Acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” -Sanford Meisner
My friend Jay taught me an exercise we often do in Drama class. Each student gets a little speech. After a few days of imagining the story around it, she gives the speech on camera. Then we pause, and ask questions to tease out the story she imaged: who are you talking to? What’s happened? Where are you coming from? When the students start, they often either hold back, or “perform” to show us how talented they are. Watching that isn’t very interesting–it looks like people pretending. Something changes when we just talk about this imagined world they’re living in. They look like real people, thinking and wondering, sharing and hiding as they try to say their story. “That’s what we want,” says Jay. “That’s how an actor connects with an audience.”
When we’re not on stage, we sometimes think that our imaginations can lead us away from the world–“stop daydreaming.” That happens, but I think imagination leads into the world far more than it leads away. Richard Feynman, the physicist, and an artist friend once had an argument about art, science, and flowers. The friend claimed that art revealed the flower’s beauty, but science destroyed it by taking the flower apart. Feynman said he could still admire the color and the shape, which were wonderful, but through study, he could also see more of the flower’s beauty. He could see how the cells interacted to create and sustain life. Except Feynman didn’t say he could “see” these things. He said “imagine.”
The actor’s task is to imagine a world so that he has ground to stand on, and then simply stand. The task is to realize that who he is, and the emotions he’s feeling, are enough–they’re enough for a great performance (that doesn’t perform at all), and they’re enough for a real life. If he’s nervous, he can let his character be a little nervous. If he’s flustered, his character is flustered. He just has to be truthful. That’s our task, our opportunity: to connect ourselves, our emotions and our thoughts, to a world that we choose to make real.
Sometimes our imagination brings us closer than we thought we could ever get to the beauty of a flower, the struggle of a friend, or the place our own heart is actually standing. The sun’s just come over the horizon: that’s a huge ball of nuclear fusion, burning warmth toward me across a vast, almost empty space in which we all hang, somehow safe. What a world. How real it is. And standing in a real world, when we want to connect, Meisner says to just live truthfully.