“FUCK POLITE”- MEISNER TECHNIQUE AND GOING OFF TEXT IN TRANS-

On how the Meisner technique’s principles subvert the traditional hierarchy of the performer’s attention and what this might offer the artist and their stage.

BY

In the following article, we will examine how the Meisner technique’s principles subvert the traditional hierarchy of the performer’s attention and what this might offer the artist and their stage.

By Jonathan Bonnici

As artists and audience participating in a performance, we are traditionally conditioned into placing authority in the pre-scripted. However, subverting this and placing the contingency of a genuine interaction over any pre-decided relationship opens the possibility to access material that is both unexpected and in concert with the artist’s unique impulse. Upending the hierarchy of the traditional relationship between the scripted and unscripted was Sanford Meisner’s gift to performance.

The Meisner technique in practice

The Meisner technique was developed as a tool for actor training and scene study by Sanford Meisner at the Group Theatre. It was further developed in his position as the head of acting at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York over the 50 years of his tenure there (1935-1995). 

Though Meisner saw his technique as an extension of the Stanislavskian method as interpreted by Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, it could be argued that it significantly departs from that technique. In ‘the Method’ a particular focus is placed on the actor’s preparation for their role which primarily involves priming themselves on the (imagined) history of their character, relating this history to the actors lived reality, and, maybe most importantly, identifying objectives that the actor can pursue in their scenes and on their lines. 

Meisner’s revolution was to do away with the playing of objectives. Actors were instead encouraged to focus all of their attention on the reality of the moment. The training for such a sensitivity involves the famous Meisner ‘repetition’ exercise in which two actors sitting opposite each other begin by noticing something about the other that is a fact (not an opinion, a question or an assumption) one will ‘call’ this fact – “You blinked”, their partner will repeat this call from their perspective by using the pronoun “I” – “I blinked”, the one who made the original call will then repeat the call again switching the pronoun back to “you.” For example:

“You blinked.”

“I blinked.”

“You blinked.”

“I blinked.”

“You blinked.”

“I blinked.”

“You blinked.”

“I blinked.”

“You blinked.”

“I blinked.”

“You blinked.”

“I blinked.”

Etc….

The form’s simplicity led Meisner to call this a “dumbass exercise”, the kind of game a toddler could play without much effort. With this simple form established Meisner could then challenge the actor with a more difficult twofold (and interdependent) invitation: first to put your attention entirely on your partner and second to “invent nothing and deny nothing” (alternatively put: ‘to not lie nor withhold the truth’). The two injunctions are interdependent in as much as the first will better allow you to do the second; by putting your attention on your partner, the psychic energy usually reserved for monitoring and censoring one’s behaviour is depleted. The invitation contained in the second injunction to uncensor oneself is typically the one that causes the most struggle in the participants. It encourages a shattering of the social code that usually keeps the impulse in check, a social code which  also serves as a convenient rubric for how to be with the other. When this rubric is thrown out all the participants have is the emerging moment and the risk of that moment becomes acutely felt; the exercise could go anywhere, and it often does. 

Prioritising the emergent

The reorientation of priorities for the performer trained in the Stanislavskian method can be quite bewildering. Gone is most of the baggage of mental and emotional preparation that is pre-primed to detonate during the playing of a scene. The little that remains (the personalisation of the dramatic circumstances to the performer’s reality) is left at the door with a trust that it will be playing under the surface, organically steering the responses that arise. What replaces all the method’s framework is the moment to moment reality of the relationship to the scene partner and what kind of response that may illicit. And the performer is encouraged to remain committed to that reality even if it seems to be playing against the way the scene ‘should’ be going. It is also discombobulating to the actor on the level of the labour to which they are accustomed. Analysis of motives and the mapping of a character’s psychology is replaced by a work that negates work. The logic being that the impulse will take care of itself and that all the performer needs to do is get out of their way by not inventing their responses and not censoring them either. Weirder still is how this all affects the performers’ understanding of self. The technique implies that to be authentic in one’s expression, i.e. to live rather than imitate living we need to take our attention off the act of manufacturing ourselves and give it all to the environment in front of us. As a subject navigating this practice you are confronted with a contradiction: by focusing on everything but yourself, you come into focus. But given that you are only visible as long as you are in the process of exchange with another in what way can you be understood to be an independent subject- the kind that might be worthy of a singular pronoun?

A multiple self?

What emerges in the exercise is a version of the self that is uniquely coherent but dependent on things contingent and external for its appearance. It is a self that is rock solid and always changing. A self that is fully formed and entirely dependent. Are we talking about a non binary and multiple subjecthood that is both essentialist and performative? Maybe so but from the perspective of a participant, if one has been brave enough to break with social convention (the “fuck polite” of the title) and surrender to where the exercise may take you the experience is one of profound personal power. What fills the body is an erotic force tinged with a particular flavour that you recognise as what might be objectively identified as your you-ness. If unleashed, this self explores the world and reacts to it expanding creatively in ever widening pools. The moment that self stops discovering and turns its attention inwards it ceases to exist.  In terms of subjectivity then this could be the offer the world and everyone in it makes to the consciousness that perceives it: ‘I am here to be witnessed, and by witnessing me you come into the kind of presence that can be witnessed.’