I’m tempted to set up this post by giving a history of the rift between Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg but I’ll skip the historical acting coach drama (pun intended) and get straight to what is on my mind. Meisner took issue with Strasberg’s preoccupation with affective memory (also commonly known as emotional memory) because he said that it made people more introverted. Meisner figured actors were already pretty introverted people by nature because, in order to be drawn to acting, you have to have a bit of an obsession with your own emotional inner workings. Strasberg taught people to use their own emotional memories as the fuel for their dramatic work. Meisner, on the other hand, believed that the only place to begin was the here and now. He didn’t want his acting students to go digging through their past experiences to find some emotional nugget over which they could obsess. He wanted them to look up, directly into the other actor’s eyes and respond without hesitation to whatever unexpected impulse the moment of connection inspired. Meisner’s work was all about reminding actors that they didn’t have to hold back. He believed that we have all the emotional fuel we need right inside and that a commitment to the reality of the moment would bring it out. Instead of dwelling on their own feelings, he encouraged actors to stop thinking about themselves and start paying attention to the other person and the “reality of doing.”
Over the past two years, we’ve all been hidden away to some degree. Lock-downs, social-distancing, quarantines, work-from-home, mask wearing, all of it is intended to preserve human life and all of it is fiercely debated at every stage. It’s hard enough to have to take on this isolation but then to feel that you’re being constantly bombarded by differences of opinion over every little aspect of your day to day life? The combination is enough to force a person into a deeper state of isolation than even the physical distance itself has caused. Instead of a community effort, “let’s all look after one another,” the tone has become, “I guess it’s everyone for themselves.” After several years of distance and isolation, I can see that I’m not the only one who is experiencing the introversion that Meisner warned against. Now, I’m not one to look down on introverted tendencies. My own introverted tendencies have probably saved my sanity throughout this global ordeal. Meisner himself was a very introverted person. But, as an introvert, he knew that he had to resist the tendency to brood and push others away. It’s one thing to enjoy quiet reflection and “me time.” It’s another thing all together to become obsessed with your own inner workings to the point that you have no room for what anyone else might be bringing to the reality of the moment. That’s something that happens, not because a person has a naturally introverted personality, but because they aren’t able to make connections that reaffirm that they are safe, they are accepted and they can move through the world without second guessing everything they do.
Teaching Meisner against the backdrop of a global pandemic casts a pretty telling light on the genius of Meisner’s ideas. There is something pretty profound for me about being in a room full of people who have spent two years forced to separate, isolate, cover up and distance and getting to be the person who’s job it is to tell them it’s time to look up, make a connection and receive what is coming at them (rather than obsessing over what’s going on inside). Actors are showing up for one hour of looking, listening, being present with whoever happens to be standing across from them and, it seems to me, that they’re leaving lighter.
This isn’t new. People have always needed to slow down, connect and be present in the moment in order to remember that humanity is bigger than just what’s going on in their own heads. But, in this particular moment, it’s impossible to miss the importance of that connection or take it for granted. This isn’t the moment for trying to capture some deep seated feeling and give it release so that you can marvel in the wonder of your own emotional baggage. This is the moment to emerge from those inner musings and find everything you need in the here and now.
BNTC is slowly emerging from its COVID dormancy. As with the majority of our best projects, our recent decision to start training sessions for professional actors has emerged as a response to the mood of the moment. At the request of a few actor friends who are longing for human connection and a chance to get back into practice, I booked a studio space at my favorite downtown rehearsal venue, the FlyLoft. We discussed the idea in December when the Delta variant was everyone’s main concern. We had all been fully vaccinated and figured Meisner practice lent itself easily to social distancing so we decided it was worth the risk. We booked for January hoping that case numbers would have dropped by then and I put the word out to a few other actor friends thinking that a handful of familiar faces would show up each week. Within days of booking the space, we began learning about the arrival of Omicron. Its increased transmissibility and tendency to bypass the vaccine felt ominous. As the date of the first session drew closer, I spoke almost daily to the friends who requested the class. We agonised over wether or not we felt comfortable moving forward. With such a small group, it seemed reasonable. After all, by this time we had started hanging out in each other’s homes again. Surely a group of five or six actors in a large rehearsal space wasn’t much different. We went forward with our session for only one week before the height of the wave made us take a step back. But, after a two week hiatus, I was receiving requests to reconvene. What has struck me about this experience is that, though I do hear from a number of old acting friends each week, I’m introduced to several newcomers each session as well. I hadn’t expected the classes to attract many people. In addition to my expectation that the pandemic would lead to hesitancy in the majority of potential participants, I had also never seen much interest in ongoing actor training sessions for adults here in Tulsa.
The process of trying to get a small group together introduced me to a major shift in the Tulsa acting community. New students consistently fall into two categories. The first group is drama school trained actors who are familiar with Meisner and miss staying in practice since moving back to Tulsa after a stint on one of the coasts. The second group is an assortment of beginning actors with shiny new resumes boasting recent background work with directors like Scorsese. Needless to say, after spending all summer on set with De Niro and DiCaprio, these newcomers are more than interested in seeing where a little training might take them. Both groups seem anxious to fully engage in the practice and I can’t help but think that the separation we’ve all been experiencing makes the work of building human connection even more satisfying.
I’ll be honest, I’m finding myself stunned by the number of people who have reached out to express interest in attending. It’s not a shocking number but, trying to get a class going in the dead of winter has never been a highly advisable marketing strategy. Add on a pandemic and factor in the limited market I’ve found in Tulsa for actor training in the past and it’s it’s easy to see why I’m surprised to find the group growing each week. In addition to the increasing list of participants, I have an equally long list of actors who intend to join in the spring if the U.S. finally enters endemic status (as I am optimistically anticipating that it will). This experience has revealed to me just how much the dynamic has changed in Tulsa. Actors here will always be anxious to try their luck in bigger markets but, the number and the caliber of actors who are sticking around has me excited about how it will feel to truly emerge from this pandemic. I love being in a studio space with people who are serious about their craft. Level of experience matters little compared to the willingness to fully commit to the work. That’s the real difference I’m seeing. People are coming out in the cold, facing the anxiety that this pandemic has created and connecting deeply to the work. I’m hoping this is just the beginning.
Please Note: The Brand New Theatre Co. is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of The Brand New Theatre Co. must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.