Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Definition: dog·ma /ˈdôɡmə / - a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.
Back in the early 90s, I was a young actor in NY studying the Meisner technique and my teacher was amazing. I was transfixed by everything he said. After 2 years of intense study, I was trained. I was ready - or so I thought. I was indoctrinated in the principles and philosophies of the Meisner Technique. And I loved it. I also held a firm belief that any other approach or technique other than Meisner was wrong and my technique was better than yours and it was the only technique anyone should ever study or use because anything other than Meisner was wrong and could never really work. (I laugh as I write this blog because I know just how immature and wrong and naive I was back then).
And then one day, I was working on a scene in rehearsals and everything I had been taught failed me. I felt nothing. I could not live truthfully in the moment. I was blocked. My scene partner was doing everything right and I was completely closed off and unaffected by their truly honest work. It was me. I was the obstacle. Or rather, my firmly held belief system that there was only 1 path to truthful acting on stage, was the obstacle. I failed my partner in that moment because I was so naive and short-sighted and closed off to any other acting technique.
My Director pulled me aside and asked me lay on the floor and have a Temper Tantrum. I was to kick and scream like a child. I complied, knowing in my heart of hearts that it wasn't going to work, and went through the motions of a pseudo-committed tantrum. And I was right. Nothing happened because I was not really letting my guard down. He said, 'You're lying to yourself right now. Stop it. Let go. Just breathe and let it all go." And so I took a deep breath and on my exhale, I let out the most primal noise I'd ever made in my life. My body began to vibrate and I flailed and kicked and screamed and something began to happen within me that I had never experienced before. The Director said, "Get up slowly and I want you to do the scene now, but I want you to create your Father as best you can, using your senses and your imagination. Whatever that means to you, just allow it to happen. I want you to truly see your father and not just Michael (Mike was the actor playing Joe Keller to my Chris as we worked on All My Sons by Arthur Miller).
I said, "I can't do that. I'm not supposed to bring my personal life into this." (SIDE NOTE - My father died from Cancer a few years earlier and any legacy Meisner trained actor knows that you do not impose your personal past experiences into the work, that your imagination and the imaginary circumstances of the script are all you need to bring truth on stage - I write this now knowing so much more than I did in my 20s). The Director gently said, "Forget what you're supposed to do. Forget what you've learned. Forget what you've been brainwashed to believe. Just do what I'm telling you to do for Pete-sake. (And yes he didn't say "forget" or "Pete" - he used stronger words, but I'm trying to be less vulgar these days.) And so I did. I let go. I took a moment to recall my father as best I could - at that time, I had no training is Sense Memory - and I began to see the color of his balding brown and grey hair on his head and face. I saw the shape and size of his body. I smelled the Aramis cologne he wore. I saw the gold watch on his wrist. I heard his laugh and his stutter. I felt the softness of his embrace. And I began to weep from the depths of my soul. I clutched my gut in pain as I grieved for my father. I let out another primal scream.
And then...magic. Mike had somehow transformed into my father, Joe Keller and Mike all at the same time. He was all three men at once. And I was Chris, but also me. And I lifted my fists as if I was about to pound Mike's chest and then he grabbed my arms and pulled me into his massive embrace - he was a huge man - and as I struggled to break free, Mike/My Father/Joe held me tight. And the dialogue flowed. I/Chris confronted My Father/Mike/Joe about how he could send defective parts to be installed into the planes and that his decision to do that just to make money killed my friends and in turn destroyed my life. I was so conflicted because I loved my father so much and I couldn't understand how he could do that. My dad would never do anything like that, but Joe did and Joe was my dad, and Mike was like a father figure to me and my head was spinning and I was having feelings as me, as Chris, as a scene partner with Mike all at the same time. And then I knew he was lying to me. I knew Joe was lying to Chris and suddenly my Meisner teacher appeared out of nowhere and my actual father drifted to the background and I could hear and see and smell my teacher now and he was lying to me. I knew the truth for the first time in my life. He had betrayed me. Denied me the experience to know other acting craft techniques. Strasberg was not wrong. He just had another approach. Why did I choose to not use my life experiences to fulfill the work just because I was told by my teacher (that I idolized and still hold a place in my heart for) that my personal past experiences were never to be imposed into the work. I was so mad. I was furious. I was livid. There are not enough synonyms to express my rage. And I put all of that emotion into the scene with Mike. And he took note. He was pleading and begging in a way I had never seen Joe plead and beg before. I was effecting him. He (along with my Father, my Meisner teacher, Joe) was effecting me and when the words had all been spoken, Joe/Mike crumbled to the floor and Chris/me walked away leaving him alone to weep in the mess he created with his deception.
It was the most exhilarating, honest, complex, connected, truthful, creative, imaginative, painful work I had ever experienced. And I was so angry. Sure. I was feeling wonderful too that I just did some of my best work ever - and yes, all the while, as the scene was going on, I was seeing and being effected by my other cast-mates that were close by observing, but I was so mad that I had wasted years and closed the door to other techniques beyond Meisner simply because of the Dogma. Simply because I allowed myself to fall victim to the philosophy that there is only one way to act. Meisner is an amazing technique and anyone that only knows the foundation exercise of Repetition and thinks that's all there is and that they know Meisner is undervaluing and understating the immense power of the Meisner technique - BUT...It was at that moment, that very moment that my heart opened and I knew I was taking my first step into a lifelong journey of acting craft technique exploration. I would never again shut out any idea that could potentially help me grow and help me fulfill the theatrical obligations of the script.
...........................(Yes, this is my personal library of over 2,000 play scripts).............................
And so I studied every technique I could get my hands on. And you know what...they all work. Sure, not all the time in every situation, but that's the beauty of having many acting tools in your toolbox - you are never in a situation where you cannot do you job. There is always an approach, always a tool. And sure, sometimes all you should do is simply stand there, look the other person in the eyes, allow them to effect you and say your lines. Sometimes simple is the best and only option. So, it's been close to 30 years since that All My Sons experience and I have learned so much and I appreciate so much more now than I did back then. I look back at my time in NY when I was studying Meisner and I am now able to see the beauty in that technique and how it seamlessly aligns with and works in combination with other beautiful techniques from Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, Charles Jehlinger, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Don Richardson, Uta Hagen, Eric Morris, Michael Shurtleff, Larry Moss, Milton Katselas, Brad Heller, Ivana Chubbuck, Tim Phillips, Harold Guskin, Silvana Gallardo, Susana Bloch, Susana Morris, Seth Barrish, Viola Spolin, and on and on and on and on. If I can impart any wisdom, it's this: Learn from everyone and never close the door to a new craft approach to the fulfill the obligations of the script just because of a belief system - That's the Dogma I'm hoping you avoid. Explore it all, make it your own and share your gifts with the world. It's with this in mind that The Actor's Approach Craft Technique Toolbox was created. The craft tools inside the toolbox are not labeled as belonging to any 1 technique. Sure, on some videos I give credit to their creators of a few techniques, but I chose to not categorize the techniques by the teacher's/inventor's name because you should never allow the Dogma of 1 technique to influence your willingness to explore another. Be open to it all and allow the tools to help you grow. Bye for now, See you inside the Toolbox. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.actorsapproach.com Linktree: https://linktr.ee/actorsapproachcrafttoolbox