Introduction to the Meisner Technique
“To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that’s what we’re here to do.” – Sanford Meisner on Acting
You might wonder what actors do to learn their craft. Of course, it takes a lot of practice, but to really succeed, an actor needs the right approach. One approach that many actors have had success with is called the Meisner Technique, which was developed by Sanford Meisner, an American theater practitioner.
In some approaches to acting, like Strasburg’s method, the process is very internal, reaching inside to remember actual memories to emotionally connect. The Meisner Technique is different, in that it’s much more external.
Actors focus less on themselves, and more on the other actors around them. This allows them to be in the moment and not in the past. And all emotion is a byproduct of what they are doing and the stakes of their scene. It’s a technique where the emotion behind the words is as important, if not more, than the words themselves. It differs from method acting, which focuses more on the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. The Meisner technique focuses on the other actor, or actors, in the scene.
An actor training in the Meisner technique will participate in several training exercises, each one building on the previous one. These exercises are improvisational, meaning they are without scripts. Students first learn to listen, then learn to access an emotional life, then they learn how to allow their emotions to create behavior, and then finally learn to bring the spontaneous style of improvisation and the emotions of personal response to a dramatic text. The technique develops an open and available instrument, improvisational skills, as well as empowers actors to interpret a script, and create the physical characteristics of the character being played.
The repetition exercise is the foundation of the Meisner technique. It involves two actors standing across from each other, responding to each other with a phrase that’s repeated. At first, the phrase focuses on some physical property, such as “You’re wearing blue jeans.” But as the exercise continues, the phrase becomes more about the actors’ behavior, such as “You look upset with me.” The way the words are spoken changes in tone, intensity and overall meaning as each actor reacts to the behavior of the other actor. This causes the actor to stop thinking about what to say and do, and answer in a more spontaneous fashion.
How the Technique Was Developed
Sanford Meisner began developing his acting approach back in the 1930s, while working with the Group Theatre. Over the next five decades, he would continue to refine it, while he was head of the acting program at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, as well as a teacher of private acting classes. As time went on, he would drop some exercises if he thought they weren’t effective, and he developed new exercises to help solve some of the problems his students were having. In 1980, a group of alumni decided to preserve his teachings for the actors of future generations.
List of Meisner-Trained Actors
The list of Meisner-trained actors is a long one. Some notable names include:
Charles Michael Davis
The Meisner technique has stood the test of time and has proven to be a highly effective technique for a great many successful actors. Training in the Meisner technique should be considered for anyone serious about getting into the acting profession.
5 Tips for Successful Self-Tapes
1. Create a non-verbal moment before the lines start. Before the first line is spoken create a response to the moment before. This will draw the viewer in before the speaking even starts.
2. Craft before you memorize. Knowing more about your character, what they want and why they say what they say will make memorization easier.
3. Introduce yourself in your slate – don’t announce or present yourself but think about how you would introduce yourself at a dinner party. Keep it warm and friendly.
4. Be in response to your scene partner. Remember you are being seen even when you are not talking.
5. Keep your eyeline close to the camera. However, don’t look directly into the lens. If you talk to more than one character, use sticky notes to mark your eyeline.
Acting and Basketball
As my students know – I think in metaphors. They pop out of my mouth on a regular basis. One of my favorites is the comparing actor training to athletic training. A lot of actors don’t see the disciplines as similar – as though being a great actor is some sort of mysterious gift that you are born with or not., but being an athlete is something that you can develop. Kobe Bryant’s work ethic was legendary. He was famous for his 5am-7am workouts in high school. No one got to practice before him or left after him. He fine-tuned both his body and his skills. He made sure his body was able to do everything he needed it to, whether it was greater speed or the strength to match up against a LeBron James. He found that type of intense preparation fun! Without that work ethic and a love of the process – he might have just been another talented high school player. That’s the physical side of his training.
For actors, day in and day out work on flexibility, using the breath, emotional access and strengthening the voice is important so they can consistently meet the emotional and physical demands of the work. Do you have an argument scene? Will you be able to take multiple takes yelling at the top of your lungs without damaging your voice? Will you be able to repeatedly access emotional moments and not dry up? Can you handle the tongue twisting dialogue of a medical drama or a Shakespearean play? We stretch, do yoga, study voice, do articulation exercises and work out our imaginations and emotional temperaments every day to get in actor shape – so that whatever the scene requires, our body, our voice and our emotional life is ready to convey it.
What’s the actor equivalent of Kobe’s workout? His famous 1000 shots a day? In the Meisner Technique – it’s our repetition exercises. At least 1000 moments daily of connection and focus, deep listening, and riding impulses. This exercise has the actor repeatedly being affected by every little nuance they receive. Working on these exercises every day removes defense mechanisms and gets actors out of their heads so that being spontaneously reactive is in the muscle memory. It allows actors to feel deeply with no fear of showing those feelings to the camera or audience. As any athlete knows – the minute you engage the intellect on the court is the minute you miss a shot. The minute you think about your performance you are no longer living through something truthfully in the imaginary circumstances. Kobe also made sure to continue working on his strength and flexibility because it’s not enough to just be able to make the shots, you need your body to be able to handle the demands of 48 minutes of running, jumping and physical tussles with opponents. Actors need to be able to handle 8 shows a week and grueling emotional and physical demands.
But there is more than the physical side of basketball and acting. In acting we call it the craft. It is all the stuff you need to do before the opening night or the big game to be completely free and at your best. Crafting means breaking down a script into beats, objectives and actions, using personalization to connect to the stakes and understand the emotions of a scene, and researching to help interpret a character. Actors need to be insatiably curious about those characters, learning how to effectively research the time, place and genre that character lives in or the performance will fall flat. The same way a great athlete spends time breaking down a defense an opponent and referee positions, actors break down dialogue, characters, and storyline. The important thing for both an actor and an athlete to remember is that once the performance begins you can’t be working on any of this – you either prepared enough or you didn’t – and it’s time for the instrument to take over – the muscle memory to step in.
So, at EMAS we are always reminding our actors that they need a finely tuned instrument as well as the ability to craft personally and effectively. It is not enough to just know the plays and understand the opponent, without being strong, flexible, and able to work instinctively – your basketball prowess will only go so far. Actors who have all the craft training but lack emotional availability, a dexterous voice, an expressive body or imaginative stamina will not engage their audience. The story might make sense – but it won’t compel anyone to watch.
I like to leave my students with this quote from the Black Mamba himself:
“Those times when you get up early and you work hard. Those times you stay up late, and you work hard. Those times when you don’t feel like working. You’re too tired. You don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream.” – Kobe Bryant
A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out. That’s totally fine. After all, greatness is not for everybody.” – Kobe Bryant.
“The mindset isn’t about seeking a result—it’s more about the process of getting to that result. It’s about the journey and the approach. It’s a way of life. I do think that it’s important, in all endeavors, to have that mentality.”
“A lot of players don’t understand the game or the importance of footwork, spacing. It’s to the point where if you know the basics, you have an advantage on the majority of players.”
Many actors are given gifts. It is clear that with James his dedication and work ethic is what has made him one of the best to ever play.
Tricky New Year’s Resolutions
Let me tell you why I decided that this year I would approach my New Year’s Resolutions a week or 2 after the first 1st. New Year’s Resolutions are a tricky thing for me. You too? On one hand, it’s an opportunity to start off fresh – aspirational, clean slate type of thing. On the other hand, we are making these life choices amidst a very hectic, emotionally-charged time that can offer us some real challenges. We might not be in the best mind set to be taking personal inventory or thinking critically about the direction of our lives. For me, the holidays are fun but EXHAUSTING and OVERSTIMULATING. They are so far from the other 340 days of the year, we have 7 birthdays in my family, as well as Hanukkah,
Christmas and New Year…Yikes! Why do I try to take stock of myself in a state of anxiety triggered by airports, crowded shopping malls, work obligations, aging parents, the extra 5 (I’m being kind here) pounds, 3 WEEKS of winter vacation for my kids (thank you so much LAUSD), wine, sugar…
And I really wonder why I can’t keep my New Year’s Resolution? Why should I keep a resolution a crazy lady made? And when I “fall of the wagon”? The crazy lady is gone, and the real me gets to deal with all the lousy feelings of not keeping these resolutions yet again.
I am going to assume that I am not alone in this yearly ritual.
That being said, I do think there is a lot of value in looking back at your life and wanting to make changes for the better… so this year I really wanted to help myself be successful… I decided I would wait a week or two before attempting these commitments … let life return to some semblance of what I see the other 11 months of the year, get some sleep, detox a bit.
And as a side note…I hate the word resolution – resolute – it implies to me something very finite, unwavering, with no room for human foibles, or the inevitable small slip-up. It says to me that it’s about will power, that if we wanted something badly enough we could exert enough will power to make it happen. And if you don’t – you’re weak. But studies are showing that will power is not usually the best approach to reaching our goals and changing our behaviors. – See I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this subject in anticipation of the year 2020, and I’d like to share just a few things I’ve learned.
At EMAS – we have a class called The Actor’s Life. On the first day we learned that the main thing my students felt was hindering their acting career was a feeling of overwhelm. Between training, creating projects, survival jobs, auditions and the business aspect of the entertainment industry, they are going 20 different directions. This creates stressors from so many directions that it can create a feeling of anxiety that becomes so strong you feel paralyzed, unable to make ANY decisions. Where you end up doing nothing or nothing well. So, one of the first exercises I decided to do is called Value Ranking. Values are priorities that tell you how to spend your time, right here, right now. They are often tied to our sense of who we are in the world and what we aspire to be to the world.
In class we did an exercise that helped us narrow down our top values, literally pitting one value up against another to rank them in order of personal importance. Some of the values that were presented in class included
- Family time
- Financial Stability
Once you land on your top 3 or 5 or 10 personal values, you can get help making difficult choices (like should I spend my time on this student film?) by putting your options up against your most important values. Will spending your time on something reinforce one of your top values? Will a more important value be sacrificed by making that choice? It’s just a little guidepost that can keep you moving forward and avoid unhelpful detours. It can keep momentum moving forward, one decision at a time.
But values have also been proven to be helpful in making personal change (aka resolutions). Goals that pertain to personal values (“I want to have more stamina so I can play with my kids”) are more often successful than those that have to do with self-image (“I want to look better in a bathing suit). The whole point of discovering your values is to improve the results you get in those areas that are truly most important to you. So I am going to take time this week to reassess my values – try to get my top 5 clear in my head – so I can keep moving forward.
Next week I want share with you the other bit of cool info I learned about how to keep moving towards our New Year’s Resolutions Intentions.
Until then – how about you share with us some of the values you hope to bring into 2020…
Stage, Film and Television: Differences for the Beginning Actor
There are three major platforms for actors: stage, film and television. Decades ago, it was relatively rare for actors to successfully crossover between these mediums. Instead, most actors would establish themselves on the boards or before cameras and largely stay in their lanes for the rest of their careers. However, those days are long gone, and many actors move freely between mediums, enjoying the unique artistic experiences each one provides.
That said, every actor needs to begin somewhere, so here is a guide to help new actors understand the major differences between working in stage, film and TV and which medium, or mediums, might appeal to them most.
New York and Los Angeles are the two main acting meccas in the U.S., but they have little in common other than their thriving entertainment industries. The weather, culture, rent prices, transportation systems and professional opportunities in each city are very different, and actors should consider which location fits their personality and career aspirations before booking a plane ticket and signing a lease.
The Big Apple is the unrivaled king of stage, with more than 40 theatres on Broadway alone. While there are plenty of stage opportunities in L.A., New York’s storied theater scene still isn’t rivaled on the West Coast.
The City of Angels is the center of the film universe, and actors who aspire to a film career will find the most opportunities there by far. However, New York is a good secondary location for film hopefuls who prefer the vibe of the East Coast.
Again, L.A. is the most desirable location for actors who dream of breaking into television, but many TV dramas film in New York as well. Also, cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta have strong television production industries, and actors may feel more at home in these locations than L.A. depending on proximity to their family, work and more. However, L.A.’s pilot season will draw most TV hopefuls to the the city at least once a year due to the volume of casting that takes place.
Theatre actors play in front of a live audience, which greatly impacts their performance. Patrons in the back row cannot hear quietly read lines or see subtle expressions or gestures, meaning an actor must put on a performance large enough to fill the space (often larger than life). Stage audiences also give live feedback, which actors can feed off of, both for the good and for the bad.
Cinemas have massive screens and top-notch sound systems, which means the slightest facial expressions and softest whispers can be seen and heard by film audiences. As a result, film acting offers a platform for very nuanced performances – the smallest bit of overacting is difficult to overlook when amplified by cameras, microphones, lighting (not to mention the score and digital effects). Actors also have to wait months, or sometimes years, to see an audience’s reaction to their work, which can look much different than they expected due to editing and other post-production additions.
Over the past couple of decades, television has become much more like film in terms of its acting requirements. Movie-quality production values paired with big screen TVs mean that many television projects need the same less-is-more approach to acting that film requires. Unless a show is filmed before a live audience, which is increasingly rare, TV actors also typically wait months to experience an audience’s reaction to their work, which can feel isolating.
Schedule and Pace
Actors working in theatre productions usually go through substantial rehearsal periods that allow them to familiarize themselves with their character, thoroughly learn their lines and bond with other cast members. Once the production goes live, they get the chance to perform their role multiple times, growing and learning with each performance.
Although dependent on a movie’s budget, production schedule and director, most film actors may get little or no dedicated rehearsal time with the rest of the cast. They also work notoriously long hours that can start at odd times and be filled with lengthy periods of downtime between scenes. Some movie productions can also require actors to go on location for weeks or months, which can be exciting but can also cause lifestyle disruptions.
TV actors tend to work at a much quicker pace than film actors do, with several pages of script going before cameras each day. They also generally work fewer, and more regular, hours than their film counterparts. Sitcoms, in particular, are known for having comfortable shooting schedules that allow actors more personal time.
Because of theatre’s repetitive nature, stage actors get extremely familiar with their characters and the script as a whole. The most successful plays and musicals require acting companies to put on hundreds of performances each year, and audiences can become attached to certain portions of the dialogue, meaning that mistakes aren’t easy to hide and improvisation is impossible. Some actors love this familiarity, while others may become bored after a while.
In general, film allows actors much more creative freedom than stage productions. Depending on the goals of the script and the personality of its director, a film role could demand that an actor stick strictly to the written page or improvise huge parts of the script. However, in general, there will be limited changes to a film script once production begins and actors will usually have ample time to prepare for each day’s shoot.
Unlike film actors, TV actors get to spend several episodes, and sometimes several seasons, exploring their characters. While the director is king in film, TV is a writer’s medium, and an actor’s ability to influence the direction of his or her character varies greatly depending on the needs and personality of the showrunner, who is often the head writer. TV scripts also tend to be written fairly close to an episode’s filming dates, so it’s common for actors to be presented with line changes on the day a scene is shot.
Each actor is different and may enjoy different acting platforms. However, the only way for an artist to truly know what he or she likes, and understand where his or her greatest talents lie, is to embrace new opportunities and give every acting medium a try.
Like any professional field, the acting industry has its own terminology, commonly-used abbreviations, and slang. Below is a quick cheat sheet for the working actor that introduces some of the common terms used by agents, directors, producers and actors themselves.
The term that is used when you are to begin the scene or copy. It usually indicates the camera is rolling
ACTOR’S EQUITY ASSOCIATION (aka EQUITY):
Founded in 1913 it is the labor union that represents more than 45,000 Stage Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
The Assistant Director in a film or theater production.
Automated Dialogue Replacement. Dialogue added to a scene in post production. Also called “looping”.
Also known as The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It is a national labor union representing over 70,000 performers, journalists and other artists working in the entertainment and news media. AFTRA’s covers broadcast, public and cable television (news, sports and weather; drama and comedy, soaps, talk and variety shows, documentaries, children’s programming, reality and game shows); radio (news, commercials, hosted programs); sound recordings (“non-broadcast” and industrial material as well as Internet and digital programming.
An individual whose job is to represent an actor’s work to various casting directors, producers, and directors; and set up audition appointments. A big part of their job is negotiating contracts for their clients. The usual commission is 10%. Agents receive their payment as a percentage of the jobs booked.
An audition is where you will go to try out to get a part in a film, television or theater project. Actors read from the script or side, sing, dance, or do a monologue. The director or casting director considers if they match up with a character in the project.
As in “On Avail”. It means available. A courtesy situation extended by performer or agent to a producer indicating availability to work a certain job. Avails have no legal or contractual status.
Another term for Extras. Background actors have no speaking lines and are found filling in the background of a scene. There are different pay rates for Background actors in both SAG and AFTRA.
When an actor accepts a booking, it is a legally binding verbal commitment that the actor will show up and perform.
A character description of all the roles being cast in that particular project. Agents receive these breakdowns and then submit their actors on projects.
This is a one- time payment or flat fee for a project that will not provide residuals. Buy outs are a standard agreement in all non union commercial work.
This is the time you are required to be on set. DO NOT BE LATE or it may be your last call time for that production.
A callback is when they ask back specific people from the first audition to audition again, to make a decision to cast them for a part in their project.
CASTING DIRECTOR (CD):
The Casting Director is hired by the producer or director. They audition and help choose all the speaking role actors in movies, television shows, and musicals/plays. They also serve as the liaison between directors, actors, and their agents, and they are responsible for negotiating deals with agents and for obtaining contracts for each hired actor. However, they rarely hire actors directly, but make suggestions to the producer/director.
A tight shot of the face. Be aware of how the camera is framing you.
Unrehearsed reading of a scene, usually at an audition.
When an agent or manager gets you in for a project and you book the role, that agent is entitled to a percentage of your pay. This is their commission on the project.
The script for a commercial or voice over.
All camera shots other than the master shot; coverage might include two-shots and close-ups.
COVER SHOT :
An additional or extra shot of a scene, shot in addition to the master shot. Shot from a different angle, lighting, etc., and used to enhance the master shot, or to better establish a scene, setting, etc.
The verbal cue for the action of the scene to stop. At no time, may an actor call, “cut!”
This is a performer hired on a daily basis for television, industrial and films. This term is used in SAG and AFTRA contracts and both unions have different pay scales. Traditionally speaking a day player will have more than 5 lines.
This is a sample of your work on film or TV. There are also audio demo reels for voice-overs.
The coordinator of all artistic and technical aspects of any production.
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY (D.P.) –
Supervises all decisions regarding lighting, camera lenses, color and filters, camera angle set-ups, camera crew and film processing.
A piece of equipment that the camera sits on to allow mobility of the camera.
DOLLY GRIP (Grip)
The crew member who moves the dolly.
A performer who appears in place of another performer, i.e., as in a stunt.
Background performer, used only in non-principal roles.
First Assistant Director; person responsible for the running of the set. Gives instructions to crew and talent, including calling for “first team,” “quiet,” “rehearsal,” and “take five.”
Working with more than one agent at the same time. An actor has not signed any contracts. This is more common in New York, and not allowed in Los Angeles.
This is an 8×10 color photo which is needed to submit with a resume to get into an audition or casting call.
A fee paid by the advertiser to the talent, in order to hold the commercial for broadcast at a later date.
A towed vehicle containing one or more dressing rooms, as well as crew bathrooms.
For most non-union commercials and jobs where a stipend is offered, not a contractual rate, you will be known as an independent contractor. An independent contractor is responsible for paying their own taxes on that particular job; it is not taken out of the negotiated fee.
Non-broadcast film or video, usually of an educational nature.
Shots, usually close -ups of hands or close business, inserted into previously shot footage.
The abbreviation for Interior – In a script it means a scene shot indoors.
The actual call time or start time; also, return time from a break.
The producer responsible for keeping the director on time and budget; generally the most visible producer actually on the set.
LONG SHOT (LS):
A camera shot which captures the performer’s full body.
LOOPING: (aka ADR)
An in-studio technique used to fix dialogue already performed during principal photography by matching voice to picture.
Similar to agents but they typically assist with career development and advise their clients on business and artistic decisions, as well as assisting in finding an agent. They usually take 15% commission. For more established actors Managers help with finances, publicity and other business matters.
The exact position(s) given to an actor on a set to insure that he/she is in the proper light and camera angle; generally marked on the ground with tape or chalk.
A camera shot that includes the principal actors and relevant background activity; generally used as a reference shot to record the scene from beginning to end before shooting close-ups, over-the-shoulders, etc.
OFF-CAMERA (OC or OS)
Dialogue delivered without being on screen.
Also known as First Refusal. When a producer likes you for a certain project you get put On Hold. It is a courtesy to let you know of a possible booking for that project and to let you know what dates to “hold” in case it leads to a booking.
This is an audition where anyone who fits the requirements for the project can attend regardless if they have agent representation. Please be smart and only attend open calls you are right for.
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (PA):
The Production Assistant on a particular project who is in charge of many different areas. Usually they will be the point person for the talent on set.
Literally means “per day”. It is used in agreements as a daily allowance, usually for living expenses while traveling in connection with one’s work or being employed at a distance from one’s home. For example, if touring there usually is a daily per diem for food.
A test run of a first episode of a television series idea. A pilot is an idea for a show. Actors are assembled, a pilot is shot and then the process of testing and selling the project begin.
This is a major character in a particular project. They are at a higher pay scale than a day player and the part tends to be larger.
This is someone who finds financing for and supervises the day-to-day decision making in regards to budget, equipment, location, etc of a play, film, or TV project.
Fees paid to the actor each time a union project is re-aired. Usually pertains, to commercials, voice-overs, TV programs, and Film.
A list of your acting credits, training, and any other talents you think might be worth mentioning. This is a one page document, typed out and attached to the back of your headshot.
Also known as the Screen Actors Guild is the nation’s largest labor union representing working actors. The Guild exists to enhance actors’ working conditions, compensation and benefits and to be a powerful, unified voice on behalf of artists’ rights. With 20 branches nationwide, SAG represents nearly 120,000 actors who work in motion pictures, television, commercials, industrials, video games, Internet and all new media formats.
Refers to the minimum amount which must be paid for a defined job. It is established in the union contracts for particular types of jobs, and can be found on all the union websites.
This is a filmed scene to show an actor’s ability for a specific project. It is done far along in the casting process on the actual set and with other actual cast members, usually at the producer’s request.
This is payment for the amount of time put in on set or in the recording studio for voice-overs, usually calculated in days. Residuals will come later.
Pages or scenes from a script, used in auditions or (if on a film set) those scenes being shot that day. Sides can be anywhere in length from a few lines to a number of pages depending on the part that is being cast.
For on camera auditions and voice-over auditions you will be asked to slate. This is simply an introduction of who you are where you state your name and sometimes your agency. Make sure to relate directly to camera. Keep it simple and charming.
A commercial is often referred to as a spot.
A verbal cue that the audiotape is up to speed for recording.
Used most often to describe a speculative piece being pitched to others, ie Spec Short (film),.
Usually done in commercials and animation and is actually a sequence of pictures that reflect the action taking place in a scene.
It is the submitting of particular actors headshots and resumes for particular jobs. Submissions are done by agents and by the actor themselves
A federal statute, which allows 30 days after first union employment before being required to join a Union.
The clapboard indication of a shot “taken” or printed.
The brand name of a device that enables a broadcaster to read a script while looking into the camera lens.
TV shows or feature film work, as opposed to commercials.
An audible warning for QUIET because a scene is about to be filmed.
TIGHT SHOT :
Framing of a shot with little or no space around the central figure(s) of feature(s); usually a close-up.
A shot taken while the camera is moving, either on a dolly or a mounted on a moving vehicle.
Short for “trade papers” – The newspapers and periodicals such as the Hollywood Reporter and Variety that specifically feature information on the entertainment industry.
Longer version of a Synopsis of a story for a film. More detailed outline of the plot, characters, high points of a film.
The number of hours between dismissal one day and call time the next day..
A camera framing two persons.
UNDER FIVE (U/5):
This is a performer hired on a per project basis for television, industrial and films. An U/5 characterizes someone who has 5 or less speaking lines.
The promotion of an extra performer in a scene to the category of principal performer.
This is the recording of a narrative to accompany a filmed commercial or TV spot. There are also voice-overs used on the radio known as radio commercials. Voice-overs are also used in the dubbing of foreign films.
This is when a union gives special consideration to certain cases and allows a production to deviate from standard union contract, so that the production can continue successfully.
The conclusion of the production. The end.
A camera technique with a special lens to adjust the depth of a shot, accomplished without moving the camera.
An Actor’s Audition Checklist
There are actually 2 phases of audition preparation. The first is what you do BEFORE you get to the audition and the 2nd is what you do in the waiting room once you are AT the audition.
When Emmy winning Casting director April Webster is asked what tips she has for actors auditioning for her, her first response is “Have your preparation done.” What does that mean? If you don’t know… then you might not be ready to be out there auditioning with the big boys. Get into a class and develop a technique and a process. But if you need a reminder – a process or ritual to follow for each audition – here’s a little checklist:
When you get the script:
- Read the audition sides multiple times.
- Research the show (read the entire script (if film or theater) if possible, watch episodes of the show (if for TV) to understand the tone and genre.
- Make any character choices that are necessary – however, most of the time the character will be pretty close to who you are – that’s why they are bringing you in. .. make sure you honor any physical, vocal or psychological differences to your own natural state. Practice with those from the beginning! (ie: if the character is drunk – rehearse her drunk from the get-go)
- All the basics – where are you, what’s your relationship, where are you emotionally at the top of the scene etc. This is really your opportunity to do a short performance for the Casting Director – I found that thinking of it as a performance helped with nerves.
- Memorize as best you can, and get comfortable auditioning with the script in hand.
- Decide what you are going to wear – make sure it fits, it’s ironed, that you can move in it etc. Do NOT dress as the character but make sure you dress appropriately for the character. For example, do not audition for a prisoner in a tie.
- Find out how to get to the audition (don’t rely only on your GPS the day of – they aren’t always correct), where to park etc…
- Pack easy snacks and plenty of water. Auditions infamously run late – and you want to sustain your energy.
- Pack your script and extra headshots and resumes.
- Schedule something to do right after the audition – so you can move on and not ruminate on what you could have done differently.
At the Audition
- Before you leave your home, make sure you have warmed up physically and vocally.
- DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. Once you are in the waiting room – don’t look at it – turn it completely off. Screen time takes you away from being present. There are studies that show that the auditory receptors in the brain start to disengage when all the information is being brought in through the eyes and that it can take up to 30 minutes for your listening abilities to return to normal.
- Don’t change your crafting in the waiting room. This isn’t the time to second guess what you have worked on – it’s the time to commit fully to your choices.
- Don’t “chit chat” with the other actors. Be friendly but stay away from small talk. It may be disruptive to other actors and might hurt your focus.
- Stay loose and be present. Mindfulness is really helpful at these times!
- While waiting, use your imagination to build the world and environment of the scene. Get emotionally available to the triggers of the scene. This is more important than running the lines in your head another 10 times. The CD wants to know that you can act – not that you can memorize.
- If the audition is for something small– treat it as such, stay light, and relaxed – no CD wants to see someone brooding over an audition for a one liner. Just be yourself.
- Smile and show ‘em what you got!
Elizabeth Mestnik is an award winning, actress, director and teacher. Elizabeth founded EMAS to bring her New York style of professional actor training to the west coast. -She received her MFA in Acting from Rutgers University under the tutelage of William Esper, Sandy Meisner’s associate at the Neighborhood Playhouse for over 17 years, and New York’s leading Meisner teacher.
Guest Post: What I have learned from Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Guest Post by Laura Blackburn
People sometimes laugh at me when I tell them that I have learned more about acting from a cult television show than an Academy Award winning motion picture. However, I have found that studying the techniques of actors who must convey a sense of realism in spite of fantastic subject matter has made me a better actor in every sense. This is why I use the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as my inspiration when taking on a new role.
Anyone who has watched or even heard of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” knows that the meat of the series is the writing and directing from Joss Whedon and his team. Likewise, any screenwriter knows that excellent acting is required from all involved to make a script come alive. A good actor can make a superbly written script enjoyable. A great actor can create a series that continues to awe and inspire decades after its inception.
Supporting characters are often mean to give the lead a sense of purpose. They also often offer a chance for exposition, serving as the audience’s stand-in. These characters ask the important questions, helping to further the plot of a story. Excellent actors take these roles and turn them into something more than a plot device. This was the case for much of the supporting cast on “Buffy.”
One of the most difficult supporting roles on the series was that of Xander Harris, portrayed by the underrated Nicholas Brendon. In a series that was filled with witches, werewolves, demons and, of course, vampires, Brendon was the everyman who had to hold his own in an other-worldly atmosphere. The actor was given lines that were largely meant to serve as comic relief. However, his ability to add depth and meaning to simple one-liners made his character an integral part of the show. Watching Brendon, I have learned not to take any lines for granted.
Some actors were so adept at their roles on “Buffy” that their bit parts were expanded into multiple episodes, some even becoming mainstays on the series. Seth Green, who portrayed the werewolf Oz, was meant to depart in the same season that he appeared. Treating his character with unexpected sensitivity, he made the viewing audience fall in love with both the man and the monster. As an actor, Green could convey more in an eyebrow raise than some other, lesser actors might be able to do with an entire page of dialog. Green has taught me to try new angles with my characters; to explore the unknown.
Julie Benz’s character, Darla, was originally meant to be killed during the second the episode in the series. Instead, her presence was thought to add a needed layer to the romance between Buffy and her vampire boyfriend, Angel. Benz’s approach to her portrayal as a vampire was a combination of old-school horror and girl next door. She was at times soft spoken and sensual, and at other times terrifying. Benz would go on to appear in many more episodes of “Buffy” while also playing a crucial role in the spin-off series “Angel.” What she has taught me is to remember that every role can and should be multidimensional.
For the uninitiated, “Buffy” ran for seven seasons. Each season had an over-arching story that appeared throughout the series, culminating with an ultimate face-off with the Big Bad. Buffy and her gang fought many other monsters along the way. Some of the most memorable of these lesser monsters include The Gentleman, a gang of mute, heart-stealing demons who communicated through gestures rather than language; Gnarl, a parasitic flesh-eater with a sing-songy style of speech; and the Turok-Han, the ultimate vampire. Interestingly, all of these monsters were played by the same actor: Camden Toy.
Toy’s movements can be considered their own form of art. He is able to convey any type of emotion he wishes with or without a script. His episodes can be studied by anyone who wishes to be more physical with a performance. Acting is much more than the spoken word. Toy encompasses this in each of his roles.
It can be extremely difficult to visibly portray emotion when covered in prosthetics, which are required for many of the monsters on the show. The Master, played by Mark Metcalf, was a creepy vampire who was adored and feared by other under worldly creatures. With a face completely disguised throughout his run on “Buffy,” Metcalf used his gestures and voice alone to give viewers an almost sensual fright. Considering the versatility needed for these roles, the Big Bads of “Buffy” have taught me to never rely on one facet of my craft. Rather, I should hone all aspects of my acting ability to create a truly meaningful character.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Playing a superhero is never a simple task, but it was one that was made for Sarah Michelle Gellar. She chose to play Buffy Summers as a typical girl who just happened to also have super powers. Anyone could relate to Buffy’s daily struggles. She had boy problems. She worried about her hair and clothes. She had difficulty relating to her mother and studying for her SATs. Because Gellar was so able to encompass these everyday traits of her character, she was able to show the viewer a superhero that could almost be real. She was as adept at displaying physical power when fighting a monster twice her size as she was at showing extreme grief when handling the death of her mother. Gellar could play funny, frightened, determined and even bored, all in the same scene. She has taught me to never give up.
Elements of a Great Script for Actors
One of the most vital components to crafting your art as an actor is working with an excellent story. Even the best actors may struggle with films that have mundane, confusing or poorly developed plots. Reading script after script may leave you scratching your head, wondering which movie stories are the best to hone your craft and reach an audience.
Regardless of the genre, elements of a good movie story remain the same. Learning these elements can help determine which scripts offer the best use of your time. If you wish to lead your own project you should also ensure your story follows these basic rules.
An Opening Hook
The first thing a good movie story does is grab the viewer’s attention. A movie’s opening act sets the tone for the rest of the film. This does not necessarily mean that a movie must start with an exciting event or surprising twist. Screenwriters must simply pay as much attention to the beginning of the story as they do to the plot and characterization.
Excellent Character Development
A screenwriter should know his or her characters inside and out. Fully developed characters have motivations for their actions. They have genuine emotion, backstories and personalities that ring true.
Character development should not be confused with excessive or unnecessary exposition. A well-fleshed does not always need overly apparent details. Indeed, some of the most intriguing characters on film are those that are the most mysterious.
An example of excellent character development in film is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. There is little to no backstory available for each of the lead characters, yet their motivations and actions ring true. Tarantino took time and care with each role, even going so far as to give the anonymous criminals real names and backstories that are not necessarily revealed over the course of the film.
A New Way to Tell Stories
Storytelling is an art form that few can master. A story that is too simplistic may work well for young children, but will leave most viewers feeling empty. Using complexity to tell a story makes even a somewhat common plot seem refreshing and new. A good example of complex storytelling is seen in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. At its heart, the story is one of a struggling actress seeking revenge after heartbreak and rejection. Using a unique storytelling device, one that introduces the actress’s fantasy to the viewer before eventually revealing reality, turns what could be a common love story into a deeply moving film.
Christopher Nolan has made a career out of using complex storytelling techniques. A prime example is Memento, a simple, noirish revenge story. It is told using backward chronology. This was a technique that was seldom explored prior to the film’s 2001 release date.
Plotting and Subplotting
Complimenting a complex storytelling technique is the importance of a clear plot. Movies with muddled plots are difficult for actors and viewers alike. Most successful films have single plots that drive the story and subplots to keep the story interesting. A prime example of this is James Cameron’s Titanic. The plot of the story is seemingly the sinking of the Titanic, but in actuality the focus is on the love affair between the two protagonists. Subplots of a jealous fiance, a needy mother and a greedy treasure hunter only serve to highlight the main story.
A good movie story can, and in most cases should, be told in a linear fashion if it has a unique plot. This may be particularly important for fantasies and science fiction. Movies that already pull a viewer away from his or her own reality may create more problems if told in a way that is outside of the norm. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of using unique plots and characterization to drive stories with plots that pushed the viewer outside of their comfort zones.
The Importance of Believability
A good story is believable to the viewer. Characters should specifically behave in ways that would seem fitting for whatever situation they are in. This is as important for films with fantastical settings as it is for movies that take place in our world.
Movie stories set in the real world can take advantage of viewers already knowing the environment in which we live. That can be a downside to a storyteller who may wish to take liberties with reality. There are often problems with historical films that don’t portray past events in a realistic way.
Stories that take place outside of our world must build credibility, which can be difficult except for the greatest of screenwriters. An actor must sell the humanity behind situations that take place in outer space or in a world in which monsters exist. However, an actor can only be adept at this if the story is written in a way that allows viewers to accept this alternate reality.
Good movie stories are as varied as the people behind them. While the plots may greatly differ, the basics of an intriguing story told in an interesting way always remain the same.