Meisner's sin. (*updated )
If you’ve read the article already and want just to read the update, please go toward the end search for “update”
The article's title is uhm..strange?!… Nevertheless, I want to be honest….I do not care; What is the reason behind my indifference?
Well, first and foremost, "fuck polite" (hey, Sandy said it.)
I am half joking; the reason behind my indifference is that:
I care more about acting than I do about any specific technique. I care more about the individual actor than any legacy or being a purist.
Meisner was no purist;
Meisner was a genius who broke his rules if he felt he needed to for the actor's sake. He was obsessed with the actor as an individual.
His ideas and spirit should never be institutionalized; unfortunately, some of his so-called disciples have institutionalized the shit out of them; they are pretty close to selling merch.
It is absolutely subjective, but in my experience, purists have rarely stepped foot on stage or a set. Ok, maybe once or twice. But if they had spent enough time as actors, they would know that life as an actor does not allow you to be a fanatic.
Likewise, in my experience, again totally subjective, the best actors and teachers do not walk on the street wearing a t-shirt with "4acting baby!" written on it or yell I am a Meisner-ian actor.
Well enough with that, what is Meisner's sin?
It begins with the technique's most delicate and controversial part — that of emotional preparation and the suggested tool, that of daydreaming.
For those unfamiliar with the technique, emotional preparation is a device that allows you to come in (the scene) changed and emotionally charged (according to the given circumstances). It is only there until something changes it…aka "for the first moment."
I am oversimplifying, and I am not going to go into any detail (if you want to read more about it, read Meisner's book read, Larry Silverberg's books on the technique, or William Esper's take)
People say Meisner is the only teacher they know that gave the actor an “out” by letting them use whatever works for them, they were allowed to use anything that would get them into the required emotional state, but that is not entirely true.
Usually, this innuendo is directed toward Lee Strasberg, but Lee was the one that first said, do whatever it takes. he didn’t care; you could pull a hair out of your thigh if you had to; you Just get where you need to be.
Now the suggested tool for bringing out emotional preparation is daydreaming. Again I will not go into any details; it is not the article's goal to explain "how-to" but to shed some light on what has happened and the problem.
What is a daydream?
Well, it is not a dream (no conscious control), and It is certainly not thinking.
Instead, it is a sensorial experience, under imaginary circumstances, infused with a kernel of truth (strong personal meaning) that “might” lead you towards an emotion.
For example, let's say that the kernel of truth (what holds personal meaning for me) is my dog "Aki" I know I want to daydream something about her.
Let's suppose, or at least say, that I have decided that the story should be dramatic; my subconscious already knows how to do that.
Between your ears, you have the best editing and story-making machine in the world. So I know the theme of the story.
Now all I have to do is set the imagination horses free, and I do not hold the reins. I don't do the daydream, oh no! The daydream will do me. Not the other way around.
I am in the NOW…AND…Suddenly my phone rings (auditory) I pick up my phone I see my wifes name on it (visual) “what does she want?” I think “she is back home at this hour-did I forget something”, I slide my hand on the phone to accept the call “what?” (dialogue) I can hear her voice it is different she takes shallow breaths and she holds them just to spell out a few words…”what is it babe…?” “she…” “she ate something she is on the floor…”, “who ? Who is on the floor?” now I feel my blood rising, my hands are Sweaty, my phone feels heavy (touch)…”i think she is not breathing”… you see where I am going with this right?
By the way, did I know I would play this story in my head? No! My brain knows how to make up stories that will get me…how? Well, it's my brain…it just does.
If you noticed I was indulging or, better yet, plunging into every single sensation that came up, they guided me through the story making it real, palpable. I don't think about them; they are just there for me.
Again this is a sensorial experience IN THE MOMENT that might lead you towards an emotion! You don't aim for the emotion; you are just experiencing something!
How do you know you are daydreaming?
Daydreaming is a fantasy, something that borrows from the tank of your personal, true meaning and places it under imaginary possibilities. You never aim for the emotion itself, but you aim for the experience of the fantasy that might lead to an emotion! It is only when you finish daydreaming and realize that you were daydreaming that you are essentially doing what is being asked of you; anything else is you thinking and guiding/directing the thought.
The tool works! It is delicate, and it takes experimentation and patience. But it is healthy because it is IMAGINARY; nothing has happened. So if it works, what is the problem?
For one, teachers can only take the students up to the fountain, but they cannot do much more. They have to drink on their own. What is personal is strictly that, PERSONAL, and it stays personal...always. Every brain is individual.
So a teacher can guide them there, but then it is a set of trial and error all the way home (if they ever manage to get there). Is that the problem? Well, no, not really; they can try anything. To avoid over-intellectualizing the process, Meisner admits to his fictional students (book) that it is something they must do, but he can not tell them how.
Are there external exercises that can actually help you and me as a teacher? yes! but the purists will just dismiss them as exactly that “impurities”
Unfortunately, Meisner's tool works only for those already prone to this kind of work. Those that have been hardwired to be inspired and moved by something like that. It is idiosyncratic.
What happens if your imagination is not working that way yet? And you need some kind of help. What happens if you are more kinesthetic? What happens if you suffer from aphantasia? (inability to create mental images in one's mind voluntarily)
However, the most disappointing part is Meisner's disdain for the people who will never manage to work with this tool successfully (by no fault of their own, if I might add).
In his masterclass, we hear him talk with a negligent attitude*. He says he doesn't like to talk about it because people with talent (those he considers talented actors) can do it, shrugging it off in a "just because manner", and people with no talent will have a hard time about it.
Is this the way?
is there something missing?
Well, for starters, a more helpful mindset?! What else is Missing? Well, something Meisner and the purist regime would never admit…
Sense memory exercises
Oh boy, here we go:
The reason this tool has stayed vague and delicate is MEISNER'S refusal…
(it’s been said that if you say the word “ego” three times in a row in front of the mirror, all the great teachers of acting will appear before your eyes)
….to use anything that Strasberg had previously touched.
I am not talking about affective memory, not in its entirety…I am not talking about Emotional recall or emotional memory. I am only talking about sense Memory.
And No, sense memory will not make you more of an introvert, period.
So let's get rid of that argument from the beginning.
Like it or not, the senses are the gateway to the unconscious. Moreover, the senses, like it or not, are the true getaway to emotions.
Emotions are capricious. Even Michael Chekhov acknowledged this by talking about them more refinedly, and in a concept, he called sensations (falling, floating, balance). He asked why we try to go straight to emotions. Going for emotion is like starting from the end! The proper bath is from Sensations to feelings and then to emotions.
In his effort to avoid talking about or implementing anything that lee Strasberg said or did, Meisner has left out something imperative in his technique — training the actor's sense sensibilities(pun intended.)
It was his allergy to anything "Lee" and his intolerance to the word "memory." that got us where we are today, treating it in a "touch and go" manner;
Why should it be a hit-or-miss affair when we could have more hits and understanding right from the start?
How can anyone keep "memory" entirely outside the acting equation?
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE!
Memory is the mother of all muses.
She can not be avoided!
I am not suggesting that we should use the exercises as Lee Strasberg advised (even though, as far as sense memory goes, he is the best)
However, it would be detrimental to suggest that sense memory has no use in our work!
Even Stella Adler did not dismiss memory in its entirety;
She only dismissed emotional memory, not sense memory!
Even Uta Hagen talks about how sizzling bacon brings about emotions in her…IT MAKES SENSE (again, pun intended)
So daydreaming seems to be an excellent tool, an excellent device, but in its training, this device is missing a part. That is…training and expanding the actor's ability to travel through their senses so they can implement the tool of daydream more effectively.
Meisner's sin is a teacher's sin, that of ego, and it is ok; he was brilliant in a million other ways. It is ok, of course, if we don't keep repeating the sin.
With love and respect, always
Since I last wrote this article, I spoke with a retired professor who is deeply knowledgeable in Method and Meisner. In fact, he is a big deal. Thus, he shall remain anonymous…
In my question on Meisner's reluctance to help his students with daydreaming and sense memory, he replied:
"I was trained in Meisner, too, and most students will admit they work consciously off personal experience to make daydreaming work. Duvall even confronted Meisner's teachers with that fact.
Meisner himself said he’d teach sense memory if he had students longer as there was nothing wrong with it as it brings something real to life.
If you read him closely, he is dancing around the broad true definition of affective memory (sense and emotional memory) all over the place and his use of the Group's technique of "particularization" uses personal references directly (a Lee term/process).
Sadly, Meisner was too influenced by his Freudian therapy, reducing everything emotional to ambition (aggression) and sexual motivation. Strasberg rejected Freud's reductive analysis of the unconscious while accepting the basic notion of an unconscious. He was far more influenced by the behaviourist school like the Russians and followed the emerging neuroscience in his later years. Meisner was himself defined by anger and sex. He was a furious man dealing with a rejection of his sexuality for most of his adult life.
Naturally, Freud's reductive notions of human motivation fit him perfectly. Those formative emotional memories were boiling in him, so a Stanislavskian/Vakhtangov "as if" (all daydreaming is) of the present tense, active, analogous, fully imagined as happening circumstances easily dipped into Meisner's subconscious affective memory (sense and emotional memory) for its always necessary living emotional roots. Just another more indirect way to tap affective memory (sense and emotional memory).
Maybe Meisner couldn't quite grasp this, or maybe he did and played semantics. He, like all of them, only means the emotional memory exercise when he says affective memory, so maybe he never grasped the big physiological picture.
His tools work, but their biological explanations are either incomplete or wrong. Sadly, his students were not in the Group, so they do not have Meisner's unstated breadth of influence. Also, Meisner's structuring of improvisations as the steps in actor training essentially mirrors Lee's rehearsal process in the Group, something no one realizes.
Repetition is a late add-on for Meisner, only starting in 1958–1959 (I've read the original experiments with it at Fox Studio in the late '50s). But the improvisation steps in his training long pre-date Repetition.
One last addition to the article
A thrilling and mesmerizing “listen” by the Amazing Wynn Handman, a talk about Meisner before his implementation of the repetition exercise. So here is a link to a podcast. Listen to the voice of one of the greats that left us during the days of the pandemic.