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.
So the Vancouver International Fringe Festival is over for this year. I'm sad, but it's given me a lot to think about. There were some amazing (and some misused) voices this fringe. Here are some of my observations and tips from the last few weeks:
Voice is a huge part of character development. In "regular theatre" where an actor is only playing one role it's not so obvious, but in Fringe, where very often actors are playing multiple characters, it becomes increasingly important. I'm not talking about accents or funny voices, I'm talking about physically internalizing the character. It's essential. When actors use external indicators like costume to differentiate between characters it can be helpful to the audience, but if the actor doesn't believe the change, the characters all blend together despite the best intentioned visual cues.
The other thing is articulation. Young and inexperienced actors excited about singing or doing accents can forget about diction in their enthusiasm. All that energy is wasted if I can't work out what you're saying.
I have to mention Kitt and Jane by SNAFU Dance Theatre. Aside from the fact that I think this show was beyond awesome in a million other ways, it's pretty awesome vocally too. Ingrid Hansen is inspiring as the plucky Kitt and has a gorgeous(!) singing voice, but what really impressed me was Rod Peter Jr. as Jane. His thin, bright character voice was so solid that I was not expecting such a rich and resonant one when he opened his mouth after curtain call. Such an intelligent and healthy choice, directing his voice through his cheekbones and facial mask adding a thin, "weedy" quality without loosing any of his projective range. They could hear him in the back just fine even though it felt psychologically like his voice would disappear into himself at any second. Coupled with his introverted posture, the voice completely sealed the illusion. And by altering the direction of his voice instead of up-pitching, and keeping the breath deep and connected, there's no damage done so he can keep doing it night after night! I was very impressed. Might steal that trick myself some day. . .
Some great examples of multiple characters done really well were Paul Cosentino in Bad Connections? (also an AWESOME script by the way, written by Michael Levesque) and Andrew Bailey in The Adversary (which he also wrote, fit him like a glove). There were a LOT of shows in the Fringe and I didn't even see half of them, so this isn't a definitive list, just a sample of what impressed me on a purely vocal level.
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That's right! It's Fringe time again in Vancouver and as per usual I am part of the Plank Magazine review team covering the festival. You can read all of the reviews at www.plankmagazine.com
Shows I highly recommend so far (for a variety of reasons):
Kit and Jane
Come Cuddle Me
The Chronicles of Johnny Tomorrow
And finally my jealousy of all my friends I have seen posting about the Edinburgh Fringe for the whole of August is (mostly) assuaged.
If you see a show you love (or hate) at the Vancouver Fringe this year, you are invited to comment either here or at www.plankamagzine.com :)
My recent experiences auditioning and giving advice to friends who are starting to audition made me realize I should share a few audition tips for those of us who get nervous.
1. Choosing a Monologue
I'm just zeroing in on nerve-busting strategies here. Obviously you must still take into account all the normal stuff like appropriateness of genre, range, length, context, your personal connection to the piece etc etc.
If you've done any work with me you'll have heard me say that you need to know your text inside out and back to front. This is always true but it is especially important in the context of an audition. To test if you know your piece well enough try it while doing something that requires both your body and brain like a choreographed dance or gardening. If you cannot simultaneously say your words and do the activity then you don't know the piece well enough yet. In addition to knowing your words inside out, it is also helpful to know yourself. Everyone is different. How do your nerves manifest? At an audition what does your body typically do? What mannerisms and personality traits surface? And how can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
Now, I'm NOT saying that you should choose something about a nervous actor and just ride your nerves in the audition. There are so many reasons why that doesn't work. But it IS a lot easier to match your physical energy and subtly change it than is is to do a complete 180 against what your body is giving you. You'll always have to ground your energy, personalize and get into character but if your nervous self is highly strung perhaps a neurotic or desperate person would be a better choice than a depressive or zen-master. That way you can use your adrenaline engine instead of spending all your energy trying to smother it. Similarly, if you become paralyzed with nerves and want to crawl into a hole a hide then perhaps you want a less physical character, look for something a bit more contained.
The hardest part about auditioning, especially if you are choosing to work with your nerves instead of against them, is staying/getting grounded. Most of us when we're nervous let that hysterical energy bring our centre of gravity way up into our shoulders. But we'll address that a little later in the series. Right now just think about the character you've chosen or are going to choose and how you can make the physical manifestation of your nerves work for you.
Today's tip is a day late because I was writing an exam yesterday. BUT writing the exam provided me with this week's tip. Funny how these things work out.
Today's tip: Work hard. Prepare. Then let it all go and trust!
This advice applies to performance of any type: acting, singing, corporate presentations, academic exams, the whole kit and caboodle. It's an effective process. And yesterday, getting ready to sit down for my exam I heard Larry Silverberg's voice in my head saying "Trust the preparation!" and I realized that I learned how to approach exams, job interviews and work presentations many, many years ago when I was just a wee young thing at speech and drama classes!
I'm going to use the actors process to illustrate what I mean, but you can apply this to anything.
The actor works relentlessly through the rehearsal period. You review your script every night even when you know all the words, you do all the table work, you question and over-analyze everything, you try every possible combination you can think of in the scene study, you work towards exhaustion. And then, the day before the performance, you rest. You get enough sleep, you go for a walk, you clear your mind, you "forget" everything you've worked so hard on and you Trust. You trust the work you've done has seeped into your bones and you trust the techniques you've drilled yourself on have become muscle memory, you trust that you know the character inside and out and you stand in the wings waiting for your cue expectant, open and ready for anything. (Personally I often stand in the wings realizing I don't know what my first line is, but I've learned to enjoy that, it has always been there when the time comes.)
Trusting yourself on stage allows you to surrender to the moment, to your partner and to the situation in front of you so that you are truly present and alive when it matters most. If you're holding your lines in your head or thinking about your blocking or your emotional journey or (god forbid) what the audience must be thinking or whatever your particular "control habit" is, your performance will be wooden and stale. Never mind upping the anxiety scale to the point of stage fright: sweats, shakes and stammers! It is only by letting go of everything that you can make yourself available to the fullness of your experience and knowledge.
And this applies as much to cramming for an exam or preparing for a presentation to the board as it does to acting. Work hard, know your material inside out and then let it all go. Float and enjoy the mastery of your infinite potential.
I just want to take a moment to acknowledge the high quality of performances at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival this year. I know the main Fringe is based on a lottery system (not the BYOVs though) so perhaps we just got lucky this year, but still, for Fringe, I saw a LOT of great theatre.
Not only were there a lot of high quality shows, but there were a vast number of 1 and 2 woman productions. Given that there are SOOO many more female performers than male performers out there, and that there are so many more roles for men than for women, it's heartening to see female performers even out the odds by making their own work. I am so proud and inspired.
I didn't see that many shows this year, but the ones I did see that were of exceptional quality were (in alphabetical order)
Little Lady (1 woman)
Loon (1 woman)
Opera for Heathens (1 man)
Plasticity Now (2 women)
Recess (1 woman)
Where's My Flying Car (1 woman)
I was also part of the Plank Magazine review team this year, so if you want to read a review (or submit your own thoughts on a performance) please check out www.plankmagazine.com
I am absolutely humbled by some of the talent I have seen on stage this past week. It makes me want to crawl into a hole and never try to act again. Paradoxically it also makes me REALLY want to get my own show in the Fringe next year. I'm going to go home and dig up my most recent draft and see what I can rewrite while I'm still buzzing with inspiration...
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.