Repetition Unlocks Key to Acting

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They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but can imitation do more than flatter; can it help us to live in the moment, to truly “do” instead of think about doing?

The late Sanford Meisner, an acting guru who passed away in 1997, believed that it could. His technique is now a classic pillar in the acting community, and attempts to harness the genuine, uninhibited emotion that an individual displays while engaged in spontaneous repetition.

His practice, now referred to simply as the Meisner Technique, hinges on an exercise in which two actors sit across from each other and repeat the same phrase back and forth until an emotional break causes the phrase to change. The practice is intended to unlock emotion and extemporaneous reaction.

Essentially, as Meisner described, the practice demands it’s participants to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” [live truthfully… ]

Simple, pointed, and deeply improvisational, the activity has been described as a conversation of the heart.

Career thespian Christopher Petit currently works at Whitman College, where he acts as the Director of Theater, Associate Professor, and Paul Garret Fellow. He also specializes in the Meisner Technique.

Petit sat down with BTRtoday to discuss his foray into acting, his experience with this unique approach, and how the Meisner Technique can unlock applications of self-discovery both within, and without, the theater.

BTRtoday (BTR): How did you become interested in acting?

Christopher Petit (CP): My older brother is also involved with the theater and he turned me on to acting. I was a bit lost in high school and the theater gave me something to care about and something I could excel in.

BTR: What sparked your passion for teaching the craft of acting?

CP: The great thing about actor training is that it’s really a training in getting to know yourself, which has great value beyond the theater!

BTR: What techniques do you teach, and what do they entail?

CP: I studied the Meisner Technique, and I’ve also trained in other approaches including Viewpoint Training and the Michael Chekhov technique, as well as Stanislavski and others.

I don’t know that I teach any single technique. I try to deal with the individual and use my own experiences to guide that person to the place where he or she will be successful. I’ve been teaching for 10 years now, and I think it’s always different. What do people need and what am I able to give them? I tend to draw on it all.

BTR: Can you tell us more about the Meisner Technique?

CP: It’s a very practical approach to acting created by Sanford Meisner that recognizes the impulsive and imaginative nature of the craft, while guiding students to use and develop their own creative individuality and personality in their work.

The Meisner Technique defines acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” and offers a form and practice where actors can stretch both their emotional and imaginative abilities through improvisational practice.

BTR: When did you first become familiar with this practice?

CP: I learned about Meisner as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. I went to the conservatory there at Mason Gross School of the Arts and studied the technique in their professional training program.

BTR: What is the Meisner technique meant to inspire in participants?

CP: For me, I find it particularly useful in helping actors find emotional truth and spontaneous authenticity. The technique teaches you to respond to something and to have a strong point of view. These are all very important for good acting.

BTR: What types of responses have you seen this evoke?

CP: When students get facile with the work there really are no limits to what can happen in any given exercise. I’ve heard the work described as a conversation of the heart. I think this sounds right. The exercise can go anywhere the heart may go. The full gamut of emotions are possible; it all depends on the potential of the people practicing.

BTR: What is the most emotional reaction you’ve ever seen somebody have to this exercise?

CP: Pretty emotional! But you know, it’s less about “how much” and more about the quality. If it’s authentic, we’ll watch it all day long and never get bored. Sometimes too much emotion is no good. You also have to be aware as a performer, and if you are too emotional or too tense it gets in the way.

BTR: Why is mirroring and repetition important in acting?

CP: I think the repetition exercise is so brilliant because it forces the actor to put all of her attention on her partner. It forces her to really listen to what her partner is saying, and because she doesn’t have to worry about what to say, it allows her to be completely impulsive and spontaneous. Listening to your partner, keeping your attention off yourself, and being spontaneous are all good things for an actor.

BTR: How does this contribute to creating a successful actor?

CP: Good acting is all about being spontaneous and authentic. When we can share our true selves with an audience then our acting is, generally speaking, good. The Meisner Technique can help an actor to develop these qualities in themselves and help them to bring these qualities to their acting.