Actor Challenge: 4 Things You Can Do To Level Up This Year
If you don’t have auditions rolling in, and you don’t have access to an
acting class, there are still things you can do to improve your skills and
nurture your career. I’ve only listed a few.
If you are serious about acting, don’t just wait for roles to come to you.
You have to be proactive and there are so many things you can do to take
control. It’s really easy to get frustrated, feel helpless, and make a lot of
excuses about why your career isn’t going anywhere.
1. PRACTICE AUDITIONING
Make a list of shows that you think you should be on. Find
sides online or transcribe the scenes from your TV. You can also find scenes on
mocksides.com but I recommend you find
actual sides for televisions shows that you think you’re right for. Give
yourself a few hours in the evening to work on the material as if you had an
audition the next day. The next morning, put yourself on tape. Give yourself
ONE TAKE to nail it. Do this at least once a week, more if you can!
If you’re not going out on auditions all the time, you want to make sure that when an audition does come along, you’re in as good of shape as the actors who do audition all the time. Find an acting buddy that you like to work with and commit to reading with each other and helping one another out with self-tapes. Practice practice practice!
2. READ SCRIPTS
You can find so many scripts online – for movies and television series. Read as many scripts as you can. Learn how to understand the material. Get good at reading the tone and getting a feel for the story. Pick a character you would want to play in the script and think about that character’s arc and how they help tell the whole story. Ask yourself what you qualities you have that would help bring that character to life. Approach it like someone handed you the script and offered you the role. How would you begin your work? This exercise will not only help you develop your own process, it will also help you see the areas you need to improve.
3. REVAMP YOUR PACKAGING
Is your headshot and resume a good reflection of your talent and experience? How about your profiles on Actor’s Access and Casting Networks? What about Backstage? If you don’t have one, set up a profile for one or all of these websites and make sure your profile stands out but is also an accurate reflection of your casting. Give your packaging an overhaul and be honest with yourself about what is missing. A casting director once told me that the thing she’s most interested in seeing on a resume is an actor’s training. What does that section look like for you? Get to work!
4. CREATE REEL FOOTAGE
First of all, get clear about your casting. Not just what you like to do or what sounds fun – try to focus on what you think your casting is and be realistic. Actors are afraid to get pigeon-holed, but sometimes we have to embrace our “type” to get our foot in the door. If your look and essence scream “clumsy office manager” or “soccer mom” – you should have footage of you playing those types of roles. Write a one or two page scene and get someone who knows what they’re doing to help you film it. Not a writer? Ask a friend or find a scene on mocksides.com – they give you full permission to film scenes for personal use. No excuses!
Being successful requires being proactive and not waiting for life to come to you. It means you’re on offense, not defense. You’re active, not passive.
Benjamin P. Hardy
If you really want to go far this year, it’s up to you to take action. There are a lot of talented actors out there. The successful ones are those who are willing to do the hard work. Take charge of your destiny. Life is short – start running toward your dreams like you’re on fire!
Suggested Reading from an Actor / Acting Coach. Calm down everybody, just start with one.
As an avid reader, I’ve been deeply impacted by many books throughout my career. Some are books about acting, but many are books that have nurtured the artist in me and have opened my eyes to some wonderful tools for living my best creative life.
Of course I have to first suggest the book that I co-wrote with casting director, Catrine McGregor CSA. I find that the most common questions actors ask me are answered in this fun little nugget that is equal parts information and inspiration. I learned so much from Catrine in the process of the writing this book and I know you’ll learn a lot from our conversations about the biz.
The Actor’s Art and Craft by William Esper and Damon DiMarco
This is the most valuable tool in my toolbox. I believe this is a book every actor should read. This clear and inspirational breakdown of the work continues to teach me. I go back to it over and over again. Get it!
Audition by Michael Shurtleff
At this point, it’s a classic for the aspiring actor. The twelve guideposts should be printed and posted in the home or office of every working actor.
ACTING: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky
If the reading list is overwhelming, start with this fun read that should be in every actor’s book collection. It’s a lighthearted way to fall deeper in love with the craft and will make you want to commit to your own growth as an artist.
Audition for Your Career, Not the Job by Tim Phillips
My favorite thing about this book is the way that Tim Phillips talks about Sherlock Holmesing the text. Not only will this book help you craft a nuanced and emotionally alive performance, it’s filled with practical advice for getting the job done in the audition room.
Screenplay by Syd Field
I believe all actors should understand the basic elements of story, even if they don’t intend to become writers. Having this background will enlighten your process of creating a character, understanding arc, and knowing your role in the storytelling process. There are many books on the fundamentals for storytelling but this is a great place to start.
The ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron
The work of the actor is the work of the self, and I can think of no greater tool to self-discovery for an artists than this book. Buy this book and make a commitment to yourself to to discover and recover your creative self. I’m a daily practicer of Morning Pages and encourage my students to do them as well. I find that, at the very least, they help get the noise out of my head – and I have an extremely noise head.
The WAR of ART by Steven Pressfield
One of the most profound milestones of my own personal growth was my acceptance that resistance is part of the creative process. Knowing that it was universal took away a lot of excuses I was making to not give myself permission to create. This book is incredibly painful and nurturing at the same time. Read it and enjoy the ride.
The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer
Actors should meditate! If you are struggling with a commitment to a regular meditation practice, read this book. It’s not necessarily about meditation, but reading it made me think about meditation in a different way and allowed me to commit to a practice that has been a game-changer for me. This book is soul food.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
I read this book when I was in a very dark place and it helped bring me back to life by giving me a profound shift in perspective. I was able to let go of what I wanted creativity to give me and learn how to live a creative life just for the sheer pleasure of living a creative life. This book is delicious. Get it!
The book you don’t read
After reading one of the books from this list, please give me a full report on how it helped you by starting a discussion on the LosAngelesActingCoach forum. Is there a book that has impacted your acting journey that isn’t on here? Please share it with me. I’m addicted to books!
You don’t have to be a mess to be an artist. Let’s talk about why self-care is so important for the actor and how you can practice it in your life everyday.
Acting is a strange and somewhat impalpable art form. Deciding to take up acting as a hobby or career isn’t like deciding to learn how to play the guitar in that you can’t just pick it up and practice whenever you want. As an actor, you don’t really get to practice and play unless you’re in a film, or a class, or a play. However, there are plenty of things you can do when you don’t have access to those things that can help you become a more truthful, connected, emotionally-alive actor.
First of all, when it comes to acting, you are your instrument. When I started to play the guitar, the first thing I learned was everything there was to know about the instrument. I was taught how the instrument worked and what all the different parts were. As actors, if we are our instrument, doesn’t it make sense that we should get to know the instrument well so we know how to use it? This is why my first rule for actors is “Know Thyself”.
Getting to know and understanding your instrument is an infinite process. It’s ongoing and undefinable. It is ongoing because we are constantly evolving and changing as we age and it is indefinable because there isn’t a language adequate enough to explain the things we understand sometimes. That’s why acting is such a beautiful medium for storytelling – we use more than words to communicate. Beyond the text, behavior and emotional life are our tools for conveying what the character is going through.
Here are some things you can do and practice daily to help you become a better actor.
1: LEARN TO MEDITATE
There are so many reasons that actors should meditate and I get into them more in another blogpost called Why Actors Should Meditate.
Meditation has helped me tremendously as an actor and as a human. Not only has it improved my mental and emotional health, but it’s also helped me get to know myself. Learning to observe your thoughts without judging them allows you to be in a position to zoom out and look at human behavior and life. As actors, that is our field! The further I study meditation, the more I am fascinated by the ego. I’m more likely to notice when I’m ego-driven in a situation but it doesn’t mean that I’m so evolved my ego isn’t a problem anymore. Having an ego is part of human consciousness, we can’t make it go away. Not for nothing, stories come from our ego. We need the ego! We don’t need to be a slave to the ego, but we should understand it. It’s a vital part of our instrument.
Journaling always seems to be one of those topics that people either light up when mentioned, or roll their eyes at. For those of you who groan at the thought of journaling, hear me out. Like meditation, there are a lot of different ways you can practice this and it’s important to find a way that works for you. Personally, I’m a big fan of Morning Pages, a tool I learned from Julia Cameron, author of The Artists Way. I notice such a difference in my ability to focus, my productivity, my perspective and my overall mood when I’m keeping up with my morning pages. Three pages of handwritten, stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning every day will help you get to know your instrument faster than is comfortable for most people, and that is a good thing. If you want to be an actor, get comfortable outside of your comfort-zone.
3: GET PHYSICAL
Exercise isn’t just about obtaining the perfect physique. People come in all shapes and sizes and therefore so should actors! This is about being comfortable in your body. First of all, exercise will improve physical, emotional and mental health – all good things for any actor (and any human!) The key is to find something that you really enjoy doing so you’ll keep doing it. I have to change it up a lot, because I tend to get bored doing the same thing for a long time. I love a routine, as long as I can change my routine often. It doesn’t matter what you do, but do something. It’s important for actors to be connected to their bodies. Also, exercise is another way to practice mindfulness. Sometimes my husband and I will spend an hour playing tennis. Neither of us are very good at it, but it gets our heart rates up for a while and for the duration of our “game” I’m completely in the moment.
Acting is therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. We all have traumas and broken hearts and a lot of people are drawn to acting (whether they know it or not) because they are looking for a place to express their pain and heal their wounds. I think acting can be a wonderful, safe way to work out our pain but I think it’s important that it’s not our only tool for coping and mending. Whether it’s in a group or one-on-one, I think every actor should seek out healthy ways to process emotional pain from trauma, grief or heartbreak. Not only will it help you get to know yourself (your instrument!), it will give you more insight into processing feelings, something every actor needs to know. If we can’t process our own emotions, how can we be expected to do it as a character in imaginary circumstances?
“Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish — an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked…Filling the well involves active pursuit of images to refresh our artistic reservoirs.” ~Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
5: FILL YOUR WELL
Actors must have something to draw from so we must make sure our wells are never empty. Here’s a short list of things you can do to fill your well —
GO SEE A PLAY, even if it’s a “bad” play! There is always something to enjoy and there are always opportunities to learn, if you’re paying attention. As an artist, make it a habit to support other artists!
READ A BOOK! Check out my reading list for suggestions!
GO TO A MUSEUM. If there isn’t a museum or art gallery where you live, you’ll find a lot of eye candy and many treasures at antique stores!
TAKE A CLASS about anything but acting. Develop a talent that you can put on the “special skills” section of your resume: dance, voice, foreign language, archery, firearms handling – think about the kinds of roles you want to get to point you in the direction of other fields you can study.
PEOPLE WATCH! You can do this anywhere, just don’t be creepy about it! Go to a park, mall, even a bus stop and think about where people are going and coming from and what their lives are like. It’s a great exercise for the imagination. A vivid imagination is a great super power for an actor to cultivate.
TRAVEL, even if it’s just getting out of your hometown for a day. Get yourself into some unfamiliar territory and observe how people in different cities and cultures live and interact with each other. It’s a great way to learn about humanity!
6: LIVE YOUR LIFE
The most valuable tools in an actor’s toolbox are life experiences. Take a trip, meet new people, fall in love, make mistakes, forgive someone, go to a party, spend time with people you love, explore nature – just live. Actors have a tendency to take themselves and their acting so seriously that they miss out on their lives. Don’t forget to live your life and nurture your relationships. Other people are mirrors for us and we can learn a lot about ourselves through deep and meaningful relationships. Heck, we can learn a lot about ourselves from shallow, meaningless relationships. Everything you experience in life will be there for you to draw upon in your acting journey. Be an active participant in your life!
How The Five Elements of Story Can Enlighten Your Preparation
Arguably, there are 5 key elements of story. Not all actors are writers, but it’s important for actors to have some understanding of story to help them make the best acting choices for their characters.
I highly recommend that actors have some awareness of the fundamentals of storytelling. Take a screenwriting class, read a book about story structure, google some stuff, ask your screenwriter friends! If you’re familiar with my coaching style, you’ll notice I reference storytelling principles quite often in my lessons. This blog just barely scratches the surface.
An important quality that must be given to characters (especially the main character) is a flaw, or weakness. Let’s be careful here. It’s really important that we don’t judge the characters we play. Let’s save our strong point of view for the character’s feelings about other characters in the story. Rather than ask “What’s my character’s weakness?” I like to ask “In what ways does my character let her ego get the best of her?” Then I answer, in the voice of the character, with the point of view of the character. For example, if the superficial judgment of the character is something like she’s patronizing, the way that I would talk with the character’s voice and point of view is “If I don’t assume everyone around me has no more intelligence than that of a fourth grader, everyone will slack off and let me down.” Justified behavior, right? Now you can play that character with truth rather than playing an idea.
Every role you approach should be treated as the main character. Hear me out. You’ve heard the saying there are no small parts, right? I’ll use one of my favorite examples. Let’s say your character is WAITRESS and your line is “Are you ready for the check?” — and that’s the only thing we see and hear you do for an entire episode or film. That waitress is still a full-fledged human being with a full life – wants, needs, desires, triggers, point of view, a place she’s coming from, a destination, thinking process, all of it. You still have to make strong choices about all of those things.
Where are you and what are you literally doing in the scene? Sticking with the waitress example, you’d be at work (which happens to be in a restaurant) and you are literally asking a patron if they are finished with their dining experience and ready to pay their bill. This is where it’s important to be specific. Are you a waitress at Applebees, or Gary’s Pie Shop, or Le Petit Maison? How long have you worked there? Is it your first day or are you coming up on twenty years? The way you move about the restaurant will be different depending on the specifics. Try not to make general choices about these things. Extremes make for great strong point of view.
To whom are you asking if they’re ready for the check? Someone you think is sexy and maybe have a crush on? Someone who irritates you? A stranger or a regular that you’ve been waiting on for years? You’ll have stronger point of view if you cast someone specific in your mind.
Stories should have a beginning, middle and end. So should every scene. Remember this in auditions. Think of it this way: when casting directors are watching your audition, they are kind of watching a little play. They want a full performance. That means you should have a beginning, middle and end of your scene; it should tell a full story. Even if your audition is just a few lines, or even one line, or even no lines — a story can be told with just a look!
So how do we apply this to the work? The scene doesn’t start with the first line of dialogue. Whatever happens that motivates the character to first speak is the beginning of the scene. Read that again. Whatever happens that motivates the first character to speak is the beginning of the scene.
The middle of the scene is what happens in the scene.
The end of the scene is a character being motivated by what happened in the scene to do the next indicated thing. What is the character’s destination now? Having discovered new information, where are you (the character) going now and what are you going to do? You’ve got to make that choice and make it specific. Let it be part of the character’s thinking process in your closing moment.
Every story has to have conflict. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a brawl. In story, to put it simply, our character wants something and what happens in the story is basically about all of the obstacles they have to overcome to get what they want. Here is where we have to find out our character’s intention. As the character, what do you want? How far are you willing to go to get it? What happens if you don’t get what you want? What are the consequences if you don’t get your way? What’s at stake?
Don’t emotionally prepare on the obstacles, emotionally prepare on what you want and how bad you want it. Then deal with the obstacles or conflict. The character can’t know what’s coming next – so you can’t anticipate the problem. You (as the character) have to want what you want and then deal with the obstacles truthfully.
Every story has a resolution. It’s not always about the character getting what they want, it is often about them getting what they need (usually something they didn’t know they needed). The important thing to remember here is that the result of the character’s arc is that they have had a shift in perspective. They go from a place of not knowing something to knowing it. In other words, in the last scene of the film they know something they didn’t know in the first scene. This can also be applied to audition scenes. Every scene is in the movie or episode for a reason – it’s either moving the story forward (so new information is revealed) or it’s letting us know more about a character (so new information is revealed). So, in every scene, new information is revealed. How does your character receive the information? What does it make them want to do next? In every scene, on some level, there should be a shift. This happens from the listening. But you can prepare in a way to set yourself up for a great discovery by making a choice that the character is expecting the opposite of what happens.
There is so much more we can learn from storytelling that can help our acting work become more nuanced and grounded. Hopefully these five simple insights have opened up a new way for you to look at your work. Like writers, though in a much different way, actors are storytellers. It’s important that we have a comprehensive understanding of what makes up a story and what makes a story compelling. I encourage you to explore your work from that aspect and see what exciting places it takes you!
Have you ever given a great performance and then afterwards the one thing someone says is “How did you memorize all those lines?!” It always makes me want to roll my eyes and say “that’s the easiest part, the emotional preparation is the hard part.” But I don’t. I just say “lots of practice.” And that’s true too.
In my twenties, I was one of those annoying actors that could look at something twice and have it down verbatim. I used to drive my castmates crazy because I’d have all of their lines memorized somehow too. I’m still a pretty fast memorizer, but I need to spend a little more time with the text than I used to.
Everyone has a different way of learning lines and each actor has to find the best way for them. I once had a roommate that would record the other characters’ lines on and old-school cassette tape recorder and run the scene with the machine over and over again. (This was years ago, there are apps for that now!)
I’m a very visual learner, so I really like to look at the page a lot. I have a little bit of a photographic memory I guess, sort of seeing the script in my head as I’m recalling lines. Without looking, I’ll know when I’m on page three. This turns out to be very helpful during auditions when I have dialogue memorized but I still want to have the pages in my hand. I don’t even have to look down but I know exactly when to turn the page just in case I need to glance at it.
In Howard Guskin’s wonderful book “How to Stop Acting”, he talks about something he calls “taking it off the page.” Here’s how it works:
The actor looks down at the phrase and breathes in and out while he reads the words to himself, giving himself time to let the phrase into his head. Then he looks up from the page and says the line, no longer reading but speaking.
This is a process that Guskin uses when he coaches actors as a means of making discoveries about the character in the scene. I think it’s brilliant. It’s painstaking, but it certainly evokes a lot of insight. It is also is a great way to memorize lines. I did a play a few years ago that required me to deliver a pretty lengthy monologue. I hadn’t memorized a monologue like that since I attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts – many, many years ago. I found that using the taking it off the page process helped me learn that monologue in no time and also helped me make discoveries, a lot of nuances, that I may have missed otherwise.
As I said, everyone learns differently. You have to find what works best for you. But here are some little things about line memorization I want to share.
1: Get good at memorizing.
If you want to be an actor, you’re going to have to memorize a lot of dialogue, and often. Like anything else, you can train your brain to be better at something by doing it consistently – so practice, practice, practice! Find a scene or monologue online and make it your goal every week to memorize something. If you’re not in an acting class, you should practice working on understanding material on a regular basis. So do more than just memorize the lines — practice creating characters, believing the imaginary circumstances, and making strong choices while you’re at it!
2: Yes, you should memorize dialogue for every audition.
I used to think this was unnecessary. In fact, I used to think it was a good thing to have the sides in your hand at an audition because I thought it subliminally showed them that I could be directed in any way they wanted. I thought it would be good for them to see that this wasn’t the final performance, I could be worked with so they could more easily imagine me in the role. Then one day a writer friend of mine showed me several audition tapes for a sitcom she had created for a major network. The difference in the performances between the actors with no sides in their hands and the actors with sides in their hands was profound. Especially in television, they want to see a final performance. They don’t want to direct you. They want you to show up on set and do exactly what they saw you do in your audition. Your audition always has to be performance-ready, whether you’re auditioning for a guest star or a series regular. There’s little to no rehearsal in television. They want to call “Action!,” watch you do your thing, call cut, and send you home. So memorize your auditions, especially for self-tapes, because you can do it as many times as you need to until it’s right. If you aren’t confident enough to let go of the sides in a live audition room, have them in your hand, but you shouldn’t need to look at them unless for one reason or another you lose your concentration and need to glance down. Sometimes your sides can also be used as props. In those instances, it’s great to have them on you because they’ll add to your performance, not distract from it.
If your audition is last minute, or it’s a cold read, at least memorize the first three lines. Jenna Fischer advises this in her book “The Actor’s Life” (a great read if you’re just getting started or thinking about pursuing a career in acting). It’s a great trick. If at least the first three lines are memorized, you know you can have a strong start to get them hooked!
3: If you keep getting stuck on the same line, you’re missing something.
I have noticed this in my own work, but it really became evident when I started coaching other actors. Whenever there was a line that is consistently being forgotten, it was almost always because the actor hadn’t connected to it emotionally yet. Or they hadn’t connected the previous moment to it yet. If there’s a line you are continually forgetting, chances are good that you are missing something about the character or emotional life. Look deeper into what the line is really about until you find the connection. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself “why is the character saying that line?” It seems like an obvious question to ask yourself but you’d be surprised how much you’re missing when you forget to slow down and really pull the scene apart.
4: It’s in the listening.
This seems obvious but so many actors forget to do it. If you’re well-prepared on the character, relationships, and imaginary circumstances, and you’re really listening to the other character’s dialogue, you should know what your next line is. Especially if the writing is good. Good writing is so much easier to memorize. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t get great writing but we can’t let that be an excuse. No excuses! If you’re having trouble memorizing something, you probably haven’t done your homework. Do the work!
5: Chill out.
Go easy on yourself. If you’re struggling with memorizing something, or even during a rehearsal you go blank on your next line, getting frustrated and worked up will make it even harder for your brain to recall the line. The more relaxed you are in your work, the easier it is for your brain to recall information. When we are stressed, the brain secretes cortisol and adrenaline and the result is that our attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress rather than the task at hand. There’s another reason why actors should learn to meditate!
I’m well aware that there are a lot of theories out there that encourage actors not to memorize lines, at least not at first. I wholeheartedly support this idea. In fact, when I’m teaching, I prefer students don’t memorize their scenes for scene study. If the actors don’t know the next line, they can’t anticipate the next moment, so they really have to stay in the listening, and then find their line. I think knowing your lines too well before you’ve done your preparation can lead you to making conceptual choices and playing ideas, which I’m always steering actors away from.
However, when it comes to doing the job, you’ll want to know how to memorize, a lot and quickly. When it comes to auditioning, you’ll want to know how to memorize, a lot and quickly. I don’t suggest that memorizing be the first thing you do with your script, but I do suggest that you get good at it so when the time comes, you can have confident, off-book performances.
A Brief History Along With Some Tips To Help You Find Your Way
The most influential acting teacher I’ve ever had is Andrew Benne (who still teaches at his studio Acting SD, and if you’re in the San Diego area and don’t immediately get into his class, you’re missing out on studying with one of the greatest acting teachers of our time. Andrew teaches Meisner Hybrid, as it evolved from the teacher that made him a teacher, the late, great Edward Kaye Martin.
My understanding is that Ed (who taught for Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and was an actor in the John Cassavetes workshops) decided at some point to limit the repetition in the famous Meisner exercise to just one word. My guess is that one reason for that (simply because I see it so much in my classes) is that actors tended to get pretty chatty. The repetition of a phrase back and forth can quickly and sneakily turn into a dialogue, and that’s not the point. Another reason for the one word limit was likely the other reason I like to implement it as well – actors had to work harder using behavior to communicate. Even just removing the pronouns from the repetition makes a big difference. If I say “You look uncomfortable” — it’s very clear what is going on. If I say “I feel uncomfortable” — that’s also very clear. But If I can only use the word “uncomfortable” I have to work a lot harder with behavior to communicate my point of view.
At some point, in Ed’s classes, the classic Meisner Repetition exercise became a single word repetition but with the same intention – to get actors out of their heads and working off each other’s behavior. (Among so many other benefits of the Meisner Repetition).
When Andrew Benne first opened his acting studio in 1989, the same year that Ed passed away, he coined the term Raw Moments – a sort of spinoff of the traditional Meisner Repetition. I became a student of Andrew Benne in 2000 and was introduced to Meisner Hybrid by way of Raw Moments. It’s been the foundation of my work as an actor. I use it to teach my students to live truthfully in relationship and be completely available to the present moment.
Whether you want to call it the Meisner Repetition or Raw Moments, whether you’re using one word (strong emotional vocabulary is essential) or repeating a short phrase, pronouns or no pronouns – all the same rules still apply.
If you’re thinking of studying Meisner or some version of Meisner, or are currently a student of the Meisner influence, I hope you find this list of things to keep in mind helpful in your understanding of the work.
WHAT YOU SEE, WHAT YOU FEEL
You don’t have to get fancy with your words. Keep it simple. Speak to your partner’s behavior, or to your own emotional life. Just remember that your emotional life is always in response to your partner’s behavior. Don’t work alone. Your partner is everything in this work. Be invested. It’s all about what you see in front of you, and what you feel in response to that.
WHEN IN DOUBT, REPEAT
If you can’t think of the perfect word to describe your partner’s behavior or what you’re feeling, just keep repeating the word, but make sure repeat from where you’re living, emotionally. It’s not about the words. It’s never about the words. Work off of behavior, stay in relationship, and keep repeating. The first word (or phrase) said should always be uncensored observation (with point of view).
STRONG POINT OF VIEW
Let’s say, for example, your partner’s behavior is aggressive. Call that out, but don’t just make an observation, have point of view of that behavior. Speak from that place. Is their aggression making you nervous? Do you find it childish? We should be able to know your point of view of their behavior by the way you’re repeating and the way you’re behaving in the relationship.
WHEN DOES THE REPETITION CHANGE?
According to The Actor’s Art and Craft by William Esper and Damon DiMarco (a must-read if you’re a fan of or just curious about Meisner), there are four reasons the word or phrase being repeated should change.
1. You always change the Repetition in order to respond honestly. For example, if my partner says “you’re wearing a funny hat” and I’m indeed the only one with a hat on, I wouldn’t repeat “you’re wearing a funny hat” if my partner wasn’t. I’d change the repetition to make it true, “I’m wearing a funny hat”.
2. The Pileup. The sheer repetitiousness of the Repetition can begin to play on you internally and create an impulse, which makes a change.
3. Point of View. If you have an opinion at any time in the repetition, express it. If a feeling arises in response to your partner’s behavior, speak to it.
4. Change in Behavior When you notice your partner’s behavior change, the words of the repetition must change in order to reflect it. In other words, if you see something, say something.
THE BODY DOESN’T LIE
Especially if you’re new to the work, you may have a hard time accessing your emotional vocabulary because you’re not used to thinking that way. Speak to what literally and physically is happening. Call your own behavior, “I’m crossing my arms,” or to your partners physical behavior, “you’re getting close to me”. If you can start speaking to the physical behavior, you’ll get better at reading emotional life from that behavior.
NEVER SACRIFICE THE TRUTH FOR THE RULES OF THE GAME
I have to bust new students a lot of for asking questions. Don’t ask questions! That’s working from a head-place, not a body-place. Your job isn’t to figure out what is going on, or why someone is behaving a certain way, your job is to behave in reaction to what you are seeing. However, if you’re emotionally charged and you can’t think of the perfect word but the moment has changed and you absolutely have to speak to it and so you blurt out something like “What do you want from me?!” — do it. In my class, you can do that. Because I’d rather have you “break a rule” than hesitate, get in your head, and try to find the perfect word to describe what is going on. There seems to be a lot of rules in this exercise, but remember that nothing is more important than being truthful. That’s the whole point of the “game”.
I’ve seen variations of the Meisner Repetition and Raw Moments taught by Andrew Benne, Fran Montano (also a student of Edward Kaye Martin and Master Teacher at The Actors Workout Studio), Irene Muzzy, (teacher at Acting SD and The Actors Workout) – all brilliant instructors. I’ve read several books and articles about Meisner and the famous technique. It has been a major element in the infrastructure of my work for nearly twenty years now and I’m continually discovering more ways it leads actors to working freely and organically.
The Meisner Repetition may be able to help you in ways you haven’t thought of yet.
Sanford Meisner defined acting as living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. In other words, to be real in a fake situation. The Meisner Repetition, the foundation of The Meisner Technique, teaches actors to actively listen, behave truthfully in relationships with their scene partners, and to respond from instinct. Working this way is about getting actors out of their heads and into their bodies. It teaches actors how to allow themselves to be affected by others in the most personal way, making way for vulnerability, a key ingredient to any meaningful performance. The repetition exercise helps actors give themselves permission to respond truthfully by revealing how they are really feeling in a situation.
This is why I’m a fan of the Meisner Repetition. I believe it is the bedrock of moment-to-moment work. For those with a basic grasp on what it is but might not completely get how it can enhance your acting, check out these 8 ways your work can benefit from giving it a try, or trying it again.
1: You will get better at reading behavior.
It’s important to remember that it’s not about the words. It’s never about the words. How is your partner’s behavior affecting you? What are they doing? Don’t be afraid to speak to their behavior, literally call it out. “You’re walking away, you’re staring at me, you’re fidgeting, your arms are crossed.” Remember, it’s not just about being able to identify their behavior, it’s about being affected by their behavior. What are they doing to you emotionally with their behavior?
2: You will learn how to get your performance off your partner.
You can say a line of dialogue a thousand different ways. Working moment-to-moment means we say the line of dialogue based on what just happened in the moment before, what our partner just did to us emotionally. If you’re really working in the moment, you can’t just say a line the way you rehearsed it. You have to say it based on how you’re feeling because of the moment before, and use it to get what you want or need in the next moment. If you can trust the moment enough, your partner actually gives you your performance. Your job is to be emotionally prepared on the imaginary circumstances, be fully invested in the relationship with your partner, be affected by them, and fight for what you (the character) wants in the scene.
3: You will gain awareness about how others view you.
This is a great benefit because you might not think of yourself of having certain attributes, but if others are repeatedly seeing something in you, you might want to take a closer look into playing characters with those attributes. It’s really important to have an accurate and strong sense of self. You might think of yourself as a dangerous leading man, but others may see your innocence, or naivety, or quirkiness — food for thought.
4: You will get better at identifying and trusting impulses.
Sometimes when I’m teaching, I’ll blurt out something like “You wanted to go to her? Why didn’t you?!” I can see on an actor’s body that they want to do something and even when they admit that it was true, they can’t seem to tell me what it was that stopped them from following through with their impulse. Give yourself permission to behave. If you’re really invested in your partner, everything they do will make you want to go toward them, or get farther away from them. You either like or don’t like what’s happening and your body knows which one it is. The repetition exercise is to get you out of your head and into your body. If your body wants to touch your partner’s hand, or embrace them, take a chance. If you get rejected – that’s okay! You have to be willing to suffer the consequences if they want something else. That’s what conflict is – and conflict is drama! I’m not suggesting you go in looking for a fight just to get to conflict. Let the conflict arise organically from the relationship.
5: You will get familiar with your own emotional triggers.
I wish I could remember where I read this (I’m paraphrasing) “Every actor ought to know what turns them on and what makes them want to jump off a bridge.” The repetition exercise helps you get clear about what triggers you. What makes you angry? What embarrasses you? What (or who) makes you feel small? Different people affect us in different ways. The repetition is a great place to get to know what triggers certain emotional life for you. These things are necessary for actors if they want to bring truthful emotion to their work.
6: You will get better at using behavior to communicate.
Before doing a scene, you’ve (hopefully) made some choices including what your intention is, what you want from your scene partner (the other character). During the scene, your job is to behave in order to get what you want. The repetition exercise, as I said before, helps you read behavior. This is your way of knowing whether your behavior is working or not, whether it’s helping you get what you want from your partner. The intention might stay the same throughout the scene, but your tactic – how you are going to get what you want – will change based on your partner’s behavior. Is begging working? How about manipulation? How about anger? Let your partner’s behavior lead you to the next moment.
7: You will learn active listening.
Listening isn’t just about hearing words. We listen with our bodies too, and with our intuition. If my husband says “I love you too” but his arms are crossed, it may be true that he loves me, but I also may pick up on the fact that he’s a little guarded, maybe because he’s angry or his feelings are hurt. In relationships, we get a lot more information than just from the words that are said to us. Body language and emotional life speak loudly, we must listen. Also, part of listening is watching our partner to see if we’re being heard or not.
8: You will get a better understanding of Public Solitude
If you’re an actor, I recommend you get familiar with this term. It’s a Stanislavski term that refer’s the the actor’s ability to appear private in public. I’ve filmed scenes before playing an angsty teenage girl contemplating herself in the mirror. I’ve had to allow myself to let the character have a truly private moment even though my actor-self knew there was a full crew standing around watching. In scenes, we have to give ourselves permission to have a truthful, private conversation with the other characters, and forget that we’re being watched by the class, or the audience, or the film crew. Honor that fourth wall. The repetition exercise is a great place to practice this.
Sometimes we just need a fast but specific way into the scene. These five questions can help get you clear about the character and the scene when you don’t have time to go deeper. (And they are questions you should be asking yourself about the scene when you do have time to go deeper.)
Have you ever gone in for an audition that you spent countless hours preparing and they ask you to read for another character on the spot? Or they change the sides on you? Or you get an audition but it’s for that same day and you haven’t showered and it will take at least an hour to get there and park?!
Actors often find themselves facing the abrupt bewilderment of a cold read. It’s frustrating when you don’t have time to prepare and you’re expected to do your best work. Here are some questions you can ask yourself (as the character) to help you make choices very quickly and nail your audition.
1. Where am I coming from?
The moment before the first line of dialogue is very important. That moment before is actually the beginning of the scene, the first line of dialogue is not. Take a beat to establish where you are, what you are doing and reveal the character’s point of view of what is happening. Don’t over-indulge here, but have fun living with the character before you rush to the dialogue. Especially if you have the first line – you have so much more control over how the audition starts!
Knowing where the character is coming from, physically and emotionally (in other words, literally and figuratively), will inform the emotional life of the scene out of the gate. If it’s not indicated in the script, make a choice (a specific choice!) that makes sense in the context of the story.
2. Where am I going?
What’s your destination? Is this conversation happening when you’re on your way out the door or walking to your car? Then don’t forget that your character is on their way to some other place. Almost always. For example, if the scene starts with your character walking through the door after a long work day – what were you intending to do? Get your jammies on, go take a shower, make a snack because you’ve had a long day and you’re starving? This may never obviously show in your audition but giving yourself a bit of urgency is almost always a great choice. Why? Because it raises the stakes. The higher the stakes, the stronger the choice. Also, it helps you to not anticipate the next moment. Always look for opportunities to make the character a real, full human being with things to do and places to go.
3. What is literally happening in the scene?
It’s never just a conversation. If a scene is in a script, it’s revealing some piece of information to move the story forward. Identify what it’s about. Maybe this is the scene when your character finally admits they have had enough and stands up for themselves. So the actable thing you’re doing in the scene is standing up for yourself. Then you know that in this scene you need to make choices that will get your power back, for example. Find the actable thing in the scene to work at – it will lead you to strong choices.
4. What am I expecting to happen?
Be careful not to play the end of the scene! Your job is to know what the character knows when the scene starts and then listen and discover. What are the consequences if you don’t get what you want? You don’t know if you’re going to get your way when the scene starts. You can’t anticipate what happens. The best way to make sure you don’t anticipate, is to make a choice to expect the opposite of what actually happens in the scene. For example, if it’s a break up scene but you don’t know the break up is happening until the other character reveals it a few lines in, you should prepare on trying to get the other person in the mood to make love. Maybe you’ve been planning your speech on how to tell them you want them to meet your parents. If that’s what you think is going to happen and then you really listen, the audience (in this case casting directors) get to see you making a discovery. Always look for opportunities for discovery!
What is my point of view?
If you know the character’s point of view – of the other character(s), of the situation – the scene will start to make sense right away. Again, you want to make sure that whatever choice you make is in context with the rest of the story, but make a strong choice about point of view and you’ll gain a quick and clear sense of the character and the tone of the scene. This can sometimes lead you to a clear intention with tricky scenes, keep it handy in your toolbox.
Obviously, if you have more time, your preparation should cover a lot more ground. But in a pinch, these 5 questions can help you get some clarity really quick. Remember, you are allowed to ask for time. You don’t have to do it on the spot. If they give you something to read you’ve never seen before, ask for time to prepare and ask them how much time you can have. Don’t rush it. They want to see your best work. Give it to them. Break a leg!
It’s widely known that meditation can help increase focus and reduce stress. If that isn’t enough to get you into a mindfulness practice, here are a few other things to consider that might convince you.
I’m a big fan of meditation and I’m known by my students to be preachy about it. Mainly because when students ask about certain things they struggle with I often respond with “meditation can help with that”. There are a lot of different types of meditation, and a lot of different tools to help you get into a practice. You need to find what works for you. Even if it’s 5 minutes a day of breathing and mindfulness, it’s better than not meditating at all. Here’s why —
Take responsibility for your state of mind.
Once you take responsibility for your state of mind, you realize that you have more control over your mental state than you ever gave yourself credit for. Contrary to some ignorant beliefs, meditation is not about becoming thoughtless or without feelings, it’s about observing your thoughts and feelings without judgement. When you become aware of your thoughts (by continually observing them) you’ll probably start to see how your inner world dictates the amount of chaos you experience in your outer world.
Homeostasis is the self-regulating process that allows us to maintain stability internally, regardless of external conditions. How this applies to acting is our ability to remain calm and relaxed when under stress. Realizing that you can feel however you choose to feel (by having the awareness and power to choose your thoughts) can be an incredibly powerful tool for the actor.
Your mind, and the state of it, are part of your instrument. Take care of your instrument.
When I’m consistent with my meditation practice, I notice that I have better control over my thoughts. Even the simple discipline of breathing, noticing when I’ve started to “think”, and continually deciding to get my focus back on my breathing and the present moment, is an exercise that strengthens my ability to decide what I’m focusing on. It’s not easy. If you have a busy mind like I do it can be incredibly painstaking. But it teaches you patience, and with diligent practice over time, can make it much easier to decide what you are thinking about. Being able to direct your focus is a necessary skill for the actor.
The practice of quieting the mind isn’t about a mind that has no noise (you wouldn’t be conscious if that were true!) it’s about deciding what runs through your mind; it’s recognizing when garbage is trying to get in there and having the power to get rid of it before it does any damage.
This can also come in handy at auditions. Have you ever found yourself in the casting waiting room with your busy comparing yourself to everyone else in the room? Or second guessing your outfit? Or worrying about how it’s going to go once you get in there? The ability to direct your focus back on your sides and the thinking process of the character can make or break your audition experience.
Your subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between something you are imagining and something you are actually experiencing. (That’s another reason why it’s so important to be able to have control over your thinking!)
When we are emotionally prepared on imaginary circumstances in a script, we feel it as though we have lived it (if we have prepared well, of course). That can take us to dangerous places internally, especially in dark dramas or horror films. We’ve got to be able to come back from our preparation and get grounded into the real world, our real lives. Emotional awareness and health can help us do that, but we must make sure we are at the height of our emotional health the best we can.
It’s a (thankfully) dying myth that artists need to be emotionally tortured on some level to be creative, or to make anything with deep meaning. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you’re still a believer in that myth, I suggest you add the following books that address this beautifully to your reading list: The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Studies show that practicing mindfulness can enhance cognitive performance by improving our ability to concentrate and keep information active in our minds. The more your cognition improves, the more your hippocampus changes.
The frontal brain lobe and the hippocampus (short term and long term memory storage centers) both light up during meditation. By exercising your memory muscles in meditation, you’re increasing your brain’s ability to store new memories. (Memorizing lines!) Also, your brain has no place to discard memories, so they stay in there, and meditation helps improve your ability to access your memories.
Studies show that practicing mindfulness can enhance cognitive performance by improving our ability to concentrate and keep information active in our minds. The more your cognition improves, the more your hippocampus changes.
Sleep & Relaxation.
Meditation doesn’t only help you sleep, it helps you sleep more efficiently so you can function better on less sleep. This is a great benefit for a working actor. When we get busy, we don’t get as much sleep, but sleep is so necessary for us to function at our best. Regular meditators have the ability to divert disturbing thoughts that might prevent us from falling asleep, or causing us to have less-than-quality sleep. Meditation promotes relaxation, and relaxation is the gateway to good sleep.
Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. It can help us face stressful situations with a centered, calm mindset. The ability to stay relaxed under pressure is a necessary skill for every actor. Having a completely relaxed, yet totally alert body and mind is the ideal way to deliver a meaningful, connected and in-the-moment performance consistently.
To be mindful means to have the ability to be fully present in the moment, completely engaged with whatever we are doing in the here and now. I can’t think of a better superpower for an actor to cultivate. Mindfulness allows us to acknowledge our feelings and reactions to our outer environment but have the control in how we behave or feel in reaction to our environment. One of the most precious parts of an actor’s instrument is the mind. Treat your instrument with respect and take care of your mind by learning to meditate.