Robert Epstein
Epstein On Meieisner

eisner wanted to train actors in finding and following impulses. In life something happens to you.  That something has a meaning to you, it causes an emotional response, and that spurs you to do something about it.  An emotion that causes you to do something is an impulse. In other words it is an emotion that has made it from the inner body to the outer body.  Emotion is experienced in the viscera, action takes place through physical movement.  Some emotions may come and go without causing a noticeable physical response, but a strong impulse causes a strong, discernible action.

Meisner taught actors to behave like people, and to use their human capacities.  While this sounds simple, it is almost impossible. Why? It is impossible for the actor to forget that he is acting. So there must be a way to create relatively "natural" impulses in an unnatural situation.  Meisner contended that you could train an actor to use more and more of his human capacity through practice, just as a person's way of responding in real life is learned over a period of time. 

If one was to practice following impulses freely, the type of thought that edits and controls an actor's responses had to be bypassed.  A regular person is in  a situation and so cannot help but respond to it.  But an actor is in two situations at once:  he is on stage or in a studio or in a classroom as an actor,  and he is also a person   within the imaginary situation of the play. What is required is that he respond as the person within the situation, not as the actor within the studio or on the stage, otherwise he is self-consciously performing, not actually acting.

To get impulsive, truthful responses, Meisner chose the other person as the vehicle. In life, if you have a relationship with another person, you will deal with them ina relatively truthful way.  You won't act at them. This is a concrete situation that can be emulated on stage. Of course, both people have to make their best effort to give their honest response and bypass their sense of performing or contriving what they do.  They need to have a device by which their normal self -consciousness and inhibitions can be loosened.  They need to become more flexible and open, more able to observe, be affected and respond to what they are encountering in the other person.

To support this process, Meisner created the Repetition Exercise.  It is one of his unique contributions, and is one of the most important devices in the world of acting.  Two actors repeat a phrase which deals with what is going on between them, such as: "You seem to be nervous around me".  They will send this phrase back and forth like a ping pong ball, only each time it is sent back, it is infused with the meaning of whatever is going on between the two actors at the moment.  So the words become a flexible vehicle by which various meanings can be spontaneously expressed, and through this method two advantages come to the actor:

1. The actor keeps repeating so he neither needs to think of what to say, nor has time to think about how to behave. This promotes a more immediate response, and hopefully, eventually, gets the actor in touch with what Stanislavsky called "the source of creative impulses within", a place of constant responses and urges to action which gives an actor full access to his improvisational capacity.

2. The actor learns that the "line" he is saying is flexible, that it can be made to deliver any meaning that he is feeling or thinking at the moment.  An actor's work is often most interesting when the words he says has a layer of additional or even contrary meaning to what the words literally denote. When one says "I love you" with a touch of irritation, or when one says "I don't like you" with a little smile of flirtation, strange and interesting meanings are created. 

It is always important for the actor to have a sense of the situation in which words occur, so that the words are colored not by the dictionary, but by the situation.  Sometimes an actor can lose a sense of what a scene is about completely by too slavishly attending to the literal meanings of the words.  Meisner proposed instead that the words be used as "clues" to what the actor intends and feels at any given moment and throughout an entire scene. There is a pathway suggested by the course of the text, and through his impulses, the actor interprets and follows that pathway. In the advanced repetition, the phrase is changed from time to time, so that there are moments when the behavior of the other person is being highlighted. When the phrase is repeated, it goes back to taking on the meaning of the moment.

An actor who has learned to use a given sentence to express a variety of situational meanings through the repetition exercise will never give a "line reading" when confronted by a script. Instead, he or she will find the meaning in the context of the entire scene and play, and by playing off of the other actors and finding what kinds of relationships actually occur between them within the imaginary situation. And this is exactly what Meisner intended, an actor able to use words creatively rather than being imprisoned by them, an actor who understands words as a form of behavioral expression of a thinking, feeling human being, not one who uses words as a self-conscious way of denoting a detached verbal concept.  Words occur within a human situation and they are always colored by the emotional state, intentions and relationships within which they are expressed and used.  Meisner tried to recreate those layers of influence through the repetition exercise, and eventually more and more imaginary elements are introduced to provide a more complex environment for the exercise. The exercise grows from a basic behavioral exchange to a way of responding to a complex set of elements that are found in a fully developed scene.  

From working off of the behavior of another person and also dealing improvisationally with objects, Meisner's method advances to working in response to elements of the actor's imagination.  One learns to respond "moment to moment" to imagined events as easily as one did off of the real behavior of the other person.  At that point the actor should be able to respond impulsively to just about anything, at least that which is within his or her "range".

One learns to respond impulsively to another person, to an object, to imaginary elements and events, and to the text.    When this capacity has become fully available, then the student can move on to the more advanced areas of detailed rehearsal technique and character work.

Robert Epstein is the Program Director
and Instructor of The Complete
Meisner-Based Actor's Training in
Washington, D.C

© 2000 Robert Epstein ALL RIGHTS RESERVED      commentary



august 2000

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