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Ithaca Times - Dec 14, '05: Naked Truth

Naked Truth

by Paul Hansom

In the beginning there was the Godfather of all acting methods and techniques: Konstantin Stanislavski. Derided, celebrated, but unavoidable when exploring the history of naturalistic acting in America, Stanislavski's technique for character development revolutionized stage acting, and by 1931, his impact was seen most clearly in the emergence of the Group Theatre. Boasting such legendary figures as Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, these teachers and theoreticians sought to develop techniques suitable for American character acting. While Adler and Strasberg created a deeply interior, intellectualized approach - seen keenly in the work of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift - Sanford Meisner broke with the pack. Seeking to eliminate the intellectual angle, Meisner strove to make the actor more responsive to spontaneous action and emotion, to acting from the gut, not the head.

Flash forward: I am the guest of Eliza Van Cort, the director of the Actors Workshop of Ithaca, a Meisner technique workshop, which holds its annual showcase on Dec. 16. A native Ithacan, Van Cort is a theatrical creature with acting in her blood. As a little girl she was involved with the Hangar Theatre's first children's programs, but she grew out of this to focus on political science, then law at New York University. And here things changed. The old calling, well, called her back. She took a permanent leave of absence, went back to her first love and became a Meisner technique teacher, first in Boston, then in Ithaca.

What is the Meisner technique? "Basically, it's a methodical way to teach you how to be on stage in a naturalistic fashion," explains Van Cort. Meisner actors - like Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy - bring a different reality to acting: they don't rely on easy tricks actors sometimes use to fake emotional situations. "Sometimes," she grins self-consciously, "experienced actors get too comfortable on stage." The Meisner technique breaks these habits, to leave the actor naked, but living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.

Van Cort's Meisner workshop is a five-semester set of integrated processes building on skills learned in the previous unit, deliberately mixing students with varying levels of experience so the lessons become mutually reinforcing. Thus, actors from different semesters - with more Meisner experience - work with beginners as "technique-in-action." The earliest classes involve a sort of emotional preparation boot-camp, where actors strip themselves of personal and social masks, then progress to comprehensive mood and character development, script analysis and showcase scene work. Student Erik Bjarnar confesses the technique can be grueling, even harrowing: "Imagine public speaking while all your faults are being laid bare!"

The first step entails the famous repetition exercises, where students make observations about fellow actors, in a series of uncensored, emotional free-associations. There's no room for thought here, just immediate responses from the gut. As I watched the actors engage in this free-for-all, it looked anarchic - the actors pacing the custom-built studio, sitting, standing, lounging. And even though repetition is maddening for the observer, you see how it gives performers intense focus, pushing beyond words. "The beauty of this behavior is its spontaneity, its unpredictability and its authenticity," says student Jimmy Liao.

The repetition exercises are followed by scene rehearsals, ranging from the emotionally intense to the comic. Van Cort watches her students closely, whispering occasional directorial prompts, before delivering succinct, incisive critiques of each student's performance. She's clearly a serious and dedicated teacher, and the students seem to thrive on her nurturing approach. "I want everyone to have a growth curve," she insists. "Everyone is looked at individually in this class - this isn't a cookie-cutter program. We tailor the teaching experience."

Van Cort is continually amazed that a Meisner technique class could fly in Ithaca, that the city offers such a breadth of talent, that the students demonstrate unflagging courage and deep commitment, and that actors weren't scared off. In fact, one of her first graduates - Katie Spallone - impressed her so much she's now teaching her own Meisner workshop alongside Van Cort. "She's an actress with a teacher's eye," observes Van Cort.

Spallone admits it can get raw on stage, but it stays up there. She says, "It's a very intimate technique. I sometimes feel like a voyeur watching my students."

And the students themselves? Regardless of professional ambition, most love it, thriving on the therapeutic aspect, the chance to really explore their own emotional makeup. As Liao observes, "the class is frightening at first - what happens when you just say what you feel? Will you self-combust? Will people still like you? Will you discover that you are evil?"

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