Every actor in the class deserves all the individual attention I can possibly give. Working with them makes me feel that I have one of the best jobs in the world: i.e. imparting what I believe to be important artistic truths to receptive people for whom I feel boundless affection.
Why is the ‘repetition’ exercise so difficult? ‘Repetition’ was my introduction to Meisner – as it usually is for everyone – but it turned out to be the last element that made complete sense! Therefore, the weight of the more advanced exercises and my attempts to use them, first as an actor and later as a teacher, produced a result that felt wobbly and unfinished.
There are reasons for this that speak to the heart of the ‘problem with Meisner.’ I would like to say, however, that I have nothing but great admiration for the inventor of this technique. The principles that underlie all its aspects – including ‘repetition,’ ‘naming behavior’, ‘knock at the door’ improvisations and the use of the fabulous The Spoon River Anthology – require nothing short of genius to enlist them in training actors.
However, let us put ‘repetition’ under a microscope. Pure ‘repetition’ isolates ‘following one’s impulses,’ and therein lies the reason why I couldn’t master it for so long – and why most people find it so difficult. It is counter-intuitive to isolate any one element of the human psyche. But repetition is the only acting exercise I know where it is useful to do just that. We are all familiar with the expression to be ‘beside oneself.’ I think that in ‘pure repetition,’ one enters a state of total reaction, which mimics being at the extreme of anger or, less likely, hurt – with fear attaching itself to both. (Positive emotions are not discussed here, since we are talking about feelings that relate to conflict.) And obviously, being ‘beside oneself’ is not the same as being ‘inside oneself.’ In other words, we have separated from ourselves as we know ourselves to be. It is a state of attack that is rarely attained – fortunately – in normal life.
Even if one has a quick temper or a tendency toward hurt or depression, it is unlikely that we will be flipped easily into these states by another actor pushing us. Why not? Well, most actors aren’t crazy – despite all evidence to the contrary. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) Like most everyone else, we have our guard up against the dangers of extreme emotion. So our deeper inhibitions keep resisting the requirements of the ‘repetition’ exercise, speed and strength – dare I say ferocity – of reaction. According to whichever our tendency is in life, we will err on the side of withdrawing from the conflict or pushing ourselves into it, instead of reacting truthfully to the negative stimulus that is coming straight at us. There is no way to speed up our ability to do this exercise; we can only practice it and follow the critique given by a – hopefully – informed teacher.
In the way that I teach the technique, we move on very quickly into ‘naming behavior.’ This is very confusing to the student – and from this point on, my use of Meisner’s great discoveries would be anathema to a strict Meisnerian. What I am doing is quickly integrating aspects of Method training with Meisner. Why drive everyone crazy by doing it so fast? Well, an easy explanation would be a comparison with cooking a lemon filling. The eggs have to be spun about immediately with the butter, sugar and lemon – otherwise you get lumpy yolks, more useful for a salad than a pie.
Now for the long, boring explanation. Sorry but I’m still figuring out how to make this really clear. In acting techniques which do not include systematic memory recall, it is believed that memories comes up automatically and inform everything we do. Yes, as long as what we are doing is ‘real.’ But acting is only partly ‘real.’ That’s why it’s called ‘acting,’ not ‘reality.’ I suffer from both a terrible temper and depression, which caused a lot trouble when I was learning to act. And I’ve had students who couldn’t control their rage and who were unable to drop the anxiety and grief when they weren’t working specifically on their acting. The former type I had to let go from my classes and the latter usually drop out of their own accord.
So acting isn’t just ‘natural feeling’ and scripts have to be analyzed in order to uncover the appropriate spectrum of emotional responses for each character. Even if scripts were completely ‘real’ and not artistic compilations of fact and imagination, we would still have to analyze them; the difference would be that the element of conflict would not be constantly present. Characters would not continually mislead, often unintentionally, as people do when they are in conflict. Sometimes, characters lie on purpose, but they only do it because they believe on some level that this is necessary for survival. Rarely can anything that is said in a good script be taken at face value. Characters say the opposite of what they mean, and without close analysis of the text, an actor can become totally confused. So how does the next step in the Meisner technique, ‘naming behavior,’ help with all this?