This book came around at a strange time in my life...which I suppose is still happening. Although I was never part of the BFA or MFA program at Rutgers, I did take a few acting classes there as well as get involved in some college theatre. Bill Esper was an icon even back then but I completely took for granted what it is he did and more importantly, who he is. Since getting out and pounding the pavement for some real work, I've had moments of brilliance, some of which has garnered me a handful of (minor) speaking roles on notable television shows. Gradually, I began to regress in my preparation and in my respect for the craft because in my mind, I didn't see it as a necessity anymore. After all, who needs an applicable technique when you've booked work on Law & Order, Fringe, etc.? I became increasingly arrogant and felt entitled to success, all because I've had a little taste of it, probably from luck or what have you. In the past two years or so, I've been making big investments on casting director/agent workshops, all designed to get you seen, as long as you're willing to pay the price. One night, not too long ago, we had to watch our playback auditions at one of these "classes". I was certain I had nailed it because I "felt good" about what I did. I was in for a rude awakening when I saw my work. I was stiff, lacking life...natural perhaps but uninteresting. In the past, I would always respond by preparing harder the next time and I would continue to take more acting seminars. This time, for whatever reason, I was willing to admit to myself that whatever technique I had was unfocused. That I was easily assuaged by complimentary notes by casting directors and peers so that I can move on with my life. I believe it was a good friend of mine who recommended me this book. And now I realize how naive and foolish I've been these past couple of years.
The Actor's Art and Craft taught me that while commercial success should be commended, it's not worth sacrificing your very being for it. After a while, from audition to audition, you start to make choices that you THINK people want to see, regardless of how inorganic. But like all forms of art, one must be dedicated in his/her pursuits and strive for the perfection of the craft. I've read a handful of other acting books, but none as engrossing as this one. It covers the first year of Meisner and that includes repetition work, activities, criminal action problems, having an objective. The format is such that you feel that you are in the classroom with Bill and the company he teaches. There are characters you can easily identify with because you probably know them in real life. Some of the students are new to the craft, others have been pursuing the arts for a while. For me, though, the highlights of this book are the beautifully simple yet poetic words from William Esper himself, his notes to the class, his views on how important it is to LIVE. Really LIVE. It surprised me that at times I was brought to tears by some of the quotations because they were really moving and cathartic. One in particular had to do with how disconnected our modern society can be, what with all the iPods, gadgets, social networking sites etc. Nobody lives in the moment anymore.
Esper and DiMarco have put together a wonderful book that attacks the myths of what the Meisner technique can do for someone. It's not about emoting, it's about doing as well as being. You can't control how you feel, however you can allow yourself to be AFFECTED by what is going on around you. He talks about the importance of the precipitating circumstance: the one event that causes the two (or more) people on stage to come together in this time, in this place. Of course, before all of that, he teaches the importance of being yourself, to unlearn what society has taught you, to empty the garbage so to speak. Only then can you truly be free to follow your instincts. There is so much more I'd like to talk about in detail as far as specific exercises but I suggest you read it yourself if you're serious about learning the craft, or even reinvigorating your passion for it. When you're out in the real world, you'll hear people throw around the word "Meisner" and "objective" as if they really understand what it all entails. Many of them probably do and that is commendable. But there is a large majority who don't REALLY get it. I was one of them. I hope to continue my studies now that I've been humbled, and I hope to acquire practical skills and technique that's based on higher principles.
If you're as jaded as I was, you may be rolling your eyes at this gushfest. But I know what I want from all this: when I'm on stage or in front of a camera, I want to feel truly alive. When I'm NOT on stage or in front of the camera, I want to realize how remarkable it is to BE alive. This book is my first step towards my own salvation and my admission of cynicism and laziness. I hope to study with him one day.
Update: It is February 20th, 2011. I'm currently in my 2nd year at the Esper Studio. Although I haven't had Bill as a teacher, I've had the pleasure of being taught by other inspirational instructors there. I'm grateful for all that this training has given me, especially with respect to my life. I believe one of the biggest things I've learned is "don't be afraid to ACT"! My current teacher David says that a lot. You see, while I was auditioning for on-camera projects, I became convinced that the only thing required to impress a casting director was to "be natural", to be capable of "conversational reality". It is only recently that I realized that it's not enough to say the lines as if you'd "say them in real life" if there is no life or behavior behind it. That's the path to generality. Many actors are afraid to act and commit to their actions fully for fear of over-acting or being untruthful. Much of this perception, at least from where I stand, probably comes from this modern indie faux-indie film culture. I've seen many of those kinds of films: critics rave about the movie where the actors don't really do much but just throw away their lines, while most of the stylistic touches are provided by the director and editors. Looking back, that was what held me back the most when I was auditioning. I never fully got behind the circumstances or even bothered to understand the specifics of the moment before and what everything meant to me in the scene (which can only come alive from your body, not your mind).