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Ithaca Times - Dec 15, '04: Acting For Real

Acting for Real

by August Smith




While Manhattan offers some of the finest theater in the world, you don't have to go there to find first-rate theater training. At the Actors Workshop of Ithaca, students who've been learning the Meisner Technique under the direction of Eliza VanCort over the last three years have gone on to Hollywood and television sets, New York and California playhouse stages - some have even been cast on their first auditions. On Thursday, Dec. 16, the Actors Workshop will open its semester-end showcase to the public for the first time.

The Meisner Technique was developed by Sanford Meisner in the 1930s as a way to "get out of your head and into your gut" as student David Romm told me. "Meisner is not about working from inside yourself but about paying attention to other actors and reacting to them truthfully." Meisner defined acting as "the art of living truthfully in imaginary circumstances," which is the mantra at the Actor's Workshop.

According to student Chris Frank, "Meisner eliminates the acting from acting." This ground-breaking approach teaches students not to "act," but, instead, to connect with and react truthfully to stage partners.

VanCort stressed the precedence of emotional honesty. "You learn to be honest and truthful before anything else. In other [acting] techniques, you don't see actors in the present. They could be reacting off the wall. With this technique, you start with a blank slate, nothing residual - you are here, right now."

The first step in learning this Zen presence is the repetition exercise, which is the focus of first-semester work. Students work with a partner, saying whatever they can observe about their partners. "You look stressed." If nothing new to say grabs them, they repeat what their partner has said. As VanCort explained, "You keep repeating until you get the 'pinch.' You learn to not censor yourself by doing spontaneous moment-to-moment work."

In the second semester, students do emotional preparation work. They might come on stage as depressed as a Democrat after the last presidential election or as joyful as a new parent.

For the third semester, character adjustment is layered on the first two techniques. An actor makes physical and verbal adjustments to get in character; for instance, one might adopt the manners of an adolescent with a Southern accent. There will be a compelling display of character development at Thursday's showcase in a series of monologues from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

Fourth semester students focus on intention and relationship work. Primarily, their goal is to come on stage with an intention - perhaps, to infuriate or seduce their partner. This process includes creating a back story - the adolescent with a Southern accent is also a single, working mother.

The final semester is a time to focus on monologue and scene work, during which students reflect on the meaning of every word in a script and also tie together the previous four techniques.

"This sequential technique is more thought out than other techniques," observed VanCort. "Some people think it's regimented, but I find it freeing. It gives you a toolbox of specific approaches to work with."

Many students find the Meisner Technique helpful not only on stage, but in their daily lives as well. Jamie Park found that "it's made me very brave as an actor and as a person. My problem was I was too shy. I learned to take risks, which instills bravery and lets me be completely in the moment."

Judith Pratt, a playwright at Third Floor Productions who took VanCort's class said, "I had lots of previous experience in theater. The Meisner Technique peeled off a layer of artifice I didn't know anyone could get off me. It's like you're out there without your skin and without any cute acting tricks."

Katie Spallone, who was one of the first graduates from VanCort's workshop and now teaches the Tuesday and Thursday classes, said, "It's very visceral - you cut through a lot of emotional red tape and let yourself be revealed."

The Actors Workshop of Ithaca opens its semester-end showcase to the public at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16 at 136 The Commons, on the third floor. Those interested in attending should arrive at least 15 minutes before the show to guarantee seating. Donations are welcome.

If you're interested in joining the workshop, you can sign up at the showcase for a discount on the spring semester. For more info on the Actors Workshop, call 339-9999 or visit

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