“The goal of the Meisner technique has often been described as getting actors to ” Live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. ” (Silverberg 1994: 45),
Critically examine this statement, with reference to at least three different screen dramas.
It is the writer’s belief that to attempt to examine the statement a brief recap on Meisners acting predecessors should be included in this essay.
Arguably Stanislavski can be called the foundation of modern acting techniques. Challenging himself to become a better acting practitioner than the melodramatic thespians of his time .Stanislavski found that they didn’t form a connection to their character or the other actors and directed their dialogue directly at the audience .Through taking notes and trial and error; he came up with an acting system. He was greatly responsible for the revolutionary change in Russian theatre, making it more accessible to the masses.
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Many of his principles called upon the actor to draw upon their own experiences and take an analytical approach to the character to be portrayed. He created the “If” principle, what would you do in a situation out with your experience but is faced by the character. This principle challenges the actor to use their imagination .Stanislavski wanted actors to draw upon their own life experiences to create the truth of their character and not to invent falsehoods. His subsequent students and followers used and developed his techniques.
When these teachings crossed continents into America they were altered, whether through linguistic translation or artistic interpretation.
Stella Adler was a strong follower of his teachings and travelled to Europe to learn his techniques firsthand. Through working with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, Meisner built upon the Stanislavski system and developed his own technique.
The Meisner technique is about the actors truthful reactions within an imaginary circumstance.Stanislavski`s system comes across as regimented and over analysed with actions /reactions preordained before being performed in comparison.
Though there are more similarities than differences of these two practitioners’ techniques at the core. Both believe that the actors own life experiences should be draw upon to bring truth to their character.
By reacting instinctually when in character within the parameters of the text under the imaginary circumstances fresh discoveries can be made. Discoveries about the characters behaviour and the actor’s subconscious interpretation of their reasoning.
Even through intense analysis of the text, these discoveries might not have been brought out through intellectual study.
This is the heart of his technique ,finding behavioural truths which freely happen when the actor is in the moment.
The ultimate goals of these practices are to bring truthfulness and believability to the character. If the actor takes on this truth of character action /reactions and fully believes it themselves ,then the audience will also.
In the theatre it is generally stated that the performance is life compressed onstage but for acting on camera this must be refined. The camera can follow the action up-close and pick up on moments of doubt or an actor going through the motions. The actor isn’t banging it out to the cheep seats but striving to produce a condensed realistic piece of acting.
The combination of the actors own life experiences and the character`s creates this living real life under imaginary circumstances.
My first example of Meisner’s technique in action on screen was found in the Crying Game (1992) directed by Neil Jordan.
A disillusioned member of the Irish republican army tries to drop off the radar and is pursued by fellow agents. After aiding in the kidnapping of a black British soldier ,Fergus forms a bond with his captive and agrees to look up his girlfriend if negotiations for his release fall through. The prisoner Jody escapes but Fergus cant bring himself to shoot his new friend but Jody is tragically killed by his own army when they accidently run him over. Fergus looks up the girlfriend Dil and almost immediately forms a relationship with her. When He discovers that he isn’t the only one keeping secrets ,Fergus continues with this affair with his new love. The reveal in the film was shocking at the time as this new love Dil was actually a man.
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The scene that caught my attention was the kissing scene between Dil and Fergus . When Fergus says to Dil ‘be a good girl, go inside.’ Dil looks directly into his eyes and replies, ‘only if you kiss me.’ Fergus is taken aback by the directness of the statement and takes a moment to recover, moving forward to kiss her. He is loving but surprised and confused and it is evident on his face. The confusion that stems from kissing another man is made apparent by the snort Fergus makes and his downplaying of the significance of the kiss by asking, ‘are you happy now?’ Dil’s reply, ‘delirious’ is charged with anger at Fergus’s reluctance to embrace his feelings.
The scene is important for the way in which the feelings of the characters, rather than the words they say, portray the meaning of the scene. Dil and Fergus’ moving towards and away from each other, looking at each other but refusing to touch and make physical contact, the awkward and defiant postures they adopt, all show the physical and emotional attraction that exists between them, and Fergus’ repulsion at the idea of kissing a man. Both are highly emotional and make that emotion available to each other and the audience with only a secondary use of language. The scene is a remarkable achievement for the way in which it portrays the surprise and adventure, and the newness of the experience. The characters appear not to know what will happen, and yet are alive and expectant to what that might entail. They are prime examples of Meisner’s statement that, ‘the quality of your acting depends on how fully you are doing what you are doing,’ .
The second example is from Moon (2009) directed by Duncan Jones
Set in the near future, earth natural recourses have been exhausted and the moon is now being mined. Loan astronaught Sam Bell is isolated and shut off from earth as communication is down. As he approaches the final month of his contract Sam has an accident outside in a moon vehicle. Waking up in the medi lab he slowly starts to realise all is not right when the computer tries to keep him confined. Venturing outside Sam finds the injured Sam and brings him back to the lab. Is Sam loosing his mind or is the company abusing their power by cloning him. Who is the real Sam and will the company let more than one version exist.
In the chosen scene for this example the Sam who has been injured and almost completed his term is confronting the newly awaked clone Sam. Injured Sam is still not sure what he is experiencing is real while clone Sam is struggling to work out why this is happening. Even though this is a scene involving the same actor and the interaction are being imposed upon each other ,the momentum is not lost and the technology of the scene doesn’t draw focus from the acting.Meisner trained Sam Rockwell gives two wholly believable distinctly different performances in this scene. A man loosing his mind against one who is struggling to maintain his sanity. The battle of wills while they fight over music is well choreographed and an extreme example of acting truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
A third example of Meisner’s technique comes from his own performance in The Story on Page One (1959) directed by Clifford Odets.
A married Jo Morris is a woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who is abusive to their young daughter has an affair .Through a series of unfortunate events her lover Larry Ellis ,accidently kills the husband and they decide to cover up Larry`s presence .What follows is the subsequent trial by the legal system and tabloid press .Larry’s domineering mother initially interfered in his budding relationship and causes more problems for the lovers during the trial.
In this film, Meisner plays Phil Stanley the prosecuting attorney. After the accidental killing by Gig Young of his lover’s husband, Meisner puts on a remarkable performance in the courtroom scenes. In scene after scene, the questioning and cross examination of Gig Young and the other witnesses in the case is carried out convincingly and intensely.
Meisners technique, as demonstrated by the three screen performances used as examples in this paper, therefore lives up to Meisner’s own claim that acting should be to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. The actors all appear to be reacting to genuine impulses and motivations, guided by their feelings and by compelling motivating factors.
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