“Life beats down and crushes our souls and theatre reminds us that we have one. At least the type of theatre that I’m interested in; that is, theatre that moves an audience. You have the opportunity to literally impact the lives of people if they work on material that has integrity. But today, most actors simply want to be famous. Well, being an actor was never supposed to be about fame and money. Being an actor is a religious calling because you’ve been given the ability, the gift to inspire humanity. Think about that on the way to your soap opera audition.” –Sanford Meisner
I have always loved watching and reading Sandy Meisner for the sheer vicarious enjoyment of his radical bluntness. I have my own way of understanding this quote, and it’s something I tell my students all the time. Here it is: Every time you get up to perform, you will be called by both the gods of humanity and the gods of ego. The choice rings in the heart and mind, sometimes moment by moment. Will I try to get the laugh, the affirmation, the applause? Or will I simply tell the story of my own humanity through this character. Will I aim for my own idea of truth?
Actors who want to make a living in the art form come with a sense of drive. I know this from being an actor and from teaching actors. And there are two drives as well: 1) the positive drive that comes from talent itself demanding realization, demanding that you be the best you have in you, that you push forward, step by step, into excellence, and that while you respect your own pace, you need, desperately, to achieve what you know you can do–your own personal best. And number 2) the drive that comes from a sense of personal lack or woundedness, the need to prove that you’re good enough, that you deserve affirmation, the craving for more affirmation, and then more again, for the next applause, the next compliment.
There isn’t an actor on earth who doesn’t possess both. I believe there isn’t a human who doesn’t possess both. And so the choice, always.
I had a teacher in grad school I loved, and he said, “If you want a career in soaps, go get a boob job and learn to look gorgeous. If you want to do good work, train like crazy. But be honest with yourself about what you want, because there is no other way to get there.” He didn’t judge. He offered completely pragmatic and brutal advice. (He once told me to start wearing more form-fitting clothes, damnit, because people would want to see that I had a body.)
The irony in all this is that if you tell the human story, if you reveal your deepest humanity in its absurdity and pathos, you are likely to get all kinds of affirmation. But no guarantees. And if the affirmation is your goal, if you are thinking of yourself, you won’t find that humanity. The Meisner Technique is all about learning to not think about yourself, so you can step into the moment and reveal who you are without choosing, just by being, responding, doing.
It’s only the most worthwhile thing to do in life. In my not-so-humble opinion.