“Don’t try to be good”

This instruction from Jim Jarrett rings through my mind as I crouch over in preparation for my work onstage with my partner. I wrestle with my powerful superego, which is currently asking, no screaming, the question AM I GOOD ENOUGH? I shove the introject out of my mind as the vulnerability of preparing in front of my 11 classmates and, especially, Jim weighs on me. I close my eyes, cover my ears, and rock gently back and forth, taking myself through the steps of the activity I have prepared to do on stage. I know that in five minutes there will be an off-stage knock at the door and my partner will be there, having done her own preparation and in that moment our imaginary worlds and real emotional truth will meet. What we do in that moment, without a script but with the scaffolding of the technique will create the work.

I have been a student of Jim’s Meisner Technique Studio for actors for nearly two months now, coinciding almost exactly with the opening of my private practice as a therapist. Like many of my fellow students, I’ve dabbled in various acting classes over the years without actually pursuing anything on stage or screen (I will note though that many other students come in with much experience). However the Meisner Technique, developed by legendary acting teacher Sanford “Sandy” Meisner and taught by him directly to Jim, differs from anything else I have done with its emphasis on repetition and working with the authentic here-and-now moment, something any good gestaltist can appreciate.      

Preparation involves choosing an activity or scenario (in each class, one is assigned the role of knocking on the door or choosing an activity). Each activity should meet three criteria for the performer: It must be compelling (for the performer), difficult, and urgent. The more that the activity meets these three criteria, the more truth will emerge. Thus far my classmates and I have packed for trips, cleaned apartments for dates, prepared hurried meals, and wrapped presents amongst other fantastically creative ideas. Truth in the activity is important— for example, if you are going to shave before work, you better bring a shaver and really shave onstage. If you are packing for a trip, you bring not only the clothes you might need for a particular trip, you bring assorted other clothes so you are making believable choices in the moment. Meanwhile the knocker on the hides behind a a door in a room offstage and prepares on a reason to be there that feels compelling to them and demands confrontation with the partner. As we improve our preparation these reasons can produce great sadness, joy, anger, etc but once the door is opened, the knocker drops the story for their reason, while keeping the generative emotion elicited in their gut and focusing their attention on the partner who answered the door and does their activity. As Sandy Meisner himself said, “The specifics take you to your artistic soul.”

I have marveled at the congruence of Gestalt Therapy and the work we do at the Meisner Studio. Sandy also said, “The key to real acting is in the reality of doing.” I think about this often with clients who are often taken unawares by the power of a heretofore unknown emotion during experiential work as I facilitate them taking the position of a disowned part of themselves, or role-playing a partner or parent. Often the client will be skeptical and express reservations (“I feel silly/self conscious” is a common) however if they choose to go past that moment of internal resistance the doing often brings them into their truth. These are some of my most beautiful and precious moments as a therapist.

Most touching for me though is the immense power of seeing a man living his dream onstage, and using his talent and charisma as a teacher and actor to convince folks like myself, who have spent a lifetime doubting their ability, that hard work, commitment and dedication will lead us wherever we want to go with our own dreams, that the my rocky technique is just part of an inevitable process of learning to be enjoyed, that the joy I occasionally experience on the stage is something to chase rather than something to hide from. In my most recent classes I have noticed that as my ability to prepare truthfully has improved, my technique has suffered. Fortunately as Jim and fellow faculty member Melissa Thompson-Esala assure me, this is a common phenomenon. “Snapping back after having been thrown” said Jim in a recent class regarding the jarring moment when my imaginary reality met my partner’s different imaginary reality. Jim asks us sometimes to rate the effort we are putting in to the class, unhesitatingly saying that his effort when he studied under Sandy was an A+. Having been initially unprepared for the intensity and commitment displayed by my classmates, I cannot say that I deserve an A+ to this point. I am however beginning to see the value of my effort, and for now that’s enough.

Ken Stamper is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern #81669 with a practice in San Francisco and is especially interested in working with Depression, Loneliness / Disconnection, and Intimacy Issues.