Meisner Training in Performance Art

What do you think about when you are performing? 

(Why the hell am I putting myself through this, again.)

This was one of several responses I got from performance artists when asking them about the psychological side to giving performances. I specifically wanted to ask people making performance art, as opposed to actors, about this topic because visual artists do not typically train in the psychological aspects of performance. I wanted to know how they prepared themselves and what they focused upon while giving performances. I wanted to know because I am a performance artist myself and this is something we rarely talk about amongst ourselves. When this topic does come up, the most standard reply is that the body is an object and the performance is conceived of as a physical task. Psychological approaches to performance are more often seen as belonging to acting and so little space is given for discussion of performer psychology. Yet, when pressed, it emerges that performance artists do have individual strategies and predilections. These cover quite a range and some are, quite definitely, psychological in nature. 

Among the artists who replied, a key theme was the valorisation of authenticity. Neither rehearsing nor repeating performances was one common strategy and performing physically demanding actions that resulted in tiredness was another. At the same time, having witnessed a great many performances, in my role as both an artist and curator of performance, it is clear that even in the most ‘authentic’ of performers there are patterns and repetitions, familiar sorts of behavior and recurring motifs. I also see that amongst theatre actors there are techniques for bringing freshness and authenticity to a role which might be repeated night after night. When I put the two of these side by side I see both shared concerns and points of contact as well as divergent traditions and dissimilar artistic results. 

Kirby’s Acting and Not-Acting (1995) continuum is a useful model in that, while it acknowledges that there is a difference between acting and not acting – and it is with the latter that performance art typically identifies – it also pays attention to the gray areas between the two. However, by basing his sliding scale upon the performer’s activity, the frame in which this takes place as well as the spectator’s reception of it, there are too many variables at play for Kirby’s categorization to be quite as clear and linear as the model implies. It is my hunch that what actually takes place in this gray zone is a lot more messy with techniques and aesthetics swirling about and coming together in looser combinations. I would suggest that not acting, for example, can also be understood as a form of acting. To suppress the self-consciousness that often comes from being viewed by an audience and to concentrate upon completing a task naturally, is precisely the sort of challenge that acting training equips the performer for.

This short series of blog post will be dedicated then to a practical artistic experiment. I want to look at the question of performer psychology in performance art and see if there are some ways acting has something useful to contribute. It is my feeling that acting training will, at the very least, be able to offer some clues as to how to avoid bad acting, since this is one of its primary purposes. Acting is, however, not a single homogenous activity; approaches and techniques abound. Indeed I should come off the fence here and admit I am not such a stranger to it: I trained in corporeal mime and have busied myself within several experimental theatre productions in the past. As a result of this flirtation with acting, I have noticed that one approach in particular appears promising: Meisner technique. 

While I very rarely try to portray a character other than myself in my performances, I have found that as a performer, I have some range and can be selective about what I show of myself and how I frame this display. In this way it is likely that the audience goes away with a different impression of who I am from one performance to the next. From my initial reading of Meisner’s On Acting (1987) and Moseley’s (2012) guide to the technique in practice, I get the impression that a lot of the training exercises aim to get a truthful performance from the actor by making them more emotionally open and responsive in the moment. What’s more, Meisner takes as the starting point and basis of the actor’s work “the reality of doing.” Kirby defines the verb to act as, “to feign, to simulate, to represent, to impersonate.” (1995: 40) In terms of the performer’s process, however, it can be productive to think of the broader meaning of the verb to act as also encompassing to take action, to do something. When an actor’s work is broken down into performing actions rather than displaying emotions, which this wider definition allows us to do, we arrive at a space where the work of the performance artist and that of the actor are not necessarily at odds with one another. They both have their basis in the reality of doing.

The two areas of Meisner technique that I want to focus upon are the various repetition exercises that he describes and emotional preparation. The repetition exercises appear to encourage a living connection between actors by training spontaneity, truth and sensitivity. These are qualities I value too but my performances are often solos so I do not have a partner to bounce off. What I do have, however, is an audience, a performance environment and objects that I sometimes use.  I want to see if it is possible to substitute some of these for a co-performer and focus upon this interaction. Working off the energy and responses of members of the audience should be somewhat straightforward but whether I can build a living rapport with an inanimate object is another question altogether. Working with an object it may well be a case of treating it as if it were a co-performer that is able to influence me. 

The second area of emotional preparation is one that is liable to raise some heckles from performance art purists. When interviewing artists for this research project there was a general consensus that emotions were a consequence of the performance and not something that should be deliberately manipulated immediately before or during the course of the show. This is a legitimate concern and it reflects one way to ensure an honesty to the performance. On the other hand, there are performance artists who do direct their emotions such as Marina Abramovic who uses meditation techniques both before and during performances. 

I myself have experimented with a number of ways to prepare for performances and while it is tempting to separate these out into physical and psychological preparations, in practice they all combine something of both. Stretching and breathing deeply has an effect on the mind as does quickly trying to complete two or three actions at the same time. I have also tried going to a quiet place before starting a show and dedicating the performance to a specific person. I focus on the person and on the qualities of theirs that connect to the performance I am about to do. I never use the same person twice so this does not produce an identical effect but it does focus me and it does bring memories and emotions to the fore, memories that may play a role in the performance. It seems a small step to go from here into Meisner style emotional preparation in which an imaginary but plausible situation is used to summon up an emotional state.

I want to share this process, hence this blog, and I want to use more than just words alone as images and video can capture some aspects of the work better. Photography and video are of course art forms in their own right and representing the research with them is by no means an automatic process. What’s more, because I am both performer and researcher, video plays a dual role of not only representing the work on the blog but also giving me a chance to study the performances and experiments from an external point of view. 

Even though I consider myself an engaged viewer, I find much performance documentation well-nigh unwatchable. This is because the language of video is different to that of the stage and a lot of documentation, because it wants to remain truthful to the original event, is caught in an unhappy marriage of mediums. On the other hand, I have attended live performances which, in attempting to rectify this problem, documented the work to death. I ended up feeling I was at a film shoot in which I was playing the role of an extra who fills the background. A balance needs to be struck and the way I intend to do this is to produce different sorts of videos. I will make one performance directly for the camera; Meisner technique is, after all, particularly popular with screen actors. I will also make another performance with a live audience in which the interaction between us is visible. I will here take advantage of the fact that my audience already has cameras on their phones and can take video. From their video footage which they will themselves film freely, I will piece together the performance and edit it in two ways. It will first be turned into short clips that focus upon the points I concentrate upon in my text. It will also be available as a more complete performance document which, while being another unwatchable video, will allow the viewer to get a broader view of the context.

There is an extra dimension to this enquiry that will probably have some bearing on the shape it takes. I am based in Nanjing, China. The performances will inevitably be shaped by this and audience reactions, or lack of them, will likewise be particular. I won’t second guess what this will be, it is enough for now to expect some influence. While it is true that wherever one works context matters, it might matter more here because what I am doing is in no way typical in China. I, in no way, want to imply that the UK represents the norm, deviance from which needs accounting for. Working in a country with a population over twenty times that of the UK and being based in a city a similar size to London, it is easy to view China as the norm. When it comes to performance art and Meisner technique, however, they are far less familiar here and simply being a British artist lends anything I do an exotic connotation for many Chinese spectators. 

Meisner, S. (1987). On Acting. New York: Vintage Books.

Moseley, N. (2012) Meisner in Practice: A guide for actors, directors and teachers. London: Nick Hern Books. 

Kirby M. (2002). ‘On Acting and Not-Acting’, in Zarilli P. B.  Acting Reconsidered. London: Routledge, p. 40-52

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