The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca
Big City Training, Small Town Attention

Course Materials

Semester 2


Your central nervous system cannot tell the difference between a fully realized daydream and reality.  Of course, we “know” the difference- only a psychotic thinks she is Jesus Christ or that the voice telling her to shoot up McDonalds is real, not just fantasy.  But for acting purposes the gullibility, the suggestibility of our nervous system must be taken advantage of fully.

Here is a life example.  You’re in a daydream- a particularly violent daydream- pounding someone’s head into the pavement.  You’re actually on the subway.  Suddenly you realize you’ve missed your stop.  Then someone steps on your foot- and you’re ready to KILL!  So, if you were doing a scene in a movie in which you had to kill someone in a murderous rage, your ability to fantasize yourself into a state of murderous rage might come in very handy!

A rich fantasy life is a part of every artist- it is the source of their creativity.  It comes directly from the unconscious, it is intensely personal, and it is unique to each artist.  Daydreaming is a natural part of every human being- unlike Strasbourg’s affective memory- which is why Meisner uses it.  Although in most people it is spontaneous and involuntary, by practicing you can slowly put it at the service of your art.

There’s a Charles Laughton movie, “If I Had A Million,” in which Laughton plays a browbeaten, mousy clerk who, out of the blue, inherits a million dollars.  In one scene, he storms into his boss’s office and tells him he’s quitting.  How does he, (or you) prepare for the scene?

-I’ve worked for a cruel bastard of a boss for 20 years

-I’ve never gotten a raise

-I never get a vacation

-My co-workers treat me with contempt

-I just inherited a million dollars

-Now I can tell my boss just how I feel about him

-HOW DO I FEEL?  Laughton’s choice: triumphant, a world beater, like Napoleon.

You start by reading and rereading the scene and in an instinctive, intuitive way, you feel your way into the circumstances and situation to find the emotional life.  Sometimes you find it in suggestions in the script, sometimes from the life around you, sometimes for a work of art. To get the specific emotional life you need IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU GO - once you get the meaning for yourself.  Art is never  literal- it’s always about essential meanings.

No matter what its area- paint, movement, clay, behavior- the life of an artist- involves continual self examination.  You have to get to know yourself very well- to develop a file cabinet of personal meanings.  For example, you have to know what in yourself gives you a feeling of triumphant victory.  Supposing it’s sexual seduction- picking someone up in a bar, taking them home and making passionate love to them fills you with triumph.  What does sexual seduction have to do with inheriting a million dollars?  Nothing, literally.  But the essence, the personal meaning, could be the same.  Remember, they’ll never know what the fantasy you’re using- its not printed in the program notes!

At this point in class, Meisner would tell a story about a young actor whose first sexual experience was with a sheep when he was a teenager on his father’s sheep ranch.  Every spring he would vanish for a week ( to find sheep!).  So this actor might have a sheep fantasy to get in touch with triumphant victory!  Different strokes for different folks!  One of the values of going away from the literal circumstance of the play for your preparation is that it forces you to distill what the literal circumstance means to you- to pin it down before you start to fantasize.

The butcher says, “You just inherited a million dollars!  Wow, no wonder you’re excited!”  The actor, like Picasso in Guernica, like every poet who’s ever written well, finds equivalents, metaphors, similes, in behavior that illuminate, amaze and enlighten.  

Emotional preparation is for what you bring to the first moment of the exercise or scene.  Then, you work off your partner or adjust through doing an activity and your inner emotional condition will change.   DO NOT try to hold on to your preparation- or play it- or project it.  Trust that it will reemerge when properly stimulated in the exercise.  Leave yourself alone.

Emotion is like gas- you cannot hold onto it- it’s not tangible.

Daydreams are often a reshaping of reality- they’re built around something real in your life that gets transformed into something completely imaginary in your dream. 

Please note:

No matter how strong your prep may be, you MUST BALANCE your preparation with your adjustment to your partner.  If your prep trumps your connection with your partner, the exercise has lost its meaning.

Meisner suggests  you practice emotional prep AT LEAST ten minutes a day.

Some preps take less time (a few moments) than others (10-25 minutes.)  Learn which preps are more difficult for you and PRACTICE THEM often.