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.