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 Mystery of Presence De-Mystified

My confession for the day:  I once used to say, “Being present is over-rated.”  Surrounded by New Age acolytes who talked about being present and desperately trying never to leave their bodies, I took my oppositional defiance for a walk.  Just to see what they would do.  (They looked at me like I was crazy, not that THAT is anything new.)  Now people seem to think I’m New Age because I play at Buddhism and yoga, because I teach actors to use themselves and release their inhibitions.

Oh, how everything I’ve ever said comes back to bite me.

I no longer think that presence is over-rated.  I kind of think it’s GOD.  I think that state of wide-awake aliveness calls to us all.  I think joy lives there, along with deep sorrow, compassion, every living experience.  Just don’t duck.  Just don’t try not to feel what you feel.  And if that is New Age, so be it.

What is presence? Sometimes called the “it” factor, sometimes being in flow, presence is the quality of aliveness we each possess fully when we live in the moment.  Even when we don’t, we leave an imprint, but truly present people fill a space with their spirits, touching everyone in the room with who they are.

I once went to a Red Sox game in which David Ortiz hit a home run every time he came up to bat.  I sat in the bleachers, and felt his ownership of the moment, his intense concentration, his absolute confidence.  He was right THERE and nothing could get past him.  After about 3 home runs they started to walk him when he came to the plate.  Because presence is power.

Josh Pais, the creator of Committed Impulse, https://www.committedimpulse.com, teaches a practice for getting present–it is, basically (quoting), “Breathe.  Feel your body.  See the world around you.  Say I’m back.”  It is rooted in an understanding of mindfulness, the hot new thing that is thousands of years old.  What people find is that when they are mindful–as in, noticing their moment-to-moment experience, slowing down enough to feel their bodies, being aware of what stimulates the senses and then what the senses experience–VOILA!  They are present.

Mindfulness, ironically, involves awareness but not thinking.  In fact, the mind simply directs traffic–awareness on moment-to-moment experience, which precludes having discussions with yourself about it, or drawing your awareness to your thoughts about what’s happening.  Because guess what?  The minute you start thinking, especially dialoguing with yourself, POOF!  No more presence.  (Hence Pais’ “I’m back” practice.)

Sanford Meisner made the other actors the focus of awareness in the beginning of training, and then later the act of doing and activities, and his quote is “Transfer the point of concentration to some object outside of yourself – another person, a puzzle, a broken plate that you are gluing.” But I like what Pais has added to this–the awareness of your own sensations.  I think of it as an infinity loop–full awareness of without, a full, if background awareness, of your own field of sensation.

As I combine mindfulness, Josh Pais, Sanford Meisner, the friggin’ Buddha, yoga, authentic movement, weaving them together into a present and full-bodied expression for myself and, as much as possible, my students, I find that the deepest habits of mind are protective.  Like, man, we just don’t think it’s all that safe to feel exactly what we feel.  We’re scared.  This is why acting IS courage–we have to just enter in and trust we’ll be fine not knowing and revealing and not knowing and revealing.

Here’s the secret:  you can practice being present, practice the exercises that get you there.  Because to be a present actor, for most of us and certainly for me, you have to be a present human.

Here’s my secret:  when I did some of the sensation tracking exercises for the first, say 10 times, I cried my eyes out every time.  And each time, after the release, I felt great, my acting work was completely free, and my days were full of gratitude and joy.  So I’m signed on to be a present human as well as a present actor.  I want that power and freedom.

It’s the only game in town.

Baseball.  Or acting.  Or walking the dog.

Present.

PS–I am a HUGE David Ortiz fan.  I was wearing my shirt with his name on it just yesterday.  But not on the streets of NYC.

David-Ortiz-2013-Large-02

 


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On the Way to Your Soap Opera Audition

A Look at Sandy Meisner and His Famous Students

“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.


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Courage Means Willing to Risk Everything–Sandy Meisner

sanddy-tv-jounal

In studying the Meisner technique, actors learn to release their inhibitions, to let go of social filters, to connect with each other, to do what the other actor makes them do.  No one ever talks about being “nice” in acting.  Actors show the true humanity–the qualities and actions most of us hide.

Initially, of course, it’s hard to say unfiltered and uncensored thoughts, but most of us learn to love it.  My teacher, Fred Kareman, used to say that once you learned the technique you would be more free to be yourself when you were acting than at any other time.  Gone are “I” statements, skillful models of communication.  You swear.  You get tender.  You fall in love.  You openly show hurt.

I think actors are the most courageous people on the planet, and that we are driven by a need to become visible, to create publicly, in the moment, out of our human understanding.  Risk, and the risks involved in acting, interest me as an actor, first of all, but also as a teacher.  What do I understand about courage and risk?  What do I want to teach about it?

For myself, I approach the craft of acting as my teacher about myself and life.  The real courage isn’t in being socially unacceptable–at least not for me, since in some ways I’ve always lived there.  The courage is in admitting how high the bar is in the business, how big an ask it is to want this, how much I have to believe in myself to try.  And the risk is in aiming for that bar.  Because what I understand about acting, like any other kind of art, is that I have to throw myself out into the world as I truly am.  Not as I hope to be, wish I was, might be someday.  But as I am now.  With my secret (or not-so-secret) intellectual arrogance, with my bad attitudes, with my impatience, with my wide ever-reaching vulnerability, with my neediness.  It is myself that I must ruthlessly hold to the highest standards, because outside of Boston’s small community, those are the standards of the industry.

So yes, it’s fun to be bad in the repetition exercise, to release into inappropriate intimacy, anger, humor–and there is risk in this, no doubt.  But no matter how far in you go, there’s always more.  People call it truth.  I call it life itself.  Fred was right, in a way.  You are the most alive when you leave trying to be perfect behind.  And just show how screwed up and human you really are.

I can’t wait for the next time I get to do it!  And the next time I get to watch actors go for it, and find it, and leap into that joy.