Lizzie Conrad Hughes, the salon’s Shakespeare expert, reckons Will and Sandy go together like a horse and carriage

There’s a question I am asked a lot. No, not a question. It comes as a statement: “You can’t use Meisner with Shakespeare.” This has puzzled me a lot, as my instant response is: “Yes, you can!” So, I’ve investigated.

Sanford Meisner (actor, theatre practitioner and teacher) was a huge fan of William Shakespeare (actor, and man who ate, slept and drank theatre). My guess is Will and Sandy would have found loads to talk about, in the tavern over a few ales, even though their theatres and their expectations of acting and actors are (in some ways) poles apart. The fact is, Meisner’s technique for acting brought together with Shakespeare’s consummate skill at writing for actors creates the most spine-tingling theatre alchemy. So where does this “never the twain” belief come from? I have a couple of theories to advance.

The ‘text’ theory debunked

Theory one. Meisner famously said: “text is your greatest enemy”. As Shakespeare left us only written play text, it is perfectly possible to assume immediately that complex classical text and spontaneous, emotionally connected, in-the-moment acting do not mix.

However. For me this is just plain wrong. Meisner was saying that actors tend to fix themselves in set interpretations of lines and scenes, and thus lose their spontaneous connection to each other and the moment. I suggest this is a flaw of the actor, not the text, and that this is what Meisner was warning us about; he was not telling us to avoid text at all costs. Meisner was an actor to the core who also taught acting. He knew that an actor’s job is to tell a story for an audience, to make it unfold moment by moment. If performers fall into pre-set patterns, this will kill all spontaneity in any play text, not just Shakespeare’s.

This is where Meisner’s technique for finding truthful response can save any moment, in any play. Sure, we all know Romeo goes to Capulet’s party, but we need to believe for a moment that he might not. That moment needs to happen, for the audience and for the story, no matter how many times one individual Romeo says the lines. Meisner can help make this happen.

The ‘character’ theory debunked

Theory number two, like so many things in 21st-century theatre, is Stanislavski inspired. I think we post-Stanislavski actors are caught out by Shakespeare.

Will Shakespeare wrote at a time when psychology as we understand it just did not exist. Neither did the role of director as we know it. Nor the rehearsal room, nor the long pre-production character development process. Shakespeare’s players had to bring it, clear and strong, on stage in front of an audience, often not knowing who else was in their scene, or what to expect beyond their brief cues. They had nothing much to help them prepare their performance beyond their lines. Their words and metre told them who they were and how they felt. They trusted that, and each other, and delivered accordingly.

We post-Stanislavski actors are trained to dig into ourselves and wrap our feelings around the words of the character. We expect to build, and discover. Simply, Shakespeare does a lot of this for us. And this is where I suggest we get caught out.

If all I have to do is follow my metre to find significant changes and moments, then where am I? Where is my work? My input? And where is my Meisner technique?

Over to you

I say: you are the vital source that gives life and personality to Shakespeare’s words. Will gives you an outline, you make it live. Your Hamlet will be completely unique, different from any other Hamlet because it will be you speaking the words and living the story. Meisner can do that with you, and help you bring vibrant life to words that could easily be stale. Beautiful, and moving, but stale.

If you stand firmly on your intellectual knowledge of the text and the help that Shakespeare offers you there, allowing yourself to be emotionally fed by the words, and then you hook into your Meisner technique to find new truths in every speech and ride the wave of energy that Meisner and Shakespeare build together, then you are cooking with some serious gas.

Meisner plus Shakespeare mingles the best of two very different acting traditions. And I for one am endlessly inspired by their fusion.

Lizzie Conrad Hughes‘ next Casting Shakespeare course, in which students learn aspects of Meisner technique while working on a monologue for a mock audition before a casting director, starts on September 16. Full details here.


One Comment

  • If it wasn’t for Meisner, I would have remained a stanch fearer of Shakespeare. By looking at Shakespeare as purely intellectual, my acting was hollow. By ignoring the ‘rules’ of the verse, my acting was confused. However, if I allowed the words, language and rhythm of Shakespeare’s text to be like my ‘independent activity’ (there to make my imagination meaningful, full of necessity, against the clock (an immediacy) and with very clear standard of perfection, I’m fuelled into a state of impulsive passion. What’s not to like. Meisner and Shakespeare make perfect bed partners – once you’ve understood what which one likes when you’re beneath the covers with them 😉

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