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By Richard Poole
The 1st lesson of the Meisner Technique begins with communication. It is introduced through the repetition exercise, and its importance never goes away. All the lessons which follow — the activity work, emotional preparation, objectives, relationship, the dramatic imagination — continue to emphasize the communication between the actors, or what Sanford Meisner called the ‘contact work’. The life-blood of good acting is the interaction between the actors. It is the foundation. If we do not feel that the actors are in contact with each other, if we feel that they are talking ‘at’ each other instead of ‘to’ or ‘with’ each other, if we feel a disconnect between them, then their performance is not effective.
There is not much of a difference here than with life. Two people become close to each other through the way in which they interact. The big moments of life, the small moments, the ups and downs of a relationship, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — all of these are filtered through relationships, and relationships are built upon communication and the contact between individuals.
It is not always easy to remain in sync with the other actors in a performance. There are many places which compete for one’s attention. There is the staging and physical business, the specifics of character, the lines to remember, the props to handle, the timing in a comedy, the emotional depth to be found in a drama. An actor has to juggle a lot of balls. The layman sometimes thinks acting is all about learning the lines. Well, it is sometimes easy to simplify something from a distance. In fact, to be a good actor takes a lot of skill.
Part of the problem of maintaining good ‘contact’ comes from the over-emphasis which is sometimes placed upon the actor’s emotional life. There is no question that one important aspect of training is developing the emotional depth and range of one’s performance, but at times, it can be a substitute for an authentic connection. If we do not see actors having a genuine interaction, genuinely trying to communicate with each other, we do not become involved. Emotion can alienate an audience if it is not handled in a certain way. It can quickly become ‘hard’. By that I mean it is ‘pushed’, harsh, strident, unappealing. Real emotion, real feelings, should draw you into the fabric of the scene, but unless it is supple, fluid, ever-changing and adjusting in the moment, it alienates you. Even if an emotional response is largely limited to a single actor, for instance in a monologue or reaction shot, it still must be fluid. There is a nice example of this in The Godfather 3. It is the scene where Al Pacino’s daughter is shot on the steps of the opera house. He has an enormous, over-the-top reaction when he gathers her in his arms and she dies. Despite the strength of the passage, however, there is never a sense that he has ‘frozen’ his emotional cry of pain. It is incredibly powerful, and yet, in a remarkable way, it is also fluid. It does not assault you, and therefore, you can experience the pain without wanting to avoid it.
The repetition exercise, which was innovative when it was created and which can be an extraordinary, effective part of an actor’s early training, has at times been buried under this emphasis on emotion. We do not see two actors having a communication. We see them yelling at each other, stuck or frozen in an experience which is one-noted and predictable, and it does not feel natural. When the exercise is taught this way, it is because it is easier. It is not difficult to get two actors to yell at each other. It makes them feel ‘alive’; it makes the room feel energized. In fact, if this exercise is taught well, it can be full of nuance and subtlety. Actors are able to find an enormous range of expression from laughter to tears to humor to pathos. When the work has this variety, it is anything but frozen.
I once had a teacher, actually not from a Meisner background but from a Method background – an approach which did place a great deal of emphasis on emotionalizing – say that it was more important for an actor to be believable than to be highly charged up or fiercely emotional; and, at the end of the day, if we do not believe what we are looking at, then what is the point of looking at it.
© Richard Poole 2017