I’ve been at this, teaching acting, for seven years now. I feel very fortunate to have been initiated into the methodology that I teach in my classes. When I look at acting around me, in the theater or on a screen, I often see work that is responsive, free, and spontaneous. (I often see work that isn’t those things, but we’ll leave that for the moment.) But even in this free, responsive, and spontaneous work, there is often a dimension missing: call it true vulnerability, exposure, deep investment or visceral engagement, but there is often a lack of the depth that makes something transporting and memorable.
I firmly believe that the teachers I encountered at Yale were visionaries in terms of defining the need for this level of investment and creating tools that helped actors achieve this depth of expression. I see students, even first time actors, make extraordinary strides in their work by making use of these tools, even inside of one ten-week cycle. But here’s the thing, and I am getting very honest here: most of them need my help to get oriented properly and use the tools effectively, even after several cycles of the class. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students who have really internalized the framework I present to the degree that they can implement it themselves, and implement it successfully. Why is that? Well for one thing, it has to do with the true complexity of the activity of acting. To act any role well, there is a lot to master. But it also has something to do with the nature of the methodology: this methodology is about using the mind, particularly the imagination and the analytical faculties, to help the actor enter into and live in the imaginary world of the play. Now, my mind is very analytical: I had finished calculus as a sophomore in high school, and majored in math in college. Analytical thinking is second nature to me. But I don’t think it is to a lot of actors. Everyone has analytical ability, but I think people are drawn to acting from a desire to be seen, to engage in playful interaction with others, to express themselves. “I’m very analytical; I should try acting!” is not a familiar train of thought to many. People are often able to mobilize these analytical abilities to a degree when they learn that the task requires it, but it’s often not second nature, and will only take them so far. That’s part of why we have directors: the director (hopefully) can help the actor understand what is essential to a role or a scene, and help them mobilize that understanding in their work.
So am I saying that I think what I teach is of limited value? No, decidedly not. But its greatest benefits are reaped by those who are willing to apply themselves most strenuously. For those without that plucky resilience, the technique has limits because it will only take actors as far as they take it. But make no mistake: even those who never acquire that deep mastery still benefit from exposure to it. I know this because of how often students tell me war stories about their auditioning and how the feedback that they get is that they are extraordinarily well-prepared. So even if a student doesn’t acquire the ability to fully wield the technique independently, they still have learned some very important things. A red belt is not a black belt, but it’s better than a white belt.
But this perception, that a student’s relative comfort with analytical thinking would define how far they would go with this technique, was troubling to me. I wanted students to have full autonomy, as I knew there was no way i could always be there to point them in the right direction, even if they wanted me to be. I felt myself longing for a way to cut through all the analysis, and to bring people into a more directly physical relationship with their work.
Meisner repetition work has a similar goal, as I understand it. The actor is taught to allow himself or herself to respond spontaneously to what she receives. In full-blown Meisner technique, analytical tools are layered on top of this, so this repetition is not the whole story it’s sometimes presented as. But as much respect as I have for Meisner, I have watched enough Meisner-trained actors in my time to know that while the Meisner-trained actor may be responding authentically, there are different degrees of authenticity, different depths from which the impulses may originate, and that few Meisner-trained actors (in my experience) learn to listen and respond with their cores, with the deepest parts of themselves, and that is what I am after.
At various junctures in my training and experience, I had encountered actors who were trained in Grotowski’s techniques, and I found them to have this ability to engage viscerally without the analytical apparatus of a Stanislavsky-based approach. I have never formally trained in Grotowski, but I have done a good deal of work that I think is comparable, including Suzuki, Butoh dance, rigorous Pilates, and capoeira, all disciplines that involve extreme levels of physical engagement, pitting the will and the body against their respective limits. So, , when I saw a series of exercises described that were based on Grotowski’s plastiques in a book about acting that I came across recently, I was intrigued. I decided that in the cycle of my Advanced class that started in September, we would spend part of our time exploring these exercises.
I hesitated, because I knew there would be some difficulties. There would be varying levels of comfort with being instructed to perform various movement and assume various physical attitudes. Even though I think there is value in warming up, I forego any kind of warm-up in the Essentials class because there is something about this that takes people back to junior high school gym class, and people feel they are giving up some of their autonomy as adults in going through such regimens. But I hoped that in my Advanced class, working with students with whom I had some history, and presumably some reservoir of trust, that we could get past that hurdle.
So I forged ahead, and we worked our way through some introductory stretching and breathing work and into the exercises based on the plastiques. I am not going to describe in detail what we did right now, but suffice to say that there was a fairly complex sequence of movements that involved moving the body and making sound at the same time. Each week we added a bit more, and then one week we were ready to put the whole sequence together. We did it simultaneously, and it involved all of us moving and making sound together and separately, following a basic structure but with plenty of room to find our own path through the structure.
At the end of the sequence, the five of us gazed at each other in astonishment. “That was so cool!”, someone said, although none of us could have said precisely what had happened or what had been cool about it. But I felt totally sure that through this process, we had all begun a journey towards a new mind-body integration, the goal that was Grotowski’s as well. This was only a first step, but it was a decisive one.
In other words, I had seen a need to step out of my comfort zone, I had found a roadmap for doing so, and I had brought along some intrepid acting students as I ventured forth. And it paid off, I feel certain, for all of us. Not right away; it took faith to keep going. But in the end, this risk bore fruit. We all experienced something altogether new.
I think that what I want to communicate here is that it’s imperative that we all pay attention to the voice that emerges from time to time that says: I am going to have to leave behind what is familiar to get what I need. Heeding this voice is truly the only way that anything new ever happens.