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Should Working Actors Continue Their Training??

Guest Post by Matthew Jaeger

Matthew Jaeger HeadshotMatt Jaeger is a 2014 graduate of The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio’s Professional Meisner Training Program. He is currently starring in Chinglish by David Henry Hwang at East West Players. Other credits include Recurring and Guest Star appearances on Criminal Minds, Switched at Birth, CSI and Grey’s Anatomy. See Matthew Jaeger on IMDB.


When I came to Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio, I’d already been a working actor for four years. I worked primarily in commercials and television, doing the occasional film and the even more occasional theatre project. I came to EMAS because of one these more occasional theatre projects, a play called Short Eyes, where I played the title role. It was an incredibly demanding role, and I found I hit a wall when trying to access certain emotional parts of myself. I would get to a point and then just… nothing. It was scary and incredibly frustrating. So I faked it when I needed to, and got through the run. But afterwards I was left with the feeling that I should have gone farther, made the role not only deeper but given it more levels and color. My girlfriend (now wife) suggested I look at Elizabeth Mestnik’s Meisner Summer Intensive when it came around that summer. So I did.

To make long story slightly less long, in that short intensive, I dug deeper than I ever had before. I liked what I found, and what it did to me as an actor. So I joined the full Professional Program. What followed were nine months of some of the hardest work I’ve ever done as an actor. Remember, I make my money acting, so I was very nervous to mess with my process or give anyone else input as to how I approached my craft. But the more I relaxed and opened up, the better things got. It was SO much work, but every minute was worth it. I continued on into the 2nd year’s advanced work and my confidence grew as I solidified what I learned and absorbed it into my daily work.

In going through the 2 Year Meisner Program, I not only grew as an actor, but as a person. I made lasting friendships and came to know myself in ways I never thought I would. It was great. But if you’re like me, you want to know, bottom line, “Did the acting get better?” Aka “Did you start booking more?” Well, I’m about as anal retentive as they come and I actually track my booking percentages, so I can answer that question.

Yes.

I started class in 2012. My stats for that year were:
Callback: 20.7%, Booking: 8.8%
(I told you I was anal retentive)

During 2013 I was changing my process and rebuilding my craft, and the numbers dropped.
Callback: 10.4%, Booking 5.2%
Needless to say, it took some real trust to keep with it when my stats dropped by half. But I believed in Elizabeth, Jordana, and Ken. And like I said, I could see my growth as an artist. And most importantly, I was ENJOYING acting more.

By the time I graduated, in June 2014, everything was back to normal. My stats for 2014 were almost identical to 2012:
Callback: 20%, Booking 8.6%

Today I’ve had a year to settle into my new process and really put what I learned to work. It’s the first complete year of acting work I’ve had since graduating, and my stats have definitely improved As of November, my 2015 stats are:
Callback 25.4%, Booking 19%

That’s right, my booking ratio more than DOUBLED in my first full year after graduating from the EMAS 2 Year Meisner Program. And my callbacks have increased as well.

Also, before and during the class (2012-2014) I averaged working 18 days a year. For 2015, I’m on track to work 91 days. True, this probably would have been a good year anyway, part of the ebb and flow of any career. But it could never have gotten this good without EMAS studios. My training there has upped my game to a new level.

So, to sum it all up, only someone as anal retentive as me can tell you, with objective proof, the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio works.

Preparing For An Audition

You may already know what to take with you on an acting audition, but do you know how to mentally prepare yourself for it?

What does it take to stand out from the countless numbers of individuals that are vying from the same position that you are?

An acting school can help to train your thoughts, gestures and mind to focus on the task at hand. An acting coach can also give you knowledge to win in all types of acting genres.

Here Are A Few Tips:

• Be confident – when you believe in yourself, it’s easier for others to do the same
• Smile – It helps connect with directors and break the ice (for you at least)
• Build your stage presence – this can be learned through an acting coach
• Practice – it makes the monologue or dialogue run perfectly
• Project your voice – doing otherwise comes off as timidity

Other Considerations:

• Bring a head shot and resume, this shows preparedness
• Dress for a job, but not for the part, costumes are usually provided
• Early birds catch the first worm, so get there 20 minutes early

Whether you’re going to an arranged audition, or an open casting call, these tips should better prepare you to land the role you’re trialing for. Get the full actor’s checklist at an acting school in LA, who will teach and practice with you.

Emasla is a top-acting school in the heart of Los Angeles. To learn more about class schedules and tuition for the Emasla studio, go here.

And on a final note, believe in yourself, do your best, and everything else will fall into place. Remember, with time and practice, all things become feasible to those who think they can.

Beyond Repetition – by Elizabeth Mestnik

To Behave Truthfully under Imaginary Circumstances” – Sanford Meisner’s Sanford Meisnerdefinition of acting.

The Independent Activity is the next step after the basic repetition exercise. It is the phase of the work that really brings home what it means to “behave truthfully”.   In this phase of the work a student is asked to do a physically difficult task, something that takes 110% of their concentration to achieve.   This is a surprise to actors who in the past have only “pretended” on stage before – “pretended” to read a letter, or “pretended” make lunch.  Here any activity they do they have to REALLY do it.  To help their concentration we give the activity certain guidelines, which we introduce one at a time:

  1. A standard of perfection that lets us know if we are succeeding with the activity.  For example, it’s not enough to build a house of cards, the student must get more specific, ie: build a 3-story house using all 52 cards.
  2. A simple and specific reason for needing to do the activity.
  3. Urgency:  which means they know how much time they need to get this activity done; no more and no less.

An activity that does not integrate all of these criteria is not acceptable, and the student starts to learn how to hold themselves to high standards.  Any holes in the crafting will keep the improvisation that is to come from fully developing.  It will hurt their acting.

Skills learned through The Independent Activity:

  • It grounds the student in the reality of doing.  Nothing we do in these first steps is pretend. What that means is that they learn how to really do something under imaginary circumstances.  If they choose to paint a picture, they really paint, and really give themselves a standard of perfection to help them know if they are succeeding or failing.
  • It reveals that emotion is a by-product of DOING.  The more they REALLY do the activity, and the more they struggle with it, the more likely REAL emotional life will start to emerge (usually frustration).
  • It teaches that the more specific the actor is in his or her crafting, the easier it is to believe in the imaginary circumstances.
  • It begins the exploration of what makes the actor tick, what pushes each individual actor’s emotional buttons.  As we start to make the reasons for doing the activity have greater importance (what we call raising the stakes) the actor is forced to craft from personal feelings – what makes them angry, or scared, or exhilarated.

emas268While this actor is working on their independent activity, their partner will start the repetition exercise – and we learn that acting means you must DO and you must also work off of your partner – and neither can be sacrificed.  It’s very difficult to do.  The actor with the independent activity will want to tune their partner out in order to work on their activity, or they will stop working on their activity in order to work off of their partner – and yet they cannot do this – they must do both. This creates an innate push and pull for the actor “I need to get this activity done, but this other person is demanding my attention and keeping me from succeeding”.  It ultimately will create a conflict between the partners.  Believe it or not – these exercises were developed to create conflict because acting is full of dramatic fights. As an actor we must embrace conflict in a scene. In the real world many of us avoid conflict at all costs, but as actors we have to be comfortable living in the drama.  The Independent Activity also teaches the actor to:

  • Stand up for themselves and find their voice
  • Work from a place of sensitivity and compassion
  • Craft from what has real meaning for them but not from real life.  Acting is always imaginary and if we use real life drama that is not acting, and not a healthy way to work

Emotional Preparation comes next – and that is the very personal technique that we use to get to a heightened emotional state, on our own, without the assistance of an activity or a partner. It is self-induced emotional life.  It’s not our favorite way to connect emotionally but it’s important to be able to do this when the actor has to start a scene already fully alive.  This happens all the time in film shoots where filming may pick up over and over again in the middle of a scene.  We do this work so that the actor develops an entire repertoire of emotions to bring to the imaginary circumstances. The week–in, week-out emotional workout also helps our emotional life to be easily called up at a moments notice.  We can create any emotional life that the character might demand.

The Domestic Exercise comes next – this is when the students start to create different relationships with their partners.  We make sure that the actor doesn’t lose their moment-to-moment connection for the sake of a full emotional life.  Emotion is seductive when it first starts to come up, it feels good to feel! But an audience doesn’t want to sit there watching someone emote.  They want to see what the character does THROUGH the emotion.  The actor has to be reminded that acting is not emotion but that the emotion will inform how the actor DOES something.  Emotion without doing is not acting.

Student at elizabeth meznik Actors studio acting classFinally, we introduce the Shared Circumstances.  With this work, actors start to think like actors, learning how to ask the right questions and flesh out the scenes.  They get more specific about their relationships, and strengthen their points of view.  They start to work on objectives from an organic approach rather than in intellectual one. This is when each actor’s uniqueness really starts to shine.  All the while the student must NEVER lose the essential idea that everything you do is in RESPONSE to your partner, moment to moment.  It’s what we developed through the repetition exercises, and just because we’ve moved on to other steps – we can never lose that foundation.  Day in and day out, in these improvisational scenes that are built from the repetition exercise, the actors get to:

  • Expand their emotional lives.
  • Exercise their imaginations.
  • Hone their crafting.
  • Find their unique voice.

It’s an intense and challenging program, but those who dedicate themselves to this work will never be the same, as actors, as artists or as people.

Stay tuned – our next discussion will be about how Scene Work is integrated into the first year of Meisner Technique.

Article written by Elizabeth Mestnik

What does the Meisner Technique Teach?

The Repetition Exercise and How it Works:

Sanford Meisner Portrait
Sanford Meisner

I’m asked all the time “What do you teach actors?  What do you learn in a Meisner Technique program?”  I mean truly, the skill sets required of actors are often not visible to the untrained eye, the best acting is invisible, it looks just like real life, so I am not surprised that the beginning acting student isn’t sure what it is they need to learn to become a truthful exciting actor.  So I usually explain to them that we teach you how to be truthful in your acting, you learn how to act from your instincts and not your head, we fine tune your ability to be in true contact with another actor, how to tap into your imagination to emotionally connect to the dramatic circumstances of the script, you learn to sensitize to the world around you so you can walk in your character’s shoes with emotional truth and integrity…and at some point in this long list they interrupt and ask “how do you do that?” .  And that is where it gets tricky, because as “simple” as the Meisner Technique’s structure is, it’s ramifications are profound and address so many of the actor’s needs – it’s difficult to sum it up in a brief conversation.  The best way to understand the work is by reading one of the two great books on the process, –William Esper’s book “The Actor’s Art and Craft” or, of course, Sanford Meisner’s book “On Acting”.  But these conversations have gotten me to thinking that maybe we could give people a skeletal understanding of the Meisner steps and what skills they address.  I do this because it is important for us to understand that the skills actors need go way beyond memorizing lines and hitting your mark.

The Repetition Exercise is the most well known phase of Meisner’s work and it lays a really important foundation for the more complex exercises and important scene work that comes down the road.

For me the Repetition exercise has 3 phases:

  1. Objective Repetition without changes
  2. Objective Repetition with changes
  3. Subjective Repetition with changes

All of which develop the actor’s ability to work off of their partner, work impulsively and stand up for their own feelings.  Here is how this little repetition exercise does all that.

The Objective Repetition without changes, starts with someone commenting on the first thing they see in their acting partner and then their partner repeating what they said and this repetition of the same observation goes on and on – it’s a simple but very powerful exercise that teaches actors

  • How to honor their impulses by commenting on the first thing they notice– honoring what they really see before the sensors of politeness and manners set in.  Contrary to mom’s advice we want you to speak before you think!  We are teaching you to stop the judgment of your observations – so if the first thing they notice is “big nose” they have to say it!  We are developing their ability to act from an impulse rather than their intellect, responding from the heart not the head. Just repeating also removes the need to come up with the words also helps keeps the student from thinking too much.
  • How to put your focus and attention on one thing – their partner, and be able to read their partner’s behavior.  In a time where we are always distracted, by an email, a phone call, a billboard, re-learning how to stay focused over time is an invaluable skill.  Ultimately this is about connecting with another human being and allowing all other distractions to fall away so you can truly be present with someone else, truly be affected by them, and live in the moment.  Learning to put your focus somewhere outside of oneself is also an invaluable tool to calm nerves.
  • How to allow yourself to be affected by someone else and how to give your body and voice permission to reveal how you are feeling.  We are trained in life not to show our weaknesses, our worry, our vulnerability and that can create a lot of tension that keeps the actor from being expressive.  We are trained in life to show only our “best” selves, but as actors we must show our “true” selves.   Sometimes students become robotic in this first step for fear of not doing it right.  We don’t care about being right we care about behaving truthfully.  We remove the idea of being right or wrong and substitute the idea of either being present or not to your partner and to the moment.

student actor teacher exerciseRepetition with changes.  Now the actor is allowed to change the repetition when their partner inspires them to do so. It may be as simple as a fact “you scratched your nose”, or it may go deeper to “you are flirting with me”.  At first whatever they notice and can put into words is valid. And when they can’t find the words, they continue to repeat.   We want to make sure that they aren’t thinking before they speak and they aren’t intellectually searching for a way to change the repetition.  It is better to just repeat than to intellectualize.  This phase

  • Furthers the actor’s ability to read behavior, and now makes the actor commit to calling the behavior, without polite editing.  Removing the editor in one’s mind is an important aspect of getting actors to be instinctual and emotional.
  • Enhances the impulsive response, which is not within the actor’s control.  Controlling the changes in the repetition exercise means the actor is still working from their head and aren’t completely free.
  • Is the beginning step of the actors finding their own point of view, of really taking in how someone is behaving and having an opinion about it.

Subjective Repetition With Changes.  Now instead of calling the first thing they see in their partner to start off the exercise, the actor is prompted to put their point of view out there – to have the courage to have an opinion about what they see.  This can be a very difficult step – as we have been taught from a very young age to avoid being completely truthful when in dialogue with someone else.   We are taught not to say anything that might make someone uncomfortable, and so saying what we really think is tough – and hearing it and really taking it in is also very tough.  I once had a young man say to a really beautiful young woman “you are gorgeous”.  It was completely truthful and heartfelt, and this beautiful young woman was completely overwhelmed by the honesty and genuineness that she welled up with tears.  Why? Because the safe space of the classroom allowed he to let go of her defenses and show her feelings and because we don’t get opportunities for this sincerity very often in real life! But I say in this work we are not looking to behave as we would in real life – we want to be MORE TRUTHFUL than we are in real life.  That is why audiences pay money to see us, because we will reveal to them something BEYOND what they experience in the every day.  So this phase continues to solidify working from the instinct, and staying connected with the partner, but it’s most profound work is that it

  • Teaches us to look for the TRUTH in all our work.

So that is the REPETITION EXERCISE broken down as simply as I am able.  It is such an invaluable foundation to truthful, spontaneous acting – but it is only the beginning.  Next I’ll talk about the Independent Activity, Emotional Preparation, Scene Work, Relationships and Shared Circumstances exercises.  However, none of these more advanced exercises are doable unless the actor is able to work off of their partner, honor their impulses and have a point of view, all skills that are learned in the Repetition Exercises.

Article by Elizabeth Mestnik about the Meisner Technique.

Basics of the Meisner Technique

Great Acting Requires:

two actors in a scene trainingConnection: You must know how to listen and give yourself permission to be affected by your acting partners and the imaginary circumstances of the scene.

Focus: You must learn how to focus on something outside yourself and how to really do what you are doing… for real, no pretending.

Expression: You must constantly work on being free to express emotion:  which means allowing your feelings to come out in behavior.

Self-Knowledge: Developing your Unique Point of View about the world:  you must know how you feel about things, people, and the world around you and what defense mechanisms you use in the real world to keep these feelings at bay.  These defense mechanisms must be stripped away before any truthful behavior can be revealed.

Impulsiveness: All good acting stems from an actors instincts, by honoring impulses and not intellectualizing the work.  We need to learn to act from our gut not our heads.

And you must have trained body and voice that is strong and dextrous enough to do all of this.

Technique: (noun) A systematic procedure, formula or routine by which a complicated task is accomplished; the way in which the fundamentals, as of an artistic work, are handled.

All serious artists commit themselves to learning the technique of their craft, no one is asked to play a Bach concerto at their first piano lesson, but in many acting classes beginning students are given complex scenes on the first day – asked to perform them, given a few perfunctory notes, and this is considered acting training.

The Meisner Technique, however, takes the training of actors as seriously and as systematically as the training of dancers and musicians.  As teachers of Sanford Meisner’s work, we consider a mastery of “technique” (the SYSTEMATIC procedure needed by actors to create great performances) absolutely necessary.  The Meisner Technique is a systematic, step-by-step process that allows for actors to gain the skill sets required to create a character and live in the imaginary world of the play. The skills required to act go way beyond how to memorize lines and hit your marks.

Everything we do in the Meisner Technique takes us back to those 5 major skill sets – and so how do we gain skills?  How does an NBA player improve his jump shot?  Not in the game – but through drills, exercises and PRACTICE! – and that is how we improve our connection, our focus, our emotional expression our self-knowledge, and hone our instincts – PRACTICE!

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT: ACTING CLASSES IN LOS ANGELES

With all of the different options for actor training, it’s sometimes difficult to navigate all the different schools and classes, techniques and approaches.  Even for the experienced actor, finding the right place to study can be challenging, and sometimes downright discouraging.  There are a million types of classes, Scene Study, Meisner Technique, Movement, Improv, etc.  So let me break down some simple distinctions that could help you find the right acting class in Los Angeles.

  1. Technique class:

A technique class is the best place for beginners to start.   It’s also a great place for experienced actors to return to when they need rejuvenation. It is a class that emphasizes acquiring skills rather than putting together a performance.  All the exercises should help the students develop a character and perform a scene, but the emphasis is on developing the skill itself.  Skills such as how to:

  • Break down a script
  • Create the environment
  • Work off of your acting partner
  • Tap into your creativity and imagination
  • Strengthen your voice and physicality
  • Develop a character
  • Learn who you are and how to bring yourself to your work

These are just a few of the skills an actor needs to master before they can deliver a fantastic performance.  There are a variety of techniques that can get you these skills, Meisner, Adler, Hagen, Strassburg.  The best technique classes do give you the chance to test these skills out in a scene or monologue, but the focus is on skill acquisition.

The most important thing is that a beginner NOT put the cart before the horse and hop into a Scene Study class too soon.  That would be like someone who wanted to dance ballet being told to dance Swan Lake in the first class and then being told what they did wrong.  A technique class is like learning the various steps.  Learn the steps before you dance.  Learn the skills before you act.  And like ballet, you need to be patient; it takes time for us to acquire these skills. No one does a triple pirouette the first week.  No one performs a moving scene that easily either. Avoid the 4-week workshop if you are looking for a good technique class.  That is not enough time for this work to germinate.  Nothing worth learning comes easily; make the investment to become a master of your craft.

Good training can access parts of the student’s creativity and talent they never even knew they had.  Technique is the bowl that holds the actors talent for us to see.  Without it the actor’s talent can escape like water through their fingers. The best actors, the Robert Duvalls, Meryl Streeps and Phillip Seymore Hoffmans, have dedicated years to studying technique to shape and release their amazing gifts.

2. Scene Study:

This is a class where students who already have some mastery of the above skill sets can put them to practice.  You will be working on a scene, trying to get it to, what I call, “performance ready”. For this, it is very important that you have a good rapport with the teacher.  I think it is important that the instructor have the ability to improve your technique in case you need it (to give you exercises or work on your instrument), but also work as a director so that you get used to working towards a result.  If Technique Class is about process, then scene study needs to be about process and product.  The format is pretty simple.  Two actors prepare a scene.  They perform it, at whatever stage of readiness it is in.  The instructor gives coaching and directing, and may even work on specific issues.  The actors rehearse the scene on their own, to bring back to the next class.  It varies a bit, but for the most part – that is how a scene study class goes.  Here are a few things to look for in a Scene Study class:

  • You should work in every class.
  • There should be more work than discussion.
  • You should want to work with this instructor over a series of months, with different material, as it does take us some time to get to know how you work, what your weaknesses are and how to move you forward in your craft.
  • Your classmates should be as committed to rehearsing outside of class as you are.
  • The class should be no more than 4 hours long (ok, so this is pretty subjective, but I think that 4 hours is about the limit any creative person can stay alert, and work productively.  I’ve heard of the classes that go until the wee hours of the morning – either the class is too large, the scenes too long, or the teacher likes to talk too much)
  1. Cold Reading/Audition workshops:  Cold Reading is an audition technique that is particularly important in Hollywood, where you could potentially get the script you are working with literally moments before you go in to audition. These workshops are often taught by industry professionals (casting directors, agents etc.)  One thing I need you to understand is that casting directors are not necessarily acting coaches, and so although they can often tell you what they want to see, they may lack the proper tools to get you there.  That is why it is very important that you be very confident in your training before you put yourself in front of any casting director or agent (you don’t want to make a bad impression).  If you don’t have your skill set completely under your belt, make sure your Cold Reading class is with a coach not a casting director.

There are a huge number of acting teachers and acting schools in Los Angeles, some are amazing and gifted, some are hoaxes and some are even abusive.  Nonetheless, there ARE enough really insightful teachers out there who are passionate about training actors that you need not settle.  There are a lot of things you do not have control over in this crazy business, but your craft is not one of them.  Take control of it, master your craft, train, rehearse, and I hope to work with you soon!