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Approaching a Role: Experts Talk on Technique

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Script analysis. Objectives. Actions. Internalizing. Externalizing. Interpretation. Trust. Terminology that's part of every actor's vocabulary. Though the concepts are taught by acting teachers and coaches everywhere, it's the emphasis of one or more of these areas, or variations on them, which create the various approaches to the craft. There are those teachers that emphasize feeling and instinct when creating a character; others stress intellect, while some focus on body movement as relevant to the character. Whatever the differences are in approach, the common goal is to open up the actor so that he's able to respond in an honest and realistic way to what is going on around him.

Deciding on with whom you want to train is a big decision. It's important to note that there's no right way or wrong way; the Golden Rule is to find an approach that feels best for you. If one approach seems to "fit" more comfortably than another experience you've tried, then that's the route you should follow. As one actress we recently interviewed stated, "You are your biggest resource."

I had the experience of hearing five different points of view on acting approaches from some of the top-acting teachers in New York. They were members of a panel that I produced for the National Theatre Conference's annual meeting this past December. I mentioned the panel in my column at the time (Dec. 8, 2000), and noted that I would follow up with more specifics. The panelists included Robert Bella, a founding member of the Atlantic Theatre Company and executive director of its acting school; William Esper, head of his own studio in New York for over 30 years, chair of Rutgers University's professional acting training program, and graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he trained with Sanford Meisner; Richard Mawe, who studied acting under Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen and is on the faculty of HB Studio; Joanna Merlin, actor, former casting director, and teacher of Michael Chekhov's principles of acting; and Terry Schreiber, director of the T. Schreiber Studio in New York, now in its 30th year. Panel moderator Jere Lee Hodgin, artistic director of Mill Mountain Playhouse in Roanoke, VA, opened up the panel by asking about the uniqueness of each teacher's approach to actor training.

"Meisner believed that acting is doing, and the basis of his work is the reality of doing. In other words, there's a difference in pretending to do something and really doing something…Meaningful acting is doing under meaningful circumstances," stated Esper, "and I think that one of the important jobs one has in training somebody is to train them to do Chekhov, O'Neill, Williams, and Shakespeare. You really don't train an actor to do Neil Simon. So, you're really looking on a long-range basis. That's harder to do here in town than it is at Rutgers because, in New York, it's more difficult to keep your hands on people long enough…We don't have the same control over the development of the actor as I have at the university."

Esper described the first phase of Meisner technique, which is working on the instrument. "Meisner developed a systematic series of improvisational exercises, which start with the repetition. A lot of people think of repetition as the basis of Sandy's work, but actually, it's a very small part of it…It's a device to force the actor into contact with the other actor, and force him to start listening. I think it's one thing to train an actor to have the intellectual understanding—the theoretical understanding—of acting, but it's another thing to ingrain certain habits that become so ingrained that the actor can't help doing things in a certain way anymore. When you get an actor to a point where he can't help listening, then you've done something for him."

Esper explained that the first part of the work is based on the principle that what you do doesn't depend upon you, it all depends on what the other guy does to you, and that creates your performance.

"That exists up until the point where you go deeply into character and into interpretive work. We know, when you get to that, that an actor's performance is not dependent on the other actor. The actor's performance is alive in the meanings that are inside of him…."

Esper then described the second phase of the work, summing up the first phase of working on the instrument as having to do with "straight" acting. "There's no character. You're the character in the imaginary world; it's your response. When you get into character as interpretation, then one must bring the actor to a place where he can alter his straight behavior to fit the demands of the particular character."

He stated that there are actors who are just straight actors, who don't do character work. And then there are actors who can't play straight, who, unless they have a character to hide behind, are never really "emotionally free."

Esper said, "To get somebody to play a version of his or her self, where the character is very different and yet the actor never loses that authentic self," is a highly accomplished feat.

Sanford Meisner touched upon two phases in his work. Esper adds a third phase, which is working on classical text and language. At Rutgers, he can spend an entire year on these issues, but can only touch upon it in his New York classes. "But I don't think that you can even begin to approach that until all the other issues have been established. I think a lot of actors get clobbered because the work that is given to them is out of sequence. If someone doesn't have a sense of truth, then throwing them into Shakespeare is not going to help them."

"My school is a combination of Strasberg and Meisner. But you could also throw into that the influence of Stella Adler and Harold Clurman—anyone from that group of people who went over to work with Stanislavsky and brought what they interpreted as his system back to America. It's interesting, because some of those people grew up with Lee Strasberg's training, and then went their own way. It's those people I've been exposed to in my own training as an actor."

Schreiber noted the importance for an actor to get grounded with a school, and with an individual teacher with whom the actor can relate, as well as with the method that's being taught. "I think that, as the student grows into a performing actor and starts working a lot, he will develop his own method of work based on what he's been exposed to with various teachers," Schreiber remarked.

The teacher mentioned three steps that the studio adheres to: relaxation, concentration, and imagination. He also realizes the importance of bodywork and vocal work. "I think one of the reasons the Brits have kind of taken our stage from us is because they move terribly well and they speak very well. I think we are duty-bound as teachers to include this as part of our training at our studios," Schreiber exclaimed. "These are key areas to look for on stage: What the body is telling and, especially, what the voice sounds like when the actor starts talking. I ask myself, 'Is this a voice that I want to listen to for two-and-a-half hours in the theatre?' "

Describing the exercise work that is done in Schreiber's class includes Strasberg's emotional recall work, his private moment work, and Meisner exercises such as the repetition exercises.

"Some of the exercise work we do is just to encourage the actor—in a very safe, non-judgmental environment—to be able to open up and let themselves happen…The exercises are wonderful working tools that an actor can put into his bag of tricks to solve problems when he's working on a play, film, or TV script."

Based on his own experience as an actor, and working with film directors who knew how to move the camera around, but nothing about working with the actors or on the set, Schreiber stresses the importance of knowing how to take a scene and break it down into objectives and actions. "Actions are vital, because acting is doing, and it's also about listening and responding."

The T. Schreiber Studio also produces a six-play season, which is cast from actors from the studio or alumni. "The plays are very important to the actors because this is the result work," Schreiber commented. "So it's not all just class. You've got to have a place to apply this. That's always what I wanted the school to be."

Joanna noted that she worked with actors who never studied the Michael Chekhov technique who came from many different disciplines, some with very little discipline, "and I found that this resonates because it's instinctive."

She explained that one of the most valuable gifts that Chekhov gave his students was "to create an atmosphere in the classroom of trust, of permission. Therefore, the actor never felt he was making a mistake, or what he did was wrong or bad…." She added, "All good teachers create that atmosphere where the student feels that he can develop, he can grow, and he can try."

Merlin has incorporated some of the Chekhov technique in her audition classes. "It came out of being a casting director and finding that good actors sometimes don't audition well. Using the Chekhov work, which is very intuitive, was a way of working quickly but very organically.

"I don't think the technique conflicts with any other system of training. I think it really can add to it and just expand the actor's imagination and his connection with his body."

"The way most teachers at HB Studios approach acting is based on Herbert's philosophy—very simply, that acting is doing. It isn't feeling, it isn't thinking, it's doing…The idea is to know what you're going to do to somebody immediately upon coming onto the stage and, whatever obstacles are out there, to try to overcome them with other actions."

Mawe recalled Berghof saying, "If you want to be a great actor, you have to learn two things: Number One, you have to learn how to act and, Number Two, you have to learn how to get a job. I only teach Number One."

Mawe noted that Berghof was very much a socialist and very much against commercial theatre. He founded the studio so that professionals could come, teach one class—whether it was voice or acting or movement—and then go back to their professional work." And this system still holds true today. Fees for classes are kept to a minimum, too, because Berghof and Hagen, stated Mawe, "were true artists that didn't want to exploit the actor, didn't want teachers there that wanted to make money from teaching, but just wanted to give back, as a service to the profession, what they knew and learned in their professional careers."

Getting back to the kind of work emphasized at the studio, Mawe explained that action work is emphasized in the scene study classes. "Certainly sensory work is included, but Herbert always felt too much of an emphasis on sensory work would tend to isolate the actor on the stage from his partner, or from others he was working with…The school," Mawe reiterated, "is based on Herbert's socialistic principles—that theatre is a very special place. It shouldn't be about selling yourself. He hated the idea of showcasing; he hated the idea of anything that would seem like you wanted to sell yourself. It's very difficult, because actors have to sell themselves in some way, but he felt he didn't want to do classes on auditions. He wanted to have classes that concentrated on making an actor 'director-proof.' You would know from your script breakdown where you wanted to go and what you wanted in that scene or act. If you knew that, you would be fine with any director."

Practical Aesthetics also, of course, gets into the nuts and bolts of acting, covering script analysis and performance technique. Admits Bella, "Some of Mamet's teachings are fairly controversial, and certainly the 'Practical Handbook' has as many fans as it has enemies. One of the philosophical differences is that we don't believe that you have to believe, as an actor, that you are the character."

Through script analysis, explains Bella, the play is distilled down to a certain number of concrete sentences or phrases. Then begins the "moment to moment" work. "The foundation of this is Meisner's repetition exercise, but we do a variation of it. It's about how we learn to place our tension on our partner and distill from them the information that we need to understand how best to move forward to obtain what our action might be."

And Bella later points out, "but there is no one technique except your technique. It's good to expose yourself to as many different approaches as you can."

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