In addition to teaching acting at the Maggie Flanigan Studio, I do a lot of work as an on set coach. I am often hired by comedians, or personalities who have been cast in a film or television show, and have little to no professional actor training. Inevitably, the director’s request is this: “I want to see that he/she can listen and not do too much.” It sounds so simple, and yet the ability to truly have the attention off yourself, and listen from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment is extraordinarily difficult, and practically impossible if you are untrained. This requires an actor to be spontaneous, grounded, simple, and responding continually from an uncensored, unguarded place. This is the spontaneous response that the Meisner Technique instills fundamentally in first year training.
When I was a young actress, in my teens, I was very taken with Constantin Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares. I especially loved the chapter on what he called “Communion”. He wrote: “If actors really mean to hold the attention of a large audience they must make every effort to maintain an uninterrupted exchange of feelings, thought and actions among themselves, and the inner material for this exchange should be sufficiently interesting to hold spectators.” Stanislavski’s descriptions sounded beautiful and mystical. I had little idea of how to do what he was describing until I found the Meisner Technique.
Sanford Meisner was, influenced by Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre. The Meisner training is a building block technique, which starts with a simple repetition exercise and evolves over the nine months of the first year into an incredible sophisticated improvisational exercise. In the beginning, all attention goes to listening to one’s partner, repeating the words said but always from a personal point of view. Actors are taught to embrace the principle “I don’t do or say anything until my partner makes me do it.” As the actor’s instrument develops, she/he can listen from a place of heightened sensitivity and spontaneous responsiveness. Once the student actors reach a point in the work where they understand how to respond personally, from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment, the repetition is removed.
A student recently told me a story about going home to his hometown from the first time after having begun his training. He said after having trained for a year and learning to read behavior more skillfully, he was hearing differently. He was hearing and seeing what people were saying and more than that, he was aware of having stronger points of view about what he heard. When we talk about “listening” we are not talking about passive listening. We are talking about listening with the whole of your being and having the courage to respond from your truth. Before an actor can even begin to learn to listen from a character’s point of view, he first must understand what it means to respond from himself. Learning to listen in the way an actor needs to takes rigorous practice and time. It requires a particular kind of concentration, the ability to read behavior and the willingness to be as unguarded as a child. This is the mark of a well-trained Meisner trained actor.