Letters from a voluntary exile: The Bellman’s Map

I have just spent the last two weekends exploring using the Bellman’s Map. The Bellman’s Map is from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, where the Bellman, the captain of the group, presents them with a map that is “A perfect and absolute blank!” which his crew is delighted with, as it’s one they can immediately understand. Except for the bit about immediate understanding, I felt like a member of the crew being presented with a blank map by Scott Williams at a workshop on Meisner Technique, presented by Melbourne Acting Academy.

Scott is a teacher and director, originally from California, and trained with Sanford Meisner himself. He has been directing since he was 17, and has perused many activities both on and backstage, but directing and teaching has been his major focus. Since 1996, he has been based in London where he established the Impulse Company where he is currently Artistic Director.

I knew almost nothing about the Meisner Technique. I bought Sanford Meisner’s book  On Acting some years ago, but stopped reading it when I thought I really needed to do some of the exercises described before I could understand it. A friend of mine tried to explain Meisner to me just before I commenced the workshop, and succeeded in making me think, “Oh god, I don’t want to do that for four days.” Turns out she didn’t know what she was talking about. Didn’t stop her talking though. But I digress.

Sandy Meisner

I don’t want to go too much into describing the technique or the exercises as four days is barely a sniff of the sip of a glass from the barrel of what a potent brew I suspect it is; it did make my head spin, but I don’t know how to make it. Also many of the ideas and language that I do have will sound familiar to those who have done actor training. But they only sound familiar, and are in fact very different. However, I am still getting my head around all that, and don’t want to talk about it too soon.

But the biggest difference between Meisner and other techniques is what I started to think of as the Bellman’s Map. The way I was trained, and the way I have worked, involves analysis of the script, breaking down the script into beats, finding actions and objectives, mapping your way through the script. Of course, all these decisions are fluid and subject to change depending on what happens on the floor or in the moment. In Meisner, you don’t do any of this. When you get on the floor, your map is blank.

What you do have is the other actor. You approach the exercises, and later the scene, with all (or most) of your focus on the other actor, and you observe and respond to what they do. It sounds simple but is extremely powerful. In fact that was a word that came up often in discussion – simple, and pure. And the great thing I found, great for me, and which is one of the aims of the technique, is that it gets you out of your head, away from intellectualising the scene and the moment. All that is left is you and the other actor going from moment to moment. Watching the other actors was amazing. Doing it was a revelation.

The Stanislavskian term that is still central to this technique is the Given Circumstances. All the information from the script and the director, designer and the others, filter your responses. The last two exercises, where we took the previous exercises into text, were amazing. People were tapping into strong reactions and emotions with ease – and without setting out to do so. Scenes were alive on a first reading. They were still a long way from what an audience would eventually get to see but wow! what a starting point.

It’s un-Australian if you can’t think of a sporting analogy. For many years, the Australian Wallabies (rugby union for those of you going “Wha …?”) were a disciplined and effective team. They followed game plans and moves and were winning. Other teams soon realized that the best way to beat them was to disrupt their patterns. And by this stage, many of the players, skilled and talented as they were, had lost the ability to play, as the saying goes, what was in front of them. They kept trying to re-establish or reconnect to the game plan or the move, rather than seize opportunities as they presented themselves, and our trophy cabinet got barer and barer. Now, having rediscovered that part of their game, the Wallabies are heading back to the top. They train, practise, prepare, do all the things talented and disciplined people do in their field of endeavour, and then take to the field and play what is in front of them. Meisner Technique is something like that.

Scott is a warm, generous and supportive teacher. The classes were fun, filled with laughter and joy, and great work was being done. Scott said more than once, as we discussed ideas and issues, “I’m not a philosopher, I’m just an acting teacher,” which was a refreshing change from those acting teachers who want to be your guru.

… it was such a relief to find a technique that doesn’t rely on dragging up dark and awful stories or even nice ones. All that stuff is there, but you don’t need to dwell on it and project it onto other people. You just stay with your other actor, and they with you.

And it works. As an actor, and as an audience member, I was bowled over. I felt bits of my brain sit up and pay attention, ideas I’d had lying dormant revived, and something resparked. Scott said early on that he would be teaching us what we already know. Somehow, even while he gave us our blank maps and took to some sacred cows, he did exactly that. Another phrase he sometimes used after an exercise, when you could see the actors glowing from what they had been through, was, “Isn’t that why you became an actor?” Yes, yes it is.

I’d like to thank Scott Williams and the Melbourne Acting Academy, and my fellow students, who were a lovely and generous bunch of people: Felicity, Melissa, Damien, Ellie, Dallas, Sophie, Alex, Jamie, and Claire. On the first day when we walked in, Scott said, “Are all Australians so beautiful or is it just you guys?” I replied, “You can come back.” He sure can.

This post is part of a series by guest blogger Nick Backstrom, a Brisbane actor and writer who is now based in Melbourne.