Monday, 6 August 2018

Meisner Technique - Acting Class #1 with Robyn Paterson - Aug 4th 2018

It was my first acting class with acting coach Robyn Paterson. The class started with a quick overview of the content to be covered in the first 5 weeks of classes before we officially delve into the Meisner technique. A particularly interesting thing Robyn mentioned was that cold reading is indeed a big thing in London, but not in other places such as New Zealand.


Robyn then recapped some of the concepts that she covered in her Meisner technique taster workshop held just 3 weeks ago, such as the answer to the question “What is acting?” “Acting is listening and responding.” 80% of acting is said to be listening and 20% is technique; acting is about going back to being an “emotionally available toddler”, as toddlers listen to you with their whole body, in contrast to adults in society today, where we as adults have learned to listen in order to formulate a response.


Other inspirational ideas and concepts were thrown at us; the notion for example, that “there is no place for the mind in acting” as the mind knows the script. It is surely comforting as well that Robyn would repeat to her students that “you are enough” and “stop trying to be more.” I, for one, really appreciate the refreshing point of view that she offers, and her passionate belief that “individual human behavior is fascinating.”


It was said that the Meisner technique is about getting rid of social norms and defences; it is about following impulses. What is going to get you cast for a role is “being, not acting;” that the minute you try to act is the minute you don’t get the role; that it matters that “you do the way you would do it.”


Heavy emphasis is placed on the importance of “listening” time and again as Robyn spoke. What is certainly comforting is that the process of genuinely listening and truly being affected by the other person or actor in the scene is something that can become so natural with time and practice and experience.


The Meisner technique doesn’t deal with the concept of “character” unlike that which many drama or acting students might have been more familiar or more comfortable with. Robyn continued to elaborate that as acting students, we don’t and shouldn’t change who we are, but “just be vulnerable to the other actor in the scene,” that this other actor in the scene is “more important than you, the key to unlocking yourself.”


Robyn again stressed the importance of listening, in the sense of fully investing yourself in what the other actor says. That “responding” in “acting” is very much like real life, where your real life experience and reaction would be very different if for example, in a supermarket, you met a rude cashier as compared to a friendly cashier, or the way you respond would be different and dependent on for example, your partner’s or spouse’s behavior or reaction in that particular circumstances.  


A reading list is almost inevitable in such a course. It was pointed out that important books to read as part of the acting classes moving forward include “Sanford Meisner on Acting” and “The Power of Now.” “Sanford Meisner on Acting” was emphasized to be a particularly essential reading as Robyn stressed her teaching to be an interpretation of the original Meisner technique. The same with the Meisner teacher she has studied with who we would naturally understand to teach his individual interpretation of the technique. It is the message thus that the closest we as students will get to the very fundamentals of the Meisner technique will be by reading the book.


The second part of the class consisted of a listening exercise, to which each student took turns being individually filmed. Robyn again covered very interesting ground as a preamble before formally starting the exercise. She repeated the notion that it is important “to work with what you have, not what you want;” that as actors we would act from where we were personally, for example, if a student is color blind, he or she would act from that position. As an actor you have to go for your objectives, but if you were fixated on your next lines, that would become an obstacle for you to be 100% committed to your goal or objective in the scene.


All students were handed a script where we were given some time to fill in the lines for actor B in appropriate consideration of lines for actor A which were already present on script. We were told to ignore the emotional cues in the script, in the form of capital letters, or exclamation marks.


As with the Meisner technique taster workshop that Robyn recently held, I again volunteered to be the first to attempt the exercise. I was to play actor A in front of the camera whilst another student would play actor B out of sight of the camera.


After each student had their turns, we watched the playbacks, feedback was given, and crucial moments for learning were pointed out. Very fascinatingly, Robyn pointed out how the students’ body language to be incredibly dynamic when we were listening and responding to Robyn as she striked casual conversation with us before the start of the scene, the very conspicuous way our body language or bodies “died” when the scene started, and how we came back alive again after the scene ended.


Having our performances in playback certainly was effective in showing the stark difference and change in our body language and facial expressions between “conversing in real life” and “acting/conversing in the scene.” It was interesting when Robyn noted that as we entered the scene, we resorted to face acting where “everything below the neck is dead,” and where the body “dies.”


I think a rather impactful message from the listening exercise was that we were so alive before and after the scene, but in Robyn’s rather appropriate description, we “died” during the scene itself. The learning lesson thus was that we have to be the same self before the scene, during the scene, and after the scene. I certainly noticed that I had loads of facial expressions and body movement when I was casually conversing with Robyn before the start of the scene, most of which evaporated the moment the scene started.


Robyn continued to communicate essential points for us to take note of. She noted an instance where a student playing Actor A instinctively thought that what the student who played Actor B said was ridiculous and was to instinctively react in that manner, but in some way stopped himself and somehow adhered to the script. Interestingly, Robyn said that for the purposes of this listening exercise in our classes, we are to follow our impulses instead of following the script exactly, and that the script is merely a guide. Immediately after, she acknowledged that this certainly would not always be the case depending on the specific film or production one is working on.


I personally really appreciated when Robyn further pointed out moments in our “acting” that over time, we will gradually learn to get more skilled at spotting. Moments where we were truly listening or not, or where we were superficially “acting” or otherwise.


Robyn said that we shouldn’t overthink, we should just listen and respond; and that emotions is in the body. She also highlighted that since the script is easily accessible in our hands, there shouldn’t be any worry at all of forgetting the lines. It made me realize a more effective strategy to maximize gains from the listening exercise would be to firstly, listening to the other actor with full attention, and then to only retrieve your lines from the script after the other actor stops speaking, and thereafter speak your lines. This certainly made me realize that when I did the exercise, I indeed did not listen with 110% of my attention placed on the other actor. Upon reflection, I realized that what indeed happened was that I listened to the other actor with partial attention, with the rest of my attention put on retrieving my lines from the script whilst the other actor was still speaking, such that I seemed “ready” with my lines the moment the other actor finished speaking her lines.


A further lesson from the listening exercise was for us to notice the show/face that we put up when we enter the scene. Robyn mentioned that if we were to take away one thing from this class, it would be “to see how interesting you are when you don’t try to act.” I personally found mindblowing when I observed what Robyn described as an “unreasonable stillness” that overcame us when we entered the scene and “listened” as part of “acting” as opposed to listening for real. The message yet again communicated was one of not trying to act, of “not trying, not showing, not acting.”


This acting class was again full of other interesting discoveries. One of the students in the class was a director of student actors. She mentioned having constantly asked her students to “listen,” but realized that it is a whole new ball game when she stepped into an actor’s shoes, and to be the one who actually has to do the “listening.” She came to the conclusion that despite her authoritative direction to her actors to “listen,” it is a skill that she herself cannot fully grasp when in front of the camera herself.


Towards the end of the class, Robyn acknowledged that the listening exercise is rather difficult, as there is no context. Other useful points she covered in the course of the class include the revealing notion that in an audition, casting directors can certainly identify whether you genuinely listened to the other actor in the scene.


As a whole, it was said that learning the Meisner technique requires commitment, that the process could certainly get frustrating at times, but the idea would be to persist at it. Robyn analogized learning the Meisner technique to getting fat, that it doesn’t show immediately on the body if you ate an ice cream daily, but one day when you look back, you would realize that all the ice cream consumed had a definite cumulative effect on your body. Same with learning the Meisner technique, you might not feel tangible progress with every session of training, but one day you would look back and realize how far you’ve actually come.


If I had to single out the one most significant lesson I’ve learned from this class, it would be the notion of placing 110% of my attention on the other actor and what he or she says in the scene. This pithy rule would certainly come in handy as I continue my work on a short film in a lead role.

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