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Effective Under Pressure

Posted on: June 28, 2021

How do you help young actors develop the skills to thrive when performing under stress? In this blog, Kevin Otos and Kim Shively, authors of Applied Meisner for the 21st Century, examine thress key tenets of acting that provide actors with the ability to thrive in a stressful work environment.

Acting is a high stress activity. There is something inherently stressful when separating oneself from the group as one does when acting on stage in front of an audience. These feelings can be perceived as fear or excitement depending on the context, but even the most experienced actors feel the pressure of performing. Acting for the screen can be nerve racking as well where the above-mentioned stress is occasionally exacerbated by the personalities in the room: the concerns of the producers, writers, director, and fellow actors, some of whom may be celebrities. In the entertainment industry where time is money, there is a lot of pressure to deliver a high-quality performance very quickly.

All of this stress can be further complicated by the location of the shoot or the rehearsal conditions. The rehearsal hall might be an empty storefront in a strip mall, or a warehouse space next to a working factory where noise, odor, people and other distractions can increase the level of stress. Filming on location in a working hospital, desolate environment or in water can further complicate an already stressful environment.

Stress in acting is almost always un-helpful because it makes it more difficult for the actor to fully commit to the imaginary world of the story.  If a part of themselves is distracted by external pressures and worries, fully engaging with the task at hand can feel impossible.

For those of us educating and training actors for professional work this situation presents us with challenges and opportunities. In the classroom we are often working in conditions more accommodating and generally positive than one finds in the profession. This studio environment helps our students grow in their art. But how do we prepare them to work effectively in less-than-ideal situations? Where the pressures of time, money, and ego—both their own and those of others—can undermine their efforts.

We’ve found that when a performance goes wrong, the root cause is always in the application of the basics. We view the basics as the foundational principles of the craft that guide our pedagogy. For us, it is that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances (Meisner). Core to being able to do this well is an understanding and commitment to three basic elements: the importance of the other character onstage, a commitment to the reality of doing, and the value of expressing genuine impulses.

In our teaching, we’ve found that these foundational elements evolve quite naturally into three tenets of acting technique: Need, Action, and Point of View (POV). Our approach, which we have coined Applied Meisner, is simply this: Meisner’s Technique and acting principles applied to the demands that an actor faces in the 21st century. When exploring the importance of the other person, an actor crafts a character’s POV on their world, the other characters, etc. As an actor experiences real impulses, they learn to channel them into usable actions. And as the actor really commits to doing something to the other character, they craft what motivates that doing and can embody a Need.

When under pressure it’s useful to have a few simple touchstones that can anchor and guide actors in auditions, rehearsals, and performances. As we write, we’re reminded of learning the ABCs of CPR years ago: A for open the Airway, B for check for Breathing, and C for check for circulation/pulse. Remembering these ABCs is helpful when in the high-pressure situation of administering CPR.

So, for the Actor under pressure we offer the image of a three-legged stool. When all three legs of the stool are sturdy, the person sitting on the stool feels secure, solid, and safe. In Applied Meisner, the three-legged stool is composed of Need, Action and POV. If your acting feels wobbly, this image can help you identify and strengthen those weaknesses. Run through the basic questions:

What do I need in this scene? Who is the other person to me? How am I getting my need met?

Or

What is the other person’s problem? How can I fix them? When will I know they’re fixed?

The image of a three-legged stool is an effective tool for actors under pressure. Connecting actors to their technique and training inspires confidence by reminding them of their professional competence. It keeps their attention on what is useful to their task rather than tempting them to throw a Hail Mary pass to the theatre gods. This places actors in a position for success in getting the job, rehearsing effectively, and delivering unique and truthful performances.