One of the participants in the Meisner Acting Lab that finished Phase One yesterday shared an entry from her journal. I liked her perspective so much that I asked if she would mind recording it to share on my website and she generously agreed. Here are Hannah's thoughts on the structure of the Meisner work:
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When you tell people that you're an actor, you can get some pretty off the wall, laughable and occasionally really offensive responses. Especially in Vancouver, which has got to have almost as many aspiring actors as Los Angeles. I'm not going to address all of the ridiculous things I've been asked upon answering that dreaded "So what do you do?" question. But there is one particular myth that I'd like to dispel today. Acting is not lying. It's not a form of escapism and it's not about pretending to be someone else. This is why:
There are two fundamentally wrong assumptions here.
1. Good acting is about telling the truth, the truest truth you possibly can.
2. Character is not an outside thing you put on like a costume, it must arise from within. The character is never someone else, it always you.
Human experience is 100% subjective. It's not like we can just shrug off the "my perspective suit" and put on another. Your personality, belief system and cognitive links are so complex and deep and so much a part of you that you can't switch them on and off. Even if you were pretending to be someone else and no-one noticed how disconnected you were, you could only portray them as you see them, which isn't them at all is it? Two dimensional characters and broad stereotyping are often a result of this "put on the character" kind of thinking. It's surface level, judgemental and never believable.
OK, but what about those actors who totally transform? They're not being themselves. They're completely different from character to character! They walk differently, talk differently, their personality is different. How can I say they're not pretending to be someone else? Are these not affected behaviours?
This is where imaginary circumstances come in to play.
Stanislavski talked about the Magic If. Meisner said that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Herein lies the secret. This is how transformation is possible. You can't fake it and it can't be applied from the outside, it must always come from within. You only ever have yourself to work with, but your imagination is infinite.
I started acting when I was about 6 or 7. At the time, all I wanted was to be someone else. I was bullied by my peers, I hated the way I looked and I treasured the chance to be someone else one afternoon a week, checking my reality at the door. That's what got me in, but that's not why I stayed.
Spend any reasonable amount of time studying the art of acting and you realize that it's about facing your demons, not running away from them. By the time I was a teenager, my reasons had shifted. I wasn't happy with my life, but I wanted to change it, not escape it. The rehearsal room was the only safe place to be myself. To delve deep into my subconscious, to learn, to grow, to work out some of my angst. To be free.
Acting isn't therapy. Your acting coach does not (typically) have a degree in psychology and you should never confuse the two. It does, however, require that you have an intimate knowledge of yourself.
As an adult, I love theatre more than ever and the magic is certainly still a part of it, but my reasons have shifted once again. Acting is no longer about escaping reality and my demons and I are great friends at this point. The Ancient Greeks used theatre for Catharsis. For me it's about Empathy. Whether you're attending a powerful performance as an audience member, taking a beginners acting class for the fun of it or working as a professional actor, you may not be thinking about it, but you're strengthening your empathy muscle. You're opening yourself to experience someone else's reality. By experiencing the truth (especially someone else's truth) under imaginary circumstances, you're learning how to understand, if not to love, your neighbour. You're building your humanity. And the world needs more of that I think.
There's not a lot of truly powerful theatre out there at the moment, but it is out there. Go see theatre. Take an acting class. Take a giant step outside your mind and watch how it changes your world.
This passed weekend I treated myself to a mini-intensive voice workshop with David Smukler. It was a joy to be a student again and to surrender to the learning process. David is so ruthlessly perceptive that I feel my practice has deepened to a whole new level.
It's so easy (for me anyway) to get lost in the mechanics of an exercise that I practice regularly. The habit of "doing" is so powerful that if I'm not careful I go into autopilot and forget to simply "be". My experience this weekend was so freeing that I have promised myself that I will approach each exercise like it is the very first time, every time. Like a virgin in fact. (no blog post is complete without a pop-culture reference)
Sure, mindfulness takes longer and I'm going to have to let go of the urge to "know" and "get it right" but you know what? It is so worth it and I am excited about my practice again in a way I haven't been in ages! What in your life do you love that you could approach again like it was the very first time? What will you rediscover?
Isn't it great when your own advice comes back to bite you in the ass?
I did something very stupid 2 days ago. It really brought a lesson home for me. So of course I thought I'd share.
I'm working box office at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year. It's great fun and it's a nice short shot (2 weeks) of constant work to top up the bank account. I could feel I was getting a cold, I haven't given my body proper rest since some time in July, and I was assigned to my customary box office booth number 1. The mic in this booth doesn't work and it was a point of pride for me that when I was there that wasn't so much of a problem. I know how to use my voice! I up-pitch, I project and I get by. But that's when I'm well. I've come to realize that I allow myself some very bad habits because I know that I'm robust. What's the saying? Strong like bull, smart like lamppost.
Here's the problem. I don't speak with my true voice when I work customer service. I know this is a habit that I have and I usually just say "screw it, I'd rather feel safe thank you". For any readers who haven't done any work with authentic sound or finding your true voice, most people use what I call voice-masks most of the time instead of connecting with their true voice, in regular daily life anyway. It's like a shield, a persona we put on, a role we play. It's useful when I'm dealing with irate customers. The problem is, not using my real voice means I'm "off-voice" which means I'm creating unnecessary strain. Usually, I go home, chill out, relax, reconnect to myself and everything's dandy. A little voice strain can be weathered as long as you keep it contained and warm up (and down) appropriately. Hmph.
Combining being "off voice" with up-pitching and having a sore throat from a cold already is a very bad idea. On top of that I've been so busy and feeling so ick that I haven't done my personal practice in a while either so I really wasn't in good shape to begin with.
About half-way through the shift I could feel that I was doing some damage. The sensible thing to do at this point would have been to ask someone to switch booths for a while. Or I could drop the up-pitching and use hand gestures for the customers who weren't so great at reading lips. I did neither. I was proud and keen to prove that one broken mic was no match for me. And with this swaggering bravado I got croakier and croakier. My voice lasted. Just. As I stepped out of that booth at the end of my shift my throat closed up and that was that.
Thanks to my pridefulness I had to endure a day at the box office with no voice at all. Which is frustrating and impractical at best, but when your co-workers know that you coach voice technique, it's mortifying! I'm off to do it again tonight. My voice is coming back, I'm at maybe 60% today, but I've learned my lesson, I'm not going to push through. It's whispers and charades tonight and I'll see how much I've healed by tomorrow.
This whole experience has humbled me rather. This is a big part of what I address in my coaching and I am not practicing what I preach. I have grown lax! Not just on a physical level, I'm also not challenging myself the way I used to. I've been catering too much to my fears. There is no reason I shouldn't be connected to my true voice all the time, but I'm terrified of being rejected, ostracized, fired! I feel so exposed. It's easy when you're in a workshop or on stage or among friends, but out in the world, especially behind a counter, it seems an impossible thing. But it's not. I know that. And hopefully some of the people I've coached know that. It's a journey. I've come a long way in the last few years, now it's time to find the path again and re-commit.
All through writing this I have heard David Smukler's voice booming in the back of my head. At the 2011 National Voice Intensive, we were doing some sort of exercise I don't remember what and I was hiding and squirming and being generally uncomfortable up on stage and he asked me "Why does Honest have to mean Vulnerable?"
That's a very powerful question, David. Thanks for the compass. :)
After much hoopla and ado, pacing and nail biting, I am finally sitting down to write about the voice experiment sessions. They have in fact been going really well. Too well. I haven’t felt like there was much to report. Today was only session 4 and we’re nowhere near actual SONG yet! But today was so much fun that my inertia broke… As it were.
Allie is taking to this work like a fish to water. I love teaching the inexperienced. They have no bad habits that they want to hold on to, no egos established, just a curiosity and willingness to learn. Which is of course the best way to approach any creative task, no matter where you are in your career.
To fill you in quickly, the first 2 sessions were double whammies on free, truthful sound and starting her on the support exercises.
Flashback to day one:
My subject (hehe I feel like I should be wearing a lab coat and goggles) has an interesting approach to the sigh. She’s a very active person and from what I can tell she relaxes very actively too. In our first session I was completely flummoxed. Every sigh was an explosion! The word relax was met with a very deliberate rearranging of her shoulder muscles. A re-organization of tension. Stillness? Yes. Relaxed? Not so much. But she’s learning: she’s doing spinal rolls and we’ve found a breath image that encourages her to use a lot less effort. I’m fortunate in having a student with such an open attitude, Allie is very honest and self-aware about her patterns, it makes her very easy to work with. I’m quite proud of her. :)
Back to present day:
Today’s session blew Allie’s mind. “Who knew learning to sing could be so much like doing mushrooms?” OK, she didn’t actually say that, but it was the spirit of the thing. Up until today we’ve been fairly somber (well, for me), but today we really got up into the body’s natural amplifiers and we were getting all tingly!
Session 3 and 4 have both had a focus on resonance. Last week was a version of Stewart Pearce’s chakra resonator scale, a big favourite of mine. Very profound. But today, session 4, was the soft palette and the Linklater Resonance scale. Waaay more room for sillyness. And we had an audience! Who shall remain nameless and was a little bit of a surprise to me I won’t lie. It was my first time teaching with an observer in the room. But that’s what you get for doing free sessions as house calls. I’m sure he learned a lot. ;)
I am so excited to keep moving, I could’ve gone all night. But as I left Allie draped herself on the couch in an exhausted flop, so perhaps it was prudent to stop when we did. Stay tuned for more experimental madness!
I understand why actors get so superstitious. Why we shroud our art in mystery. It's so personal and so undefinable. Sharing it only dulls the shine. The emotional preparation work really brings this home. It's lonely.
Something I'm coming across everywhere in my own life at the moment is the loneliness that sharing brings. Counterintuitive perhaps. But one of those true life paradoxes.
Have you ever had a passionate conversation, even when you are in agreement with the other person, about something you care about deeply and it leaves you feeling depressed? I'm a puppy. I get SO excited! I'm riding this high of positive energy and passion (and sometimes the other person is even along for the ride) and then, somehow in the midst of all this, emptiness creeps in and by the time the conversation is over I am consumed by grief.
And this is when I feel, acutely, the human condition.
That large neon sign of "I AM NOT THE SAME AS YOU" placed right beside the one saying "I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED AND NOT ALONE!" I'm sure we get the little reminders of this all of the time, but when it's touching something close to my self, close to my heart, when it is related to something that I consider to be a part of me, an experience that is a piece of my "me-mosiac", that is when this feeling descends like a ton of bricks.
Experiencing it in this context makes me wonder if it comes from a lack of ownership of myself. I'm a young teacher and especially being here, surrounded by amazing, talented, experienced and wise teachers, I feel myself revisiting my highschool years, trying so hard to impress, to be like. I feel a different age depending on where I am or what I'm doing. My literal self-image changes depending on how confident I am. Sometimes I see myself as I was when I was 5, sometimes 10, sometimes 17. Sometimes even the age I am now. ;)
All this yearning to fit in and reminders of high-school make me wonder how many parts of myself I habitually compromise without even noticing. It's scary; owning something important to you. Especially with the knowledge that different things work for different people, especially with so many other opinions out there, especially fearing that you might be "wrong". I mean someone else may think I AM wrong and, for them, they may be right! Oh subjectivity is such a bitch.
I find myself thinking: "Who am I to express my opinion to the universe?"
I have such an ingrained notion that in order to deserve to put an idea out into the world you have to believe it 100%, no doubt, no room for error. Perfect confidence in whatever it is you happen to be doing at that point in your experience. A ridiculous idea. Fascist! Powerful.
Note on 28th July:
Saw this on facebook the other day, I think on Yvia's status. It's what inspired me to choose this fragment to go up next:
"The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety." - Froom
I'm looking for volunteers to help me develop two new programs!
You get to take the new program for free in exchange for giving me feedback about what worked and what didn't!
Contact me for more information: 778 235 7696
Returning to normal life after "Meisner camp" has been a lot harder than I had anticipated, but I am finally ready to start picking up the pieces and preparing for the workshop in August.
You always become close to the people you share workshops like this with, but the experience I had at the Meisner Certificate Training Program was much more intense than anything I've felt before. Something about the work we did there and the kind of people who are drawn to work with Larry in this way did something very special to me that I will never forget. I am comforted by the fact that we have managed to cajole Larry into offering a Part 3, which I plan on attending in January 2013.
I did a lot of writing while I was in Oregon, but not much editing or posting, so I'll be posting retroactively over the next week or two as I order my thoughts. Stay tuned.
In the meantime I feel the pangs of separation from my classmates deeply. Larry Silverberg posted this quote for us. I hope he doesn't mind me sharing:
OK, so this is hardly scientific, but I did my little experiment today.
It actually turned out better than I had imagined because I entirely forgot to execute my plan before we did the monologues. And it went OK. I felt the beginnings of that trust, when you know you've done your work and can just let it all go. It came and went, I pushed a little. My throat hurt. For the first time in ages I was holding it all in my throat! Ah well, we're all human.
Then this evening I did an exercise with Darrelyn. This time I remembered my little experiment. I had also, when setting up my extreme circumstances that morning, dropped them into my swamp as best I could and then left them alone until it was...da da daaaaa! Time to prepare. (By the way, I'm not going into detail on any of the Meisner work because it's really not my place. If you're curious, please read Larry Silverberg's books he is so eloquent.)
And it was amazing. I did the whole thing, got into semi supine and connected. And felt very little at first. Then I let my mind wander to what I had set up that morning and it hit me like a wave. Not images like I usually get (I'm still a baby at this emotional prep stuff, it's something I've struggled wrapping my head around for years and I'm still very intellectual about it) just feeling. From there I did the preparation process that we've been exploring in class.
The coolest thing was when I got up and went to the door. I often end up in some sort of position on the floor when preparing for the deep dark stuff and I find that when I stand up my body goes into "get it together mode" and by the time I'm at the door I have to struggle to reconnect through all that social conditioning. This time, I just kept the breath connected to the swamp where my preparation was living and sure, it comes and goes and grows and shifts, but it was alive in there and SO present for the exercise that this time I really did feel I could just let it all go and be in the moment and trust.
Now this is a pretty useless comparison because it's apples and oranges. Different content, different process. But it was fun and I feel I got something from it. So I thought you might too. I for one will be dropping my preparation circumstances into my swamp from this day forward.
If you're reading words like "dropping in" or "swamp" and think I'm crazy. You might want to check out Freeing the Natural Voice or the Canada's Voice Intensive.
If you're reading words like "Meisner" or "preparation" and have no idea what I'm talking about, check out this amazing course I'm on right now through the True Acting Institute.
I haven't acted in a long time and some of the exercises in this workshop can be quite intimidating. Sure, I've done my training and put in my time but my insecurities don't care about that. When I'm put on the spot and have nothing in the last 2 years to reference, those doubts can be awfully persuasive.
I'm sure every actor has had this experience, but it is such a gift and wonder to me every time. In the midst of all the confusion and frustration when I feel lost and like I have no idea where to go from here and I should just give up, a voice from directors past (not dead, just in the past) surfaces through the mire of experience and floats into my consciousness. Suddenly I hear the voice of a teacher or director (sometimes from more than a decade ago) clear as a bell in my ear with the perfect appropriate lesson. A nugget of gold dropped into my lap through time. And I am no longer lost. I have the key. Trust is a beautiful thing. I am so grateful to be in a place where I know if I can just hang in there and breathe the answer will come. Thank you to all my teachers and friends who have taken the time to sew wisdom into the lining of my memory, those forgotten secrets that surface at exactly the right time. You save my ass again and again.
Danielle Benzon coaches entrepreneurs and performing artists in voice, acting and audition technique. She is also certified to teach the Meisner Approach through the True Acting Institute. Danielle is based in Vancouver, Canada.