The taster classes are there to give potential students an idea of what the Meisner foundation course will be like but also so I can see what kind of people I will be working with. All sorts of fascinating things happened in my last two taster classes. They were both very small and extremely dynamic groups and I can’t wait to work with them in my new course starting this Wednesday morning.
Unfortunately, the same problems I had when I started the first daytime course beset me now. The daytime class is a hard one for people to commit to for obvious reasons. At the last minute, I had to change the day from Tuesday to Wednesday to allow more people to join but I still don’t have enough students.
The space has also been a problem. I followed a neighbour’s advice about a new place opening just down the road. I’d been on the phone and laptop all morning trying to find a space so I decided just to go and check it out. I got there and had a look. It looked like it could be the perfect spot … except the builders hadn’t quite finished it yet. Fine, I thought, no space, not enough students: it’s just not meant to be. I cycled towards the park determined to cancel the course and just enjoy the classes I already teach. As I cycled, a building caught my eye. It looked like a community theatre. I got off and went in. It was indeed a theatre. I asked the man behind the bar if it was available for rent. He went and got the woman who ran the place. While he was gone I thought, well, it won’t be for rent, and if it is, not for ten consecutive Wednesdays, and even then there’s no way I can afford a space like this … Dear reader, I got the space.
This morning I thought I had nowhere and now, amazingly, I have three, affordable and lovely spaces … but not enough students. It’s too late to do much else except pray for a miracle. The night before the start of my Thursday evening course in April, someone called me up to ask if he could join last minute. He hadn’t done the taster class so I met him the next day, had a chat with him and knew at once that he was a good fit for the class. He has had his ups and downs like everyone who does this work and the other week he suddenly said “I think I’m starting to get it now – the repetition exercise helps you to bypass the bullshit.” It’s such a wonderfully accurate way of putting it. We all have our own kind of bullshit, and we all have to learn to get past it. Meisner called it “leaving yourself alone” but I like bypassing the bullshit better because it evokes the frustration of what happens when we don’t bypass the bullshit.
If there’s anyone out there who wants to swell the ranks of the Wednesday morning course, message me please. You can be my miracle student, the one that makes the course actually happen and I can help you, too, learn how to bypass the bullshit.
P.S. I had to “fix” the title of this post because Facebook considered it offensive. Well, if that ain’t bullshit, I don’t know what is.
Although I am not an ancient Greek, just ancient, I take the commandment to “know thyself” seriously. It was allegedly one of the three aphorisms on the temple at Delphi and whatever those oracles were smoking, it was obviously giving them some wise highs. Watching my students doing the Meisner exercises, I have come to the realisation that, as in therapy, coming to know oneself is the first step to change. Of course, changing yourself is not the goal of the Meisner technique, but as an actor you have to first know your self in order to change into other selves.
This raises of the question of what your own authentic behaviour is. The Greek word “authentikos“, from which we get “authentic”, means “one acting on one’s own authority”. When we do the repetition exercise, especially when we start, there tends to be a lot of laughter, from the people doing the exercise and also the people watching. In the case of those doing the exercise, the laughter often comes from self-consciousness. For those watching, it is the moments where a person’s body responds without hesitation to the other actor but their words belie* them. So, for example one actor tells the second that they have beautiful eyes; the second actor repeats the sentence and at the same time instinctively takes a step back. When the first actor notices this and says “You took a step back … you’re uncomfortable” the second actor, from their safe distance, says “I’m not uncomfortable” and we all laugh, because we can see the actor’s discomfort at the same time as we hear their denial. This denial is very common and comes from a social instinct to put the other person at ease, even in the midst of our own discomfort. But the body doesn’t lie. Or, as Meisner put it, an ounce of behaviour is worth a ton of words. In fact, research shows that our bodies respond to situations before we have had time to articulate what we are experiencing, before we have had time to “gather our thoughts together”. And it is precisely this gap, between the behaviour of the body – our actions – and our rational self – our words – that we seek to explore in the first series of Meisner exercises. We do this in order to discover the many behaviours that we have in our repertoire when we stop masking them, apologising for them and denying them as our socialisation demands we do in daily life. William Esper, one of the great Meisner teachers, spoke about “turning up the volume” on certain behaviours we have when we play characters that, on the face of it, are a million miles from us. We all have the Macbeths, Joan of Arc and even Hannibal Lecter, within us, because we are capable of behaviour that, while hopefully less extreme than Lecter’s, allows us to relate to such extreme characters.
Another aspect of human psychology that I witness frequently in these classes is that the distance between the person we (desperately) want to be and the person we are is usually much smaller than we think. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz, where the cowardly lion, the heartless tin-man and the brainless scarecrow all find out that they had the qualities they were seeking all along – they just had to find them. In my classes, I frequently find that the students who say they’re too anxious to let go are the bravest people in the room while the ones that claim they aren’t expressive are the ones having the greatest difficulty hiding their feelings (this is of course a Good Thing) and the ones who tell me they aren’t bright enough to understand what we’re doing are so bright they got it on day one (and because of that keep getting in their own way). My point is that the poles between who we want to be and who we actually are draw closer together as much through self-knowledge as through an active attempt to change ourselves. Once we accept that for every characteristic we have, we also possess its opposite, we can stop worrying about which one is an expression of our authentic self and and just be.
Every major philosophy and religion contains this idea of two aspects and the dance they do with each other, whether it is Zoroastrianism, Platonism, the religions of the book, West African Vodun or yinyang. Perhaps time rubbed the edge off the Delphic proverb and instead of “Know thyself” it originally read “Know thyselves”. Once we discover and give ourselves permission to be our dualities, we will have enough character to play all the parts from Antigone to Blanche Dubois and everything beyond.
This week was the last class of the Tuesday morning foundation course and my first course for Meisner Studio, so it was a big deal. I was feeling under the weather after an exhausting weekend but struggled in anyway, and of course I didn’t regret my decision. I showed them the basics of how we do text the Meisner way by learning the lines neutrally so you can stay open to the other actor and your impulses each time you do the scene. They committed completely to the process and created some beautiful work. I will definitely be seeing some of them again in the advanced classes and drop-in classes from September. This is a great joy to me as I have learned so much from watching them develop as actors and know there is much, much more to come. There were some real edge-of-the-seat moments, breakthroughs and set-backs, lots of tears and laughter, as well as the odd slammed and re-opened door. They were a warm, generous and willing group. In fact, I frequently felt like some mad scientist who has been given the chance to carry out live experiments on actual human beings. And now they’re all sewn together into one giant Meisner actor, forever repeating each other’s words!
*The word belie comes from Old English meaning “to show to be false”.
I’m doing a taster class tomorrow evening at Tugelaweg 85 and there are still two places left. You must do a taster class if you want to join any of the courses so even if you don’t join the next course, it’s worth doing so you can jump into the next convenient one. Just click here if you want to sign up. I’ll announce more taster class dates on here and social media as soon as I have them.
New ten-week daytime foundation course starting Tuesday 23rd May
I’m very glad to be able to confirm that I’ll be offering a new ten-week course from Tuesday 23rd May to 25th July from 10am to 1pm. The classes will take place in the blue room at Tugelaweg 85. If you have already done a taster class and want to join the course, please let me know as soon as possible.
Saturday ten-week foundation course from September
I’m also in talks with Tugelaweg 85 about a 10-week foundation course on Saturdays starting in September. Please let me know as soon as possible if that is something that would interest you so I can gauge interest.
Workshops starting June 3rd
I am starting a series of workshops called Meisner &… on Saturday 3rd June. This will be a series of one-off workshops, usually on Saturdays, exploring Meisner in combination with some other theatre practice. I will work with experts in their field but the focus of the workshops will always be to see how we can apply Meisner principles, authenticity, connection and imagination, to other theatre practices. For this reason, you must have done a Meisner foundation course with me or Meisner training with another teacher to join the workshops.
The first workshop will be Meisner & Mask with Mask teacher & miracle worker Grainne Delaney on Saturday 3rd June. To read more about it and sign up, please click here. It will be held in the wooden room at Tugelaweg 85 and run from 10am to 1pm. Payment is by donation on the day of the workshop.
There will also be an Meisner & Alexander Technique on one of the following Saturdays in June. I will confirm the date as soon as I have it. This will take place at the AT centre on Javakade with Tessa and Paul. To read more about AT in general and Tessa and Paul’s work in particular, please click here. I highly recommend AT if you have never tried it – it is incredibly beneficial for performers of every kind. This workshop will have a fixed fee to be confirmed but likely to be around €40 per participant.
Other possible workshops from September include a Meisner & Shakespeare with Will Sutton and a Meisner & Clowning with John Burns. If you have any requests or ideas for other workshops, just drop me a line!
I am planning drop-in classes from October onwards. These are for anyone who has already done one of the foundation courses with me or Meisner training with another teacher. You will be able to sign up over WhatsApp a few days in advance and then just turn up on the day to do whatever you want – repetition, doors and activities or to work on a text using Meisner technique. You will pay on the day, either cash or transfer. Sessions will be 20€ each or you can buy a ten-time strippenkaart at a reduced price. I will probably have a day class for this and may bring someone else on board to run an evening or weekend drop-in. More details soon.
Last but not least, I hope to start an advanced course also from September or October. This will mean we can start working with more text and improvisation, as well as starting to explore relationships (what are the specifics of this relationship and how do I connect to them through my own imagination?) and elements of characterisation. We will continue to use elements of the repetition exercise, emotional preparation and doors and activities to work our way through these new elements of the technique. Again, let me know if you’re interested and your time and day preferences so I can start planning.
What the ten-week foundation courses cover
For anyone still considering whether to join a ten-week course, here is a short summary of what we do. We start by working through the repetition exercises, move on to doors and activities, emotional preparation and finally scene work. We will also look at line-learning techniques that keep you open to your scene partners and your own impulses. We will focus on always working from a place of truth (really doing) and physical and vocal embodiment. At the end of the course, you will have covered the basics of Meisner technique. After that, you will be able to join an advanced class or drop-in classes. I can also recommend other programmes to you if you wish.
Each session will start with a simple physical warm-up. I will explain the ideas behind the work and you’ll have plenty of time during each class to practice the exercises, as well as to observe the other participants. I also very much encourage practice between sessions with your fellow actors.
Any questions, comments or feedback, just get in touch!
I am starting a series of workshops called Meisner &… on Saturday 3rd June. This is a series of one-off workshops, usually on Saturdays, exploring Meisner in combination with some other theatre practice. I will work with experts in their field but the focus of the workshops will always be to see how we can apply the pillars of Meisner work – authenticity, improvisation and imagination – to other theatre practices. For this reason, you must have done a Meisner course with me or Meisner training with another teacher to be able to join these workshops.
Meisner & Mask workshop with Grainne Delaney
The first workshop will be Meisner & Mask with me and Grainne Delaney on Saturday 3rd June. To sign up, please click here. It will be held in the wooden room at Tugelaweg 85 and run from 10am to 1pm. Payment is by donation on the day of the workshop.
In this workshop, we will explore how we can bring what we are learning through the Meisner exercises – authenticity, working off each other unanticipated moment to moment, connection to ourselves and our imaginations – and bring that into contact with Mask work, which gives us the freedom to explore the non-verbal, embodied and often unexpressed sides of ourselves.
Short introduction to Mask by Grainne Delaney
Mask has always been seen as a magical medium: a way of embodying qualities, elements, characteristics and transformative Journeying to other worlds. The Mask provides a strong, multi-sensory memory, linked to a unique personal investment in a challenging physical experience.
Working with mask is about following physical impulses rather than rational thoughts. And using the body to show feelings and express emotions rather than words.
When we choose to work with mask we are engaging our whole(istic) sensory system. The Mask is a tangible object, a thing to be held, The Mask is a visible image to be explored, observed and described, The Mask is an Archetype and a pattern of behaviour that is to be embodied, it has a kinaesthetic posture, movement rhythm and a voice quality.
In this workshop we learn how to ‘read’ a mask and embody a quality, form or direction. We will work with silence, stillness and scaling to create dynamic interaction. We will play and tell stories. We will step into another physical behaviour, and in doing so, we will learn more about ourselves.
Grainne Delaney has a Master’s background in Psychology & Theatre. She uses it to teach communication, pitching and storytelling to corporate beings, and mask, movement, and the Physicality of Voice, (an integration workshop) to Dancers at the Theatre School, Amsterdam.
It’s such a joy to see people doing the repetition exercise and discovering how a seemingly banal observation can bring out all sorts of reactions in the other person if that person is truly listening and taking it personally. Meisner spoke a lot about taking things personally. In real life, if someone says something that hurts us and we don’t have a very close relationship with them (and sometimes even or especially if we do) we brush it off or pretend it didn’t affect us. We don’t call it out and stand up for ourselves because we’re afraid of conflict and we’re afraid that it will cause us more pain if we really let the hurtful words in.
In acting, we have to learn to take things personally otherwise we won’t ever come alive. Learning to do this is a whole journey and it’s a huge part of what we learn when we first start to do the Meisner exercises. It’s fascinating to see people’s defence mechanisms when they begin, the little tricks they sew together into a full suit of armour: The nervous laughter, the ironic replies and the fake bravado. When you fully commit to the exercises, that armour will start to fall off, bit by bit, leaving you vulnerable and open to your fellow actors and to the power of your own imagination.
Of course, our egos wouldn’t survive the real world without some armour but many adult actors have picked up so much that they struggle to relate to another person unless they can do it through the foil of a character. Meisner exercises teach us to deal with ourselves first. We cannot learn to play characters freely, with access to the whole range of human emotions, if we don’t allow ourselves to experience them first. So many people have said to me “I could never be an actor because I’m no good at hiding my feelings” and yet that is precisely what we need in our actors. Acting is revealing not concealing.
Cultural context also plays a role here. Most adults I know, and I come from the UK, where people are known to have stiff upper lips and an abrasive and self-deprecating sense of humour, are taught that showing emotion in public is simply not done. (Of course, I am also 475 and younger generations are definitely more emotionally open.)
So what does taking things personally look like? It means that when someone says something to you in an exercise, you take it as you would if someone really close to you had said it. To give an example, in the course of the repetition exercise one student tells another she is “arrogant”. She is clearly upset by this – we can all see this immediately from her behaviour – but both students then brush it away and the moment is lost. If they acknowledge the fact that one of them has hurt the other, the connection between them will change into another moment and another and another. Imagine if a colleague at work whom you don’t know well calls you arrogant in the course of a meeting. You will probably become defensive or embarrassed and try to walk away as quickly as possible. That evening at home, you might rage about it to a close friend, turn it into a funny story ridiculing your colleague or burst into tears. Either way, you will have some sort of reaction that you only release when it is safe to do so. If however, a family member or very close friend calls you arrogant, you may very well find your reaction comes swiftly and fully. Taking it personally simply means taking it as you would if the person opposite you has great emotional significance to you. The beauty of this is that once you accept that magic “as if”, it will become true. Our fellow players are genuinely the most significant people to us in the moments we are connecting with them.
Other thoughts that have come up in my classes recently include how important it is to tell actors when they are getting it right. I remember one play in which I got incredibly hung up on not feeling ready to burst into tears at the moment I was meant to. The irony was that every time I got to this point in the play, I was feeling absolutely miserable – which was exactly what I was supposed to be feeling. But instead of just allowing that to be, I would go up into my head and tell myself that the reason I was miserable was that I was a terrible actor, instead of recognising that the emotions came from the imaginary circumstances and staying with them. Unfortunately, in that case the director wasn’t able to help me with this. Meisner student and American playwright David Mamet talks about exactly this in his wonderful book True and False. It is very instructive to recognise that when you feel frustrated or hurt or hyper during rehearsals or film shoots that those emotions are almost certainly coming from connection to the material you are working on. We are very suggestible as actors but we are also very self-critical, which stops us from just allowing ourselves to be.
Another observation from teaching my workshop in Berlin last week (of which more in another post) is that the energy of a person who is hiding their emotions can have a very negative effect on the rest of the group. Feeling sad or angry when you come in to class isn’t the issue. These emotions have a tangible effect on our behaviour and as long as we acknowledge them, they can also change. Hiding our emotions however takes a lot of energy so that there is no energy left to be open to others and change. At the start of all my classes and rehearsals, we always sit in a circle and have a moment to share how we feel in that moment. Sometimes we comment on each other’s contributions but mostly we just listen. It’s Very Therapy. I keep expecting someone to rebel but so far everyone has always leaned into it, although some people find it harder than others. Still, even those people get into it eventually. It’s a simple way to figure out what you’re feeling so you can get on with what you’re doing and not constantly be in your head trying to deal with it or stop it from getting out in a Don’t Mention The War sort of way.
I also did a spoof voiceover for Fossielvrij Kultur, a wonderful group that stages performance art or artivism to get art institutions to stop accepting sponsorship from fossil fuel companies like BP and Shell or the big banks that bankroll them (looking at you, HSBC, Barclays and ING). It was one of the most satisfying voice-over jobs I’ve done for a while as I was able to bring my voice work and activism together. (In the absence of a Meisner actor to call bullshit on “my activism” I will have to do it myself and point out that it has been far too long since I joined my XR crew on the streets. I intend to correct this at the first opportunity.)
Tonight I will be working on my devised project again with one of my acting groups before our show next week. We are absolutely 100 percent not ready and have no idea what will happen. And so it must be.
Here are some photos of the wonderful Joanna Lucas and Anna Anning stalking each other emotionally.
I am a very lucky person. I am privileged to witness the moments when souls come out of hiding. The moment when a soul stops stuffing itself down into a small corner of a body, hoping it will be safe there, hoping it won’t be heard, hoping it won’t be seen. Because a seen soul is vulnerable. A heard soul can be hurt. A speaking soul can have its words held against it. But such a soul can also connect, inspire, touch, love, think and give strength to others.
In class after class, I have witnessed the moment when the lights come on in a person’s eyes, when their heart engages, when their mind fills with hope and love and connection. And the ability and need to do all this was present when they entered the room, this ability and need were why they entered the room – but they didn’t know for sure if it would be safe to let their souls out into the open. They hoped for this moment, they had an instinct that this would be the right place to release their souls, to let them go fluttering out into the big, wide world, but they weren’t sure. And then, suddenly, there it is! The moment when they let go, when all their defences go down and there they are, all of them, in the middle of the room.
Of course, I know there are many of these moments in a person’s life and I don’t mean to suggest that an acting class is the only place where you can experience connection. But obviously in my life right now, when I am teaching three times a week and taking a class at least once a week, this is the space I am in.
An idea that has taken hold in me is that humanity is going to die at its most enlightened moment. It has seemed to me for a few years now that people are communicating and connecting as never before and yet the powers that be – and will be for some time yet – have no interest in the changes of which we speak and attempt. Italian political theorist and politician Antonio Gramsci wrote around 1930 that “the crisis precisely consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Perhaps this belief of mine – that we will die at our most noble hour – is just such a morbid symptom. Essentially, the climate and biodiversity crisis will force a collision between our hard-won humanity and the cumulative sins of our shared past and I worry that humanity will not survive. This idea took hold of me in 2017, as I became seriously aware of the terrible danger to our planet and all the creatures on it. When you parent young children, you become more alive to the life and suffering of everything else. I was living in Berlin with my husband and two young children at the time. Brexit and Trump’s election not long after made it crystal clear to me that world leaders were not focussed on solving the danger our world is in. When I got back to Amsterdam, the Extinction Rebellion movement was just taking off in the UK and then in the Netherlands. I joined the first XR meeting in den Haag and was suddenly surrounded by people who felt the same as I did; people who were often extremely skilled at connecting and loving. Since then, I have met so many people, many of them young, who know the tragedies we face and yet maintain the courage to fight for a better world.
During a recent trip to London to visit family, I walked into a bookshop and was struck by the titles on display. So many writers now are engaged in making sense of the world in an effort to make it a better, fairer place. And when I talk to people from different walks of life, it seems to me that, since Covid struck, more of us than ever want to connect despite the increasing polarisation and alienation with which modern life, or more specifically our capitalist masters, tempt us. But still a voice inside of me whispers: the sins of our fathers will be visited on us.
Yet despite the bleakness of this vision, I draw strength from watching souls take flight. Over the next few weeks, I am devising a piece with a group of actors that explores our need to connect and to become our whole selves with one another. (And of course I’m trying to sneak in my morbid idea that human life will shuffle off its mortal coil at its most enlightened moment. I think they might not let me though …) Watching them come together with all their unique experiences and abilities and learning to speak as one is very powerful.
At the same time, I continue to give Meisner classes and watch the interactions between the students, learning to use my words to help them get to that truthful place. I met a Danish student at the University of Amsterdam the other day who asked me what it was I was teaching. When I explained it to her she said, “So you’re teaching people to apply their humanity.” I don’t know if I can live up to that explanation but I’d like to try.
On Tuesday, I gave my first Meisner class in Amsterdam. It was all the things I had wished it would be but didn’t dare to expect. The actors connected, committed and, each in their own time, “got” the power of Meisner. However many times I see these moments, they surprise and fill me with excitement and gratitude.
The class was a free trial class for actors who wanted to see what it was all about; some of them had experience of the technique and some, none at all. We sat in the kitchen of the little studio we’re working in and got to know each before discussing the technique and how it works.
I am learning that while “acting is doing” it is vital that you sit down and talk about how Meisner defined acting – “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” – and what that actually means in practice so that students know what they are going for and how to recognise it when it happens. I have been in classes where you just start doing the repetition exercise with no real understanding of its aim and purpose and that is a recipe for boredom, over-acting and inauthenticity – all the things that Meisner technique seeks to overcome.
In other words, as a teacher, it’s my job to set students up for greatness. The aim of all Meisner exercises is simple: it is to really do, to really listen, to really observe and to really respond, but this can be explained in surprisingly obscure ways. And as Meisner said, if you don’t understand what your teacher is saying, they don’t either.
It was a varied group of actors, at different stages of their careers and from different parts of the world, but all with one thing in common: they wanted to experience the parts of themselves they don’t usually allow out in the open. They wanted to catch themself unawares, to throw out their socialisations and give free rein to their full selves, even the ugly bits they stuff behind the sofa when friends come to visit. And they did. All of them had their moments, all of them had an “aha!” moment when they surprised not just their scene partners, but themselves.
Scott Trost, my teacher at the Meisner Institute in LA, tells us that our job as teachers is to give our students “a truthful moment, a North Star by which to guide themselves.” That’s what my first teacher, Steven Ditmyer, gave me in my classes with him and I hope to be able to pass this on. It takes time to learn to be open and available from the first moment, to let your defences down and really take the other person in, all the time, but when you’ve experienced it even once, you know you want to keep trying.
Meisner said that what you do doesn’t depend on you, it depends on the other guy. To demonstrate this, he would tell an actor to learn the line “Mr Meisner” and would get them to repeat it a couple of times. Then he would approach the actor and pinch them, hard, and they would squeal or shout out “Mr Meisner!”
Years before Meisner began teaching, Anton Chekhov, one of my all-time heroes, once told Stanislavsky “Your actors ‘play’ well, but it still feels like they know what’s going to happen ahead of time.”Now that’s a pinch to ouch to! Essentially, that translates as, they’re good at saying the lines but I don’t believe them. Not what any actor wants to hear. Meisner training aims, above all, to teach us how to be present, so that we have no more idea about what will happen next than anyone in the audience.
I have written before about the inner critic and how we must learn to set him or her aside while we’re practising and performing so that we are free to follow our impulses wherever they take us. But I am coming to understand that the inner critic can be a wonderful guide if you learn to do the opposite of what she says. For example, if you notice something about your scene partner and your inner critic immediately jumps in with “you can’t say that!”, then that’s exactly what you must say. The inner critic’s fear is almost always justified: the thing you’ve noticed is going to get a reaction. During the class, there was a student who had something in his teeth which I noticed as soon as he stood up to do the repetition exercise. It was his first experience of Meisner. He had just done one round with another actor and had fallen into the usual (and essential to experience) traps of doing too much and not letting the other person in. His new scene partner, an actress with experience of the technique, started straight off with “you’ve got something in your teeth”. His reaction was real and immediate – an instinctive embarrassed covering of his mouth as he awkwardly repeated the line. We all laughed. Not because he had something in his teeth but because we all related to his reaction. Shakespeare? No. Real, spontaneous response? Yes. So, whether you think of it as putting the inner critic out of your head or whether you decide to keep her in there and take her advice in the spirit of reverse psychology, it is to the benefit of you and all your fellow actors to acknowledge her existence.
A massive shout-out to my lovely, talented student and now-assistant Başak Özen who arrived in the Netherlands two weeks ago, stepped straight into my intermediate acting class and afterwards told me she could help me with my social media posts and taking photos. I am hopeless at this. For example, I asked her to take photos during the first Meisner class, which she is also taking part in. We asked everyone for permission, it was duly given and then I basically said to Başak, let’s just focus on the class. So now I have no pictures to show you, except of the empty space … But as Peter Brook wrote “emptiness [is] a starting point, not for its own sake, but to help to discover each time what [is] really essential to support the richness of the actor’s words and presence.”
In any case, I don’t regret it. I put all my attention on my students and my students were worth every moment of it. Next week, I will be giving another “first” class with another group of students. I will try to give them the same guidance as I gave the first group – and they will receive it in their own, unique and unpredictable ways.
The empty space, aka the AnaMorphic Studio waiting to be filled with a thousand impulses!
The taster classes are there to give potential students an idea of what the Meisner foundation course will be like but also so I can see what kind of people I will be working with. All sorts of fascinating things happened in my last two taster classes. They were both very small and extremely dynamic…
Although I am not an ancient Greek, just ancient, I take the commandment to “know thyself” seriously. It was allegedly one of the three aphorisms on the temple at Delphi and whatever those oracles were smoking, it was obviously giving them some wise highs. Watching my students doing the Meisner exercises, I have come to…
I’m doing a taster class tomorrow evening at Tugelaweg 85 and there are still two places left. You must do a taster class if you want to join any of the courses so even if you don’t join the next course, it’s worth doing so you can jump into the next convenient one. Just click here if you…
I am starting a series of workshops called Meisner & … on Saturday 3rd June. This is a series of one-off workshops, usually on Saturdays, exploring Meisner in combination with some other theatre practice. I will work with experts in their field but the focus of the workshops will always be to see how we can apply…
It’s such a joy to see people doing the repetition exercise and discovering how a seemingly banal observation can bring out all sorts of reactions in the other person if that person is truly listening and taking it personally. Meisner spoke a lot about taking things personally. In real life, if someone says something that…
I am a very lucky person. I am privileged to witness the moments when souls come out of hiding. The moment when a soul stops stuffing itself down into a small corner of a body, hoping it will be safe there, hoping it won’t be heard, hoping it won’t be seen. Because a seen soul…
Creativity is a cat that curls up at my feet when I’m in bed at night. She sleeps so sweetly, keeping me company in my dreams and assuring me that in the morning, my mojo will still be there. Then, suddenly, just as I’ve fallen into a delicious dream, she jumps all over me and wakes me up, miaowing and hissing and scratching at my face. Why didn’t you make it funnier?! That title was rubbish. NO ONE’S going to read your stupid stuff! What you really should do is this, come … And then off she goes, pulling me by the scruff of my neck into stinky alleyways, up rickety rooftops and down damp drain-pipes, in search I have no idea what, for hours and hours, until finally she drops me off back in bed, utterly exhausted but vaguely searching for a pencil and paper before I mercifully fall back to sleep. And in the morning, my face drawn in shadows and lines by a sleepless night and when I could really do with a cuddle, she’s gone.
Kitty in bed. Reproduced by kind permission of Elizabeth Rubin.
Last night I started teaching acting classes to adults again. Often, my students are people who want to get some experience in presenting skills and to gain confidence speaking in English, but a lot of them also want to feel the spark of creativity and playfulness they lost somewhere in adulthood, as well as the joy of connecting to other people in a real, rather than virtual, room. (Some of them also secretly or not-so-secretly hope to become actors, to which I say amen! The more actors and artists the world has, the better it will be.)
Lots of things came up. My kids and I had all had ‘flu the week before and I was still feeling very low energy, which I told these fifteen strangers when we sat in our introduction circle. But very soon, I forgot all about my low energy because I was filled with the energy of all the hopeful people in the room. Before long, we were leaping around and being silly and I was definitely leaping and sillying just as much as everyone else. For a while, I used to deny that I was an extrovert, even to my family, who have obviously known me since childhood. But for the last ten years I really believed I wasn’t. I thought I was maybe an ambivert – a bit of both or possibly an ambivalent pervert – but since I started teaching, I realise I am definitely an extrovert, and possibly even an extraextrovert. One of the ways to tell if you’re an introvert or extravert is whether you feel drained or energised by being with other people. Of course, the trouble with this definition is that it doesn’t define the “other people”. Because there are definitely people who leave me feeling drained … But a roomful of strangers that I am there to connect with? That’s my happy place.
When people introduced themselves in the circle, I noticed that hardly anyone said what it was that they “do” as their day job. And that that was wonderful. They were all there to explore their other identities, so it made sense to come in as all their selves and not as the one, corporate or official version.
I have so often struggled with the answer to the question “what do you do?” and nearly always babble through whatever projects I am working on at the time, ending with some feeble joke about how I need to improve my narrative structure or pitch. I now realise that I had also been intimidated by the label of “actor” and was increasingly uncomfortable with using it. For one thing, a lot of people assume that actors want to be the centre of attention all the time. Of course, this is true of some, but a great many brilliant actors are introverts while many others are social and out-going but not desperate to be at the centre of everything all the time. When I was younger and used to tell people I was an actor, they’d often put on that big, hammy ‘actor’s’ voice and ask me stupid questions like “What have I seen you in?” (to which the only appropriate answer is, bog off.) I thought that actors were supposed to be comfortable with being on display and that you had to be a whole lot of other things, which I didn’t feel I was, to call yourself an actor. (I also discovered much later that I am dyspraxic, but that’s for another post.) I ended up pursuing acting in a way that wasn’t whole-hearted but apologetic and unfocussed. I felt that real actors can ONLY want to be actors – and nothing else. I now recognise that a core feature of actors is their endless curiosity. The kids who try on a thousand careers in their imagination are often going to be the ones who end up pursuing some kind of artistic endeavour when they grow older.
I love acting, obviously. But I also love a whole lot of other things, like writing and comedy and salt and vinegar crisps, and one of the things I especially love is to support other people in doing their thing. Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like not to get that support – and how transformational it can be when you do; when someone sees you and what you’re trying to do and helps you do it.
Some clever woman, whose name I don’t know, told Oprah that the way you can tell if you are on the right path is if you don’t feel like you are betraying yourself. And when I teach, I feel like I’m being true to the real me. I often tell my students about the root of the word authentic. It’s descended from the Greek authentikos “original, genuine,” which comes from authentes “one acting on one’s own authority,” from autos “self” and hentes “doer, being”. For me, authentic means “giving oneself permission to be” or perhaps “permission to be all your different beings”.
We are complicated and we do not always fit into the labels we are given or give ourselves. If I had to choose a label that sums up all the things I have ever wanted to do and now spend my time doing, I would say I am a communicator. But the reality is, no human being can fit into one word and nor should they try. One of the more positive developments of the 21st century is that many people are now starting to recognise that.
Many of the students I have taught have blossomed just by giving themselves this permission to be all the things they are: the good, the bad and the ugly. In the clip below, Meisner alumnus, actor and teacher, Jim Jarrett talks about how freeing it is to be able to embrace our whole selves and quotes Sandy as saying, “the seed of every character you will play is already inside you.” This for me is the starting point. Know that you have multitudes inside you and that, as an actor, you must throw off the socially acceptable versions of you and allow the multitudes out to play.
On Tuesday, I gave my first Meisner class in Amsterdam. It was all the things I had wished it would be but didn’t dare to expect. The actors connected, committed and, each in their own time, “got” the power of Meisner. However many times I see these moments, they surprise and fill me with excitement…
Creativity is a cat that curls up at my feet when I’m in bed at night. She sleeps so sweetly, keeping me company in my dreams and assuring me that in the morning, my mojo will still be there. Then, suddenly, just as I’ve fallen into a delicious dream, she jumps all over me and…
If you read about Stanislavsky, you will soon come across Glikeriya Nikolaevna Fedotova, a great actress whom he studied under at the Maly Theatre and who advised him to “look your partner straight in the eyes, read his thoughts in his eyes, and reply to him in accordance with the expression of his eyes and…
Last night I started teaching acting classes to adults again. Often, my students are people who want to get some experience in presenting skills and to gain confidence speaking in English, but a lot of them also want to feel the spark of creativity and playfulness they lost somewhere in adulthood, as well as the…
If you read about Stanislavsky, you will soon come across Glikeriya Nikolaevna Fedotova, a great actress whom he studied under at the Maly Theatre and who advised him to “look your partner straight in the eyes, read his thoughts in his eyes, and reply to him in accordance with the expression of his eyes and face.” Sound familiar? Behind every great man …
Meisner said many things about what acting is – and what it isn’t – but the grounding ones for me, whether I’m teaching Meisner or any other form of acting, are “acting is really doing” and “acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The simplest form of “really doing” is to really listen to your scene partner(s) and really respond to what you’re getting. Everything flows from that. Once you are immersed in the reality of what your scene partner is giving you, you will start to live moment to moment. And that’s a wonderful feeling – it’s what we live for as actors. But a lot of us get lost again when we transition from the rehearsal space to the performance space, whether that’s in front of a camera or on stage. That connection to our fellow actors, to the text, to the space and to ourselves gets drowned out in the demands of the inner critic to get it right.
The inner critic is an essential character in everyone’s internal drama and we all need one. But let’s face it, sometimes she gets a little too loud and self-important and you need to tell her to sit down, put her feet up and have a nice cuppa while you go and get on with whatever it is you need to do. The inner critic is very good at her job, which is to keep constant tabs on you so you can learn from your mistakes. She’s the original error-messenger. Unfortunately, she also makes you tense up and become self-conscious and therefore unable to respond to whatever is going on outside you. Not good for people whose work requires them to be in the moment.
When you’re performing you need to be completely available to what’s happening in the moment. So, if the scenery topples down on you, you will respond to that or if your fellow actor in a scene is much more distressed than he was in rehearsal, you pick up on it and respond in whatever way you do. Because you are really listening, because you are really connected, because you are really picking up the chair that’s fallen over – and you are doing all of this under the imaginary circumstances of the text and the staging that have real meaning to you because you have put the real work in.
So, how do we put the inner critic on standby mode? I think the honest answer is, with years of practice. But there are a few things you can do straight away. First, you can give your inner critic a name and call it by that (mine’s Nosy Nag.) In other words, you can make your inner critic real and therefore separable to you. You can talk to it and tell it, politely but firmly, that it needs to let you make mistakes. And it needs to let you be silly and loud and rude and crude and angry and snotty and vulnerable and right and wrong and fucking fabulous in public because you can be all those things and more and you have to be all those things and more if you want to be an actor. And the thing that makes you behave in all these wonderful ways are not years of training or reading books but impulses. Those same things that years of socialisation have taught you to be wary of and often completely ignore because they’ll get you intro trouble. Well, as an actor you need to be in trouble, because in acting trouble is beautiful, trouble is life.
So, how do we learn to throw off the shackles of socialisation and say YES AND! to our impulses? How do we learn to consciously relax when we perform so that we can be open to the moment and our scene partners? First off, we need to recognise that the goal here is not to eliminate our feelings of nervousness. Being nervous is a sign that your mind knows what you are about to do and is preparing you by putting you into a state of heightened awareness. But we also need to be able to accept that awareness and make it work for us rather than being overwhelmed by it. If you allow it, the inner critic will hijack this moment and make it all about her. But once you learn to put her out of your mind, you can become present with all the things that are going on outside of you and your body will become energised.
One of the best ways to learn to open up or leave yourself alone is by taking an improvisation class. The first thing you learn in improv is how to put your focus on the other person. You can’t hide behind learned lines and moves because there aren’t any. You have to learn to work off whatever you’re getting from the other person and trust that that’s enough. (As Sandy said, “acting is reacting”.) And if you’re in it for the laughs, you will learn very fast that the quickest route to funny is to shoot straight from the gut. And boy does it take guts to stand there and have no idea what you’re going to say next! But once you’ve learned it, you’ll never want to stop. Suddenly, there’s no end to what you can come up because you don’t have to come up with anything – it’s just there when it needs to be.
When we work with text the Meisner way, we learn to memorise our lines without any intention so that each time we play the scene we’re working off whatever our scene partners give us in the moment. We are in fact improvising our responses even though our lines never change.
Impulses or instincts are often seen as an inferior relation to craft and knowledge. Of course, you need both but without our impulses all the craft or knowledge in the world won’t help us. Think about a young tennis player. Maybe the first time she ever plays, she’s immediately hitting some balls right on target, even though she’s never done it before. So she gets excited and learns some skills. And, weirdly, her game will probably get a little worse at first. Suddenly, she’s in her head, trying to use her new knowledge to get it right. But all the stuff that was getting her to hit the ball in the first place is going on at a much faster level than she can control. Her grey matter is calculating distance and speed and angle far faster than her conscious mind can and sending the messages straight to her body. There’s no time to give her conscious mind a call to update her about these technical details – there’s a ball coming at her! So when she interferes with that process, she slows it down and misses the ball. Of course, she can work on, and later, control some things. Like her consistency, serve and backhand. But the other stuff, she needs to leave alone. (And that will also improve as her brain gathers more experience.)* At a certain point, her craft and her impulses (read: her grey matter doing its amazing computational magic!) will work together to produce a Wimbledon-winning tennis player. But that takes time. For now, she needs to hone her backhand and leave her impulses alone.
As actors, we face the same dilemma. Often, actors who are starting out are very alive to their impulses because they don’t have much else. Then they learn new skills and may well experience that same feeling of getting worse before getting better. Our bodies need to integrate the conscious knowledge we are learning (our craft) with the impulses we already have. Instead of trying to replace our impulses with our new-learned skills, we must learn to let them be and allow our craft to give them a bigger, firmer platform on which to stand. We do the work (the line learning, the movement work, the voice work etc) and then we trust that in the moment we will have everything we need to do our best work. Meisner called this process of trusting our impulses “getting out of your own way” and would tell actors to “leave themselves alone”. In other words, you need to allow yourself to be open and vulnerable and that means telling the inner critic to get on that sofa while you do the work.
Meisner technique is first and foremost a way to learn to scrape away years of socialisation and the voice of the inner critic to leave you, open, vulnerable, shiny you, available to your own impulses and those of the people around you.
There’s a brilliant and very skilled improv poet and creativity coach here in Amsterdam, Margo van de Linde. I watched her once in a crowded café, conjuring a poem seemingly out of thin air (and yes, it rhymed). It wasn’t thin air though – it was packed with the expectation, excitement and energy of all of us watching and that’s what she was working off. Margo learned the hard way that to pay attention to the inner critic rather than following your impulses ultimately silences your impulses. Thankfully for us, she found a way to reverse that process, which you can read about here.
David Mamet in his short and brilliant book True and False has this mantra “invent nothing, deny nothing and stay out of education”. That’s Meisner, distilled. You don’t need to try to be funny or clever or tell us your credentials if you’re really paying attention to what’s going on. And there’s always something going on, even if it’s that your scene partner is dead behind the eyes.
For those of you interested in learning more about the concept of getting out of your own way, here’s an article and video from the Maggie Flanagan studio in New York.
*Please do not ask me any questions about how to actually play tennis. I suck.
Welcome to my world! Two-step authentication Last night I started teaching acting classes to adults again. Often, my students are people who want to get some experience in presenting skills and to gain confidence speaking in English, but a lot of them also want to feel the spark of creativity and playfulness they lost somewhere…
Weekly Meisner classes in Amsterdam offer actors a chance to discover and practice a technique that unlocks authentic and spontaneous performances. About me Meisner classes Booking form Testimonials Contact me Blog Meisner & … workshops