Detailed Acting Technique-Tools for Fixing Problems

My summer intern/assistant Sarah made a very worthwhile point about the acting technique and the way that I teach it.  She has been sitting in on all my classes, and after 6 straight hours of classes on Saturday I guess we were both in the Meisner Zone, and she said:

“hey robert–Your technique is very structured–extremely– you can’t get to B without going through A. I’ve had some acting teachers that are much less structured in their approach — a student will give a performance and they will muse as to whether it was a successful “good” performance or it was “bad” and you should fix it.  But they didn’t often say How to fix it.  Because your approach is so technical it seems much easier to break down a performance into specific bits and pieces and then those pieces can be evaluated.  It makes the performance more of a science than an overall emotional thing that you just like spit out.   What are your thoughts?”

I really related to this, as she was describing something that is very much at the heart of my teaching experience.  I find it extremely useful to have a technique that is made up of specific exercises and specific tools that can be targeted to exactly what is happening in an exercise or scene.

Sarah had pointed out that the specifics of the technique allowed the teacher to give specific feedback and that is really important for the clarity of the student and knowing what to look at to improve or progress or fix a problem.  And I added that not only do you have specific feedback on a specific problem, but there are also specific tools to address each problem, so you actually have a way to fix it.

For instance, just to take an example, there is a technique called paraphrasing, or alternately, finding meanings.  It is a form of subtext, allowing the actor to find the point of view, thought or feeling within a line of a script.  Well let’s say a particular line comes out as a line reading, which is to say that it sounds like the actor is reading from a script rather than saying something as a human being.  That would suggest that the actor didn’t have a personal understanding of what that line means to them at that moment within the situation of that scene.  By going to the meaning and working with it, a more specific point of view can be found and brought through the line of text.  With a different “text” problem, such as a line that is directed to be more emotional, the actor can find the emotional point of view through the meaning [paraphrase] and use that personal meaning to raise the emotional level of that line.

Having a detailed technique with specific tools that correspond to different aspects of the actor’s process allows the actor to analyze and work with acting problems in a very effective way.   The actor’s training is both a creative process and a practical education, and the actor’s “tool kit” corresponds to the actor’s role as a professional worker in the field.




  1. #1 by Peter Oliver-Krueger on July 12, 2011 - 8:20 pm

    Absolutely, Robert & Sarah. Having also been Robert’s apprentice (and sitting through hours of Meisner on end 🙂 ) I can also say that that is what struck me. I like to talk about it as layers. It’s a progressive set of layers that can be added to any performance to add more depth, and each layer depends upon the previous layer for support. It’s like starting with a dirt floor, then packing it down, then adding a layer of concrete, then a moisture barrier, then padding, then the carpet, then the area rug, then furniture. At each level, it’s your choice as to how you implement that level. That’s your individual performance. But still, any carpet without padding feels like carpet without padding.

    • #2 by completeactorstraining on April 17, 2012 - 2:07 pm

      Hey Peter – sorry for slow reply. I suddenly became aware that there were comments after being “busy” for a while… I like your analogy, and it speaks to how misunderstood the depth and breadth of Meisner can be. Within the acting world, Meisner is often thought of as simple, truthful acting, which is its foundation, but that capability is just the foundation for building the layers of work that create a work of dramatic art. In early years, the technique was associated with a lot of naturalistic work in theatre and film, such as Cassavettes’ hyperrealistic films, one of which had Meisner in it playing a thug! But if you look at the range of roles of someone like Duvall – esp. the full range that includes some of his lesser-known films, you can see the strong emphasize on specific character work and nuanced theatrical detail. BTW, I just watched the full series of Lonesome Dove in a couple of sittings, and am awestruck by Duvall’s character work and the full creation of that role, as well as exceptional work by Tommy Lee Jones and the others. The film as a whole is a masterpiece.

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