In 2009 I had the chance to experience something really amazing! I was the Director’s Assistant on a low-budget Feature Film when the Director asked me to join him for a special rehearsal with his main cast. We were having rehearsals every second day so I thought it would be more of the same. Little did I know what he had in store for us: he organised a rehearsal session with Simone Young, a Meisner Drama Coach. What an experience! She did some exercises with us all (whoever was there couldn’t just watch, they had to participate) and showed us the basic rules of ‘repetition’ as tought by Sanford Meisner and practiced by many great actors like Keaton, Duval, McQueen, and used by Lumet, Mamet, Polack, Kazan, etc.
To me it was a new practice, an incredible acting exercise, a revelation! I was so surprised by it! How could such a simple exercise liberate the actors and make their performance so incredibly honest?
It intrigued me so much that I had to contact Simone privately and find out more about that method. She invited me to a Meisner ‘rep’ session with professional actors who had years of experience training using that technique. I witnessed an incredible show! And it was all real, there was nothing scripted! These were people who had just met but were completely honest about their first impression towards each other and reacting truthfully to those emotions, right then, in that place… A bunch of lunatics! I saw two girls almost pulling each other’s eyes out, screaming out of their lungs how much they hated one another; I saw a couple who only after a few minutes of ‘rep’ started kissing and pashing without any restrains; I saw people talking and behaving like they were good old mates; and more importantly, I realised how frozen I was, because of course, I had to participate, and I was completely paralysed. That night I went home absolutely drained. I drank a bottle of wine feeling emotionally retarded…
I kept going to those sessions that were attended not only by actors but by directors and screenwriters alike. They were incredible! So many ideas were springing out of those improvisations! And more importantly, they made me very aware of others’ behaviour and very conscious of when they were avoiding their emotions and not responded to their acting partner. But I couldn’t really get my head around what was actually going on… Silly me, the concept was to not think but feel. A phrase I kept hearing was ‘you’re in your head again’. I am not sure I can not be in my head completely, but luckily I don’t intend to pursue an acting career.
At one of the sessions I ended up chatting to David Kemp, one of the actors/writers in the class. He had written a few short plays, some of those were performed in the Short and Sweet Festival. He was interested in getting me to direct one of the plays on camera. We changed a few minor details in the script to fit the location we came up with, I begged around for some gear and free labor and eventually shot it. The idea was to use as much repetition as possible, even during a take, to allow him and his acting partner to engage with each other. I had no idea if it was going to work.
I had only seen one other director to do something similar and that was Paul Currie on the set of Twenty Something. He would sometimes get the actors to repeat certain parts of the dialogue changing their objective while the cameras were still rolling. I spoke to the actors of that shoot and they all, without exception, loved that technique and that they felt so closely watched and given the opportunity to immediately correct an action or a line.
I haven’t worked with any other director to use this method on set. But about three months ago I went to an interview for a new TV show with Geoff Bennett, a very experienced Australian director. Among many other things he mentioned Practical Aesthetics. I felt incredibly lucky! That was a technique based on the teachings of Meisner! When I finally started preproduction with him I was in absolute bliss to see that, during a rehearsal, he invited a Drama Coach to do some Meisner rep with Anna McGahan and Firras Dirani. Why was this a great privilege? Those of you who work in the industry know how little time is allocated to preproduction on a TV show. We had the standard 2 and a half weeks of pre for 2 one hour episodes. There’s barely any time to see the locations. Rehearsals usually end up as very quick script read-throughs, if lucky enough to get the actors who are normally on set shooting for the same show. The actors come to rehearsals after being on set filming scenes from two other episodes and we bring two different scripts we want to talk about, sometimes without them even having a chance to read those scripts. It often gets a bit confusing with back story, events’ order and where a certain scene fits into the story. I mean before rehearsals there are often questions like ‘have these guys had sex already?’, ‘has he divorced his wife?’, ‘does he still need to find a house for his children?’ and the list goes on and on. Any kind of rehearsal is of enormous benefit. Now to get to do a ‘rep’ session is, seriously, a luxury! I was really surprised to how embracing of this method the actors were! All my respects to Geoff Bennett for giving them this opportunity, also for allowing me to be a part of it! It encouraged me to believe that this technique, as strange as it may seem, does work!
As I am still editing the story shot with David, I just had a look for some ‘rep’ examples. For someone who has never seen a Meisner repetition this might seem a bit strange. But here are David and Sienna warming up just before getting into scripted dialogue.
I need to add, that this is not even close to a conventional way of shooting a scene. And because this is after all a Script Supervision blog, I must mention that using this technique within a take does not make for an easy way of either shooting or editing. Some takes run for 20 minutes and even though I had two cameras rolling at all times it still doesn’t make it easier to edit. Each new take is completely different to the previous one. It makes for really arduous and painful editing which is taking me forever! It will take a bit more time until I finish editing the real story because I am only a slow, amateur editor. In the meantime, enjoy some ‘repetition’ in the Meisner style!