Happy Birthday, Sanford Meisner!

It’s birthday month for Sanford Meisner (born August 31 1905, died February 2 1997). To the salon:collective that’s always a reason to reflect and celebrate the roots of our core technique. The time for Sandy Birthday Honours can’t be far away. Dominic Kelly, the salon’s artistic director, had just launched the salon when he wrote the following piece in summer 2011. At the end, you’ll find his thoughts on how he feels about his teaching life now.

Four years on from writing my response to Meisner’s birthday reminds me how much I was still learning about his work; more specifically, how to translate it to other human beings as a teacher. The 2011 ‘me’ would probably hope that the 2015 ‘me’ might be able to say that ‘I’ve figured it out.’ Nope. No chance. The main difference in my teaching now, is the sheer joy I have finding new inventive ways of capturing my student’s imaginations, breaking some of the rules now and then (gasp!), and wriggling my way into the core of what part of my students’ personalities might be causing barriers in their work. Meisner famously said ‘It takes 20 years to become an actor.’ I wonder, then, how long he imagined it would take to become a teacher?!

Dominic co-teaching Meisner and Shakespeare with, colleague, Lizzie Conrad Hughes

Another wonderful development since 2011 was my appearance alongside the sadly departed David Ryall in King Lear as Edgar. I spent 2 months lapping up stories of working with Lawrence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and receiving some of the nicest feedback on my acting I’ve ever had from a fellow company member. It was a breath of fresh air to take on such a huge part; I felt that my stories were getting tired in class…no-one needed to hear of ‘the time I begged for the keys from my sisters’ as Andrei in Three Sisters anymore! So, instead, I am now able to share my recent acting challenges, like non-psychological reasoning in a character (Why does Edgar pretend to be mad? Why does he chose to do it within 30 minutes of being banished? Why does he try to convince his blind father, who he has just realised has had his eyes gouged out, to commit suicide? Quick answer: Because he does. Get over it, and get on with it!) I was honoured to act alongside some of my existing students, older graduates of mine and other colleagues who I had trained with years before. Like a good bottle of wine, my Meisner life is maturing.

King Lear at The Cockpit Theatre

Dominic exploring the madness of Edgar in King Lear at The Cockpit Theatre

the salon:collective has grown into what inspired me about The Neighbourhood Playhouse (the birthplace of the Meisner Technique). Within those walls, students such as Bob Fosse, Gregory Peck, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Duvall and David Mamet studied with Martha Graham, and Meisner, amongst others in all aspects of an actors’ training. Our tutors, all Meisner trained, provide access to physical theatre, clowning, stage combat, shakespeare, vocal discipline and expression. Lizzie, Dewi, Alex and Lawrence are as much friends as they are colleagues; we talk about our classes, our students and our hopes and aspirations as artists. As we embark on our first full year training program next year, I prepare to find more joy expanding my knowledge of myself as a teacher, and creating brand new approaches to inspire my actors to become great, bold, audacious, playful, humble and most importantly, true.

Meisner Technique

Sanford Meisner, who, sadly, I never did and never will meet, lives on inside a huge number of actors’ hearts. He managed to create a form and approach to producing truthful acting that has not only created amazing actors but has also enabled students of the technique to learn and progress as human beings.

I was fortunate enough to learn Sandy’s concise technique of acting through Tom Radcliffe when he was teaching at the Actors Temple. Tom was one of only a few people that Sandy officially accredited with his blessing to teach in his name.

Over five or so years fumbling with the technique, playing Andrei in The Three Sisters, directed by Tom, teaching basic Meisner classes, and producing a series of photographic work using the technique, I stretched my understanding and love of the approach. Working extremely closely with Tom and retraining again, I received Tom’s blessing to take my knowledge of Meisner’s work and pass it on too.

Even though Meisner’s technique is extremely specific and unique, no-one can truly teach in the same way and no one person’s experience of it is exactly the same. Sandy encouraged his actors to not leave his classes with THE MEISNER technique, but to have turned it into their OWN technique; Mandy’s Technique, John’s Technique…that isn’t to say you screw around with it in order to make it your own, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, what I am realising more and more as I teach his methods, is that the more I inject my personality into teaching his exercises the more effective the learning and progress is for the student.

“The elements in a person’s training and in his own personality that make him a distinctive or interesting actor are among the most delicate factors to impart as a teacher. One can use standard principles and textbooks in educating people for law, medicine, architecture, chemistry or almost any profession–but not for the theatre. For in most professions, every practitioner uses the same tools and facilities, while the actor’s chief instrument is himself. And since no two persons are alike, no professional rule is applicable to any two actors in specifically the same way.”

– Sanford Meisner

It is vital when in the process of ‘getting’ the technique that you shake the idea of ‘who you think you are’ away. We believe our personalities are truthful when in fact we change the character we play in our daily lives at the drop of a hat. We are not the same person at work, as we are at home, or in the pub with friends. However, we can always be true. When I am the ‘teacher’ I am tempted to be different to who I am when I am the ‘student’, but really so long as your personality is truthful, it shouldn’t matter which role you play; there should not be a division other than that of ; I have knowledge’ and ‘I don’t have the knowledge…yet!’

Someone the other day, painfully, reminded me of the saying…

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach

They smiled smugly and prodded my arm with their finger. Unable quite what to make of that interaction, and also unable to respond truthfully in the moment for fear of pouring my pint all over his Ted Baker suit, I, instead, seethed all the way home on my bike looking for pedestrians to run over. The next morning, I woke up and realised what I SHOULD have said…firstly, ‘look in the mirror, dumbass’ and secondly, ‘It is impossible to TEACH this technique without being able to DO it. To teach is pretty much a natural progression for a Meisner actor and in fact, it enhances your acting skills tenfold.’ I then drank my coffee and Googled the saying…

Thank you George Bernard Shaw! Thank you very much for putting that line in Man and Superman…Bernard, if I may call you Bernard? You were an absolutely brilliant man, but that line has been used to disempower teachers for years…shame on you…even though you were highly influencial regarding equal rights for men and women…Sanford Meisner, whose work we closely honour in our work as the salon:collective, lives on in our hearts and souls. Although I never experienced his teaching directly, I believe that Tom Radcliffe truly encapsulated Meisner’s integrity, generosity and firm grip, whilst putting on his own Zen/Punk spin on things. I hope that I, too, will be able to take this spirit of his teachings into my work, and colour it with my own voice. For either, I take the skills and run, or I pass the skills on and keep his memory alive. There, I’ve justified my teaching!

Without this wonderful man, I may have never made sense of my life; Tom Radcliffe and Sanford Meisner enabled me to see who I was clearly and without judgement. They cleared the mists of confusion, and anxiety, and depression from my perception of ‘who I was’ and how I fitted into the world I lived in. With great respect and love, I humbly wish to pass on their commitment to truth.

If you haven’t seen it, watch this documentary about Sanford Meisner. There are seven parts, but there are worse ways to spend your time. True Blood can wait another day!

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