Meisner Technique: Spoon River Excercises

Previous steps in the Meisner technique at my studio: 1) Repetition, 2) Door and activity, 3) Scenes for presence, depth of emotion, and connection.

Now, we’re performing poems from the Spoon River Anthology. Here’s my attempt at clarifying the method for this exercise:

  1. Study and prepare the text using your own method outside of class.
  2. Perform the text in a way that incorporates the following elements:
    1. An interaction with someone to whom you’re speaking the poem. You’ll choose one of your class mates to stand in for this person.
    2. A performance that optimizes for one of the following: emotional depth and intensity, a vocal challenge like an accent, or a physical challenge like a limp.

I’ve made some Spoon River poetry rehearsals part of my daily acting workout. My goal is to perform and ideally tape myself so I know when I ‘hit it’ (perform at a level of truthfulness I’m happy with).

Preparing the text

For the Spoon River exercises, I’ve been primarily using Ivana Chubbuck’s ’12 tools’ to understand the text. Her techniques are a bit circular, though. To accomplish any of the techniques, you need to possess a thorough understanding of the text and character. But understanding text and character are tools in and of themselves.

My steps:

  1. Copy the text of the poem into my notebook so I have margins to write in. Hand-writing also helps me become more familiar with the text.
  2. Work through Chubbuck’s steps and write my decisions in the margins of my notebook with a pencil.
  3. Memorize the poem concurrently with the above steps.
    1. The Meisner technique I’ve studied says to memorize before script analysis and to memorize it ‘flat,’ i.e. without emotion. This supposedly helps you perform it more naturally with present emotions and intonations instead of by wrote.
    2. Chubbuck, however, says to only memorize after you’ve gone through her tools. She says this helps you perform more naturally with present emotions and intonations instead of by wrote.
    3. So I’m doing my own thing. I figure the key takeaway is, ‘Do what you have to so that you can perform naturally with spontaneity, instead of with memorized intonation.’ For me right now, that’s memorizing as I go.

My notebook looks like this afterwords.


Preparing emotions

Just before the performance, Meisner teaches to cultivate an emotional state that matches the state of the character you’re performing. My instructors and books in Meisner suggest I should do this by imagining circumstances that will put me in that state. Until I can condition myself to snap into a deep state with only a thought, however, I’m using physical state changes a la Tony Robbins to help me get where I need to be.


2016.2 Spoon River: Columbus Cheney

Coming soon.

2016.1 Spoon River: Lyman King

Notes on preparation: I prepared emotionally more thoroughly than takes the night before, in which the stakes weren’t high enough and I wasn’t angry enough for the subject matter.

Here’s a take from the day before that I was unhappy with. My preparation involved just a few seconds of ‘thinking angry thoughts.’

Why am I making these public? It helps me become less self-conscious. It also helps me take notes.

Skills: Competence vs. excellence

My current hypothesis is that people who master the competency skills are capable and qualified to get a job and do the job. People who master the excellency skills are the ones who actually GET a job.

Skills for competency

  • Performing accurately. This means getting your lines and your blocking and any other technical stuff right. It also means that your actions and expressions are appropriate for the scene.
    • I’m doing alright with memorization, but haven’t been super methodical with experimentation.
      • Anthony Hopkins apparently reads a script 200 times BEFORE he begins to ‘work’ on it. Memorization and familiarity with the script is pre-work.
    • Meisner has helped me prepare appropriate emotions. I’m definitely still a novice, though.
  • Performing naturally. This means knowing your part so well you don’t lose character or lose your place in the scene.
    • This comes from rehearsal, I think.
  • Perform consistently. Every take should be just as good as the last.
  • Listen to / connect with your scene partner. In contrast to, ‘wait for their lips to stop moving so you can say your line.’ The best way I know to rephrase ‘listen to your partner’ is to say, ‘let your partner’s words and actions affect you and produce a response.’
  • Be present / focus / live in the moment. The opposite of presence would be to think about the lines that are coming up, to anticipate future actions, or to think about something outside the world of the play.
    • Meisner’s repetition exercises have helped me with this. Meditation, too.
  • Have sufficiently high stakes. This relates to the frequently used term ‘stakes’ and Ivana Chubbuck’s will to win. I have to actually care about my objective, and care enough that the audience will care, too. And I need to believe I stand a chance so the audience will root for me, want to watch me pursue my objective, and leave feeling challenged, even if I fail.
  • Commit. You are your character. Lose the self-consciousness and the half-way performance. That’s kid stuff. For goodness sake, believe in what you’re doing. People should say, “Oh my gosh! He’s actually a sea lion. Like he actually believes he’s a sea lion!” Assuming you’re playing a sea lion.
  • Be easy to work with, encouraging, enthusiastic, and fun on and off the set. Basic professionalism. Don’t be a diva. Embrace your eccentricities but don’t let them get in the way of selflessness or collaboration.
  • Bring your A game every time all the time. Step on set already warmed up and primed for the best performance of your life. Prepare for and discuss your role before the cameras roll, not after ‘money time’ starts.


Skills for excellence

  • Fill the room. That undefinable aura. That sense of leadership.
  • Make bold choices. Develop your character in ways that are unforgettable. The director may have a mental image of what she wants before she auditions you. You have to prepare something that will make her say, “Holy crap! That was so much more amazing / powerful / meaningful than what I had in mind!”
  • All the technical stuff that I’m not aware of. You know where the camera and lights are at all times and move accordingly. You know how to position and reposition yourself to preserve continuity and make the editor’s life easier. And all this comes naturally.
  • Treat each person you interact with like they’re the most important person you’ll meet today.
  • Bring relaxed, focused, joy. That attitude that inspires others, and makes them feel welcome and at home. The combination of those three items might be a good synonym for confidence. Thanks Jim Nieb of Playhouse West for that one.

What would you add? Remove?

  • Connie Sechrist — a working actor!!! — adds the following: “free yourself from all insecurities. In order to truly be present in your role, the story and to connect with others and yourself you need to drop everything and be vulnerable. This is the hardest thing to do, but the most important. Second, be a team player. Accept constructive criticism with open arms. Work together instead of competing against each other. Give not take. Expect nothing in return and appreciate everything. Look for the good in the bad and never stop growing and learning.”
  • Martin Burke, a writer and actor, says, “100% yourself. Meisner said that acting is being truthful in imaginary circumstances. If you are not totally being yourself, you will not be being truthful.”

Ivana Chubbuck’s Technique Part 1: Winning

If you search around for ‘best acting coach’ or ‘famous acting coach,’ Ivana Chubbuck will pop up. For years, she’s coached famous actors in famous movies to win famous awards. Her book, The Power of the Actor is also famous. People read it around the world, actors and non-actors alike.

In this post, I’ll deconstruct Chubbuck’s book to distill two of its unique advantages.

What Chubbuck emphasizes that others don’t


The will to win an objective drives the entirety of Chubbuck’s technique.

She says that, if you want to compel audiences and want those audiences to come back, win. Figure out what your character wants, and pursue that objective with power and drive.  Your audience will leave inspired, entertained, and hungry for more.

She says that emotional depth, connection to the other actor, presence, and all the rest should come from the drive to win.

She instructs actors to choose objectives (things to win) that are rooted deep in the psyche. Something Freudian, or from Maslow; something everyone can resonate with. Like the desire for acceptance or love, or the desire to protect a child.

For example

Chubbuck references her work with Halle Berry in ‘Monster’s Ball.’ Berry plays a woman oppressed by tragedy after tragedy. Chubbuck and Berry worked to make the woman a victor rather than victim without changing the script.

At the end of the film, Berry could have played a woman crushed by betrayal, but instead she played a woman victorious. Berry’s objective was ‘to get you to love me.’ She chose to interpret another character’s deception as an act of love — the love her character deeply desired.

Another example

At the end of ‘The Insider,‘ Al Pacino’s and Russell Crowe’s characterssuffered major blows. Bergman (Pacino) resigned from 60 Minutes over a conflict of values. Wigand, whose wife left with the kids, who lost his lucrative job, and who suffered psychological and financial terror, became a high school teacher living alone.

Pacino and Crowe could have played victims crushed by the world. Instead, they played victors who won their goals. At the end of the film, both wore expressions of victory and success, rather than defeat and despair, which could have been justified.

Let’s project some potential objectives on the characters that would let them win, rather than lose.  Pacino’s Bergman could have the following objectives: to make the truth known, no matter what the cost. And Crowe’s Wigand could have, ‘to protect my reputation, and make Big Tobacco feel my pain.’ Both Bergman and Wigand won. And the audience feels inspired when the credits role.

What her book has that others don’t

Linear, clear instructions

Many acting books are just transcripts of a class and lack explicit instructions. I’ve read a bunch and found them helpful, but I had to infer and project structure onto the text. Chubbuck’s book is very straightforward in comparison.

Here’s an outline of her method straight from The Power of the Actor.

1. OVERALL OBJECTIVE: What does your character want from life more than anything? Finding what your character wants throughout the script.

2. SCENE OBJECTIVE: What your character wants over the course of an entire scene, which supports the character’s OVERALL OBJECTIVE.

3. OBSTACLES: Determining the physical, emotional and mental hurdles that make it difficult for your character to achieve his or her OVERALL and SCENE OBJECTIVE.

4. SUBSTITUTION: Endowing the other actor in the scene with a person from your real life that makes sense to your OVERALL OBJECTIVE and your SCENE OBJECTIVE. For instance, if your character’s SCENE OBJECTIVE is “to get you to love me,” then you find someone from your present life that really makes you need that love— urgently, desperately and completely. This way you have all the diverse layers that a real need from a real person will give you.

5. INNER OBJECTS: The pictures you see in your mind when speaking or hearing about a person, place, thing or event.

6. BEATS and ACTIONS: A BEAT is a thought. Every time there’s a change in thought, there’s a BEAT change. ACTIONS are the mini-OBJECTIVES that are attached to each BEAT that support the SCENE’S OBJECTIVE and, therefore, the OVERALL OBJECTIVE.

7. MOMENT BEFORE: The event that happens before you begin the scene (or before the director yells, “Action!”), which gives you a place to move from, both physically and emotionally.

8. PLACE and FOURTH WALL: Using PLACE and FOURTH WALL means that you endow your character’s physical reality— which, in most cases, is realized on a stage, soundstage, set, classroom or on location— with attributes from a PLACE from your real life. Using PLACE and the FOURTH WALL creates privacy, intimacy, history, meaning, safety and reality. The PLACE/ FOURTH WALL must support and make sense with the choices you’ve made for the other tools.

9. DOINGS: The handling of props, which produces behavior. Brushing your hair while speaking, tying your shoes, drinking, eating, using a knife to chop, etc., are examples of DOINGS.

10. INNER MONOLOGUE: The dialogue that’s going on inside your head that you don’t speak out loud.

11. PREVIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES: Your character’s history. The accumulation of life experiences that determines why and how they operate in the world. And then personalizing the character’s PREVIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES to that of your own so you can truly and soulfully understand the character’s behavior and become and live the role.

12. LET IT GO: While the Chubbuck Technique does use an actor’s intellect, it is not a set of intellectual exercises. This technique is the way to create human behavior so real that it produces the grittiness and rawness of really living a role. In order for you to duplicate the natural flow of life and be spontaneous, you have to get out of your head. To achieve this you have to trust the work you’ve done with the previous eleven tools and LET IT GO. These twelve acting tools create a solid foundation that will keep you present and inspire a raw, profound, dynamic and powerful performance.

Chubbuck, Ivana (2005-08-18). The Power of the Actor (Kindle Locations 155-184). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And, if you’re interested, here’s my living document with my notes on her twelve steps. I use this document to guide me through script analysis.

The book is worth the read and extremely helpful. I intend to write some follow-up posts with video on her twelve tools. Stay tuned.

Tim’s Burger Reviews

My pal Tim came to visit from the UK. We shot shotguns, checked out the ocean, broke my car, and ate TONS of hamburgers. I’m convinced that Tim’s new career should be hamburger sampling. Check out his reviews below:

In and Out, Morgan Hill, CA

Five Guys, Santa Cruz, CA

515, Santa Cruz, CA

Tim describes this burger as ‘incomparable,’ most likely because it doesn’t have any ‘reconstituted chicken nads.’


And here’s the manly shotgun shooting:

Shooting on an iPhone

Turns out that, if you’ve got great lighting, and I mean GREAT lighting, you can shoot great looking footage on a iPhone. The short below was filmed using an iPhone 6s, decent kitchen lighting, and this $32 LED.*

The kitchen with all of its lights really made these shots. I just used the LED to bounce some light off the marble counter onto Erin to provide contrast with background.

If we had shot in a less well-lit interior, this would have looked very different. The iPhone with its tiny sensor just can’t soak up tons of light, and the phone would have compensated with a much higher ISO. And ISO = noise. guerrilla

For the script, I thought of the concept awhile ago. This idea actually came before to the STD debate video.

*iPhone was mounted on this tripod with this head using this cage. Also used this shotgun mic mounted to the cold shoe. Video shot using this app.