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The Actor's Art and Craft: William Esper Teaches the Meisner Technique

by William Esper

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William Esper, one of the leading acting teachers of our time, explains and extends Sanford Meisner's legendary technique, offering a clear, concrete, step-by-step approach to becoming a truly creative actor.Esper worked closely with Meisner for seventeen years and has spent decades developing his famous program for actor's training. The result is a rigorous system of exercises that builds a solid foundation of acting skills from the ground up, and that is flexible enough to be applied to any challenge an actor faces, from soap operas to Shakespeare. Co-writer Damon DiMarco, a former student of Esper's, spent over a year observing his mentor teaching first-year acting students. In this book he recreates that experience for us, allowing us to see how the progression of exercises works in practice. The Actor's Art and Craft vividly demonstrates that good training does not constrain actors' instincts--it frees them to create characters with truthful and compelling inner lives.… (more)
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This book leads you through the course of training that many of the best actors go through. Esper's course is a continuation of the line begun by Stanislavsky in the late 19th century. The "method" school. Stanislavsky begat the American Group Theater, which begat Meisner, who begat Esper and others. Esper is one of the Master Teachers of the craft.

Whereas the method originally required actors to fully live their characters, and to invent whole lives and memories for them, the modern actor uses a more limited and precise bag of tricks. The key is training your "instrument", which isn't, as some think, your physical body. It's your whole self, but most importantly, the availability of emotional expression. Through an exercise called "repetition", actors learn to listen to one another, and to respond viscerally to emotional stimuli, without thinking about it. For example, I might start by saying to you, "Your hair is shiny". You would respond by saying, "My hair is shiny", using my words, but reacting emotionally to whatever my attitude is. Then I might say, "Yes, your hair is shiny", and in your response, you'd have to use the "yes" as well, still responding to the emotional give and take, and so forth.

After that, the exercises get more complex and precise, and more skills are built. One actor must now enter the repetition while engaged in an activity that requires his whole attention. Making origami animals, for example. The other actor interrupts by knocking on the door. Objectives are introduced. The actors must now have a reason in their heads for what they're doing.

Next, "Criminal enterprise" exercises raise the emotional stakes. Imagine a simulated burglary where one party simulates sleep and the other enters quietly under cover of darkness and tries to find and get away with a specific item without being seen.

Then scripts are introduced. The actors learn their lines by rote, with no vocal inflections in mind. They develop not only their objective, but also an emotional state upon entering, through lucid daydreaming. Then the scene is set loose, and the way the lines are delivered comes through the actors' responding honestly to one another, like surfing a wave.

This may all sound very mystical, but a keen understanding of how human emotions work unconsciously goes into it. When good actors are working, it shouldn't be as if they are performing, it should be as if they're being overheard in a private conversation.

All of the steps I've mentioned above take place over a year of practice, with another year to follow. That's why you can't become a great actor just by reading this book. But at the same time, if you are an actor who has never had the opportunity to go to an actors' Mecca and learn from a Master, you can take and practice a good deal of the methods and philosophy found in this book and use it. I've already used bits and pieces of it, and I feel as if I've improved.

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  EricKibler | Apr 6, 2013 |
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William Esper, one of the leading acting teachers of our time, explains and extends Sanford Meisner's legendary technique, offering a clear, concrete, step-by-step approach to becoming a truly creative actor.Esper worked closely with Meisner for seventeen years and has spent decades developing his famous program for actor's training. The result is a rigorous system of exercises that builds a solid foundation of acting skills from the ground up, and that is flexible enough to be applied to any challenge an actor faces, from soap operas to Shakespeare. Co-writer Damon DiMarco, a former student of Esper's, spent over a year observing his mentor teaching first-year acting students. In this book he recreates that experience for us, allowing us to see how the progression of exercises works in practice. The Actor's Art and Craft vividly demonstrates that good training does not constrain actors' instincts--it frees them to create characters with truthful and compelling inner lives.

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