Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An unexpected influence of mine: Sanford Meisner

In case anyone doesn't know, I'm a jitterbug. That means that I dance Lindy Hop and other dances rooted in the Jazz era. I've studied a lot of dances in my lifetime, but the dancing and music of that period have resonated most with me in my life. I teach dance and have a very eclectic range of influences.

You might think it weird, but one of the primary influences on my dancing is a guy named Sanford Meisner. Sandy was one of the prominent acting teachers of the twentieth century. He was a founding member of The Group Theatre, which was the birthplace of Method Acting in the 1930s. Meisner rejected Method Acting in the quest to find an approach to performance that was more honest.

The famed playwright Arthur Miller (you know, you must have read or heard about The Crucible or Death of a Salesman while you were in High School) said with regard to Meisner that "He has been the most principled teacher of acting in this country for decades now, and every time I am reading actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don't lay on complications that aren't necessary."

I first learned about Meisner late in my college career. I had read all the requisite acting books, and done my preliminary explorations of improv technique. When I graduated from UCSB, I immediately enrolled in a Santa Barbara City College acting class in which the teacher was known for working with exercises based on Meisner's. The most fundamental exercise is known as Repetition. Two actors face each other and repeat very basic observations at each other. For instance:

"You're wearing a blue shirt."
"I'm wearing a blue shirt."
"You're wearing a blue shirt."
"Yes, I'm wearing a blue shirt."

The technique would be built upon as the class progressed. Actors would be trained to learn to make the most basic of observations and learn to pick up on the impulses that their partners feed back.

The repetition exercise might seem silly to some, but for me it was the beginning of a way of viewing the world. As I have mentioned before, it became a major influence in the way I approached the Lindy Hop.

I'm currently halfway through watching Sanford Meisner Master Class. Here's a preview:

It should be mentioned that by the time his students came up with the idea of recording his technique, Meisner had had his larynx removed due to throat cancer. He relearned speech using a technique that required him to burp his words. It was a bit unsettling for me to listen to him speak at first, but I find that the lessons are still completely worthwhile.

During an early lesson in the video, Meisner notes that "the most difficult thing to learn is the art of simplicity."

Let's be clear, just because something is simple doesn't mean that needs to be mediocre or boring. The importance of simplicity in this technique is that it is honest and true. In fact, if followed to its end, the technique of simplicity, I believe, leads to performance that is more vibrant and moving.

Now to the connections that I make between Meisner's technique and the Lindy Hop, Meisner most praised the basic idea of listening to one's partner; the notion that I could really observe very simple impulses in the circumstances of the dance (let's include the music, the room and the weather, etc.) I find that I approach the dance in a very simple way.

There's one dance exercise I've used again and again that I remember basing directly on Meisner's repetition: in a course of repeated swing-outs, one partner will initiate a basic movement - lifting the shoulder or kick-ball-changing here or there. The other partner during the next swing-out is tasked with repeating the movement. Perhaps it's not as deep as the original Repetition exercise in practice, but I think the basic skill of making and responding to basic observations is really important in the dance. It's one way to approach the simplicity I strive to realize.

I feel that when I approach a partner, that I am completely in the moment, and one hopes that occasionally that moment can be exciting.

There's much more to Meisner's ideas than I've been able to discuss in this short post. In the meantime, here's a link to a documentary that's fully available on YouTube: Sanford Meisner - Theater's Best Kept Secret.

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