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.”

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.