The magic of Meisner – the best kept secret in acting

Imagine standing fully naked before an audience in a dimly lit, intimate studio. Then picture a firing squad of armed men standing opposite you – rifles cocked and ready to shoot you down, for a ‘crime’ you’re not sure you’re guilty of.

This is what learning the Meisner acting technique felt like to me at points – being totally vulnerable, transparent and open in front of a group of total strangers. Strangers, by definition are people who don’t necessarily care about you, but in this acting scenario you are expected, and encouraged to bare yourself completely to a room full of them.

I trained for 12 months at the Actors Door Studio (ADS) near Brick Lane in 2016 – a very eventful and turbulent year for the country generally, and for me personally.

I developed and grew as a person tremendously in this time, and even more so in the months afterwards – in the same way the ‘afterburn effect’ burns many calories following a high-intensity workout at the gym.

The goal of the Meisner technique is often described as getting actors to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Its most famous students include James Gandolfini, Jack Nicholson, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Grace Kelly, Anthony Hopkins and Jim Carrey.

The influential Broadway and Hollywood director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden) once said: “Take it from a director: if you get an actor that Sandy Meisner has trained, you’ve been blessed.”

Every practitioner of Meisner has their own slant on his teachings and focuses on some aspects more than others. Having trained under several experienced and talented instructors on and off for the past few years I’d like to share what I’ve taken from it.

Fay was my first teacher in acting and introduced me to the Meisner technique. She is direct and has high standards for her students, always pushing them to do better and explore new ground as actors.

I encountered many brick walls in my training and overcame some of them thanks to her direction, the skill of my partners and my sheer persistence over a long period. Like so things in life, once I let go of outcomes and stopped trying too hard to contrive results was when the real magic would unfold in our scenes.

The purpose of the technique is to sharpen and strengthen the actor’s raw instinct to behave truthfully and transparently. Once this happens you then add in scripts, learning lines, developing characters and doing emotional prep for certain scenes.

Early on at ADS we had the opportunity to perform the opening monologue by Christian Bale’s character in American Psycho;I live in the American Gardens Building on West 81st Street on the 11th floor. My name is Patrick Bateman. I’m 27 years old. I believe in taking care of myself, and a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine…”

Some of the people I’ve acted with have gone on to dedicate themselves fully to the craft, and even appeared in high-profile shows like The Affair and living the professional actor’s life out in Los Angeles. In the meantime I’ve had to make do with appearances as an extra in Killing Eve (now BAFTA winning!), O2 TV adverts and unsuccessful castings for a Robbie Williams boxing advert.

Meisner’s principles can also be used in your day-to-day life outside of acting and castings – whether in job interviews or in pitches and presentations.

I have taken the following learnings with me and remember them often as I take on certain challenges and reflect on the best approach.

Patience: You learn patience with the repetition exercise to simply focus on your fellow actor and on each verbal ‘call’ being made. With a watching audience, there can be a temptation to jump straight to the drama in a scene. But like a conscientious boxer setting up a knockout punch with patient combinations and boxing skills, the actor must stay present and in the moment – not trying to force anything to happen. 

Repetition is often likened to a game of ping-pong where each person repeats exactly what they have heard back and forth, letting any emotion or tension build organically. The beauty of the technique is in its simplicity – what will happen, will happen of its own accord, and only when both actors are committed to each other and the technique. I have since recognised one of my weaknesses in my real life has been impatience, and a desire to rush to an outcome and make things happen too swiftly.

“Let go of everything and put your attention on your partner”

 

Be specific: You construct your scene with minute details, designing a plausible scenario with believable consequences. Your activity has to be urgent, meaningful and difficult to complete – you must make the stakes high enough for the activity to be urgent enough for you to get done in minutes. It took me months to grasp the premise of this – I chose ‘characters’ and scenarios that weren’t meaningful enough for me, and activities that weren’t technically designed properly. In the film Inception, Tom Hardy’s character Eames leads the team’s design of the dream levels and the emotions they want to elicit in the target – the depth, specificity and premise of the operation are all thrashed out in detail before they can proceed with executing it.

An emotional scene which stayed with me was where I and a partner were given a direction to play an engaged couple at the altar. In that moment, in the scene, it was ‘truthful’ for me to tell my ‘wife’ that I loved her, and mean it – while simultaneously, clearly this was not accurate in the ‘real world’ as we did not have any relationship at all. Truly ‘living truthfully under imaginary circumstances’ – all from having specified, explicit scenarios to act in.

One of the other incredible things about Meisner would be that some of the imaginary, but plausible scenes I brought to the east London studio in 2016 would later ‘come true’ years down the line. 

Be true to yourself: You realise who you are, and what you care about through Meisner training. In the ‘doors and activities’ the actors brings every week there is nowhere to hide from the audience or instructor.  You can’t bluff any of them that you really care about something when deep down you do not. It is a trial and error process each session to refine and fine-tune the scenes you’re designing to increase the stakes and make sure they’re tight enough to withstand the interruptions and interference from your partner.

One of the scenes I did which was the best received by those watching was when I imagined a romantic interest of mine getting into a serious accident. My focus was so clearly on this and on ‘convincing’ my fellow actor of the meaning and urgency of this to me that I was oblivious of anything else – it was effortless in that moment to connect to the feeling and figure out how to resolve it with another person. I was surprised by its impact on me, and perhaps lazily I brought the same person into other scenes when I might have explored other relationships. 

You realise how much, and how little you really have invested in the people around you and the things you are pursuing. You can be in denial but you cannot lie to yourself in the Meisner technique – it will affect you and you will be a changed person at the other end. For this reason alone, you should give Meisner a go.

As an introvert, these acting classes helped me strengthen my extrovert muscles and made me more outgoing and expressive. To the irritation of some around me(!), it also made me less tolerant of falseness, insincerity and incongruency in my own life. I was more willing to call it out and do something about it to live more truthfully, even if this had short-term consequences professionally and socially. Meisner helped me become more confident, and above all a more confident version of the real me – rather than an identikit copy of someone else.

This confidence gave me more assuredness with things like making eye contact, comfort in short silences and being candid about my opinion. I became more willing to make the first move in social interactions, taking the small risk to go and say hello to people I didn’t know. I became more observational and outer-directed – more out of my head and attentive to others’ body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. Simply put I was a more effective ‘reader’ of people, having practiced being interested in my fellow actors for many months. 

Take yourself along to one of the many acting sessions on Brick Lane. If you’d like to become more confident, understand yourself, people and social dynamics better and dedicate yourself to becoming skilled in a craft then opening the door and walking into the Actors Door Studio is the best step you can take.

Stephen Lynch is a freelance adviser in PR, communications and political strategy. He is the author of the book ‘Eject the Autopilot: Choosing Self-Mastery over Safety’

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