A teacher once told me, “A teacher’s job is to make complex things simple.” Breaking down and simplifying the elements and tools of the craft of acting is what Meisner’s course does.
The course is organized in two years. My class with Robert Patterson met twice a week for three hour sessions. I have taught the work on that same schedule. I have also trained experienced, mature actors on a once a week, three hour class schedule. In my experience, the course can be well-taught in 18-22 months. It may be possible to cover the material in a shorter time, but it is doubtful that an actor could truly be trained in this work in less time. It takes time for these exercises to make their way into the body– which is where they must live for the training to take hold.
In a professional studio, a good number of students to being with is 10-12. There is usually some attrition, and finishing the class with 6-8 is ideal. Most classes in a university setting will be larger. I have taught university classes of 18-20. Balancing out the larger classes, though, is the additional session per week. Most credited acting classes in a university will meet three times per week. The Meisner course can be successfully taught in a committed university program as well as in a professional studio. To make possible the two year training, the university would make both Acting I and Acting II two semester courses.
In the first year, the elements– the necessary skills– of acting are taught. In the second year, those skills are applied to scene work along with specific step-by-step rehearsal tools and techniques. Also in the second year, the transforming character work is taught.
What the Meisner class does not include is the essential work on the vocal and physical instrument: anyone intending to work on the stage must work continually on strengthening and increasing flexibility in the body, strengthening, opening and increasing the range in the voice, and refining speech.
A stage actor must be fit, flexible, and have great breath and endurance. They must develop a responsive, strong, unmannered and uninhibited vocal and physical instrument. Conditioning classes and sports of all kinds are useful in building strength and endurance. All kinds of dance and movement classes are wonderful for an actor.
It is wise to work the body in new, unaccustomed ways. For example, someone who is tight around the hips might do African dance. Someone who experiences herself as weak can lift weights. Someone who feels clumsy and awkward might do ballet. In short, find ways to open all dynamics and qualities. As you explore new ways to move, you will develop a strong, sensitive, responsive physical instrument.
The voice training I am most familiar with is the Iris Warren work that Kristin Linklater made her own and expanded. It is organic and practical work that grounds and frees the voice.
No doubt, beyond my experience, there are other effective ways to work on strengthening and increasing flexibility, physically and vocally. And there are many fine teachers to offer guidance. The key is finding the approach and guidance that work for you. Read books by Kristin Linklater, Cicely Berry, Patsy Rodenburg, Catherine Fitzmaurice and others. See what makes sense to you and seek out teachers to help you.
Although physical and vocal work it outside the scope of these pages, the work is vital and every must take responsibility for doing this work.
Note to Students: Learning by watching
A student once told me, “It was while watching the repetition exercise that the walls came down for me.” What he meant was that his understanding of what acting is all about shifted in watching this exercise. As they observe, actors are developing their eyes. They are learning to see what it means to “Leave yourself alone,” “Follow your impulses,” “Deal” and “Trust yourself.” No amount of description or talk from a teacher can be as persuasive as recognizing the difference between an actor who cannot “leave himself alone,” “follow impulses,” “deal with every moment” and “trust himself,” –and one who can.
It is also my experience that as students sharpen their eyes and gain confidence in assessing others’ work, they themselves unfailingly improve in the exercises. As one student wrote,
“Everyone else’s mistakes illuminate your own.” (Diane Kondrat)
So, from the very first class, students should be given the opportunity to comment on what they see others doing in the exercises. The teacher must demand that students speak with a professional frame: “Which of the four disciplines is the actor having trouble with?” As the students learn to focus criticism in answer to this question, they are not only learning to see, but also learning professional respect. What students offer one another must be specific and constructive. After students have responded, the teacher’s comments (whether in agreement with theirs or not) will be greatly instructive.
Of course, the flow and energy of the class must be maintained. Not every student should comment on every exercise. But when one or two students have offered their reactions to an exercise, the teacher is forced to respond clearly and specifically to the exercise and to the students’ comments. The exchange is helpful in heightening awareness and easing learning.
Excerpt from “A Meisner Legacy” (available on Amazon.com) by Martha Jacobs presents the two-year preparation for actors designed by Sanford Meisner and refined by Robert Patterson. The book details every exercise in the two-year course, with explanations and examples. Each exercise introduces elements of the craft of acting, and each exercise builds on lessons learned in previous exercises. Throughout, there are notes for both students and teachers detailing Jacobs personal experience and understanding using this material.
The comprehensive discipline offers a clear and concise way in which to work with Meisner s material. Through the broad and in depth practice, skills are cultivated that are necessary not only to acting, but also to playwriting, directing and theatre criticism.
A plan is offered for teaching in a university environment or a professional studio setting, and the book contains more than 70 suggested scenes for class work, to sharpen an actors skills. Where permission has been granted, full scenes are included.