- The Actor’s Art and Craft
William Esper is perhaps the most well-known of the first-generation Meisner acting teachers and is sometimes referred to as Sanford Meisner’s most “authentic protégé.” Esper trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and then continued his collaboration with Sanford Meisner as both a teacher and director. Esper went on to found the William Esper Studio in 1965, and in 1977 established the MFA and BFA Professional Actor Training Programs at Rutgers University. In his long-awaited book, co-authored by Damon DiMarco, Esper documents for the first time the technique that he has developed over the last thirty years of teaching. Esper’s technique extends, refines, and details exercises that were omitted from or developed since Meisner’s own book, Sanford Meisner on Acting (co-authored by Dennis Longwell), was published in 1987. Although the exercises described in The Actor’s Art and Craft follow the basic process intended by Meisner, Esper’s ability to articulate the pedagogical and philosophical rationale for each exercise make this book a valuable record of the technique.
Using a familiar style seen in the Meisner/Longwell book, Esper and DiMarco create a fictional class of sixteen students to help illustrate the step-by-step approach to Esper’s training methods. By way of the students’ trials and errors in the classroom, Esper and DiMarco present a detailed account of Esper’s distinctive interpretation of Meisner’s technique. After each lesson, DiMarco reviews questions brought up in the classroom, which present Esper with an opportunity to elaborate on the objectives of a particular lesson and discuss his overall philosophy on the craft of acting. Each chapter begins with a quote drawn from contemporary playwrights, novelists, philosophers, artists, or actors, which offers a thought-provoking framework for every step in the technique. The chapter titles also frame the lessons and define basic guidelines; for example, chapter 1’s “Begin Again—Empty Your Cup,” or chapter 6’s “Don’t Gird Yourself to Act; Open Yourself to Receive.”
Using the metaphor of building a house, Esper’s technique centers around securing a foundation on which to build. On the second day, the fictitious class is introduced to the most familiar and often misunderstood aspect of Meisner’s technique: repetition. Esper compresses several of Meisner’s steps in the repetition exercises efficiently, guiding the reader to the root of the work: reacting from impulse. The book proceeds beyond the repetition exercises to a point where repetition work is completely supplanted and replaced with improvisations based on given circumstances. This challenges the students to apply their newly acquired skills of listening, creating contact, and responding from impulse to a new context. Later, Esper illustrates Meisner’s concept of “playing an objective while leaving it alone” by introducing an exercise rarely used by those who did not study directly with Meisner: the “Criminal Action Problem.” The exercise is based solely on physical action, with no dialogue, and it requires the actor to create a circumstance where need can only be satisfied by committing a crime. Esper describes the substance of this exercise to be “quintessential” to Meisner’s technique, in that the lack of dialogue prevents the student actor from making intellectual choices and forces him or her to be specific in a dramatically heightened situation.
Particularly valuable to students of acting is the chapter on emotional preparation titled “Daydreams, Fantasies, and Your Inner Life.” In it, Esper describes how the Meisner technique differs from Stanislavski’s original system and the American Method as developed by Lee Strasberg because Meisner rejected the practice of affective memory in favor of “emotional preparation.” The purpose of the emotional work, Esper says, is to “give a depth and fullness to your acting that carries you into the first moment of the scene” (209). The crux of Esper’s argument is that working with daydreams and fantasies supplies the actor the freedom needed to explore his or her personal areas of sensitivity, while affective-memory work locks the actor into...