On 13 June Svetlana Efremova's actor training course — based on the Meisner technique — will begin at the Moscow Film School. As well as being an actress herself, Svetlana Efremova is the Dean of the drama department at California State University, and here she talks about the Meisner technique, its application in the course and how the study programme is designed to help actors of varying levels of experience.
Svetlana, tell us a little about your course. What's the Meisner technique and how did it appear?
Sanford Meisner is one of the greatest American theorists and teachers of the craft of acting. His methods became extremely popular in the 1980s, and became the backbone of the educational programmes of the best American and European schools. Amongst the Hollywood actors and directors who have used, or continue to use his system are: Gregory Peck, Sydney Pollack, Grace Kelly, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Dicaprio, Naomi Watts, Tom Cruise and many others.
How does the Meisner technique relate to classical actor training and primarily the Stanislavsky system?
Like many contemporary methods, the Meisner technique built on Stanislavsky's system, but he went even further, calling for the refusal of "emotional memory". According to Stanislavsky, an actor should remember all their inner turmoil from an analogous, previously experienced moment and try to bring them to every gesture and expression of emotion.
Meisner did not believe in this. He argued that life should be lived on the stage or screen in that particular moment, and that an actor should orientate themself using their interaction with their acting partner.
According to Meisner, an actor should not follow a previously devised, logical pattern. When a roof collapses in the middle of an earthquake we don't think about which shoulder to turn around with: our instincts tell us themselves what needs to be done. In the same way, an actor should rely on their instincts and upon what appears in a given moment. They should put remove the focus on themselves and their emotions, and focus on their partner. This is not so easy to do, so Meisner developed his own set of exercises.
What kind, for example?
At the centre of his technique are repeated exercises, based on extremely close cooperation between actors, who should be immersed in each other, forgetting aboout analysis of the text and about everything around them, seeing before them only their partner. There are also other exercises upon which the intensive course is based. Last year I taught the same course in the Moscow Film School, and it was overwhelmingly popular. My students acheived an enormous amount over a week, and we realised that there is a great demand for this type of course.
What prompted you to teach a course on Meisner's technique in Russia, and in particular at the Moscow Film School?
We might say that it happened by accident. Four or five years ago I was invited to the Business Forum at the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) as an actress. During my speech, I mentioned the Meisner technique and the audience reaction made me realise that none of those present even knew about Meisner — the tenets of his technique are not even translated into Russian. For me it was a shock — how could that be ?! How can somebody not know the name of the theorist whose technique is utilised by actors and directors from half of the world? I realised that this gap in people's knowledge needed to be urgently filled. My master classes were seen by the curator of the MFS acting classes — Ingeborg Dapkunayte, and she asked me to come to teach my classes there. I'm the kind of person that loves to learn new things myself, so I was eager to share my knowledge with others.
How do the Meisner classes contribute to an actor's craft?
This course will help actors to diversify their creative palette. The Meisner technique focuses on the actor's instincts and the reactions of their partner. Meisner urged actors to build on what their partner is feeling in the moment — on how they show these feelings. An actor's performance becomes natural, and from this, more credible and effective, because the "sense of truth" arises not from the head, but is rather born at the level of emotional interaction in the "here and now".
In fact, actors themselves are very fond of this technique, because it allows you to "switch off your head" and gives unprecedented creative freedom. And it is very important that an actor is a personality themselves, because their acting is based on their inner world: if there is no person beneath, then there is no art.