Last week, in Truth Part 1, I wrote about the importance of truth in theatrical theory and how I believe it should be very important in our everyday lives. This week, I want to write about what that might look like. To do that, I am first going to describe a foundational theatrical exercise.
“Repetition aids learning” was one of my father’s favorite sayings when I was a child. It turns out that my father is in good company. Sandford Meisner also believes in repetition. The repetition exercise crafted by Meisner is an important exercise in learning how to be truthful on stage.
It goes like this. Two people, designated as Partner A and Partner B, sit across from each other. Partner A turns away. A third person, known as the Observer, tells Partner A when to look back at Partner B. Partner A is to immediately state the first thing he notices about Partner B. Partner B then repeats whatever Partner A said and the repetition ping pongs between them.
That probably sounds very dull, and it can be. A group of students came to my house last spring to experiment with Meisner’s approach and quickly found out how much we all hated noses… “Nose,” “nose,” “nose,” “nose” was the frequent ball that was volleyed between partners.
This basic level of repetition teaches actors to be truthful with themselves and their partners about what he first notices. If Partner A hesitates to call out what first caught his attention, the observer is required to tell him to restart. This also helps actors learn to trust their impulses and not second-guess themselves.
The exercise becomes much more interesting and applicable as it progresses through various stages. Eventually, the students are allowed to respond to their partners by changing the repetition when they observe a different physical or emotional aspect of their partner. One of the most fascinating levels is the “thoughtful question” exercise. Partner A asks Partner B a thought-provoking or difficult question. Partner B responds by repeating the question. Partner A then states what is Partner B’s emotional response. Then they continue into their repetition, which is allowed to change as new impulses occur. For example, this happened at one of our sessions:
Partner A: (mischievously) Do you think I’m handsome?
Partner B: (incredulous) Do I think you’re handsome?
Partner A: You don’t think I’m handsome!
Partner B: (matter-of-factly) I don’t think you’re handsome.
It was a hilarious repetition exercise, because Partner B responded truthfully! Larry Silverberg (whose wrote the Meisner workbook we used – check out his website at http://www.trueactinginstitute.com/) says “we must realize that saying the truth to our partners is a gift, always! They now have something real to respond to.”
While the ego of the questioner was likely temporarily bruised, the exercise was more powerful because Partner B responded truthfully. The rest of the exercise, the two of them were hashing out their interactions through repetition. They were really listening to each other and responding appropriately. That is what makes live theater powerful.
What I love about the repetition exercise is its emphasis on the need to respond truthfully to your partner, based on who you are, not on who you think you should be. It tears down the walls the students have constructed and teaches them to be honest with themselves and each other.
Wouldn’t it be great if we were truthful with each other? We lie to people every day in our response to an extremely simple question: How are you? We fear telling the truth, so we wear masks, pretending to be someone we’re not. We are all guilty of this, including me. I believe that theater can help people to take off the masks.
Imagine having to perform this exercise whenever someone asked about your day. If I had done this today, the exercise would have sounded like this:
Partner A: How are you?
Me: (weary) How am I?
Partner A: You’re exhausted.
Me: I’m exhausted.
Partner A: You’re exhausted.
Me: I’m overwhelmed.
Partner A: You’re overwhelmed.
We’d certainly have a greater knowledge about each other if we answered honestly. I learned a deal about what lightened and burdened my student’s souls by watching them go through this exercise. I realize in the real world, it is not always possible to be vulnerable, for the real world is not always a safe place for hurting or hopeful people, and it is important that we have the discernment to know who will respect our honesty, who will use it against us, and who could care less.
The potential for bullying in the pursuit of truthfulness is a real concern on the stage, as well as off it; especially, with the mantra that “acting has no room for niceties, reasonableness, or ‘being appropriate’”. When we worked through the exercise, my students and I discussed the need for balancing being truthful with loving their partners, and how it can be difficult to know where that line falls. There were a few times when I would need to gently remind my students that the point of the exercise was not to tease or to mock.
Larry Silverberg himself gives contradictory advice, saying that we need to “drop the nice routine”, but that he is “not saying don’t be nice!” As we are faced with the dichotomy, he reassures us that “when you are really living in the present [i.e. being truthful and responding to your partner] you are always appropriate.”
I’ve thought about what that could mean as I’ve struggled to finish this blog post. I wonder, if it means that the exercise can only be used to bully, mock, and verbally abuse one’s partner, if we are more concerned with our stroking our own ego than lovingly focusing on the person across from us.
Isn’t this true of real-life interactions? If I am focusing on what I want to say, how I want to look in front of people, how I want to be amused, how I want to feel better about myself, in short, how I want to use the other person to benefit me, then every thing I say will be twisted by my own ego. In such a state, my words will not consider the other. In such a state it is impossible to speak to the other’s benefit, even if I would speak the truth, because it would be motivated by self-love.
Today, the world is hungry for authenticity and real love. As a Christian, I believe it is our calling to live authentic, loving lives, speaking the truth about the gospel and what is really going on behind the sociality masks that we wear to be ‘nice’ and ‘appropriate’. But we must keep both truth and love. If we lose love, then our truth becomes a weapon to wound instead of a tool to encourage. In order to respond both truthfully and lovingly, one may need to hold one’s tongue from saying his impulse, both in and out of an exercise. But if we lose truth, then our love becomes trite and powerless. Sometimes, in order to love, one must speak hard truths. Truth and love are supposed to be married to and never divorced from each other. May they live happily, ever after.