I need a montage

I’m in class again. Actually I’m in a lot of classes again. I decided to move back Chicago and to retool. It’s like that part in the movie where the guy has to train for the big confrontation in act three–the montage. I needed a montage. In my montage, I’m taking acting classes, learning to play guitar, studying at the Annoyance and inventing activities that I can practice deeply and which will make me a better performer. Of the classes I’m in, the acting one is the most challenging.

Years ago I took a series of acting technique classes. The instructors didn’t mention Meisner, but it was obvious that the exercises and methods were similar. We used repetition. We improvised scenes using imaginary circumstances. It was exciting and visceral and raw.

I took those lessons and tried to apply them to my improv. It taught me to be present, to pay close attention to the emotional life of my scene partner and to act on my gut impulses. For years, I’ve taught workshops that try to bring those ideas from Meisner to improv. I’m teaching one of those workshops this weekend.

But I’ve always felt that I didn’t know enough about those techniques. I never fully integrated the lessons into my acting. I felt like I needed to start again, to study those ideas more deliberately and most importantly, practice them over and over until I could achieve those raw, exciting, visceral performances in scripted work. So that is why I’m back in Chicago and back in class.

I settled on Black Box Acting Studio, in part because I had heard some good things, but mostly it fit into my schedule better than the alternatives. I’m in the middle of my second class and it’s exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. The instructors are good and have created a good head space to do these exercises. The work is challenging and tough and the results so far have been quite satisfying.

The first thing I noticed is that the exercises seem to be a bit more connected to Meisner than the previous technique classes I had taken. They resembled the exercises described in Meisner’s book more than the ones I had used before. This isn’t necessarily better. I loved the technique classes I had taken in the past, but it did mean that I was going to get a different angle and learn new things.

I would think that if you were to observe the classes, you might think the class was about having emotional experiences. There certainly is a lot of crying. Emotional outbursts of all types are common and encouraged. But one thing I find particularly interesting about their approach is how much they force you to fight through your emotions at the point when you feel most overwhelmed. If you are hurt or upset or happy or angry, you can’t just wallow in your emotions. Feeling something is good, but it’s just the beginning. Instead you have to fight.

That fighting might be to hold on to your circumstances–the work you have done with your imagination before the exercise. But more likely, they want you to fight to put your focus back on your partner. It’s not enough to create circumstances which evoke deep feelings in yourself. It’s not enough to have the guts to reveal that emotional life on stage. That’s not acting and it’s not great theater. But watching someone who has achieved that and then is willing to fight to get what they want, now that is interesting.

I’m not sure if I was taught that before. I probably was, but I think I missed this particular idea. It’s that at that moment when you feel most overwhelmed, that you must push your focus outward and at your partner. How are they feeling? What do you want from them? And now what are you going to do to get it?

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