The body doesn’t know the difference between real life and a fully lived fantasy – Elizabeth Mestnik
Meisner is all about honoring your impulse and being true to your own point of view while tending to the business at hand, including taking in your partner, fighting for what you need, and understanding your circumstances given the the text. Fitzmaurice Voicework aims to release tension and loosen the protective elements we put into place to stop ourselves from feeling or expressing too deeply. The tricky part in both cases is that we, as humans, have learned to protect ourselves from being hurt (physically and emotionally) by modifying or even stifling our impulses, because they would not be appropriate in pedestrian society (what if you burst into tears over a faulty drink order or told your boss what you really think of them?). The point is, we develop an understanding of what works best for us to live our lives as static-free as possible over a lifetime of information gained from our external pedestrian environment. And, it has worked well enough that we’re all still here! So when we, as actors, try to re-train our own bodies and emotional lives to let go of all that and be willing to be vulnerable and fully expressive, it’s no surprise that there is often some internal push-back.
Fitzmaurice Voicework allows an actor to let go of some of the tension, known as emotional armor, through a series of modified yoga poses and other breath and body work. We, as people, have learned to use emotional armor to stop ourselves from feeling the things that might hurt us, or fully expressing the things that might hurt other people. The amygdala is a small organ inside the brain that controls what is sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight response.” Fight or flight is what mammals use to save their lives in the face of danger, whether it be perceived or actual. When pre-historic man (or woman) was faced with a dangerous situation, he or she had two choices: to run for his or her life or to fight for his or her life. Placed in this situation, the amygdala fires and makes the decision for us in a split-second based on the information available. That system for survival has proven effective (again, we’re all here, aren’t we?). Unfortunately it is an antiquated system and is not always suited to today’s human world.
For example, the fear or discomfort one experiences when facing an audience on opening night may fill an actor with anxiety and discomfort. However, the level of danger one is actually in pales in comparison to what cave men faced when a saber tooth tiger was out looking for its supper! Still, in some ways the body doesn’t know the difference, and the feeling of fear and panic one gets can become overblown and shut down one’s ability to make complex choices of expression. That is an uncomfortable place to be. Over time, people build up a defense against such awkwardness: either avoid situations where that feeling of panic might come up at all, or shut down any real emotional availability before the feelings ever happen. This decision to pro-actively suspend the possibility of risk is often taken care of for us by our internal sense of survival (the subconscious mind). What’s more, once the decision is made, it can be quite challenging to reverse it.
So, there is a lot going on in a normal human’s internal make up that would prefer to stop impulses and emotional expression. Then that same human decides to be an actor and is suddenly asked to forget all that. Tough stuff! The good news is that both Meisner and Fitzmaurice are interested in freeing the impulse and allowing true feelings to be shown and expressed through behavior and words. Both techniques do so through carefully constructed exercises taught by instructors with years of experience. Both seek to provide opportunity for the actor to explore honest expression in a safe environment and regain control of what it means to allow such vulnerability.
Full, supported breathing is one way to start the process of allowance. We literally take in information from the environment and people around us. That information travels through the body, passing a series of “thought centers” (aligned with the Chakras), and picking up information along the way. The journey of the breath then reverses, and an honest response is returned to the environment through verbal or behavioral expression. This whole journey takes only a split second (about the same amount of time the amygdala needs to fire the fight or flight response). By becoming familiar with the possibility of allowing true impulse and expression to exist within us, Meisner and Fitzmaurice enhance our comfort and fluidity of function within this space.
A guiding principle of both Meisner and Fitzmaurice is to help actors allow for the vulnerable process of searching the soul and the self for honest feelings and then granting themselves permission to express those feelings with conviction and authenticity. It is an alternative to the fight or flight response, and it is available to anyone brave enough to seek it out. If this sounds interesting to you, come join us in our Meisner and Fitzmaurice classes.
Developing characters is a much-debated topic and something that comes up again and again with students, coaches, professionals and newbies. My own approach is one I have found useful, and I am happy to share with you all here! To be sure, there are many ways to skin a cat (sorry cat), so if there are any comments or suggestions, I am more than happy to hear them! For now, though, here’s the way I see it:
Assuming you have already handled script analysis and know what kind of project you’re reading for, one of the first things I like to consider when working on a project (either for a gig or an audition) is the character’s point of view (POV). A character’s POV is the way they see the world they live in. It involves status, and shapes the way the character will interact with the other people he or she comes into contact with. It also forms an opinion about the way the character sees things (“Life’s a bowl of cherries!” or “Everything is so unfair!” etc.). This part matters a lot because it will affect the disposition (or mood) of the character. Moods can change, of course, but if the character is a known sour-puss, that may show through even when they’re happy (think Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh).
2. Size and Shape of Character
With POV and status in mind, I start to consider the size and shape of the character. There are different vocal placements one might choose for large characters with high status and a sunny disposition, for example, than one might for a small, high-status character with a chip on his shoulder. A great example of this is the difference between Sully and Randal in the Pixar classic “Monsters Inc.” Both characters are arguably high-status, but their POVs are so vastly different, that even without the superlative vocal stylings of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, we would hear a clear vocal difference in our heads before giving it a shot ourselves.
Deciding where the voice comes from inside our own bodies and the placement of the voice inside the mouth to derive dialect and tone is sometimes known as “vocal posture” (this is an idea coined by Dudley Knight and Phil Thompson). Kermit the Frog has a guttural placement with a mid- to high-range pitch, for example.
3. Cadence or Rhythm of Speech
This is another important thing to consider. Just as the walk of a physical character will affect the way they are seen by the world, the cadence of a character voice makes a huge difference in how the world takes in the information shared by that character (see Christopher Walken as an example here).
All of the above will have an impact on how the character moves through space. He or she will have developed a way of moving that works for them (just as we all have). The posture, gate, fluidity, speed, and purpose of motion will be affected by their status and POV. They may also bring a specific animal to mind (remember Jordana’s Rasa workshop?). Getting up and moving with the script, feeling the words come out and how they change with a new posture and movement pattern is an important part of finding the character and adds the last piece of bringing that character to life.
So, now we’re really starting to build something. We’ve considered the character’s POV (including status and disposition). We’ve taken size and shape into consideration, which will affect sound. We’ve played with vocal posture and cadence. Finally, we’ve explored physicality to really put the finishing touches on this guy! During all this pre-work, I always make adjustments to be sure the voice feels comfortable coming out and the body moves as I need it to. I need to be able to breathe, and I have to be able to enunciate clearly (even if the character has a speech impediment, the audience needs to understand the words, unless you are specifically told otherwise). Likewise, I need to be able to move and repeat the movement without causing stress or strain when the gig is finished—no good to twist your body up in a knot if you can’t untie it after the show! In other words, it doesn’t do me any good to create a voice I can only use for a sentence or two or a physical structure that is unsustainable. If I can’t recreate those elements, no matter how cool they look or sound for short bursts, they’re no good to me in the long run (or the folks that want to pay me)!
The Three Cs
The last piece of quality control I always run for myself in terms of delivery is what I call the three Cs: Clarity, Commitment, and Consistency.
Have I made CLEAR choices that are coming from an informed place as far as the character and script are concerned (the “givens” that are learned by reading the script or audition sides carefully)? Am I jumping in with both feet and really COMMITTING to those choices (a sheepish read is not gonna get the job–even if you’re reading for a sheep!)? And, is the character CONSISTENT from beginning to end of the piece, and can I maintain that consistency for the duration of the gig when I get it?
If I can honestly answer yes to these questions, and I like what I hear and see… I go for it and hope for the best, letting it all go as I do and trusting that the work I did in the rehearsal room will be enough to allow me to be present on the actual day without having to effort my vocal and physical moves. Do your best, be proud of the work you create–care about it. If you like what you’re doing, keep working at it. This is an art form. There is no mathematical equation or specific blueprint to solve the question of what a character sounds and looks like. In the end, tell the truth and lead with your heart. Who could ask for anything more?
Thoughts? Comments? Let me hear ’em!
Michael Yurchak is an award winning actor, voice over artist and educator. In addition to his work with EMAS, Michael works as a Lead Teaching Artist in many theaters throughout the country. Teaching students–of any level–is his genuine passion. To read more about Michael click here, or check out his IMDB page.
This is L.A. The pressure is on to get going with your acting career. Living here can make you feel like you’re in a race to “make it” before you get too old, too broke, or too cynical. You’ve got to be at the top of your game at all times: trained, represented, available, confident. And so, to keep all these balls in the air, you go to the gym, you keep your wardrobe spiffy, you network, and you keep training – all while finding myriad ways to pay your exorbitant rent and keep your car running so you can get to the audition to book the job to pay your rent and pay for more classes to get you to the next audition. It’s exhausting. And difficult. And expensive.
Granted, playing Shakespeare may seem like the broccoli of acting; do your Shakespeare so you have a nice balanced diet of contemporary and classical roles in your repertoire. And let’s face it, most of our English teachers did us a disservice by asking us to drudge through reading one of the plays in the canon – a process sure to discourage even the most enthusiastic among us into any further study. And then there’s the prospect for employment – it’s not like Shakespearean actors are in high demand for high paying roles.
Or aren’t they?
When you think about really great actors that you admire in contemporary film and television, chances are they’ve done some Shakespeare. In fact, more and more, casting directors rely on those British thespians with a background in the Bard for coveted roles. Here are a few you may have heard of:
Ben Whishaw (Q in Skyfall)
Jeremy Irons (Alfred in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers and Thor)
James McAvory ( Steve McBride in Shameless, X-Men)
Alan Rickman (Harry Potter)
Emily Blunt (Girl on a Train)
Clémence Poesy (Fleur in the Harry Potter films)
Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier in X-Men films, formerly Jean-Luc Picard)
Felicity Jones (Theory of Everything)
Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in Star Trek Beyond – sorry, spoiler)
Judi Dench (former M in the James Bond franchise)
John Hurt (Harry Potter films, Hellboy II, the last Indiana Jones)
Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter)
Anthony Hopkins (Odin in Thor)
Ian McKellen (Magneto in X-Men)
Helen Mirren (RED & RED 2)
Kenneth Branagh (director, Thor)
So what are these “mad skills” I am suggesting you develop by learning to play Shakespeare? Without launching into a tome, here are the three biggest:
DECODING AND DELIVERING HEIGHTENED LANGUAGE
We are becoming increasingly accustomed to language short hand – as if texting has seeped into our verbal communication and renders us unable to articulate a full, complex, and emotionally-rich thought. ICYMI. OMG. WTF? ROTFLMAO! Just getting my students to fully embody the interjection “OH!” can be incredibly challenging.
Fact is, we just don’t have a rich tradition of rhetoric in America. The seeming inability of our current political leaders to deliver inspirational addresses is yet another example of our shift away from practicing and honoring the deliciousness of language.
Acting Shakespeare demands that an actor operate at the highest capacity of intellect, emotion, and vocal and physical expressiveness. His characters are intelligent and complex, his themes cover the breadth of humanity’s extremes, his words are evocative, colorful, descriptive and alive in their mere vibration. It’s our job as actors to reach out with those words and grab the audience and, as the great Shakespearean director and co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare company John Barton reminds us in the brilliant series Playing Shakespeare, we must MAKE them listen.
BRINGING YOUR IMAGINATION TO A FULL AND RICH LIFE
Most actors have heard Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting: to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. And there is no greater playground of imaginary circumstances than Shakespeare’s plots. They are jumbo blockbuster movies, colossal melodramas full of heroes and villains, intrigue, danger, deceit, love, hate, clowning, slapstick, twists, monsters, and magic. Learning to give yourself over to, and splash around in these extreme circumstances and bring them to life is one of the true joys of being an actor.
Patrick Stewart once explained how Shakespeare prepared him for his career: “I think that the experience that we get in making a 400-year-old text work is exactly what you need for giving credibility and believability to fantasy, science fiction, and the like.”1 It’s quite an artistic stretch to get related to a circumstance, like Titania’s in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she, the queen of the fairies, falls madly in love with a “rude mechanical” (laborer), Bottom, who has the head of a donkey. Or Lavinia’s predicament in Titus Andronicus, where she is violently raped and butchered (tongue cut out and hands cut off) after her lover is murdered. We must “live truthfully” under these circumstances if we are to bring these characters to life for our audience. It’s a tall order indeed.
Let’s remember, too, that Shakespeare’s plays during his time were created upon a bare stage, with minimal props and only functional set pieces. Creating an island, or a majestic throne room of a palace had much more to do with the actors use of their vivid imaginations and language to bring the audience into the setting with them. This skill serves an actor well today when an increasing amount of film work will be acted in front of a green-screen, with digital effects added long after the acting has been captured. An actor’s ability to bring to life what does not exist in reality is vital to a compelling performance.
CONNECTING US TO OUR HUMANITY
As fantastical and outrageous some of Shakespeare’s plots and characters may be, the reason they still resonate 400 years later has to do with their deep understanding and reflection of the human condition. Famed Shakespearean director Trevor Nunn, in an interview with The Telegraph, even argues that the Bard’s themes resonate more than religion: “Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the Bible.”2
Certainly today, any theatergoer experiencing Henry V can feel the reverberation of the consequences and cost of going to war. At the same time, the play Julius Caesar reminds us how the fears of the masses can be exploited and manipulated by unprincipled leaders (presidential politics). Even our teenagers, whose first foray into Shakespeare is most likely Romeo and Juliet, recognize the fatal consequences of feuds and unwarranted hatred between and among human beings (immigrants and refugees).
An actor’s journey, though very personally enlightening, is also demanding in a more universal way. We are the harbingers of humanity’s empathy. We must be willing to explore, discover, and understand the depths of the human condition if we are to invite our audiences to open their eyes with us. If our profession is to be anything more than vanity, we must embrace our role in opening their hearts and minds.
For more information on Shakespeare classes for Hollywood-minded actors, see EMAS’s Playing Shakespeare workshop.
I needed to find a class. After spending almost three years at The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio, (EMAS) (Summer intensive, two years of Meisner and scene study), it was time for something new. At least, that was what I had been told. All of the online acting forums informed me how imperative it was to not stay at the same studio for too long, lest I stop growing as an actor. I definitely didn’t want that to happen, so the search for a new Los Angeles acting class began.
This is what happened:
Class 1: The class started almost 30 minutes late, which was a red flag for me. The teacher was there, but a lot of the students weren’t, and the ones who were there didn’t seem to be in any rush to start class. They were chatting and playing around with one another and not ready to work. This was supposedly a “master” class, by the way. This studio used a hybrid of techniques, but the teacher really liked the Meisner repetition exercise. When he found out that I had studied Meisner, he invited me up to practice repetitions with the other students. Cool. I get up there and do the exercise with about five of the students. After about 15 minutes, I was exhausted and frustrated. Repetitions do that to you, but I was more upset by the fact that it was evident that the instructor hadn’t fully explained the point of the exercise so it went nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.
By the time that they were ready to put up the scenes, everyone seemed to check out, including the instructor. I decided to keep looking.
Class 2: Right away, the instructor informed the auditors that students don’t work every week. They only work when they are “ready”. What does that even mean? And who determines when the student is ready? Why would I pay my hard-earned money to maybe put up a scene once a month or so? Okay, I get it. There is a lot that can be learned from just observing and watching other actors work, but you mostly learn by doing. Final verdict: not for me.
Class 3: After doing research on their website, I discovered that that instructor didn’t allow audits. You had to have trust in the teacher and trust that he would be fantastic and that you would automatically jibe with his teaching style. Great.
These are only three examples of what I came across but, trust me, I could go on and on. Los Angeles is filled with dozens of acting classes, and I choose to believe that, for the most part, you will avoid situations like this. But, statistically speaking… well, you know, someone is filling those classes, I just didn’t want it to be me. I found myself back at EMAS one day watching the scene study class, the one I didn’t take because I thought I needed to “spread my wings”, wishing that I were on that stage, exploring a new character. And then the thing that Oprah calls an “ah-ha” moment hit me. I’d spent so much time and energy trying to find a studio to replicate what the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio does so well, and it’s the reason why I decided to make EMAS my acting home in the first place.
Every single instructor has so much passion for what they do, and it’s refreshing and reassuring to walk into one of their classes knowing that fail or fly, you’re going to leave that class with a valuable piece of information to make your acting that much better. And the students are there to work. Elizabeth has fostered such a sense of community and family, and upon meeting the incredible teachers and students, you can’t deny it. It’s why I continue to go back for the mixers, staged readings and, realize that in the New Year, this is the place I need to be. Some people may truly need to change schools to get all the training they need for this industry, but that’s just not the case for me. Far from stunting my growth as an actor, I feel like I’ve found a creative home that challenges me and hones my process. I don’t really need to look any further.
Aisha Lomax is a 2014 graduate of The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio’s Professional Meisner Training Program. She is currently making strides in the commercial world; you can see her racing across town from one audition to the next!
As the fundamental philosophy behind our acting classes here at the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio, we’re excited to have opened up registration for two different Meisner Technique classes in 2015.
More than just “acting,” the Meisner technique teaches the actor to be truthful and honest, with both themselves and the scene. As powerful as this is, it is nonetheless a skill which is achieved step-by-step. This is the wonderful thing about the Meisner technique – it lays down a path which allows the actor to gain self-knowledge and skills that eventually lead to acting out of instinct rather than intellect.
As of April, 2015, we’re accepting interviews for two classes which will take actors on the first steps into the Meisner technique: the Summer Meisner Intensive, and the Fall Meisner Program.
The goal of Summer Meisner Intensive is to fully immerse the actor in both the philosophies and the practices of the Meisner technique in a short period of time (three days a week for three hours at a time). Despite only lasting five weeks, the nature of the class allows students to not only become familiar with the Meisner technique but also to take the first significant strides towards becoming an emotionally honest and intuitive actor.
The Fall Meisner Program is an opportunity for students to begin their first year of the Meisner Technique or to continue into their second year of study. We truly believe that the power of the technique and the commitment of our acting coaches will give the student at either point in their studies the best opportunity to grow as an actor and a person.