An Introduction to the Practical Aesthetics Acting Technique

It was 2pm on a late summer day in south Florida in 2008, and I was nervous. I had arrived at the classroom door for the only acting class offered at New College of Florida: a Practical Aesthetics class taught by adjunct professor Margaret Eginton. Today was audition day; a three hour ordeal that I would later come to remember as something reminiscent of the broadway musical “A Chorus Line”.

I was wearing a knee length black dress, selected intentionally because I thought it looked artistic and at least marginally more professional than the rest of my wardrobe. My hair had been carefully combed and parted and hung clean and straight, though a bit lank, over my shoulders and down to my ribcage.

I fidgeted nervously and began silently scanning the class and doing a mental count of the number of bodies. 24. 24, and 10 spaces available. I repeated my monologue to myself in my head and silently judged another first year for her rainbow colored pigtails and lack of mammary support.

Eventually, the teacher arrived. She was blonde and vivacious, though not young- her golden curls were streaked with gray, and she looked to be in her late forties.

One by one, she asked us to get up and present our monologues to her. Students obliged, some with more success than others. (One poor freshman, who had planned to deliver a climactic monologue taken from the movie “Patton”, immediately deflated like a balloon when she informed him that he would not be permitted to present the piece in any sort of an accent, but would instead deliver it in his natural speaking voice.) When it was my turn, she requested that I deliver my piece to another student. I looked at him and began with a piece by Richard Greenberg.

“My parents married because it was 1960 and one had to and they were there. And I don’t think that’s a contemptible thing, for two people who have reached a certain age and never found anything better…”

When I discovered I had been accepted into the class, I was overjoyed. And then the first class period began, and I was introduced to an exercise called “Repetition”.  The professor explained that Repetition was founded in Meisner Technique (the acting method developed by Sanford Meisner), and it was utilized by David Mamet and William H. Macy at the Atlantic theatre company in the ‘80s and ‘90s as part of the Practical Aesthetics acting method. The basic tenets of the method are discussed in the book The Practical Handbook for the Actor.

The exercise worked like this: A pair of students would partner up and stand several paces apart from each other, feet grounded, legs shoulder width apart. They would observe one another, theoretically without consciously “looking for” anything. Then, when something “came to” one person, she would make note of it verbally in a ritualized fashion.

For example, if she was struck by the blue of her partner’s shirt, she would remark “You’re wearing a blue shirt.” Then her partner would “repeat” by saying “I’m wearing a blue shirt”. Then the first partner would repeat again, saying “you’re wearing a blue shirt”. This went back and forth for as long as it needed to, until one partner, it didn’t matter which, noticed something else and remarked upon it.

Initially, what took place was called “simple repetition”: a noticing and remarking upon of physical attributes or expressions, such as the color or length of someone’s hair, the style of his clothing, or the expression on his face. Eventually, Professor Eginton guided us into “complex repetition”: a noticing of or remarking upon your acting partner’s supposed thoughts, feelings, or behavior.

For example, during complex repetition one student might say to another: “you’re driving the bus” or “you’re flirting with me”.

Upon first glance it seemed like a straightforward, albeit slightly weird, exercise. With a bit of practice it became clear that not only was it not in the least bit straightforward, it was so mind-bogglingly complex as to be maddening.

However, as I see it, the repetition exercise is useful for actors for three reasons. First, it teaches you to read people- to know what their facial expressions, vocal tones, and physical behavior mean, with increasing degrees of accuracy as your repetition skills improve. This skill is equally valuable onstage and off.

Secondly, repetition hones your instincts to a fine point so that you can read people quickly and respond appropriately and truthfully in the moment.
Finally, repetition teaches you that it’s not what you say, but largely how you say it, that determines the tone of a conversation. For example, it’s possible to utter the words “I love you” in a spiteful way, and the words “I hate you” in an amused way. Understanding this prevents you from falling into the trap of assuming that a scene needs to be played a certain way because of the words it contains.

The class worked on repetition for weeks, meeting outside of class to practice. In addition, Professor Eginton taught us the other fundamental piece of the Practical Aesthetics puzzle: Essential Actions. Essential Actions are things that a characters are trying to achieve during a given scene, and they work across all cultures and all time periods.

According to Practical Aesthetics, there are 11 Essential Actions. I’ve provided a list of them below.

The 11 Essential Actions of Practical Aesthetics

  1. to get someone on my team
  2. to lay down the law
  3. to draw the dividing line
  4. to get someone to take the big risk
  5. to get my due/retrieve what is rightfully mine
  6. to get someone to see the big picture
  7. to enlighten someone to a higher understanding
  8. to tell a simple story
  9. to get to the bottom of something
  10. to close the deal
  11. to get someone to throw me a lifeline

For example, if you’re playing Richard Roma in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” in the scene in which he’s trying to convince James Lingk to buy the new real estate option, you might be playing the action “to close the deal”. Typically there is more than one action that is playable during a given scene, and the actor makes a choice to play the action that is most interesting to him. In that same scene, Richard could also easily play the action “get someone to take the big risk”.

Finally, Professor Eginton taught us to achieve our Essential Actions by using “tactics”. Tactics are transitive verbs like incite, cajole, convince, plead, ignite, level with, or guilt. In the example above, Richard Roma might try convincing James Lingk to buy the property and then, if he sensed that wasn’t working, he could switch to cajoling him.

According to the founders of Practical Aesthetics, this method of using tactics to achieve your Essential Action, when done well, does a better job of producing consistently dynamic and authentic acting performances than other acting methods.

Their explanation goes something like this: imagine you’re Kate Winslet, and you’re acting out the final, climactic scene from Titanic. You’re lying on the iceberg, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is dying in front of you. You shake his arms to try and awaken him, and then begin to sob over his frozen corpse.

Many actors will try to play such an emotional scene by recalling a painful memory to make themselves sad, or trying to make themselves believe that the actor in front of them is actually dying. The problem is, this doesn’t work very well when you have to repeat the scene five nights a week (like you would if you were in a play) or do a dozen takes in a row (the way you would if you were acting in a movie). In addition, they argue that only someone who is mentally unstable would be able to actually convince themselves that whatever is occurring in the scene is actually happening to them.

Practical Aesthetics teaches that, instead of trying to make yourself feel something that you don’t, you should focus on what your character wants to achieve in a scene- hence the Essential Actions.

I left the class feeling like acting, instead of being some nebulous, ephemeral “talent”, was actually a concrete set of skills that could be developed and honed. I felt that the class had given me a toolbox labeled “Acting”, and through practice and study I had begun to fill it.

This was my experience with formal acting training when, four years later, I discovered a Meisner Technique class being offered in Asheville, North Carolina and decided to sign up.

I was in for a big surprise, the details of which will be the topic of my next blog post.

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2 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Practical Aesthetics Acting Technique

  1. hello! i found this article very interesting since I have some practical aesthetics lessons here in greece. In the drama school i had been involved with meisner acting technique wich i found it really useful. The moment-to-moment building scene I think is the most important thing in theater nowdays- it’s very useful also in the post dramatic performances.
    i would like to tell me some more information about the 11 basic essential actions. My teachers -which had studied at Atlantic Acting school and they still have lessons there told me that the basic essential actions from which all actions start are 7. Im trying to figure out which are these and find in exact reference in greek language/idiom/lifestyle…

  2. Thank you! Constantinos from Athens

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