A New York State of Mind: The Accumulated Baggage of my Meisner Technique

I have found that the histories of trainings are incredibly important, sometimes more significant than the results that they are trying to achieve in the performer.  From 2002-2004 I trained in the Meisner Technique of acting under Michael Saccente in Auckland, New Zealand.  Michael is a New Yorker by birth and culture and underwent the full Neighborhood Playhouse training with Sanford Meisner.  When he found himself in New Zealand, Michael began training professional actors in the technique.  These classes provoked the spontaneity and impulsive behaviour that I was looking for in my performance work at the time.

However, just as in the case of Meisner’s teaching, the personality and behaviour of Michael was vital in the way the training was transmitted to us.  His small stature was more than compensated for by his loud, machine gun repartee and his neurotic, wound-up rants at anything that got under his skin.  His character wouldn’t have been out of place in a David Mamet play, and as I began to reflect on the classes, I realized that our acting was picking up Michael’s particular New York state of mind (and expression) at the same time as we were learning to read each other’s behaviour and Repeat.

New Zealand culture at that time did not encourage great displays of emotion.  People were told to ‘harden up’, to ‘deal with it’, and anyone who spoke of themselves in anything other than modest self-deprecation was quickly cut down to size by those around them.  This societal attitude has been identified as one of the factors that contributes to New Zealand’s relatively high suicide rate (Illmer 2017).  I believe that the Meisner Technique can be a priceless tool for the working actor, but almost as valuable was the encouragement to shrug off our reticence and modesty, to freely express ourselves and to go for what we wanted in our scene work.  While other aspects of the technique, such as the actors’ close attention to their partner’s behaviour might have been vital in its original context of New York, for me at least, the most important contribution it made to my acting (and my life) was to act on impulse, without censoring myself.

Sanford Meisner invented his technique as an evolution (part development, part rejection) of Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting and anchored in what he interpreted as Stanislavski’s System (Longwell 1987, 10).  The key element that Strasberg initially sought with his Method Acting was the ‘real emotion’ that he witnessed in the performances of the Moscow Arts Theatre tours to New York in 1922 and 1923 (Clurman 1957, 36).  How Stanislavski was (mis)represented by Method Acting originated by The Group Theatre has been widely written about (Krasner 2000, 6-7).  What has not been focused on was the cultural milieu that it emerged from, namely the Yiddish culture of the Jewish diaspora in New York City.  Many members of the Group Theatre (most notably Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg) came from families steeped in the Yiddish Theatre traditions that had taken hold in New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Elkin 2009).

The boisterous spirit of Yiddish Theatre was one part of the Meisner Technique that flourished in our classes.  I was no stranger to ‘real emotion’ (albeit repressed), I had the natural attention to behaviour cultivated by reticent, modest kiwis.  What I did not have were the strong impulses to express this inner content in a loud, direct and theatrical manner.  Therefore, for me, the cultural baggage of the Meisner Technique became possibly the most valuable influence on my acting.

Over the last decade as I have taught the Meisner in various settings within UK Higher Education, I have found that once again the history of the technique, its method of transmission, and its cultural baggage has a significant effect on the results of the training.  By streaming this training through the filter of my own cultural baggage, I’m adding my own inflections to it.  Specifically, I have noticed that the do-it-yourself attitude, inherited from colonial pioneers, that I bring from New Zealand can help actors in a British context feel less precious about the text they deliver.  The classical British actor training that has lent more towards a score of calculated behaviour that might result in inner feeling is challenged by the Meisner Technique’s insistence on impulsive behaviour.  My kiwi attitude of botching things together to make them work has led me to find an accommodation between the ‘outwards-in’, and the ‘inwards-out’ methods of characterisation.  This has guided me and the actors I have worked with to a number of surprising and exciting moments.

I spoke recently at the TaPRA Performer Training Working Group’s interim event, ‘Embodied/Embodying Performer Training: Practices and Practicalities’, about how the individual assimilates training as a pentimento – painting over pre-existing sections of dried paint to modify an artwork (McLaughlin 2019).  As the training is taken on uniquely by each individual who engages with it, the history of that training is a part of what is assimilated.  This history is subtly shifted by its new context and the individuals involved in the transmission. This allows some freedom for the cultural-historical baggage to be revised, skewed, altered, but never completely erased.

Bibliography

Clurman, Harold. 1957. The Fervent Years. New York: Hill and Wang.

Elkin, Judith Laikin. 2009. Stella Adler. February 27. Accessed July 3, 2019. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/adler-stella.

Illmer, Andreas. 2017. What’s behind New Zealand’s shocking youth suicide rate? June 15. Accessed July 3, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-40284130.

Krasner, David. 2000. “I Hate Strasberg, Method Bashing in the Academy.” In Method Acting Reconsidered, Theory, Practice, Future, by David Krasner, edited by David Krasner, 6-7. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Longwell, Sanford Meisner & Dennis. 1987. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Meisner, Sanford and Longwell Dennis. (1987). Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Vintage Books.

McLaughlin, James. 2019. “Reinscribing the Self: Performer Training as Cultural Pentimento.” Embodied/Embodying Performer Training: Practices and Practicalities. University of South Wales, Cardiff: TaPRA Performer Training Working Group, April 24.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.