humanity is about telling good stories with good people and being present for it.

My own particular temptation with ego is getting laughs. I can be all present and focused on generosity with my scene partners, but if I start getting laughs for a certain acting choice, I have a compulsion to play to that, because it’s such a high. Of course, they laugh harder and more often if I’m just living the insanity of the character–and, no lie, I get insanity on a lot of levels.

I am inspired by the challenge–stay vulnerable, stay open, stay willing to be exposed, willing to fail, stay at the edge, risking, knowing that I’m going to blow it some of the time, or they won’t like me when I do my best work, or maybe they think I’m too old, or not old enough.

I am inspired by the stories I want to tell, by my love for those stories, by getting to tell them with people who are talented and smart and inspired themselves.

Knowing what I’m in this to do grounds me in who I am. You can’t lose that. Or whose sense of meaning will you bring to the craft?

Be you. Stay vulnerable. Be inspired. And hell, be scared. This is how you know you’re alive. It’s how you know you’re really acting.




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The Grace of Acting

Several times a year…really more…gratitude strikes me for the Meisner class I took with Fred Kareman at Carnegie Hall.  I remember the first day so clearly–September 14, 2001.  I rode the elevator up with two women–Jeanette and Amy–and I stood there in my sweats and flip flops, my butt length hair, listening to them talk about the towers going down just 3 days before.  Jeanette occasionally looked at me with a small smile in her eyes.  The light fell on both of their hair, in this tiny elevator, climbing above the empty, silent city.

And then we walked in the room…not really together.  I was the only actor in the room who hadn’t taken a class with Fred before.

The air conditioner blasted toward us from it’s square in the wall–not really a window.  And in a school desk right next to it, Fred sat, osteoporosis hunching his shoulders forward, his striped boating shirt sharply bright in the dim light, his white hair brighter still.

This is how miracles come into our lives.

In any class, it is the teacher who makes it.  It’s impossible to have a miracle class without a miracle of a teacher.  And there he was, our Yoda, with his attitude and short temper, with his utter and complete presence, with his pauses and his eyes that looked right to the center of everything.

I’ve taught the Meisner technique for a long time now, and every class I talk about him, about the gift…and I’m sure my students know how much I loved and love him.  As we all did.  But I didn’t just love him.  I loved the other actors, I loved the room, I loved the tiny elevator, I loved…with such sadness, the empty city, and then I loved it when it filled back up with traffic and noise.

Gratitude is love.  It’s in the same family of emotions.  I’ve never recovered from the wonder of that class…my idealistic soul wants every acting encounter to be filled with the truth, the heart, the sense of blending creatively and becoming more of what I am and was and will be.  When it happens–and it does–I feel that same wonder and gratitude.  And when it doesn’t, the disappointment scrapes the cement bottom of my soul with an ugly noise, because I know what acting can be.

It can be what Fred taught all of us–Emilie and Joseph, Jeanette and the two Amy’s, Anna and Karl, George and Randy, Scott and Craig and everyone else that started and that I don’t remember.  We just have to bring that open heart, that faith, that presence, and make room for it.

What I love about teaching is that I make the room.  I clear the space, and then I try to call each of my students’ names the way Fred called to us.

That grace.  That made us all want it, this thing called acting, all the more.  That presence.  That spontaneous freedom.  The fully alive embodiment of our own human stories.  Nothing like it in this or any other world.

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The Job of Acting

I have been an artist all my life, but declared my commitment to being an artist when I was 21 years old.  I changed my major in college to Creative Writing and didn’t look back.

I spent the next 20 years believing art was Art.  Art equals God.  It was more important to do great art than to be happy.  I embraced the idea of having a dark side and using it.  I threw myself into art without precautions.

Other artists, far more famous, have also done this.  Most of them died young.

I didn’t really want to do that.

I eventually made the decision to put me and my happiness/serenity as number one on the list, and art second, or maybe third, after my relationships.  I was at least 40.

Now, maybe you’re not insanely passionate and idealistic.  But I find this whole mystique about “living the dream” or “following my dream” a little ironic.  Here’s the irony:  the more life you live, the deeper you allow experience to cut into you, the more present and varied your experiences, the more innovative and creative and rich your acting, writing, or other art becomes.

Acting is a job.  I LOVE acting, but it is a job.  Whether it supports me right now or not.  An acting career is a job in an intensely competitive industry with a high failure rate.  It’s not a dream.  Or better, it’s not a fantasy.

I forget this on a regular basis.  Then I remind myself and return to some version of sane.

I write this because I find I am most successful in acting when I have my feet on the ground, and I aim my passion at what I truly want in acting and art; and I balance that passion with what I truly want in life….interests, fun, deep and satisfying relating, nature, spirituality, fun, and let me say again, fun.

I listen to my students talk about acting, and I listen to myself.  I listen to my colleagues, and I listen to people who are very successful.  Passion for the art form, idealizing what it is, is more common early on.  Consistent effort over time, thinking like both an artist and a business person, wins success.  Knowing that it’s a job.  Knowing that life is not just your job, and you shouldn’t sacrifice so much for your job that you are left empty outside it.

You will glad to be alive if your life is rich.  And then you can bring that to your acting, and your acting will be rich.  It will be more you, and there will be more of you to offer.

Love your life.  Then love acting.

That’s the real job.


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Commitment–or the Leap into Risk

I’ve been blogging about audition mistakes, and this is one of them, but it goes to the heart of other issues in acting as well, so I want to just talk about the leap.  As in, The Leap.

There is no substitute for presence.  It is the alpha and omega of acting.  If you’re not present, then what you do in your acting is pretense.  It’s not what Sanford Meisner called, “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”  It’s not bringing your authentic, in-the-moment self to acting…and since, for my money, there’s nothing else worth watching, it’s a hearkening back to the days of acting as presentation.  Think Sarah Bernardt instead of Eleanora Duse.

So we reach for presence.  But.  Once you have presence, you still have to reach for more.  In art, as in sports, there is always the reach for more, for better, for the test of what you can really do.  Your personal best isn’t static.  It’s a growing entity.

I did a casting director workshop last week in which I hit my personal best for that day.  Besides the fact that it felt GREAT, and the feedback was great, I knew it as my best because there was no hangover, no second guessing, no doubts, no obsession (okay, very little obsession) about the outcome.  I was present for both takes, and I have them on my computer and have watched them a few times.  I remember, in the second take, this jolt of fear, because the presence overtook me and I lost control of myself and of any idea of what I was doing.  I felt, reacted, moved, in ways I myself couldn’t have predicted.  I kept getting little jolts of fear as I said each line differently than I’d ever imagined saying them.

Of course I know that when this happens I’m in some kind of freakish zone that is the point, of, well, everything.  Maybe it’s the definition of creative freedom.  It can happen when I’m writing, too, and I have no idea what I’m going to put down until it’s down and then usually I’m laughing my head off because I’m so bold and, well, completely nuts.

But what was the difference between being present for take 1 and being present for take 2?  What can we learn?  In take 1, I rode the sensations in my body.  I felt the moment, connected with my reader, aimed for the character’s deepest need.  But in take 2, I forgot about all of that.  I stepped into some level of the unknown–I leapt free of my day to day self and became something else.  I felt my body–I was in touch–but I didn’t focus, didn’t have to.  I knew the scene, but I wasn’t playing it…I kind of was the scene.

Josh Pais talks about the committed impulse–about being absolutely committed to being true to what’s happening inside you at the moment and f*&K interpretation, judgment and expectations.  For me true commitment in acting means jumping off the cliff of who I think I am, forgetting everything and speaking the first line in the act of this metaphorical leap.  If I start there, it will continue and move to some new place.

How much can we risk?  True spontaneity is having no idea what you will do next.  It is the revelation of the hidden self, the letting go of control.  Famous actors talk about it–Kristen Stewart, who I just saw in the Clouds of Sils Maria (and she was fabulous as she almost always is) talks about being addicted to the first read, when she doesn’t know what she’s doing and can be utterly unpredictable and alive.

Being present is hard enough, you might say.  Staying out of one’s head.  Feeling the sensations of the body, being in touch with the senses in relationship to the room.  What is this next step?

I would say that the focus on the sensations is one level of letting go of control.  But you’re still working with focus, you’re still DOING something.  And it’s a good thing to do.  But what about letting go of trying to be good and just letting go completely?  What do you commit to then?

I think you commit to a level of unfettered truth that includes terror and incredible satisfaction.

And like everything in acting, you get there by not thinking, and practice, practice, practice.

Go forth and act.

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Acting and Social Justice…and what the hell, it’s a celebration day!

Happy Marriage Equality in all 50 states!

I might think acting is all about loving the world and putting that into everything you do.

I might think acting is about commitment to the moment and to the truth of your own humanity.

But right now, what I think is that I am, for the first time in my life, recognized as equal in all 50 states.  And that is more important than anything else.  In this moment.  And retroactively to every past moment, and shooting forward into what else I can do with my one and only life.

Here is my blog on the subject:

And here is the love of my life.




Audition Mistake #3

Second guessing…or, can I even mention it, the issue of self-sabotage.

Here’s how it goes.  You make choices about your scene.  You work on being present.  Then you go to the casting agent’s office, and sit with the other actors in chairs, waiting.  Some look an awful lot like you.  Some are better known than you.  Some are, gulp, way better looking than you, funnier than you, dressed more for the part than you.  You start to panic.  There is no way you are going to get this role.  Suddenly the choices you’ve made seem utterly stupid.  You try to quickly figure out something better.  You are thinking, thinking, thinking, when they call your name, and you have to remind yourself not to stick your sweaty palm out, because they won’t want to shake it anyhow.

As you’re doing the scene, you’re imagining their thoughts, which consist of these words:  this actor sucks.  You do the scene exactly as you did it at home.  You think your way through the scene.  You can feel that they hate it.  Then you leave, slowly melting into the floor as you do so.

That’s the second guessing insecure audition.

The self-sabotage audition starts earlier.  When you get called, you panic.  It’s for a network, a big director, something you haven’t done before.  You get diarrhea just thinking about going in.  You wonder if you should maybe just cancel, because you’re so scared your hands will probably shake if you hold the paper and there’s no way you’re going to remember the lines because you’re so scared you…

Okay, tell me you’ve never felt any of these things.

In the last auditioning class I taught, the actors spoke more about these feelings than about any of the skills we worked on.  How can I be confident? they asked.  How can I stop forgetting my lines when I’m nervous?  How can I stop feeling nervous?

There’s a wonderful book called THE BIG LEAP by Gay Hendricks.  In it, he talks about the upper limit we ALL have for tolerating joy, success, intimacy and general happiness.  And he talks about moving that limit so we can have more of these things.

I’ve been working on my own upper limit for a lot of years, trying a variety of strategies.  How do I learn to tolerate the feelings and change my relationship to them?  Because they may or may not be going away, but if I can hold my own experience with a sense of acceptance, I can use it to improve my acting.  Any experience.  Truly.  Even panic, even shame.  Every human experience is expressible through acting.  I just have to hold it, rather than have it control me.

Then, there’s growing my tolerance for more success…for genuinely believing in myself, for seeing myself through periods of doubt.  Here’s the thing…you can’t do this without talking about it, without being aware of it.  You want to get to the other side?  Put yourself out there and then notice any compulsion to do something stupid…and then don’t do it.  Basically, prepare yourself for dealing with your own upper limiting behaviors.

I have to say that writing this feels like such a taboo.  In the acting world, and in the acting teacher world, both of which I occupy, we don’t talk openly about the ways we shoot ourselves down.  We talk about how hard the business is, about having a bad day.  But the built-in limits that are part of us…we might secretly hate them, but we don’t acknowledge them because if we do people look embarrassed.

Acting is so much about confidence, but you can’t just banish your self-doubt, insecurity and self-sabotage by strength of will.  Here’s the thing…being with your real emotions as an actor, and acknowledging your insecurities and limits and then lifting them, one step at a time…that builds confidence.

It’s hard.  But acting isn’t about easy all the time.  It’s fun, but it’s also challenge and grit and meaning.  I take this approach: I use acting to become a better human.  I figure if that’s not compelling, then there’s something wrong with my audience.

Go forth and act!

And, you know, do something ridiculous just because you want to.

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Audition Mistake #2

Last week I wrote about presence.  As in, Presence.  About fighting what’s true in the moment and killing any chance of being who we really are because we’re…fighting what’s true in the moment.

There is nothing more important than living in the danger of the moment.  Its uncertainty.  Its vulnerability.  Its complete unpredictability.

I’m repeating myself on purpose, because this is the crucible of acting we all seek to avoid, EVEN WHEN WE KNOW WE DON’T WANT TO AVOID IT.  And I’m repeating myself because I believe the next biggest mistake is in preparing for auditions.  And while it’s true that a surprising number of actors don’t prepare enough, it’s even more true that most of us use the wrong preparation.

What is the wrong preparation?

Deciding how to say the lines.

It’s probably better to under-prepare than to decide how every line should be said and then deliver those decisions.  My friend, Don Foley, used to do any co-star audition as an improvisation–he barely looked at the lines, let alone memorized them.  He thought it was fun to throw himself into it, using his real self, and learn the lines as he went.

He booked, a lot.

So if the wrong preparation is about line readings, what is the right preparation?

Well, that’s a class–to really talk about preparing every aspect of walking into and then taking the room.  But the start is:

1) Figure out what kind of role it is.  What does the role serve?  What is the function of the character?

2) If it’s supporting, guest star, or leading role, the next step is to really delve into how you identify with the character, and then start to replace the people and events they talk about with people and events from your life, so that everything is as real and specific as possible.

The biggest mistake actors make is in deciding how to say the lines instead of creating a world that is emotionally rich.

3) For co-star roles, the opposite is true.  To create too much for a one or two-liner means you’ll steal focus, and it also means you don’t understand what your role is for (always to support someone or something else).  For co-star roles, the prep is to not act, and just do it as you would in life in a similar situation.

And with this, and all other prep, the job is then to go in, tell the emotional truth of your body and the moment (in your tone, in your emotions, in your personality), trusting that the understanding you’ve developed will filter in as it should.

Like I said, a start.  Presence is dependent on truth, and that means allowing yourself to experience your nervousness or any other feeling.  Preparation is about bringing yourself into the role…either by not acting, or by the most profound identification you can find.

Go forth and act!

And if you want to learn more, Uplevel Your Auditions is coming this fall.  Email if you’d like to get on the email list.