Taking the first thing:
This is one of the first lessons in the Meisner class and introduces the basics of The Repeat Exercise, which is the foundation of The Meisner Technique.
How does it work?
Two actors A and B sit opposite each other. Actor A turns away from B and when instructed turns to face B saying “the first thing” they notice about that actor. Actor B listens and instantly repeats what they hear, actor A listens and instantly repeats back, B then listens and repeats and so on…
Throughout the process this develops into improvisations encouraging open, honest and instinctive interaction between two characters.
It is important at this stage that the actor does not come up with an opinion about that other person, like commenting on what their partner maybe thinking or feeling, but sticks to physical observations: For example, “green shirt”, “red hair”, “hands on lap” or “you have big eyes”.
The reason for this is so to encourage the actor to develop his/her ability to really listen to the other person using their eyes as well as their ears. They also are encouraged to stay out of their head and not censor their responses.
Working instinctively like this means that through the repeat exercise various emotions will be experienced by the actors. For example the actors may experience boredom from doing four minutes of the repeat, they may find something their partner said amusing so feel the urge to laugh, frustration or anger because of what has been said and sometimes fear of the exercise itself.
Fear of the exercise:
Naturally actors will be scared of what they might say to another actor if they are asked to speak without censoring themselves. We are told by teachers and parents to “think before we speak” from an early age, so naturally the actor will fear the worst if they are being encouraged to break this habit and if not monitored the actor can become obsessed with this fear.
This has to be handled very carefully by teachers and actors who are starting out in The Meisner Technique. It is during these early stages that everyone must commit to the exercise. Genuinely take the first thing you see, then listen and repeat and most importantly Stay out of your heads!” By this I mean that the actor should focus all their attention on their partner and stop thinking about him/herself.
If the actor trusts this process they will never say anything hurtful to their partners. They may say things their partners may not like or that may embarrass them but to be hurtful requires intent, which in turn requires you to be in your own head. If an actor is not focusing on the exercise through a fear of what they may say or any other reason then they will try to fake it and this is where the problems occur.
Remember at this stage of your work that it is easier the to attack another person than to compliment them. If you understand why this is then you can address the problem.
Why is this?
Because attacking someone leaves the actor still in control and safe in the knowledge that they cannot be taken advantage of. To be nice to another person leaves you open to attack so is hard for a lot of people to do.
I do make it clear from the start that taking the first thing when looking at someone does not mean being nasty. The thing is when the actor fears what they might say they tend to become obsessed with this, which means they are too much in their heads censoring and second-guessing their responses. The exercise then becomes about being able to say what you feel you shouldn’t say rather than genuinely looking at the person opposite and “taking the first thing.”
If an actor for whatever reason is not committing to the work as instructed then they tend to demonstrate what they believe the Meisner is about without putting themselves at any risk. Unfortunately that can be (and often is) at the expense of another actor.
This has to be monitored, as it is dangerous for the actor and irresponsible of the teacher to allow this to happen. If you see this happening in a group then address it immediately. If after a group discussion an actor still chooses to cheat the exercise then talk with them privately, express your concerns and introduce the idea that maybe Meisner is not for them. Don’t force anyone into doing what he or she doesn’t want to do or not ready to do. There are plenty of other techniques and acting strategies out there and Meisner is not for everyone.