Meisner, Movement & Presence

Everything Acting and Embodied

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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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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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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,, 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.


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.