Meisner, Movement & Presence

Everything Acting and Embodied


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The Most Common Audition Mistake. As in, Numero UNO.

I hate to be a broken record, but really, is there anything that doesn’t come down to presence?  That’s what we all want in auditions…to be present, to get into the moment, to show who we are, including our talent, to not block it, not go into our heads…we want this desperately.  We feel terribly when we know we fall short.

And yet.  And yet it is in the trying to not feel what we feel, to not be who we are…it is in the controlling or trying to control our own reality that we send our own presence right out of the room.

The first mistake actors make is to try not to be nervous.  We think there’s the perfect audition state, and in searching for it, we try not to feel so many things…basically, anything uncomfortable.  The trick is to be open to feeling whatever it is.  To give in to the body and its nerves and to accept it, work with it, let it be the grist for the mill…because the only other possibility is to go into your head and not be present.  It’s mindfulness applied to acting.  Putting attention on what’s uncomfortable, breathing into it, and then expressing it if it’s still there when it’s your turn to go.

I had terribly audition anxiety.  TERRIBLE.  My casting ratio went through the roof when I stopped fighting it.  Now I’m like, hey, hello nerves.  They still come, I still get ramped up, but I’m not scared they’ll take me out of myself.  They are just a part of who I am.

The other common mistakes–which are more about how you prepare the text, how you look at it, what the role is for…those are more about training and education.  They are more easily fixed, in a way.  But first, you have to be present.  And it is possible to grow that.  It really is.


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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.

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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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The Blacklist–Season Finale

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I watch every episode of The Blacklist because I am a huge James Spader fan and have been since “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”  For me, the tv series is all about him, and how incredibly complicated Reddington (his character) is as he ruthlessly murders and tenderly protects people around him.  He’s just so INTERESTING.

The show turns around Reddington’s relationship with Elizabeth Keen, an FBI agent.  Megan Boone, who plays Keen, is not a very strong actor–overplays emotions, a pet peeve of mine–but their chemistry isn’t bad, so Spader saves it when they have scenes together.

But I am here to *cough* complain about the season finale.  I like complaining about season finales in general, but usually it’s like, OMG, can Shonda Rhimes and crew kill, injure, create acts of God (nature) or come up with any more ludicrous cliff hangers than they did last year?  My usual complaint is that the drama reaches ridiculous levels in trying to create enough suspense to keep you waiting for the next season’s first episode (this year, BTW, Sandra Oh is leaving Grey’s Anatomy, which might be the kiss of death for Grey’s Anatomy).

The season finale of The Blacklist actually failed to deliver on ridiculous cliff hanger.  Unfortunately, it failed to deliver on suspense at all.  Mind you, I’ve liked the writing on the show, loved everything they gave Spader, from humor to grief and and torture, and also felt that the casting sometimes helped create intrigue in figuring out whether a character was a good guy, bad guy or both.  That’s always the real suspense for me–who are the characters to each other?  What will they do to each other?

So in the Reddington/Lizzy (as Reddington calls her) relationship, with its growing tones of intimacy, it’s always been a question of whether Reddington was Lizzy’s long lost father.  And some amazing writing choices–it seems that he must be.  But he says that he isn’t, and then he tells her he never lies to her, and then he tells the truth about murdering her adoptive father, a fact to lie about if there ever was any.  Which makes you think that okay, even though his single-minded focus on her can only be explained by the familial relationship, maybe he’s NOT her father.  Then he lies to her about something much less important, and you have to question again.  I LOVE ALL THIS.

Then they ruined it.  Lizzy’s family was killed in a fire, and the last image they show in the season finale is of Reddington’s scarred back–scarred, it is clear, by fire.

COME ON!  I wanted to keep wondering!  And there’s no real cliff-hanger with Reddington’s arch-enemy being identified either.  His smoky unidentified presence in the show was way better than the actual character with its mirror father/daughter motivation.  It’s like, okay, now I know it’s a battle to the death with more of the same coming our way next season, and while the mirror aspect might hold complications to be mined, it’s still way too expected–or that’s the way it looks.

I’ve seen this before in series–once they reveal the secret at the center of the show, the writing just tanks and it goes off the air.  And clue, don’t reveal a secret in a season finale!  Once I have an answer, I’m not motivated to watch.  (Some reviewers seem to think there’s still a question, but really?  I disagree.)

I’m surprised, actually, because though The Blacklist has occasionally descended into the world of serial killers and their twisted psychology, mostly it has focused on underworld people of wild ruthlessness and determined purpose.  I hope they correct this misstep and give us the unanswered with all its complications next season.  Because against my will, I got truly hooked on this show.


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Courage Means Willing to Risk Everything–Sandy Meisner

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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.


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Meisner & Movement

Even in my own acting training, it was never lost on me that the Meisner Technique, for all its incredible value, didn’t address movement, or physicality, or physical instincts.  So a number of years ago I developed my own Meisner to Movement exercises.  I had studied some Le Coq and Michael Chekhov as well as Viewpoints, but Meisner is so intimate, so about learning to feel the other actor–not decide to respond, but to not being able to stop yourself.  I wanted exercises that helped actors find that physically.  I didn’t know how passionate I would become about this side of acting training, or how much it would help my students. 

We live in our bodies.  We feel in our bodies.  We know each other much more from watching what each other’s bodies do than from listening to words. 

I just finished teaching an auditioning class for film, and it brought to the foreground the necessity of being energetically alive even when you are perfectly still.  If your body isn’t moving, can it still be responding?  Think Liev Shreiber in Ray Donovan.  He says nothing.  He doesn’t move.  And you don’t want to look at anyone else.  Energetically, his body lives in response.  His inner life is amazing.  And so it goes, finding that training is revelatory, that watching actors in search of truth is revelatory and absurd and dramatic and wonderful.

 

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