An interview with some if our working actors.
At EMAS we have a number of students and alumni who are out there working professionally – I had a chance to get a little insight from 5 of our students and to talk about what tools they use on set and what the Meisner training brings to their performances.
I spoke with:
Sharif Atkins: currently he plays Clinton Jones on TNT’s White Collar, other credits include The Good Wife, The 4400 and 4 years as Dr. Michael Galant on ER.
Susane Lee: appeared in The Soloist with Jamie Foxx, Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, VP and the film festival favorite Kosher Pig.
Christopher T. Wood: whose credits include Ira Ungerleider in Friends with Benefits and roles on The Office and Without a Trace.
Charles Michael Davis: currently plays Liam on ABC family’s Switched at Birth. He’s also shooting for BET’s The Game.
Lily Holleman: most recently starred in the West Coast premier of Circle Mirror Transformation at South Coast Repertory. She also starred in the independent movie urFRENZ which will be on Video on Demand this Fall.
Elizabeth: So, we have a lot of students at the studio who are just at the beginning of their training or people who are just trying to decide what direction to go in to start their acting careers – could you share a little about your first steps into acting?
Sharif: As a young actor, the Meisner Training was so important to me. It helps you know who you are, which is key to being a successful actor.
Chris: Definitely, it really taught me how to bring myself to any role I may play. When you are starting out they don’t want big character choices – they just want you to “be the guy” they are casting. I got very comfortable being myself in a variety of imaginary circumstances.
Sharif: Yes, and the ability to access any emotion in a fictional context is priceless. Elizabeth, I always remember that moment in class when I had an emotional breakthrough when doing an activity. It is the doing that fuels the emotions, and it is the emotion that drives the doing. When you see it at work it is beautiful, and so helpful for the actor’s process.
Susane: The Meisner work really gave me the tools to approach a role whether it’s for an audition or for something that I’ve booked. That gave me the confidence to work deeply and effectively enough to really be free and enjoy the ride of the scene no matter what the medium is.
Charles: Having no theatre experience and very few credits before I started the program – the sheer volume of stage time I had in class and the variety of exercises were invaluable to bringing me closer to the experience level of a working actor. I worked in every class – and my best was demanded every class. The program is so challenging that it has really helped me handle the demands of working on set or location.
Chris: Definitely, my toughest times as an actor always come in class with you…it makes being on set easy, like a vacation!
Elizabeth: That being said – what are the biggest challenges of being on set?
Lily: As an actor, we always have battles with insecurity, but those are few and far between when you know that your foundation is 100% solid. Once I got cast on very short notice, and during the short rehearsals, I got very sick – I just relied on the skills I learned at EMAS, the emotional preparation, the listening and responding as well as the vocal and physical warm ups to get me through – and I did it – with very little rehearsal. What you need to do is drilled into you – so preparing for a role becomes second nature.
Susane: It’s about trusting that you’ve paved the way for something magical to occur. I have to remember to breathe (no seriously) and to just give fully. In the Meisner work I’ve learned to effectively listen and respond so that I can stay open and alive to my partner and to trust whatever may happen between us.
Chris: For sure – you need to train in a way that your skills can get into your bones as opposed to your head – so when there is a challenge – it’s easier to call upon them.
Sharif: Often, my biggest challenge is wanting to make power-packed choices dripping with nuance for every moment of every scene. My cure for that actor malady, is relaxing into the simple Meisner exercise of observing behavior and trusting m y instincts, the script, the other actors and understanding my characters function. I still have to work hard to prepare so that the scene can eventually seem simple though, but once I’m on set – I just have to give over to the moment to moment work.
Charles: For me the difficult times come up when I am self conscious. Self- consciousness can really make you lose your focus. I always have to go back to the fundamentals – focus on your partner or on the circumstances, on what you as the character has to get done…focus on elements outside myself and as one of my favorite directors says “really listen”.
Elizabeth: So what made you decide to train at EMAS? Why do you recommend the program?
Sharif: I recommend EMAS because of Elizabeth Mestnik.
Sharif: I trust that the teachers you hire match your level of insight, compassion and ability. You have to have an eye for BS as an acting teacher and you have it. You’ve called me on my own more than once in class. You have an eye for nuance, the little itty bitty details that others may miss. Those details could be what moves a scene from good to great.
Lily: I knew that the Meisner work was developed to prime an actor’s unique point of view – and that was lacking from my acting. But not anymore.
Charles: I was recommended to the school by a fellow actor – I took some introductory classes didn’t want to stop – so I took the whole 2 year program.
Susane: Elizabeth constantly pushed us – I was in Charles’ class – and he’ll agree – she pushed us always to strive for excellence. I am definitely a stronger actor having gone through the 2 year program.
Charles: Yes – and you get a lot of personal attention at EMAS. It expanded my emotional range and strengthened my sense of truth.
Chris: I recommend EMAS because it made me a working actor.
Lily: You should study at EMAS if you want to inspire and be inspired and take a unique journey of self discovery that allows you to be a professional actor.
Sharif: When you look in the dictionary under reall really good , high quality acting teachers, of the many faces you will see – you will no doubt see Elizabeth’s.
Elizabeth: Oh, wow… Thanks so much everybody.
Another article from the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio
Scene Study is a weekly workout where trained actors test their performance abilities in a challenging, playful environment. Through working on scenes of various genres, you will discover your strengths and weaknesses with the help of a trained director’s eye. This class is for 14-weeks and will integrate cold reading and auditioning skills into the syllabus. This class is only for actors with significant training and performance experience.
When: Mondays 7pm
Instructors: Elizabeth Mestnik and Scott Conte
Admission is through an audition. The audition requires a 1 – 2 minute monologue that shows the actor’s range and abilities.
Call 323-528-6280 for more information or visit us at https://www.emasla.com
|If you have always wanted to explore acting, EMAS has the perfect class for you. EMAS has developed a series of acting classes just for beginners. Through exercises, improvisations, and scene work, you will understand the way actors work and acquire a clear, solid and effective approach to the acting craft. Our goal is to get you a set of “acting tools” to draw upon when approaching any role or scene. As a result, you will acquire confidence, self-awareness, and a vivid imagination – all necessities if you are to become an actor in Los Angeles. In this class, beginning actors will explore the 4 major foundations of acting:
Classes are small to give each student plenty of “stage time” and personal attention. So come join us in our upcoming 11-week Acting Foundations class and do that thing you have always wanted to do!
For more information on the studio visit our website at
Acting Foundations Class
LOCATION: 7600 Melrose Avenue, 2nd Floor
MORE: This class meets once a week for 11 weeks.
REGISTRATION: Call 323-528-6280 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
We’ve got a special event coming up and we want you to be part of it. Please join us on Saturday August 27th from 10am – 4pm for an on-your feet workshop with L.A.’s top Meisner Technique Instructor, Elizabeth Mestnik. Many actors hear about how effective and popular this technique is, especially for film and television, but many aren’t sure why or if it is the technique for them. Elizabeth will give 20 lucky actors the opportunity to learn about the Meisner Technique through a combination of discussions and exercises.
Where: EMAS – 7600 Melrose Avenue, 2nd Floor
When: Saturday August 27th, 10am to 4pm
Details: Bring a pack lunch and please only come if you can stay for the entire workshop
Contact: email@example.com or 323-528-6280 to reserve your spot.
For more information on The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio visit our website
Saturday August 27th from 10am – 4pm Elizabeth Mestnik will be holding a free introductory workshop on The Meisner Technique. Spaces will be available for the first 20 people to contact the studio. This is a great on your feet workshop that will help you understand the Meisner Process and what it might do for you or your acting. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 323-528-6280.
Advanced Scene Study 14 Weeks Starting Monday September 12th
Mondays 7pm $620
Meisner Training Program – 9-month program begins September 17th
First Year – $295/month
Session A: Mondays and Thursdays 10am
Session B: Tuesdays 7pm and Saturdays 10am
Second Year – $290/month
Wednesdays 7pm and Saturdays 1:30pm
Technique Series for Beginning Actors – 11 weeks starting September 22nd
Acting Foundations: Thursdays at 7pm – $500
Commercial Casting Director Chris Game will demystify the commercial business as well as give you valuable practice in simulated audition sessions. One of L.A.’s busiest casting director’s, Chris’ clients have included Pepsi, Mercedes, Conoco, Taco Bell and many others. All students are put on tape to help critique your needs and progress.This 4-week class teaches the techniques needed for booking commercials: Chris will go over every possible type of audition and show you how to work in the audition environment. Issues addressed include:
This is a great workshop to increase your auditioning confidence, network with a top casting director and to equip you with the techniques you need to be a successful commercial actor.
Anyone with prior commercial experience or past commercial workshops will be given more challenging materials – so this is appropriate for both new and experienced actors.
WHEN: Mondays at 7pm – August 8, 15,22, and 29, 2011
WHERE: EMAS: 7600 Melrose Ave, 2nd Floor Los Angeles 90046
CONTACT: 323-528-6280 or email@example.com
“To Behave Truthfully under Imaginary Circumstances” – Sanford Meisner’s definition 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:
- 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.
- A simple and specific reason for needing to do the activity.
- 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.
While 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.
Finally, 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.
Article written by Elizabeth Mestnik
The Repetition Exercise and How it Works:
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:
- Objective Repetition without changes
- Objective Repetition with changes
- 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.
Repetition 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.