Friday, January 22, 2010

Meisner's Word Repetition

So I’m finally back at school. The break was great. It was almost too long, but I really loved being home with all my friends and family. By the end though, I was definitely very eager to return to school and get back to my classes. So anyways, here I am.

At the end of last semester, we were assigned a few texts to read during the break. I finished reading Meisner on Acting and I don’t think I have ever disagreed more with one of the books we’ve read in class. Sanford Meisner is one of the most famous acting teachers in the world, and his theories and techniques, inspired by Stanislavsky’s “Method”, have been studied for many years across the globe. His theories I believe in. It is his techniques that I have trouble with.

One of the many exercises Meisner teaches his students in the book is the word repetition game. Two students sit across from one another, one makes an observation about the other, and the other student repeats what they just said. The repetition of this sentence should go on without variety of any sort, until something happens that causes one of the students to say something else. Meisner stresses this point. The students must continue to repeat the same thing over and over again, until one of them is moved to say something else. The purpose behind this exercise is to eliminate any and all intellectual or logical thought. There should be no thinking involved. For years, actors have wasted too much time and effort in their heads. Meisner believes that this way of working is detrimental to any actor. An actor must not speak simply because the play says he must. Instead an actor should speak only when he feels he should, when he has the impulse to speak.

In class we started doing a modified version of this exercise. Two of my classmates sat in front of each other. The first one said, “You have black hair” and the second one repeated, “I have black hair.” The first one said, “You have a red shirt on” and the second one repeated, “I have a red shirt on.” The problem with the execution of the exercise was immediately apparent to me: the two students were not taking any risks. If we spend the entire exercise making simple, physical observations then it will go nowhere. Meisner says that we spend the majority of our lives being told what is appropriate and what is socially acceptable. Our parents turn us into proper ladies and gentlemen. As an actor, this is completely useless. You cannot preoccupy yourself with manners or anything of the sort. If you try to come off as likable and respectful, then you are simply putting on a show for the audience’s sake, and not truly inhabiting the character.

Likewise, if I sit in front of one of my classmates and say, “You have nostrils” and “Your eyebrows are dark”, then we will be gaining absolutely nothing from the exercise. I will be more worried about my classmate’s feelings than about truly being in the moment and simply responding to one another. In Meisner’s book, this exercise seemed ridiculous. In person, it finally made sense. However, it now seemed impossibly difficult.

In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky says that an actor must relearn to do onstage everything that we as human beings learn to do offstage. We must relearn how to speak, how to walk, how to sit. He demonstrated this by asking one of his students to sit on a chair on a bare stage in front of him and all the other students. His instructions to her were that simple: sit in that chair. She found it impossible to just sit. Everybody’s eyes were on her. She raised her skirt slightly. She fidgeted this way and that. She displayed her legs a little bit more than she usually would. In essence, she was sitting for the class, instead of just sitting. The other students tried, and failed as well. They simply could not just sit on the chair on the stage in front of their class without becoming self-conscious about it.

Meisner’s word repetition exercise, I think, plays off of this idea. Sitting in front of your classmate, with your professor and the rest of the class staring at you, you feel somewhat disinclined to say anything inappropriate. You censor yourself. You suffocate your impulses. You waste more effort thinking about what to observe, and not enough effort observing. As different students tried the exercise in class, it got much better, but some were obviously struggling to stay in the moment and be completely honest with each other. As I sat and watched, I wondered how I would do it. I concluded that I would be just as self-conscious. These people are not strangers. If I sit there and say “You have such an ugly look on your face”, the effect of that is not going to simply disappear once class is dismissed. I wish we were at that level of maturity and discipline, but I think that most of us would feel somewhat offended.

Finally, everybody in the class had tried the exercise… except me. Damnit! I wanted to try the exercise badly, but I just didn’t know how to approach it. It is so difficult to shut off your mind and just react to another person’s behavior. We are programmed to evaluate and reevaluate every thought in our head before we speak. This exercise asks you to eliminate all these habits and tendencies. I think too much. I constantly worry about what others may think about me. Will the professor approve? Will I make a fool of myself? What do I say during the exercise? How can I simply speak without thinking? How can I react only to behavior?

“Ruben, come on up,” said the professor. And I went up to one of the chairs and sat down. “Who’s going to be his partner?” asked one of my classmates. The professor sat down in the chair before me. Holy crap.

“You can’t believe this is happening to you,” he said without waiting a beat. “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” I repeated. “You are self-conscious,” he said. “I am self-conscious,” I repeated. “You are thinking of what to say,” he said. “I am thinking of what to say,” I repeated.

With each observation he was digging deeper and deeper inside of me. He could see right through me. He always can. It is one of the reasons why I love this theatre program so much.

“You can’t get a word in,” he said. “I can’t get a word in,” I repeated. “You are looking for my approval,” he said. “I am looking for your approval,” I repeated. “You still haven’t been able to say anything,” he said. “I still haven’t been able to say anything,” I repeated.

The class was loving this. The adrenaline was pumping within me. He was shooting those observations left and right, not giving me the chance to speak. I wanted to say something but he wouldn’t let me. Or maybe it wasn’t him. It was me. I wasn’t letting myself say anything. I couldn’t stop thinking. While he was making mincemeat out of me with his spot on observations and I was repeating them back to him, my mind was going a hundred thoughts per second. I wanted to say something but couldn’t think of what to say. Stop thinking Ruben, and just do! Just let go, and do!

“You are trying to embarrass me,” I said. He was slightly surprised. “I am trying to embarrass you,” he repeated. “You are happy with yourself because you finally got a word in,” he said. “I am happy with myself because I finally got a word in,” I said. “You look full of yourself,” I said. “I look full of myself,” he repeated.

And we were off. It went on for two or three minutes, at lightning speed. We laughed, and we paused sometimes. It got silent for a few seconds, and then we would get back to it, and then slow down. It was a thrill ride. No chains were holding me back anymore. I was Kong free in the city after he escaped from Denham. I was Willy in the ocean after Jesse helped him get away from the whaling company. I left the room today as I always do after acting class: feeling completely and utterly enlightened.


  1. Great post! Made me laugh. I haven't tried this exercise in my theatre classes yet. We're still working with Stanislavski which, for now, certainly sounds easier than the repetition exercise! It sounds difficult but thrilling, I think I'll try it out with some friends I have in the theatre department.

  2. I liked your insight into how the exercise doesn't work--can't work--if the participants on either side are self-conscious and worried about judgment by others. The point here applies to any of the arts doesn't it? Ellen Langer writes about this with respect to painting. She's not a professional artist; in fact, she's a Harvard psychologist interested in creativity, but she paints. As she says, people fail to be creative when they worry about what things are supposed to look like. But it's so hard to get over it and not try so hard to make things "right." Is that why children's art is so great, since they haven't been told yet?