Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!
I created it so that I could share acting tips with you; things I've learned over the years, working on set, teaching classes, coaching actors, auditioning actors, etc.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Method vs Meisner, Part 2: Method Acting

As an acting coach for movies and TV shows, I work with actors that are trained in different methodologies. So I see how different training affects different actors.  
Last week we examined the Meisner Technique so this week, as promised, we will look at Method Acting.  If you haven't read my post on the Meisner Technique I strongly suggest you click here to read that post first - else you may think I favor one technique over the other!
A young Lee Strasberg
Method Acting, unlike Meisner's technique, is rooted firmly in your own imagination.  All the fundamental Method exercises can be practiced by yourself, whereas Meisner's exercises must be practiced with other actors. 
Method Acting is also the most misunderstood technique in the world. Much of what you read on the internet about it is wrong. And yet you hear the phrase used often to describe an actors performance - usually when they're overacting or throwing tantrums on set or "living as the character" off-camera too. In reality, none of these things have anything to do with  Method. Nothing.  In fact, when actors say things like "Method acting is bad" or "actors don't need to train in a formal technique" it just shows how limited their understanding really is.  Clearly they know not of which they speak.
I suggest that the next time you hear someone describe an actor as being "Method" ask them what Method acting is. The correct answer is; "Method Acting is the technique created by Lee Strasberg."  Period.  But that's not what they will say.  Most likely they will mention "emotion" and perhaps "self-indulgence" but they won't have a clue as to what the Method actually is.  And these are ACTORS!?  The Method has been called everything from "brilliant" to "dangerous" (and I believe it can be both)... but it's still here.  
There's a reason that the ranks of Method trained actors include:

So here's the thing about The Method. It's true that Meisner's Technique anchors you in the imaginary circumstances and helps you to be connected to the other actor, better than any acting technique that exists (IMHO).  But Method acting helps you feel the required emotion, reliably, take after take, WITHOUT THE NEED OF OTHER ACTORS and more powerfully than any technique I've ever seen.  
In a nutshell, Meisner, and other techniques work well in the medium and wide shots, Method kick's all their asses in the close-up.  
I'll be getting hate mail for that but it's the truth. It's not biased, it just is. I'm not saying Method is better than Meisner in every way.  It's not.  But when you're in a tight close-up and your eye-line is a piece of tape on a C-stand, and you need to be feeling ANY strong emotion, Method acting will serve you better than anything else. With Method you don't need anyone else. You can trigger a completely real emotion over and over again - and when you're acting on-camera, this is the most important thing.  
Daniel Day-Lewis "working off" of a camera (as opposed to another actor)
Interestingly, Method, like the Meisner Technique and most other techniques in use today, was created for the stage not the screen.  The very characteristics that actors saw as negative about the Method for theatre (not connected to other actors, really feeling emotions as the primary focus, etc.) are now being recognized as incredibly positive characteristics for working on-camera.

Understand, any technique is like medicine - you only use it when you need it.  If the imaginary circumstances make you feel what you need to feel then great!  You don't need to use Method or Meisner or anything...BUT...after 7 or 14 or 20 takes of an emotional scene, when you're "losing your light" and the pressure is on, you may find that you need a technique.

Method teaches you to trigger emotions using your senses. You imagine your using your senses thereby triggering emotions that were previously felt.  This is a gross over-simplification but generally accurate.  First, you do sense-memory exercises to improve your ability to trigger your senses (smell, sound, touch, etc.) through your imagination.  Then, when you're able to feel the imagination-triggered senses adequately, you use them in emotional recall exercises like Affective Memory, Object Exercises, Animal Exercises, etc. which in turn, help you trigger real emotions as you need them.

This blog's purpose is to teach you ABOUT different techniques - NOT to teach you the actual techniques themselves.  For that you need a good teacher to work with on an ongoing basis.  Like anything worthwhile, it takes time and practice to master the Method. But there's a reason the biggest stars in film still use it...  It works.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Method vs Meisner, Part 1: The Meisner Technique

As an acting coach for movies and TV shows, I work with actors that are trained in different methodologies. So I see how different training affects different actors. I never advocate one technique over the others simply because I have seen brilliant performances from actors trained by Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen and Harold Clurman and Sonia Moore, and many others. 

This does not mean, however, that all these techniques are the same. They most decidedly are not.  Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.  But rather than argue about which technique is best, I prefer to examine how they can work together to provide an actor with a complete "toolkit". 

Lee Strasberg
For the purposes of this blog I am going to discuss only two techniques: Method and Meisner.  I use these two, not because they are better than everything else, but simply because they seem to be completely opposite from one another (at least on the surface) and therefore, complement each other.  Also, they are the two techniques that I see the most actors trained in, in movies and TV today.  Lee Strasberg created The Method and Sanford Meisner created The Meisner Technique.
Sanford Meisner

First up - The Meisner Technique...

Meisner trained actors excel at working off other actors. Nobody listens and reacts as truthfully as a Meisner actor. Nobody. With Meisner, it’s always real. It may not always be brilliant but it’s always real. Meisner training helps you enter a scene “emotionally full” and it helps anchor you in the imaginary circumstances, which trigger more real emotions throughout the scene.  Where the Meisner technique is weaker is when the other actor is not very good (or not there at all!). Meisner actors tend to have trouble with that because they have less to work off of.

Meisner's "Repetition" exercises are the Sit-Ups of the Meisner Technique. If you do them once or twice, or even every day for a week, you will not get much of a result. But, if you do them for weeks and months and eventually years, the results will be considerable. Stick with it and it will pay off. The only difficulty is that (unlike Method) you can't practice the exercises by yourself.  You need another actor to work with. After you get a handle on Repetition you'll add in "Independent Activities" and then "Emotional Preparation".  These are what I call the three pillars of the Meisner Technique.  For more on how the Meisner Technique works, either read up on it or get into CLASS!  In the meantime, here's an example of the Meisner Technique being used in the workplace...

Flashback: Ten years ago.  I’m coaching a celebrity actress in a national TV show. I say “celebrity” because she really hadn’t trained as an actress. She was hired because she was an internationally known model and I was asked to focus on her during the course of the season. I had introduced her to some of the concepts of the Meisner Technique and we had done some exercises, but that’s as far as we had gotten. 

I was working with her in her trailer,
(No, it wasn't THIS trailer!)
  on a scene in which she was supposed to slap another actor and she was stressing about it. I pointed out that the director had told me that she wasn’t going to really slap him because it wasn’t necessary from the angle they were shooting it from. This relaxed her a bit but when we ran through the scene she had trouble with her reaction to having slapped him (which, in the story, should have been a complex emotional response to having hit him). 

When we got to set and shot the Master shot I realized she wasn’t cutting it. Her reaction after the slap was flat. When it was time to shoot her close-up, the director told her some of the emotions he thought she should be feeling (and even described what he thought her face should look like!) but to no avail. She was becoming more and more self-conscious and less believable with every take.

Well, we were losing light as they say, the crew was losing patience, and the director was giving me a look like “can’t you do something? What are we paying you for?” I resisted the urge to say "she would have been fine if you hadn't told her what faces you wanted her to make!" And instead I smiled confidently and started to walk toward the actress when I had an idea.  I stopped and turned to the other actor in the scene.  I took him aside, the one that was getting slapped, and I asked him if he would mind “taking one for the team”. He was a pro who understood immediately what I was getting at and agreed. In other words, he would step in a little when she slapped him so that he would actually get hit! The only thing I said to the actress was to “remember your training, live in the imaginary circumstances and stay in the scene no matter what”.

All I can say is, you can’t believe the complexity of her reaction when she slapped him. She was shocked that she had hit him and a little scared. She still had the residue anger from the scene and all the emotions were real and evident in her eyes. After she slapped him she stared at him for about ten seconds, eyes full of emotion, until the director said "Cut, print, BEAUTIFUL, moving on!” And the director was so pleased he actually gave me a cigar! Later, when I watched the dailies, I couldn’t believe how well she had done. There is no substitute for real emotion. And all because she reacted truthfully (a la Meisner) to what actually happened in the scene. But the best part is that it was a damn good (Cuban) cigar! 

So this was an example of the Meisner Technique helping an actor on set. But this doesn’t mean I think a Meisner trained actor is complete – I don’t. I am brought back again to two master teachers, Meisner and Strasberg. I depend heavily on both of these teachers when I teach my own classes. They complement each perfectly. They both have weaknesses, and they both compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Next blog: Method vs Meisner, Part 2: Method Acting.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Happy Labor Day!


labor union

: an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members' interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions

-Merriam Webster

Every so often I hear an actor complain, "I pay my money to the union and they don't do ANYTHING to get me a job."  I've also heard producers complain (many times) about how unions are pain and all they do is "just cause problems". 

I completely agree! (but do read on anyway)...

I agree that you pay your union dues and the union doesn't help you get a job...
Because that's not what a union does!  Please read the definition above again.  Does it mention getting you a job?  I'll wait.

Thank a Union...
So, the purpose of a union is not to get you work, it's to get you good pay and benefits and working conditions when you DO work.  Let's take a look at what a union (e.g. SAG-AFTRA or Actors Equity) actually does do for you.  The image above names some of the basic minimum guarantees that workers receive thanks to unions.  But SAG-AFTRA members receive much more than this. 

And those Producers' complaints about unions causing "problems"?  

I agree with that too!  Here's a few of the "problems" that unions cause...

Thanks to our union, when we work, on most of our major contracts, we're paid more than $800 per day plus we get (well) fed and often overtime and meal penalties and residuals that can be in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.  If they work us all night they have to give us 12 hours off (or they pay us even more).  We also get contributions toward Pension Plans and Health plans. Non-union productions usually pay less than half the union rate with no residuals and no benefits.

Now, to producers all this may sound like "problems" and they may feel that for actors it's "too good to be true", but actors know that you have to factor in time spent auditioning and money spent on head shots, marketing materials (postcards, etc.), ongoing training, and 90% of the union is out of work at any given moment!  Well, let's just say it's not "too good to be true".  It's easy to see why even working actors are mostly struggling to stay in the middle-class.  Residuals and insurance are very important to most working actors.

Here's the question I always ask people that complain about SAG-AFTRA.  And it applies to all labor unions even though I'm talking about the TV and movie business.  When I hear them complain about the "evil union" I simply ask them:

Would you rather work on a union or a non-union film?

That shuts them up! Obviously the answer is always either "union" or... well, silence.  And if they do answer "union" I ask them, "Why?" ...

Unions aren't perfect, but they're fighting for the worker.  So called "Right-to-Work" and "Financial Core" are hurting our unions therefore they're hurting us.  SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity exist for one reason - to watch your back.  If you want to improve your union, instead of complaining, volunteer!  Join a committee that interests you. Run for office. Your union is only as good as it's members.

I'm proud to serve as a National Board Member of SAG-AFTRA.

Happy Labor Day!

["This message is created by the blogger independently and not by SAG-AFTRA. Any opinion expressed is solely that of the blogger and does not reflect any opinion, position or policy of the SAG-AFTRA."]