by Kim Shively
The idea of playing a character is a tricky subject for actors trained in the Meisner Technique, because Meisner himself wrote little about character. In fact, there are only a few pages in Sanford Meisner on Acting where he speaks to the concept of playing a character. “The concept of Point of View, however, offers Meisner actors with a useful approach to character different from a more Stanislavski-based, traditional path to character development. I have come to define Point of View in the following way:
A highly specific, emotionally evocative phrase that encapsulates the lens through which a character views their world, their situation or the other character.i
For me, Point of View forms one leg of a three-legged stool that is Meisner Technique: Action, Need, and Point of View. My approach to Point of View offers tools for developing a character and providing clarity of character for both actor and audience. Furthermore, this work has tapped into a greater conversation about personal character, empathy and an attitude of generosity toward others, especially those with whom we have little in common. As a nation, technology now gives us great access to the world, but often separates us from true connection with others. I believe our work as actors and our training of future generations has purpose beyond the work we do on stage and screen. This Point of View work provides a premise through which empathy can be developed and attuned. This article explores Point of View as a specific way of thinking about and approaching character for the 21st century actor, while also tracing Point of View’s roots and development so that deeper understanding can inform technique and approach.
Background and Rationale
Why Character Now?
Why is this conversation about character so important? In actor training, there is the character that exists within the literary structure, but as actors and practitioners, I believe we must also understand and be willing to explore the personal character that defines each individual. Our world is experiencing a culture of division that is dangerous for humanity in general and for the artist in particular. While the artist’s voice is often one of dissent, there is a principle of love that must infuse the artist’s work if there is to be hope to evoke true change that challenges and illuminates.
Exploration of character development for the actor is especially important now because it is one of the key places where empathy and connectivity can be forged. As teachers and practitioners train a new generation and hand down beloved techniques and hand-made crafts, character development can be the inroad for teaching on fundamental issues. These issues include generosity, bias and the best that humanity has to offer, while exploring the devastating parts of life, the cult of personality in our political world, and the larger complexities of the human experience. By teaching character development in acting and exploring different approaches to this somewhat mysterious dynamic, those who train can empower actors to be more than their individual limitations allow.
The Meisner Technique, Stanislavski and Point of View
The Meisner Technique operates from a few simple yet significant foundational pieces. With an adherence to Stanislavski’s definition of acting, that is “living truthfully under the imaginary circumstances” (Stanislavski, An Actor's Work), Meisner, focused on “living truthfully” in a way that translated it specifically into the first of his key principles: the foundation of all acting is the reality of doing (Meisner and Longwell, Sanford Meisner on Acting). Of equal importance, Meisner taught the foundational principle that the most important person on stage for an actor is the other person (Meisner and Longwell, Sanford Meisner on Acting). Meisner understood that when an actor took their attention off of themselves and placed it on the other person, the actor would be free to respond truthfully and impulsively in the moment. The repetition exercise that Meisner developed at Neighborhood Playhouse addresses these foundational principles and provides the structure through which an actor can develop a solid technique that can be replicated repeatedly, while allowing the actor to remain in the moment.
For the Meisner-trained actor who might be conditioned to focus on the truth of the moment and to resist anything that might seem indulgent or self-focused, fear sets in when talk of “getting into character” begins. Because of one of Meisner’s foundational principles is that attention must always be placed on the other (person or scene partner), the self-focus required in character development seems heretical. Therefore, there are challenges for the Meisner-trained actor, but deeper clarity on the issue of the foundations of developing a character and the actor is possible and highly rewarding.
Masters of the Meisner Technique refer to the issue of and explorations around “the character” an actor plays as a construct of the audience, a label, or something that is not the business of actors at all. Meisner himself called it a trap and encouraged students to avoid being concerned with getting into character. Meisner actors and teachers mostly agree that the idea of the dramatic character is endowed by the audience. At best, Meisner’s students who became high-profile teachers, like Bill Esper and Larry Silverberg, will talk about preparing the role (not character), having a different POV from the actor’s personal POV, doing emotional preparation and delving into script analysis, which is necessary. But the issue of the character an actor plays never goes away.
The larger issue of character permeates the ethos in our world today. Indeed, society thinks and talks in terms of character. Those outside of the discipline of acting often ask practitioners about playing the character. In actor training programs around the world, students clamor for it. And in Meisner programs, students have been known to sneak contraband copies of Lee Strasberg’s books to one another. (Strasberg was Meisner’s nemesis, famous for the American technique known as “the Method,” which trains actors to transform into their character.) Do I disappear into the character? Does the character come to me? Am I the character or do I bring my humanity to the role and the character becomes me? The questions are endless and there are as many answers as there are practitioners.
In his book, Sanford Meisner on Acting (Meisner and Longwell, Sanford Meisner on Acting), Meisner speaks about the internal and external parts of the character. Stanislavski, too, in An Actor’s Work (Stanislavski, An Actor's Work), differentiates internal and external qualities. However, Stanislavski also allows for the focus of the actor to shift from what is happening in the moment to a particular memory that might be helpful in producing an emotional response required by the text, encouraging the use of “Mental Images”, which take the actor in a sort of self-focused, mental concentration (457-462). In regards to external qualities of character, Stanislavski paid considerable attention to the rhythm and cadence of speech that a character would use, as well as the particularities of physical movement as it relates to the psychological life of the character. Today, it is easy to imagine how these external pieces were particularly important for a small company in which actors were playing a variety of roles in a season.
Meisner’s discussion of internal aspects of the character are much more focused on the given circumstances of the script and how each individual actor responds impulsively, in the moment, to those circumstances (Meisner and Longwell, Sanford Meisner On Acting 188-190). It is safe to say that the discussions were always tied to the moment and the actor’s response to their partner within the given circumstances. For Meisner, the externals were based on the casting demands of the time. Meisner was quoted as saying, “They don’t want people to act. They want people to be what they appear to be. If you look a certain way, that’s what they want or don’t want. They don’t think of anything else.” (Meisner and Longwell, Sanford Meisner on Acting 189)
Meisner broke with the Group Theatre when, among many problems, he felt exploration of character had become indulgent. Meisner knew actors would be most instinctual and engage in the most truthful behavior when they placed their attention on the other with clear stakes and a truthful connection to the work. Becoming too focused on “character” was a distraction from the “reality of doing,” and therefore, was not helpful to the Meisner training process. Young actors struggle with this, as they see actors in theatre, film, and television rewarded for “character” work or for being a “character actor.” A traditionally beautiful leading man or woman might make themselves up as plain or unattractive and this would be celebrated as a career changing character role, demonstrating range. The merits of such a performance can vary, but society’s overall perception will be one of awe and respect, so a young, aspiring actor desires to emulate such range and explore character more deeply.
This is all the more relevant in today’s market, as the increased importance of long-form improvisation can often require an actor to explore many characters in the arch of an exercise. Popular improv theatres and schools (like Upright Citizens Brigade and the Groundlings) devote entire classes to the exploration and development of character. This coupled with the current age of new media requires an actor’s creativity and flexibility in creating new content. One of the most popular, new media genres is character-driven host channels or webisodes. This demand necessitates conversations and training labs for the exploration of how the development of character is approached in a careful and thoughtful way that maintains the “reality of doing.”
The POV Technique and Meisner Training
To explore POV work, it may be helpful to understand that the foundational technique where I first encountered this methodology was in the Meisner Technique and that POV was generally defined as how one felt about something. Within Meisner, there is an assumption that the student has explored the dynamics of the foundational Repetition Exercise and Independent Activity. The actor is able to act impulsively from a place of truth. The actor is able to listen and speak and make specific choices because of the elegant progression of the exercises. Through the Repetition Exercise and the Independent Activity, the actor has explored the limitations of their dramatic imagination and has developed a deeper understanding of emotional preparation and their personal triggers. The generic, social niceties of the pedestrian are silenced in favor of truthful responses with stakes that are worth fighting for. The result is something that is alive. Again, these are the foundational pieces of the Meisner technique. If the building blocks of Meisner are understood, then the actor knows themselves, and knows themselves well.
Once the actors begin using a script with Meisner training, the technique itself remains ultimately practical in its approach and the principles learned from the Independent Activity are translated to the structure of the scene. This is where the issue of POV comes more sharply into focus. Meisner talked about point of view from the perspective that the actor must have an opinion about everything in order to play a scene well. Meisner would argue that if the actor is focused on the character, then they are missing the life of the scene. The actor’s work can become dead, planned, anticipated, and inwardly focused. The focus of the actor must remain solely on the other person, the situation, and their objective.
This is unique to Meisner’s technique and the fruit that grew out of Stanislavki’s system of the given circumstances (Meisner and Longwell, Sanford Meisner On Acting 527-532). Stanislavski would speak of the actor stepping into the character’s skin or a mutation of the actor into the character (Stanislavski, An Actor's Work). This exploration and transformation came primarily from studying the given circumstances. Meisner did not abandon the given circumstances, but suggested these circumstances inform the actor’s POV within the work. There is not disappearance into the character, but rather a revelation of the character’s behavior through how they felt about the issue or person before them. This is where Stanislavski’s as-if becomes a focus for Meisner when teaching scene work. The as-if can be used to connect the actor to the given circumstances of the scene, but the POV remains necessary to shape how the actor plays the scene.
In the full arc of the Meisner pedagogy, the Independent Activity Exercise answers many of the questions involved in exploring POV in a seemingly reverse order. The relationship developed provides the label or POV. Through trial and error the student discovers the points of view that stimulate them and those areas where the dramatic imagination needs to grow. Even in the beginning of training for the Meisner Technique, labeling begins early on. Often it is introduced by having two students stand opposite one another, where the exercise of Repetition also begins, though this precludes Repetition. They are then asked what kind of person the other appears to be. An exercise so simple often stumps the student, but that is the genesis of the label.
A young man and a young woman stand opposite one another in a studio. The teacher asks the male student what kind of person the female student is. The female student wears glasses and plain brown shoes.
“She is smart and not very funny.”
A label is born. The opinion of the student from his perspective or POV emerges in the space. And, as the audience, we draw conclusions about the male student’s character based on what he has said with his untucked, stained shirt.
In Meisner’s full-blown Independent Activity improvisation, the students have developed a history for themselves. They have labeled one another based on the history they have conceived. Perhaps one student has labeled the other as their naïve, weak-spined, sham of a sister. If that Point of View lives in the actor, how they respond to the other in the first moment will be informed by that POV. All of this emotional packing is subject to change based on the moment, but a solid label of the other can make or break an exercise. Once text is added for the student, they have a clearer understanding of their own impulses and have learned to work impulsively from a place of high stakes. This is wisdom gained from the Repetition Exercises and the Independent Activity. This knowledge, coupled with the personal neutral (explained below), prepares the student to approach text.
For example, if an actor is playing Romeo in the balcony scene, the POV becomes the lens that relieves the actor of the pressure of playing the quality of lovesick. By endowing Juliet with the answers to Romeo’s deepest desires, the actor can play the scene without worrying about a quality or what the audience will think. It is Romeo’s POV on the world in general and Juliet specifically which frees the actor up to play actions truthfully and with conviction and commitment. To the audience, the actor’s responses may appear lovesick in moments, but their responses can also become giddy and excited as the language itself demands. The emotions are not the focus of the actor, but the actor need not fear being generic in tone or perceived quality. The success of the scene does not rest on the actor’s emotional responses but on the playing of the action to get an objective met while doing it truthfully. Meisner’s treatment of emotions and emotional states was perhaps what I found most compelling as a young actor. Emotions are the by-product and not the thing itself Meisner training. This concept set me free from the hang-ups of my own mental directing.
So What is the Journey to POV Technique?
The ideal situation from which to approach POV comes from the place that I call the personal neutral. This personal neutral is physical as well as emotional and mental. Actors are responsible for everything they do on the stage. Every aspect of an actor’s being tells a story to the audience. Therefore, the actor must have self-awareness that extends from the way they walk, stand, sit and speak. The external factors in performances tell very clear stories, which makes actor training even more necessary.
Good actor training is the place of exploration where the actor comes to know themselves in a more introspective and dynamic manner. As they journey on this discovery of self-awareness, they are discovering their own preferences, cultural and physical tendencies. Their way of being. In an ideal world, the actor would discover themselves to be the instrument through voice, movement, and actor training. The actor would then learn the pathway toward their personal neutral. This technique is particularly helpful when working with an actor who has a specific natural dialect or habitual preference in physicality. Gone are the days of stripping the actor of their personal uniqueness. For the trained modern actor, everything can become a choice and there is an awareness of what choices the actor is making at all times. By teaching actors the pathway into personal neutral, the teacher also frees them to return to their natural habits that are comfortable and useful for their everyday life.
Beyond the superficiality of personal neutral, there is also a point of neutral curiosity.
As actors explore their journey to a place of neutrality and curiosity, they bring this openness to the script. Am I suggesting that I expect the actor to kill their personal opinions and preferences? Not at all. But without coming to the table from as neutral a place as possible, the actor cannot begin to analyze text and understand the characters without bias. If an actor is playing Medea, it is important to know that the actor’s personal POV on being a wife and mother is vastly different from that of Medea’s POV. That knowledge frees the actor up from making a value judgment on Medea before they begin working through the text.
In the spirit of collaboration for actors and practitioners, let us start from the place of agreement. As actors, we live in service to the play. And the play is a story about the day something special and unique happens to a character. To assume (as an actor) that my job is simply to talk and listen my way through a play is limited, silly, and ultimately boring. The next step is to add in an objective or intention. Finally, we actors must deal with the world of the play so that we can serve it fully. That means we have to acknowledge the circumstances of the characters we play. So how then do we approach the issue of character? Before we move forward, let’s revisit the definition of Point of View:
A highly specific, emotionally evocative phrase that encapsulates the lens through which a character views their world, their situation or their other person.
Point of View in Action
What Makes an Effective Point of View?
An effective POV should live in the actor. It should connect the actor to the work, much like a plug connects a lamp to an electrical current. When the plug fits into the socket properly, the electrical current can be delivered through the cord and the light will turn on. The POV connects the actor to the work and the results are electric. Without pressuring the actor to produce a quality or emotion, the POV colors the actions played, the objectives fought for, and creates performances that are easily replicated and fun to play. This is why the development of the specific words that make up the POV phrase can often take time. That is why the phrase must be emotionally evocative and highly specific.
A good POV can be simple and the phrase should be concise and should mean something to the actor. This POV frees the actor up to bring all of their humanity to the work with a degree of fearlessness. The POV also enables the actor to see the world through the lens of their character so that they can honor the intention of the writer. “The world is my oyster.” “Life’s a shit sandwich.” Two very specific POVs with very different meanings and energies. If the world is my oyster, that point of view affects every facet of my life. As the POV is explored, only then can the actor make decisions about external physicalizations. From the actor’s internal reactions to their external physical life, the positive possibility of the world being an oyster has a ripple effect. Of course, if there is a student for whom that phrase means nothing, it is not the right POV of a character who is having the best day of their life or who has a constant string of good luck. And in reality, these examples can tend toward the superficial. However, they prove to be a great jumping off point and work well for exploration.
To understand how a simple POV can go deeper, let us look at an example. If “The world is my oyster,” is a world point of view a student is using in scene work while working on the role of David Beeves in Arthur Miller’s play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, then the given circumstances of the play and how it unfolds become very important. When the character’s arc in the play moves forward with more and more good news, then those specific revelations of new information each have a specific POV for the actor. However, David’s POV is also influenced by his brother Amos’s apparent string of terrible luck. Later in the play, David’s POV on his own circumstances can become tarnished by the guilt he feels for not struggling in the way that Amos suffers. “The world is my oyster, but it makes everyone else miserable.”
Developing a Point of View
There are few rules for this POV, but one of them is that the character sees themselves as the hero. It is important to remember, for the purpose of playing, that judgment is the killer of the actor’s process. The minute the actor judges the character or their function within the play, they are dead in the water. From the character’s POV, it is everyone else that has the problem. Much like bias and the research conducted on blind spots in personal perspectives, it is not uncommon for people to believe that they are not the one with the problem. Everyone else has the problem. This is the crux of a good point of view. In order to keep the actor’s focus on the other person, the actor must endow the other person with the problem. Then it becomes the actor’s job to fix the other person in the context of the work.
The second rule is that there must be love. “Craft to Care” is a popular phrase used by many acting teachers. If the actor cares about the other person and if they love this person, then the audience will care about the characters and the story that is being told. Love is ultimately heroic and keeps the actor connected to their humanity and to the other person and dramatic situation. Does this mean that Romeo does not experience emotions other than love when he learns he is to be banished for killing Tybalt? Of course not, but it is his love for Juliet that fuels his desire to stay and his need of the Friar’s help. Indeed, Shakespeare’s brilliance takes the character from a speech about being banished to the thoughts of what creatures, be they ever so vile, who might be close to Juliet when he is away from her. If the actor playing Goneril in King Lear thinks her character is evil or manipulative, the performance will be much more one-dimensional than the performance of the actor who believes that Goneril is ultimately misunderstood and simply doing what it takes to survive and fulfill her destiny and her rightful place as heir.
These larger world POVs organically spill into the POV on the situation and the other person. A workable world POV will inspire subsequent labels and opinions in a free flowing way. In the beginning of this training, an actor will label everything specifically from an emotionally honest POV. Learning to remove the societal niceties or chips on the shoulder can be a process in and of itself, but working from themotionally honest neutral frees the actors to explore other points of view in a dynamic, often surprising way. Once this technique becomes craft, the steps are truncated. However, the actor can still articulate the character’s world POV and specific POVs toward other characters and situations when collaborating with others.
There is one final stage of awareness when dealing with POV. This comes about in determining three factors about the character. The actor will know their POV is solid when they can differentiate between what the character says they think, what the character thinks they think and what the character really thinks. What the character really thinks is where the POV lives, but the actor must know the answers to the first two as well. These discoveries are first made while approaching the text.
Approaching the Text
So the actor, in a state of neutral curiosity, begins to read the script for different levels of understanding. It is from this understanding that the possibilities for POV will begin to emerge. For our purposes, we will use the play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov and the role of Vanya as point of reference for this POV exercise.
Obviously, the actor must first read the play. To really understand the play, it must be read many times, and each time with a specific goal towards analysis. Avoiding movies or filmed versions of the stage play is useful in the beginning, as human beings are often prone to allow too much external influence to shade personal perspectives and inhibit dramatic imaginations. Actors may fall into wanting to imitate a performance or attempt to replicate an idea of the right way to play a role. (When teaching, I began to call this Original Broadway Cast Recording Syndrome, from years of watching actors imitate musical choices of well-known performances from listening to cast recordings.)
After the first reading, the actor can ask themselves, “where is the drama?” What is the dramatic event of the piece? With the second reading of the text, the actor can begin to explore the larger themes of the play. This is also when the actor can identify what my teacher, Brandt Pope, called the Premise or the given circumstances. Separating the dramatic event and themes from the premise is particularly useful in comprehension and analysis.
In Uncle Vanya, there are a few dramatic events that stand out at first pass. One event is Astroff and Yelena’s kiss, unknowingly witnessed by Vanya. The second event is Vanya’s failed attempt to shoot the Professor with a pistol. The premise of the play revolves around the relationships between characters and the missed opportunities of each individual. The play’s resolution leaves many unanswered questions and is a reflection of the larger themes that Chekhov explored within most of his writing. The exploration of the premise helps give way to understanding the larger themes of the play.
Finally, a third and fourth read-through can explore the characters themselves. Ideally, this exploration would take place over five or more readings. It is these later read-throughs where the specifics of the relationships begin to crystalize in the actor’s mind and questions of character can be explored. In Vanya’s case, an actor might first wonder: Why is the play named after him? What function does Vanya fill? What do others say about the character? What does the character say about himself?
In these readings the actor can deduce what is said about Vanya and what Vanya says about himself. Astroff calls Vanya a clown and asserts that he is not insane. Sonia calls him dear and Yelena repeatedly asks him to stop looking at her. In the first part of the play (translation by Stark Young), Vanya says, “If I had had a normal life, God knows what I might have become.” After the attempted murder he says (translation by Brian Friel), “I’m ashamed. If you knew how ashamed I am. I am forty-seven years old; if- suppose I’ll live till sixty- if so I still have thirteen years left. That long! How shall I live through that 13 years? What will I do, what will I fill them with?” (Chekhov, Uncle Vanya)
From the actor’s personal neutral, they can read the play and separate out what is said about the character by others and what the character says about themselves and the other characters. Ultimately, the actor is looking for the identity of the character. Then the actor can objectively, humanly, begin to develop the specific POV.
Vanya talks about life passing him by and expresses that he did not live to his full potential. His POV on the others stems from the meaning they have within this world view. Indeed, after witnessing Astroff and Yelena kissing and then his own failed attempt at killing the professor, he is so desperate that he steals a bottle of morphine from Astroff and says he wants to end his life. That journey can mean many things, but the POV the actor works from must be meaningfully powerful in nature so that it may serve the arch of the performance. (It may even change, though world views rarely do in art or real life.)
Armed with information and research, the actor can begin to craft a first-person, simple, specific phrase on the world. This phrase can then spill into the POV the actor has on every other character. If the POV on the world is that it has almost lost all meaning, then for Vanya, Yelena can become the one person who gives the world meaning. She is the reason for breath and life, perhaps. How much more devastating is it then when Vanya’s purpose for living is so destroyed and betrayed? This text work is helpful because it is more than simple homework that answers basic questions of dramatic structure. The POV forces the actor to personalize the circumstances into a meaningful phrase that can then be owned by while playing actions to get objectives. The actor must find a specific world POV for the character. This POV may change if the character experiences a crisis or transformation of sorts. From this world POV, the actor can then begin to determine specific POVs for each character they encounter and for individual situations or objects that have significant meaning. Like the world POV, these individual POVs may change due to the events of the play. In my own work, I have found this textual analysis and character/POV exploration particularly helpful. As a teacher and coach this work has been easily transferable across mediums and is a clear way to make relationship real to the actor.
How POV is Useful for the Actor
In the Theatre
I have found that this exploration of POV work is best done before the first rehearsal as a part of the actor’s research. It undoubtedly will need adjusting and further exploration. However, once utilized, it connects the actor to the work and to the other characters. The POV also unlocks the objectives and what is at stake for the actor as they approach the role because it has already connected the actor to the world of the play and what is at stake if they do not get their need met. It also allows for the actor to connect to the role in a thoughtful and organic way because it does ultimately come from something the actor has created as a personal means of connection to the work. The POV stays malleable for the purpose of fitting within the director’s vision and the world of the play.
Beyond the Theatre
Like the theatre, this approach is great when preparing for work within the mediums of film and television. Point of view is helpful particularly for auditioning because it can remain flexible and allow the actor to play and make adjustments when asked. I realized the effectiveness of this technique after being told repeatedly in auditions that I was able to take directions so well. In my mind, I was simply following the instructions and making tweaks to the POV. My tactics and actions could follow the point of view and how I listened could be informed by the point of view. After being complemented for being “directable” by a casting director I knew well, I responded that I was just doing my job. The casting director shared that being directable should be the job of the actor, but often things fell apart when adjustments are given. We must give actors tools that help them remain flexible when training for the breakneck pace of production in the 21st century.
In television, I have found the POV on the other person to be an effective place to start the work. An actress who finds herself playing the type of “young wife and mom” in commercials and sitcoms, may have a go-to point of view on the husband. These archetypal roles are formulaic; the cute, whip-smart wife of the schlubby, funny, working-class husband. Almost always in television, relationships are goldmines for the actor. They are full of behavior and reaction that can flow freely when playing and improvising. A POV on her husband can become the world POV for the character and shape all of the other POVs. This main POV on the husband can be tweaked as needed. If he is “an adorable puppy dog, who is cute and fun, but will pee on the carpet and chew up your shoe without proper discipline and boundaries,” that gives a clear, specific basis for playing a scene with said husband, but also informs the world of the wife and how she relates to the other characters. There must always be a heroic perspective and there must always be love, even after the husband has made a mistake for the one-hundredth time. If love is absent, the audience does not care about the wife because the wife does not care about her husband.
Likewise, in what I would consider a lower-stakes situation, like a commercial, the actor must have a POV on everything that occurs in the scene. Having a clear POV on the product or situation, frees the actor up to improvise the scenario in a specific way that will be fun to play and unique. With an effort towards truth and impulsivity, the POV can work as a short cut, though it should never be employed as a sole technique, but simply a piece of an integrated technique that serves the individual actor.
What Broader Purpose Does POV Serve?
I have encountered very few limitations within the POV work. Perhaps the area where it requires more effort for me as the teacher is where the student is earlier in their development of self-awareness or perhaps when the student has specific opinions about the world that limit their ability for empathy or a heroic perspective. Once, when working with a student on Romeo, he expressed that he had never been in love before. The extent of his dramatic imagination on love was limited to his parents’ marriage and what he had seen in movies. He had a jaded view of love and romance and had a difficult time not judging Romeo. Likewise, when working on Trojan Women, the actor playing Helen could not keep from judging Helen and playing an idea of sexy. When actors judge the character or are married to a specific idea, finding a POV that is freeing becomes impossible. However, once the actor fully realizes the limitations of these unhelpful opinions or ideas and can give over fully to a POV, the results are thrilling.
As a coach, I can introduce POV to the actor with success regardless of their training background. More inexperienced actors have struggled with typical habits, but the POV exercises were often instrumental in breaking up line readings, getting them to really listen and helping them to play actions in a more embodied way. Perhaps an actor has the habit of smiling through the pain. The root of this is often tension or self-consciousness. However, if the actor is able to find a POV that connects them to the scene (a simple phrase that they can repeat in their head and that takes them to a place of connection), the smile relaxes and the actor can begin to really hear from the POV they have assumed. The actor can also then respond with more specific choices.
Within a Meisner training program, the most effective time to introduce the Point of View work is after the student has completed the Independent Activities in the arc of the Meisner pedagogy. Students at my institution completed the Meisner Independent Activities and have a brief introduction to monologue and scene study working from the idea of labeling their other while playing actions and having clear objectives. The students then spend a semester studying Stanislavski’s system, particularly actions and intentions. Only after these building blocks are discovered and explored, do I introduce the Point of View, and utilize the Essential Action as it is outlined as a part of the Practical Aesthetics in The Practical Handbook for the Actor (Bruder, Cohn and Olnek), as another way to approach the action and objective.
This methodology is fairly successful and the students’ outcomes and self-perceptions of their progress have been excellent. When teaching in a training program, I tend to focus on their ability to execute the singular principles of Action, Need, and POV individually, while encouraging them to allow the principles to build on one another. In my experience, certain things assimilate more easily than others for each individual. However, through utilizing POV as the means by which the process is stitched together, I have found that students were able to make more specific choices and reach a place of freedom for exploration more quickly once they found an effective POV. As a coach, I still work with the actor to find the best POV for their circumstance. Depending on the level of experience and ability, and the strength of the actor’s personal technique, my involvement can vary. Because this work is often done for auditions with a very quick turn-around, the POV can become like a band aid, which makes teaching within a training program where the emphasis is on training more fulfilling and desirable as an educator.
The identification of an effective POV, while very simple, takes time and must go through a battery of trial and error. While this can become frustrating, those actors who are disciplined in their efforts will experience effective, playable outcomes. POV often brings about the “Aha!” moments students so desire. I had one student who was emotionally and mentally locked up in a class. I could see that she had ability, but she was also very bright and very good at talking herself in circles. We walked through a scene she had been given and it was not working, but she had what seemed like a very effective POV. As we worked, she kept her POV in third person as she was describing her process. When she moved that POV into first person, something dropped in for her. We went back to the scene and it was transformed. She was transformed because the work, now personalized and connected, brought her to a place where she could listen and respond truthfully.
This is just one example, of many, where students have found an easier way into their process in class. They have also experienced success in their professional endeavors. When auditioning for summer theatre and professional festivals this year, students reported more positive outcomes in their audition processes by using the POV work. Beyond getting the job, many actors say the POV work enabled them to focus more on the work at hand, rather than getting the job, which allowed them to live truthfully under the given circumstances and to remain in the moment.
For the actor, POV is a necessary conversation to explore the ways in which the playwright’s story is told. As creative artists, POV becomes more necessary as a means to explore and promote empathy toward others. In the current climate, where technology is rapidly advancing, I believe artists will increasingly bear the weight of promoting empathy without judgment to audiences. To explore character without judgment, with an eye to truly understand so that we can tell the story and serve the intention of the playwright, remains a clear and solid purpose for theatre artists.
This POV approach continues to find value with others as I promote the tools explored throughout this article. I have begun to share this work with those in the Social Sciences who are interested in using the approach to explore empathy and personal bias, and those in the field of History who are interested in researching and dissecting the points of view of specific historical subjects. More than ever, the lessons I continue to learn from POV work reinforce the need for empathy and understanding in a world spun with populism and divisions. The longer I spend with this approach, the more I experience its connections to other areas of interest within the academy and without. Continuing this exploration in the arts and using it as a point of connection to our community is a bridge worth building. It creates a place where artists can bring others to the table, while securing their place in the conversation.
Bruder, Melissa, et al. A Practical Handbook for the Actor. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.
Chekhov, Anton. Uncle Vanya. Trans. Brian Friel. London: The Gallery Press, 1998.
Chekhov, Anton. Uncle Vanya. Trans. Stark Young. New York: The Modern Library, 1956.
Meisner, Sanford and Dennis Longwell. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: A Vintage Original, 1987.
Stanislavski, Konstantin. An Actor's Work. Ed. Jen Benedetti. Trans. Jean Benedetti. New York: Routledge, 2008;2010.
i In the Meisner Technique, the scene partner is often referred to as the “other” and is regarded as the most important person on stage for the actor. Because of the social and political inferences of the term “other”, I have changed the phrase to “other character” for the purposes of this article. Each practitioner is encouraged to make the concept of the person sharing the stage with the actor into a term that is meaningful to their own process.