THE NATURAL WAY OF ACTING
The peak experience in life is the realization that I am not the characters which I seem to be to myself or others, but simply the unfolding of life itself. The peak experience in acting is the reverse; that I AM the characters I play on stage or in front of the camera! Understanding myself and understanding the craft of acting have progressed together, some times hand in hand and some times by turns. The formal study of both is now pretty much over although the discoveries continue. Every moment is new. The mind creates naturally and spontaneously in response to the requirements of the situation. Every moment new characters are born, live a little and die.
This was not always the case. I was a very imaginative child, always in a fantasy. The harsh competition of human society was always acutely painful to me and I yearned for something more beautiful. No wonder I was drawn to art, poetry, music and theatre. I was hurt and confused inside long before I went to drama school, angry, secretive, torn between the beautiful truth, which I wanted to express and the perceived ugliness of myself and of the world.
Three years at drama school did nothing to improve the situation in fact I believe it made me worse. I was pushed directly and indirectly towards the creation of an acting persona, which masked the awful mess I felt myself to be. This divided me even further from the innocent creative child who was the true force of my creative impulses. I was expected to create a thing called a character on top of this shaky pile of pretence. No wonder that acting became increasingly stressful and dishonest. There was the odd occasion when miraculously the awful self-consciousness would collapse and the acting would effortlessly emerge but these moments were few and far between.
I was successful. I got an agent from my performance of John Proctor in ‘The Crucible’ in my final year; the last night of which was one of ‘those moments’. I got the first film I was sent up for and left drama school early, finding myself on a film set in Spain acting with famous names. It carried on that way for the next four years. The work kept coming but I was still unhappy with my acting and my life. It was (at least for me) devoid of truth and beauty and involved incredible effort. Underneath my fake self-confidence I didn’t have any clear idea of what I was doing so my work was hit and miss and always a hairs breadth away from total disintegration. I searched endlessly in acting classes, performance art, alternative life styles, travel, psychology, literature, poetry and philosophy often sinking, exhausted and disillusioned into alcoholic binges and extreme behaviour in an attempt find some spontaneous truthful expression. But, to paraphrase Bono; I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.
At the age of 24 I found myself playing the lead in a major TV mini series. After the first reading a tall, handsome American actor approached me and introduced himself. He offered his help and support. He offered to go through lines and scenes with me or to improvise. He even offered to stay out of my way if I preferred. This was an unprecedented event for me. I was used to actors being a self-centred, competitive, arrogant lot who barely learned their lines by the first night or scene and then bashed through on sheer bravado and old tricks. Rarely was the craft of acting discussed let alone openly practiced unless absolutely necessary. I was overwhelmed and agreed instantly to improvise; although I had no idea what that meant. It wasn’t long before I realised I was in the presence, finally of someone who really knew something about the craft of acting and was willing to share it. My new friend was enthusiastic about acting in a way I had never before encountered. He was able to understand and explain a scene instantly with absolute simple clarity. He seemed to be able to enter effortlessly any emotional state he chose and leave it behind equally quickly. He was the only screen actor who I have seen do his own (very extensive) make up and have it checked by the make up department. He would transform voice and body and return to himself in the blink of an eye. He seemed to be able to accommodate any direction and anything another actor did without compromising the truth of his performance. He was a joy to work with. I quickly realised that in any scene I did with him I would feel real; the way he interacted with me emotionalised me and drew a truthful response from me every time. On top of this he was a kind, thoughtful, humble and affable man who willingly shared his knowledge and experience.
It was this actor who introduced me to the work of Sanford Meisner. We listened together in his hotel room to recordings he had made in Sandy’s class. I was instantly hooked. I knew right away that I had found my teacher. The problem was that Sandy was prejudiced against English actors. He believed them to be so “Sexually and emotionally repressed” as to be unteachable. I wrote to him what he referred to later as an ‘essay’ and with my new friend’s endorsement he agreed to give me a chance. I was soon on a plane to Los Angeles.
My encounter with Sanford Meisner literally changed my life. Over a period of several years, during which I travelled many times to Los Angeles Sandy dismantled my fake acting and my personal defence mechanisms; re introducing me to my original playful self. He then began to teach me new ways to construct my acting, which were completely practical and did not interfere with my own spontaneous expression. I was given a set of principles and tools, which I have used and continue to refine up to this day. My own acting has blossomed and expanded and I have learned I hope to be a positive force in the work of others.
As a result of experiences in Sandy’s class, I began at the same time to look seriously into the nature of my own existence and the truth about life itself. This resulted in a steady and gradual clean up of my life style and led to personal exploration through counselling, meditation, philosophical study, social work and of course sharing the craft of acting with others.
The Meisner Technique begins by defining acting in simple terms as; “The ability to live truthfully under the given set of imaginary circumstances”. In the first instance the actor is taught the meaning of living truthfully. This is no easy task as nearly all our behaviour in relation to other people is less than truthful and in most cases we are not aware of this until it is pointed out. The famous repetition exercise is the basic tool used in the early work. The actors are taught to really listen to each other and to act spontaneously, without thought. This is incredibly difficult to do at first because of the terrible fear each one of us carries about saying or doing the wrong thing. The challenge becomes to learn to live fully in the moment. We have no choice over how we feel or the impulses, which arise and this is terrifying for us. Although we are always in the moment we are usually resisting it or trying to control or change it in some way and therefore are not fully experiencing it. Eventually one learns that the truth of this moment can never be right or wrong, it is just what it is and by the time it’s here it is too late to argue about it. Anything other than this moment is seen to be just an idea. It is ideas, which divide us from each other and create conflict as we attempt to make our ideas agree. This moment now however, is literally the only thing, which is real and it is undivided. It is just one thing. A tree exists regardless of our opinion about it. It is essential for an actor at this stage to know that division is a mental creation and that the natural state is one. Acting is not mathematics – in acting one plus one equals one. All attempts at connection simply reinforce division as they are based on a false view and proceed from the illusion of separation. Knowing that his thoughts are the only source of conflict in his world and that his emotions are already stimulated by his imagination throughout the day leads the actor to the understanding that what he must learn to do is to use his imagination deliberately in order to create drama on stage rather than be used unconsciously by it to create conflict in his life. If this is understood then actors are able to proceed from an undivided state, deliberately setting up emotionally powerful imaginary divisions between themselves and play them out returning finally to the safety of oneness. Scenes don’t really happen between actors but between different points of view. Sadly these realizations do not always appear and often the training dries up at this point. If the actors cannot descend through the layers of their own defences and find their common ground then they will be divided as artists and feed off their real unexamined fears never really finding harmony. In a sense they need to stop acting the fiction of themselves. As Sandy said, “You can’t create a character on top off a character.” Also if they have not seen the way in which they already live in a fantasy world they will still be making a false division between ideas that are real and ideas that are not and will remain in confusion about how the imagination works. I have even seen the ‘Meisner Technique’ taught by ‘teachers’ who have failed to reach these understandings themselves and the results are disappointing. Often a kind of repetitive surface emotional jousting without any real contact coupled with frantic attempts to try and force belief and emotion.
So assuming we have freed up the actors’ instrument; the emotions and the ability to express them and sorted out what is real from what is not, a progression of increasingly complex improvisations is embarked upon which systematically teach the actors how use their imagination. They are shown how use the building blocks of acting to naturally influence their behaviour and attitude towards their acting partners in order to create improvised scenes. These improvisations eventually become indistinguishable from scripted pieces except that they seem more spontaneous and truthful. At this time the preparation of the actor is complete and the true training in the craft of acting begins.
Up to this point the actors have been able to choose their own circumstances but from here on they are given scenes and monologues to work with which gradually increase their personal depth and range. Actors are taught how to thoroughly analyse a scene in such a way that they are able to play it truthfully in literally any way, which may be required. They are taught how to use their voice, body, behaviour and imaginatively stimulated emotions to create the illusion of character. It is important to note here that Sandy said “There is no such thing as a character.” By this he means we cannot become Hamlet or Ophelia but we can do what they do thereby creating the illusion of character in the mind of the audience. The actor is also taught how to instantly alter any element of their performance in response to direction. All of this is learned and added whilst maintaining a strict adherence to the truth of the moment.
The Meisner Technique is a true middle way between the old school of vocal and physical indication and the awful trap of modern, complex, often terribly confused psychological approaches. The actor learns to create absolutely truthful, artistically finished performances purely through the use of his imagination. The actors do not have to pretend to feel anything neither do they have to resort to directly using their memories. Both of these approaches are unsatisfactory; The first is simply untruthful and the second is mentally unhealthy and not responsive to direction as we cannot change how we feel about the past. Sandy said repeatedly that it took 20 years to become an actor. I nodded ‘wisely’ at the time but had no idea of what he was talking about. Now I know. Three years ago it was 20 years since my first class with Sanford Meisner and amazingly it coincided with a total revolution in my experience of the world. All beliefs and concepts began to fall rapidly and terrifyingly away. Any acting method I may have had disappeared to be replaced by a spontaneous knowing. I began to see the whole of human society and mental culture as utterly fake. Money, countries, races, creeds, religions, politics, hierarchies, right and wrong, good and bad; it’s all just invented. Certainly people will kill, steal, lie, rape, torture for these ‘things’ but they’re all just imaginary circumstances. As I have worked with the principles and techniques I was taught by Sandy I have grown – often painfully in my understanding of art and life until now I see only one distinction; in life one lives under circumstances which are just as imaginary as those in a play but we tend to be a whole lot less truthful about it. Acting is a time when I can be completely truthful and creative without fear (hopefully) of the consequences. It has become as effortless as breathing. The Meisner Technique, I realize now, is not so much a technique of acting but a way of returning the actor to the original source of their creativity. Although it is necessary to train and train with single minded dedication, the end point is to be liberated from all constraints and to create like a child from the experience of an adult with the discipline of an artist.
As I look around the world today I see violence, greed, fear and hypocrisy exploding out of people who seem unaware of the wonderful presence of their natural state. I hope the human race can one day find the courage to be honest and to feel once more it’s fundamental wholeness. Until then the true job of the actor is to, accept the demons, overcome their self-centred fear, find their truth and learn to turn their struggles into beauty in order to reteach the world it’s loveliness.
Tom Radcliffe 2013