Category Archives Acting Advice

“It takes 20 Years to become an Actor” – Reflections on my acting training.

By Ken Weiler


Sanford Meisner is famous for saying that “It takes 20 years to become an actor”.  So now, 20 years after graduating from Rutgers University’s MFA Acting program, I am reflecting on what I learned there and realize that there are many lessons I learned while training that I take into auditions and performances today.

One of the most important things you learn while attending a conservatory is to rehearse. It sounds so obvious, but an actor must prepare. It’s almost common knowledge now with the popularity of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the “10,000-hour rule,” (the idea that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill) but you learn that you just have to put in the time. There’s no way around it. A musician spends hundreds of hours practicing scales, a doctor spent years in medical school, and so the actor must rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

For me rehearsal and preparation are synonymous. You can’t escape the need to give yourself as much time as it’s gonna take to prepare for a role or for an audition. Sometimes you get material that’s in your wheelhouse or fits your temperament, and then it may be easier or less time-consuming. But to pull off a powerful or hysterically funny performance is not a simple task. It’s achieved through great effort and work, though the performance itself should appear effortless. As Hamlet said, “Therein lies the rub.”

If you ever studied with Bill Esper you heard these words asked of you a thousand times, “What are you doing there?” In this question lies the cornerstone of technique. I constantly ask myself this question when I read a scene for an audition or am preparing a role for a job. It may be one of the most important elements in creating truthful behavior and it’s at the core of realism in acting. Bill stuck very closely to Meisner’s straightforward definition of acting which is “Living truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.” In Bill’s book he went so far as to change it to “DOING truthfully under the imaginary circumstances…” Stanislavski delved deeply into actions and objectives in his approach for the actor. And, I am constantly asking myself, “What am I doing? What do I want? How am I gonna get it?”

Finally, to keep from sounding too intellectual or clever, perhaps the most important lesson I learned relates to spontaneity. I have to stay playful. I have to stay almost childlike in my imagination and willingness to improvise. I have to stay open, loose, and relaxed. This is a part of your performance and preparation that is not intellectual. It’s an oversimplification to be sure but, simply put, I have to have fun. I have to play.


actor & teacher ken weilerKen Weiler received his MFA in Theater Arts from Mason Gross School of the Arts under the tutelage of William Esper and Maggie Flanigan. He has taught The Meisner Technique and Auditioning at EMAS for the past 8 years. He’s worked professionally for over twenty years with appearances in dozens of films and episodic television shows including Criminal Minds, Friends, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives, CSI, Bones, and currently recurring in the STARZ series Blunt Talk starring Patrick Stewart.

He is also an accomplished musician, performing with his band The Four Postmen at various L.A. venues

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.

An Interview with Elizabeth Mestnik

Elizabeth Mestnik teaching acting class

 

1.  What made you decide to start the acting studio?

I had moved to LA from New York a few years earlier and tried to find a master class for people who had trained in a full 2 year “New York style” Meisner training program.  After auditing a number of schools in town, I just didn’t find what I was looking for.   I was teaching at another studio – and realized that if I wanted that – I was going to have to build it from the ground up.  Some former students of mine encouraged me to start something on my own – with about 12 of them committing to the 2 year Meisner Technique syllabus.  That was back in 2001.  We started with one group meeting twice a week, just me, renting out a theatre space – and gradually we grew to where we are now, with our own studio, 9 classes a week, and 5 instructors.

2.  What do you believe are the key advantages of the Meisner technique, when compared to other techniques of acting?

It’s all about working from impulse rather than intellect.  Every part of the exercises is geared to keep the actor working from their instinctual self.  Because it’s improv based – the actors are required to really stretch their imaginations – and that is invaluable because the imagination is limitless.  Some other techniques tether you to your own life’s experiences – which is really quite limiting.  Meisner asks that you keep expanding your connection to the imagination. Also, it is a building block technique. What that means is that each step builds upon the prior step.  So if you do step a, then step b, then step c you will end up at d.  It gives the actor a reliable process that they can do EVERY time.  It gives them a craft – and that is so much better than throwing the mud up against the wall to see what sticks.

3.  What are some of the attributes that make for great acting students?

Fearlessness, empathy, discipline, curiosity, a vivid imagination, a desire to have their voice heard, and a strong and supple instrument that allows for all that to be revealed in the character.

4.  What are some of the most difficult challenges your students face, and how do they overcome them?

Tension is always a big issue, it is what blocks a student from their impulse. It keeps them from having a free voice and physicality.  It prevents them connecting emotionally to their partners or the circumstances of the scene.  Often times students don’t even realize they are tense.  The tension has become such a habit it feels “normal”.  The first thing we do to help them is make them aware of it.  That’s half the battle – when they find themselves gripping, or holding their breath in certain moments they can release.  WE also have a series of breathing and focus exercises that help.
.  How are classes at your school different from classes in a traditional classroom?  Well if you mean by traditional classroom something like your high school English class – well – this isn’t anything like that.  Most of the work is done on our feet, up and moving around. Acting is a kinesthetic process – students have to feel it in their bodies – not just in their brains.  We learn everything by doing.

6.  What are some of the specific areas your courses focus on?

We have 2 main branches of our actor training.  Our professional program is based on The Meisner Technique as I was taught it by William Esper and Maggie Flanigan.  That is a 2-year program where the classes meet twice a week.  We discovered many years ago however that many people are interested in the acting process but don’t know enough about it to commit to something like our Meisner Program.  That is why we developed our Basic Technique series.  This offers 3 different 12 week sessions that meet once a week.  It is a more traditional style of training, pulling from a variety of techniques. It exposes students to how actors develop characters, break down scripts, expand the imagination and develop an expressive instrument.

7.  What are some common misconceptions people have about the acting profession?

That you either have it or don’t.  You need to have some basic talent for it – but it is a skill set that can be taught and developed.

8.  The acting studio has been running now for nearly fifteen years, and many of your classes fill up quickly.  What do you believe are the key factors of the studio’s success?

Quality control.  We are a small studio, with small classes so that we can focus on the students individual needs.  Our teachers are invested in each student.  Because we only take 90 students we can focus our time and energy on classes rather than on marketing and advertising.

9.  Can you think of any key thing (or things) you’ve learned since the studio first opened? That this craft is more important than ever. True connections between people is harder and harder these days.  Our communication is now buffered by technology and our vulnerability is protected by a screen.  Student actors come into class craving human connection on the deepest level.  Movie and theatre goers ask the actors to experience these honest connections so that they can vicariously live through them.  Actors are becoming society’s conduit to a fully felt and experienced life.  It’s a huge and wondrous responsibility.

For more information on classes, schedules, and our philosophy please check out the studio’s website.

Improv In Action

Improv Actors

IMPROV IN ACTION: THREE GREAT ACTORS WITH STRONG IMPROV ROOTS

Improvisation is all about spontaneity, and existing within the moment. You have to work from the impulse rather than planning what will happen.  Put simply, improv is about listening, acceptance, and authenticity. In improv comedy, it’s easy to find great examples these days of master improvisers. Steve Carrell, Will Ferrell, Sascha Baron Cohen, Amy Poehler, and Jim Carrey have each made their careers as comedic improvisers. Entire TV series have begun from improvised scripts like “The Office” , “Workaholics” , and “Parks and Recreation.” But improv isn’t just for comedy. Some the best improv masters are highly respected for their dramatic roles, including some of the greats: Robin Williams, Bill Murray, and Robert De Niro.

Robin Williams, who attended Juilliard for acting, was performing comedy in nightclubs when he was discovered and asked to audition for what would become his breakout role as the alien called Mork, from “Mork and Mindy.” Williams is said to have improvised almost entirely on the dialogue for this character from the very beginning, leading writers to stop writing dialogue for him entirely. Williams also improvised most of his dialogue as the genie in “Aladdin” as well as an entire scene in his Academy Award winning performance in “Good Will Hunting.”

Bill Murray actually began his career in improv as a young man in Chicago’s Second City improv comedy troupe. Later on he took his comedic talents to the National Lampoon Radio in New York City, which led him to be discovered and brought on to Saturday Night Live. Most famously, he created almost all of his own dialogue in the cult classic, “Caddyshack,” including the “Cinderella Story” bit in the film. He also improvised his entire Peter Venkman character for “Ghostbusters” and an entire scene of dialogue for the movie “Tootsie.” Now Murray has been acclaimed for his dramatic work as well, showing that the honesty he found in improv has given him great range.

Robert De Niro was only 17 when he dropped out of high school and auditioned for Stella Adler’s Academy in New York. Most well known for his dramatic roles, De Niro is a fantastic example of incredible improv coupled with Meisner-style acting. The Meisner Technique is an improvisationaly based training which demands that the actor respond from their instincts rather than their intellect.  He is most well known for his entirely improvised scene talking to himself in front of a mirror during “Taxi Driver.” He is also said to have improvised most of the script and dialogue ideas for “Goodfellas” with his fellow actors in rehearsal.

Improvisational skills can improve any actor as it requires the actor to respond spontaneously in character. This spontaneity is a fundamental philosophy in acting- to be so deeply in character that your thoughts and actions are fluid and authentic. Even when adhering to a script, the best actors will use the impulses they have developed in improv to keep the scene spontaneous. While improv lends itself well to comedy, a true master can utilize improvisation in all types of roles and genres.

At Elizabeth Mestnik’s Acting Studio, we strive to foster this spontaneity and engagement in  our students.

What You Do Between Auditions Matters… A LOT!

EMASLA-Blog_2176

When actors are just starting out, there can often be a long time between auditions.  What are you supposed to do with yourself as you wait for that next opportunity?  I am here to tell you that what you do between auditions will determine your success at the audition.  Too many actors wait forget this and wind up NOT showing what they are truly capable of.

So what should you do while waiting for you next audition?

Be in class
If you don’t know this by now, you should… acting is like a muscle, and if it is not exercised, it gets weak.  If you are auditioning, you should already have a strong foundational technique, but there is no harm in learning new approaches.  Or, you can get yourself into a good scene study class where you can put your skill set to a weekly workout.  Just be sure any class you join, you work every class and you rehearse in between.  You must be at the top of your acting game so you are ready when the big opportunities present themselves!

Learn a new skill
As an actor – the more you know, the more you have to bring to any role.  Take ballet, enroll in a history class at the local community college or learn to cook.  It doesn’t always have to be something performance based…you just need to keep expanding who you are and what you know, expand what is interesting to you. This also makes you a more 3-dimensional person, which makes you more attractive to those who can hire you.

Volunteer to be a Reader
A reader is the person that reads opposite the actor who is auditioning. Even though you aren’t auditioning for the part, it’s a great way to have someone see what you are able to do as well as to create a more personal relationship with the Casting Director.  Call Casting offices that cast the shows you are right for and ask if they need any volunteers.

Go to see plays
Movies are wonderful, but plays really allow you to study other actors.  Good plays or bad, each experience is a great way for you figure out why a performance works, or doesn’t.

Study movies
Be familiar with today’s directors and their styles – from the Coen Brothers to Kathryn Bigelow, you need to be familiar with their work.

Read plays
You need to be familiar with plays and playwrights.  Playwrights like Neil Simon were the origin of our modern sit-com.  Writers like John Patrick Shanley and Theresa Rebek now write for film as well as television shows like Law and Order and Smash.  You also need to know the iconic writers so when they are referenced (ie; this is very Pinter-esque, or this has a Tennessee Williams quality) – you know what that means.

Go to Casting Director Workshops
This is a great way to start meeting the casting directors (or their assistants).

Stay mentally healthy
If that means daily exercise, meditation, getting a pet or going to church… do it.  You need to stay positive, optimistic and happy to get through the slow times.

What you do in between those precious auditions can make or break what you end up doing in the room – so stay busy and be prepared for your big break.

The Decision

ELIZABETH MESTNIK ACTING STUDIO ALUMNA CHARLES MICHAEL DAVIS

The decision, no not “The Decision” as in the televised announcement by LeBron James on ESPN on July 8, 2010, but the decision that we as actors made. The decision TO BE an ACTOR… (to be or not to be, sorry I just had to). A decision that actually does have some parallels to King James of the now World Champ, Miami Heat. Both decisions required for many an actor and Lebron to embark on what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey. Where the chosen one must depart his or her old world to journey into the new world in search of their inner and outer prize. For Lebron that journey meant leaving his home city of Cleveland, Ohio for that of the uber hip city (especially by comparison) of Miami, Florida. The outer prize was the NBA championship, and the inner prize was one from self validation to growth as man. For many an actor our journey means leaving the comfort of our home state for that of the upside down world of Los Angeles or New York. In search of the outer prize of money, fame, oscars, and the inner prize of self actualization and self validation.

This was a decision I made over 8 years ago. When like Lebron I decided to take my talents out of Ohio. However, packing up my car and moving to Los Angeles was not enough to win the spoils of a successful actor. Much like it wasn’t enough for Lebron to be the number one draft pick and take his team to the finals. There was still a little more that needed to be done. A few more decisions that one must make. Tony Robbins says

“It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.”

“A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there is no action, you haven’t truly decided.”

I find these quotes to be very empowering, because as an individual the simple act of making a decision and taking massive action can bring you the inner and outer awards you’ve been longing for. Yet, like myself and Lebron, we must truly asses where we’re at and make the next decision that will shape our destiny. Lebron made his “Decision”, took action, and it earned him a coveted NBA Championship. I made my decision to shine as bright as possible and it awarded me a beautiful role on an amazing pilot and a life as a working actor.

My decision was made after losing out on a pilot a year ago. After being sent home from my first ever studio test I had to sit with the disappointment of missing out on a what seemed to be a dream job acting on a series with Kevin Bacon. To think I would have been only one degree away from Kevin Bacon! The loss was too much. I cried alone at night and held resentment as I watched my peers book pilots and feature films. My girlfriend at the time found it tense to be around me, and helped somewhat to pull me out of the fog. But the real tipping point came months later. The girl I was now dating was coping with her mother dying of stage four pancreatic cancer. I asked her what it was like and what her mother had shared with her. She started her story off with memories of the good deeds her mother performed. And told me if anyone knew about death it would be her mother given the fact that she ran a funeral parlor as a profession. She told me how she flew back to her mother with pen and paper in hand ready to scribble down the life lessons like a court stenographer. But she said there were no gems… Only anger and resentment. Anger and resentment at never leading the life she wanted to live, and to be the person she knew she could be. Later after hearing this story I would hear through a church sermon that “unfulfilled dreams left unexpressed manifest as diseases of the body”. I remember thinking about the emotions I would have if my life were knowingly cut short. Thinking about the unexpressed dreams within me that were yearning to break free. And the responsibility to my body as a temple to express those dreams. And it was at that point that I made a decision to change my destiny.

“The whole world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going”.

Once I made my decision I began to really focus and apply myself. I found that things just started to click. Many of the lessons I glossed over from my years at Elizabeth Mestnik’s Acting Studio started to solidify and make perfect sense. It was like that decision was the missing puzzle piece that connected all four corners of my puzzle. I noticed how my preparation deepened. How the casting directors favorably responded to me. And how my mentality shifted from thoughts of “why can’t I”, to “yes I can”. It was literally a decision that changed my destiny. I didn’t need to change agencies, get new headshots, or find a new acting coach. I just needed to use my god given power of free will!

So, to those who can be honest with themselves, I say to tell it like it is and have a talk with yourself. Ask yourself how you want to feel about your decisions at the end of your life. Just be honest. Then make the big decision and reap the rewards. Go forth and shine!

What I’m Learning in First Year Meisner

From student Junot Lee

Vulnerability is power. When you go to Yahoo.com or any other website that gets a lot of daily traffic, mixed in with current events and sports sound bytes, you see articles all time with “How to” titles: “How to nail that job interview,” “How to make a great impression on a first date.” but how do you become vulnerable?

With Facebook and the decreasing frequency in which we see our friends face-to-face or meet new people, there’s this compulsive demand in our minds that we always carry our best impression so that we can affect people with a positive image of ourselves. What you get is one big, polite, passive aggressive Pleasantville devoid of conflict or emotional life, devoid of vulnerability. All those things that make our heart pound (intimacy, joy, sorrow, rage, fear), they add the distinct hues and substance to our personalities that make us the individuals we are.

The Meisner technique taught me how to draw from my own personal emotional life by shutting out the contrived intellectual element. To truly feel, you can’t be scared of getting hurt or embarrassed or even thinking about any of those things because the technique puts you in a state where you exist purely in the moment to take in the person sitting across from you. It demands that you put your attention squarely on the other person. The byproduct of reacting to your partner’s behavior and emotional responses is that you allow yourself to inhabit your own emotions without the convenient and shallow judgement that we picked up from the “rules” of making good impressions. There’s no one to please, no one to entertain. Just you, your scene partner, and the beautiful back-and-forth where you each tap into those things that make your heart pound just by you being you; heart pounding vulnerability. And that’s where great stories begin and live: where our hearts pound and where we can interact truthfully with each other because we know that what we each bring to the table is already enough. Acting is simply meant to be a canvas of life, and the beauty of the technique is that it trains you, beyond the craft, to exist in the moment and to clear your mind so that you can truly receive the emotional life that surrounds you. This awareness allows us to understand and convey what we truly feel, and this remarkable ability to get out of our own over-analyzing heads is real power because there is so much emotional life around us to inspire us and to expose what’s actually important to us individually. And the first step to this power is to be vulnerable.

Junot Lee

WHAT THIS WORK MEANS TWENTY YEARS LATER

2nd Year Instructor Ken Weiner reflects on his journey with
The Meisner Technique

Twenty years ago I hopped in my car and sped away from LA across
country to New Jersey to study with William Esper at Rutgers University.
The three following years of conservatory were so dense with experience,
learning and hair-pulling that I still believe no matter how busy, tired or
burnt I am; I survived Rutgers, I will make it through the day.

I went there to study Meisner. I loved the performing arts, the theatre
and acting. I would be a performing artist until the day I die and I didn’t
want to “guess” anymore. I didn’t want to rely on passion or luck. I wanted
technique and principles I could count on that would help me work the ‘right
way’ for the rest of my life.

Bill Esper and Maggie Flanigan taught with such conviction and
authority I swore, “I will never teach this. Not if I live to 103 will I be able
to teach this.”

I was there to become an artist not a teacher.

One of my peers was a young, thoughtful actress named Elizabeth
Mestnik. She was the first student to “come to life” during an exercise. We
stared with head-nodding revelation as Maggie turned to us and said, “That’s
coming to life!” Now it was up to us to follow in Elizabeth’s footsteps.

Sixteen years later, Elizabeth asked me if I would co-teach her
nd year Meisner class. Two decades later, I still feared being a teacher.
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Thankfully I agreed and am now in my 5th year teaching at EMAS.

The principles behind Meisner’s work are simple. To mention a few –
the actor must be in contact with their partner, be emotionally related to the
circumstance, be living/doing truthfully through the imaginary
circumstances of the play. Sounds easy, right? Ah…now try it.

As an actor I always sought to simplify and demystify the work.
Acting and performance is a powerful and often enigmatic experience
but the act and process of creativity should be crystal clear. Every time I
work in the studio I search for the simplest way to educate and encourage
the students. What worked? What didn’t? What was unclear? And most
importantly, how do they fix it?

Because I act and I audition (which is what an actor does much of the
time) teaching reminds me what the actor must DO to create truthful and
authentic behavior.

I think of myself as an actor as I sit behind that exalted desk in class.
If I were onstage how would I approach this scene, this moment, this

circumstance? It’s my job to make you better. If you have no talent, no
commitment, no instincts you would not be in my class. Teaching is a way
of staying close to the “work” I am still so in awe of. It’s a way of
reminding myself everyday of the principles and technique that lead to
brilliance, transformation and truth.

If I can make your work better, I have made your life better.
I am not 107 years old. My middle name is not “Master”. I cannot
walk across rice paper like a Kung Fu prodigy. But I studied this work 20
years ago, I practice it daily and I still fight to emulate Elizabeth’s grasp of
the work just like I did twenty years ago when she was the first one to bust
down the walls that protect us and get to the truth, the heart, the soul of
being an artist.