You’re Not Listening, aka An Introduction to Meisner Technique

In early summer of this year, I heard that someone had started an acting school teaching Meisner Technique in Asheville. I discovered that their Summer Intensive had just begun and that I had missed the first week, but there was still space available in the Meisner class. If I was interested I should come the following night, and bring a notebook.

I arrived about fifteen minutes early and waited around for the instructor (who, after my time at New College, I kept wanting to call “Professor”) who finally arrived on a bike. He was probably in his mid-thirties, balding but athletic with that flawless facial bone structure seen almost exclusively in models and stage actors.

He took me into the acting studio and we chatted a little bit about the requirements for the class. Eventually the other members of the class arrived, most of them younger than I, some of them teenagers. The teacher immediately instructed us to lie on the floor with our eyes open as part of some Alexander Technique thing. Then he turned off the lights, put on some music, and left the room. For like 25 minutes.  Those of you who know me know that I tend to be skeptical of any “roll around on the floor and breathe” bullshit, and toward the end I was partially convinced that it was some kind of group psychology experiment to see how long it would take before one of us got tired of lying on the floor and got up to leave. Eventually the teacher came back in and instructed us to get up by rolling around in a certain way.

When we were all finally upright again, he turned the lights back on and instructed everyone to begin simple repetition, transitioning into complex repetition.

He sent me off to repeat with a couple of students, and I learned that Meisner Repetition was different from Practical Aesthetics repetition in a couple of ways. First, in Meisner repetition you were permitted to make observations about what was going on in yourself in addition to what was going on in your acting partner, something that was prohibited in my Practical Aesthetics class. For example, if you were feeling uncomfortable, you were encouraged to say “I feel uncomfortable.” Practical Aesthetics had discouraged this, claiming that all of your attention should be focused on your acting partner while you were repeating. In addition, Meisner technique encouraged the use of  surprising questions to begin the bout of repetition. When Richard, the instructor, sent me off to repeat with another student, the student caught me off guard by asking “Are you ready to rumble?” before we began to repeat.

Before the class concluded for the evening, Richard instructed us to watch this video– a TED talk by Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability”. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it now- it’s good stuff. In it, Brene talks about discovering through her research that the ability to be vulnerable with others is one of the biggest factors that leads to happiness and feelings of social connectedness.

At the beginning of the following class we discussed the video as a group and Richard emphasized the importance of vulnerability, of “letting others in,” and “allowing yourself to be seen” while repeating and acting. “Easy,” I thought. “I’m certainly not going to have any problem doing that.”

Then we got up to repeat.

I thought I was doing fine, but Richard stopped us right away.

“Brenna, stop thinking so much.”

I nodded, we began repeating again, and then he stopped us.

“Brenna, you’re not letting her in.”

I planted my feet, took a deep breath, and tried to connect with my acting partner, to be an open book, to allow myself to be seen. We began.

“Brenna, stop trying to be right.”

I seethed. I went home pissed off that night, and stayed that way for several days. I went back to the next class and it was more of the same, except this time we were working on our Activities.*

“Brenna, you’re in your head.”
“Brenna, stop acting like a lawyer.”
“Brenna, you’re not allowing yourself to be seen.”
“Brenna, you’re not listening.”
“Brenna, you’re not taking him in.”
“Brenna, you’re not allowing yourself to be vulnerable.”

I wasn’t the only one he was criticizing like this, by any means. Everyone was getting a similar treatment- just not necessarily about the same thing. Some people were instructed to stop smiling constantly. Others were told that they needed to be more precise when crafting their activities, or stop trying to force something to happen during repetition.

I left the next few classes frustrated, confused about why I was having such a difficult time. I considered dropping out of the class. I wondered if the instructor was completely full of shit. Then, one afternoon, as I took my clay bucket outside to dump it, I had a realization.

It seems to me that people have vulnerability circles- groups of people in their lives in front of whom they allow themselves to be vulnerable and be truly seen. Some people (not many) might have a hundred people in their vulnerability circle. Some people might have twenty people- parents, siblings, extended family, close friends, etc. I thought really hard about my circle over the years. It had expanded and contracted and changed at different points, and people had come and gone, but I realized that the largest number of people that had ever been in my circle was three.

“Shit,” I thought. “Maybe I have a problem with vulnerability.”

If you’re reading this and you’ve met me, I have no doubt you are currently slapping your forehead and intoning at your computer “JESUS CHRIST, BRENNA, OF COURSE YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH VULNERABILITY. HAVE YOU MET YOURSELF?”

I know, I know. Pretty much as soon as I realized it, I realized what a giant problem it was. I have a pretty huge social circle in the unschooling community, and I have a ton of casual friends, but almost no close friends. That’s not a big deal for me- I’m an introvert and I enjoy spending long periods of time alone or in the company of one or two friends- but it sucked to realize that I don’t really allow myself to get close to people.

Once I realized that this was a problem that I had outside of the acting studio as well as in, I started looking for the cause. I found it pretty quickly.

Biologically, my hardwired response to emotional stressors is much more severe than most people’s. If you walk up behind me and startle me I often jump, gasp, or scream. I also get a mad adrenaline rush. I also have trouble dealing with loud noises, flashing lights, and crowds. Finally, and most significantly, I’m a crier. If someone wants to have a slightly confrontational conversation with me or if I’m trying to explain something while I’m a little upset, I typically burst into tears and am unable to continue talking. It’s awful and humiliating, and once it begins there’s no reversing the tides.

So in order to keep that from happening, I have a pretty big wall up most of the time, as a coping and “not humiliating myself” mechanism. Especially in a high stress situation like an acting class, working with people that I didn’t yet know or trust, that wall seemed pretty unmoving, regardless of whether I wanted it there or not.

I tried, I really did. I went back to class. I recommitted myself during every bout of repetition. We started doing scene work, and I focused on connecting and becoming friends with my acting partner. Nothing helped.

Finally, after another pretty severe round of criticism in class I threw up my hands.

“I understand what you’re saying- I just don’t know how to get there!” I exclaimed, frustrated.

“That’s because you haven’t felt it.”

With this the instructor stood up and walked toward me, gesturing that I should repeat with him. “Shit,” I thought. “This wasn’t what I wanted.”

Sometimes, depending on the level of stress that I’m feeling, it doesn’t matter how tightly I’m holding myself together- things start to slip through the seams. Pretty soon into the repetition I started crying, and it felt kind of like forced vulnerability- I wasn’t necessarily ready for it, but there it was.

It sucked. At one point I remember shouting at him “I can’t even tell if you give a shit!”  and “Gawd, this SUCKS!” At one point I stopped repeating and literally turned away and refused to look at him.

Then he complimented me as part of the repetition which was almost worse than anything else for some reason, and it made me so uncomfortable that I started doing this weird neck thing that my old therapist told me to stop doing because she said it was “a little dissociative”.

Finally he let me sit down. Things went better after that. Toward the end of the class I felt like I was batting about forty percent on the vulnerability scale, and some interesting things happened during rehearsals of my scene.

Three months later I’m still working on the vulnerability thing in my personal life. No one new is standing firmly in my vulnerability circle, but I’ve let a few different people dip their toes in for brief moments. I spent the closing ceremony of NBTSC crying this year, (and feeling totally connected to everyone as a result, since I wasn’t forcing myself to shut down emotionally) something that I could have easily prevented if I had wanted to. Making the choice to be vulnerable- to open yourself up to being hurt- is scary and counterintuitive, and I enjoy being able to choose when and with whom I’m allowing myself to do it, but developing the ability to make that choice seems like it might be my greatest accomplishment.

Greater even than being right.

*Meisner technique adds a factor into the repetition mix that Practical Aesthetics leaves out, namely something called “Activities”.  An Activity is something that one acting partner does during a bout of repetition that occupies all of his or her attention. The activity should have a simple and specific reason for needing to be completed, and it should have a time limit. The reason that the activity needs to be done can be real or “crafted” (made up). For example, you could be writing a resume for a job application because you just found out that your dream company is hiring, but the application deadline is in an hour.

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4 thoughts on “You’re Not Listening, aka An Introduction to Meisner Technique

  1. Ben

    I just had a similar conversation with Kelly about this yesterday. Thanks for your courage to write publically about what I had to talk about in private:-)

  2. Jess

    Wow. Frank Meier posted a link to a different blog entry (the one about the underbelly of unschooling 😉 which was so interesting I kept reading. This is an amazing post. I saw a lot of myself in there but you have an amazing amount of courage in how you approach life. I like the fact that even in very uncomfortable situations you can glean value. Thanks for the post!

  3. I just happened by, but I am so glad I did. Acting is the hardest thing, but the most rewarding, soul-filling thing I’ve ever done. Terrifying, really. Thank you for all you said. Now I am curious about “unschooling”. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  4. Sarah

    I just happened to find your blog because I’m feeling stuck in my Meisner class. I’m also an introvert and some things you wrote really resonate with me.. This is has been a really helpful read, and I hope you write more posts!

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