I’ve often wondered how many of us out there have fantasized that in another life, we’d all be professional actors.
I know I have. My mother was an actress when she was young, and I was one of those classic theatre geeks in high school, playing everything from Helen Keller to Elizabeth Bennett.
For whatever reason, once I went to college I became far too serious for acting (or so I thought), and abandoned it in favor of my studies.
For a long time, I was plagued by that dreadful “What if?’ that we all apply with increasing frequency to the roads not taken once we hit middle age. Now that I’ve returned to taking acting classes in mid-life, however, I’ve come to realize that I was never good enough to be an actress. And the reason I’m not good enough is that I’m way too protected emotionally to take the kinds of risks required to be a truly good actor.
I know this with 100% certainty because I spend three hours every Friday evening taking an improvisation class with a bunch of other adults. Our teacher is steeped in the Meisner tradition, which means that we begin every class doing Meisner’s classic warm-up, the Repetition Game.
For the uninitiated, the Repetition Game amounts to standing opposite someone else for what feels like an excruciating period of time (but is probably only five minutes) and “calling” the other person’s emotional state, in the moment. The other person repeats exactly what you said until something shifts emotionally in one of the two players and then that gets called out, repeated, and so on.
So it might start like this:
Until eventually that gives way to something like:
And so on…
Sound easy? It ain’t. Meisner apparently wanted “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”
Wow. I don’t even know if “intellectuality” is a word, but Dear God, I cling to it for all it’s worth. It is SO hard to be truly “in the moment.” And that’s coming from someone who is an evangelist for mindfulness.
I know I’m not the only person who runs like hell from the nakedness of their emotions as a grown-up. I was comforted to read an account of the Meisner technique by a young, University of Chicago adjunct business school professor named Jean Paul Rollert. Rollert sat in on four acting classes in an effort to unpack the concept of “empathy.”
In addition to noting (correctly) that “acting classes tend to attract the same assortment of individuals who often congregate in adult education programs: the curious, the bored, the lonely, and the strange…,” he also goes on to observe that “Meisnering” is the equivalent of being “whipsawed, smacked, dunked, tripped, and kicked down a flight of stairs—all in the course of a scene.”
It is, in a word, brutal.
I’ve been doing this technique for close to a year now. And while I’ve had glimmers of success with the technique (though my teacher would shoot me for applying such normative judgments to the process), I find it incredibly hard to access my emotions on demand. My teacher tells me that even my body language betrays this truth about myself. Apparently, I tilt my chest backwards from my hips and push my head forward during the exercise, as if I am literally trying to run away from all feeling and lead with my brain.
I did have one breakthrough moment a month or so ago. I was doing the Repetition Game with a guy in my class who normally laughs a lot as a defense mechanism. All of a sudden, his own underlying sadness came through. And then mine did. And for just that one moment, the whole world seemed utterly and unbearably painful. Because it was.
It was – in equal measure – both an exhilarating and a terrifying sensation.
But after a minute or two, it was gone. We both retreated to safer pastures – he to his laughter and me to my brain.
I really want to challenge myself to feel more during these classes. It feels like the right way to live my life, in my ongoing quest for authenticity and all that good stuff.
But Damn, is it hard.
I wonder what Helen Keller would do.
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Originally published at realdelia.com