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When Meisner is not enough…

A student writing a research paper in the UK recently presented me with some provocative interview questions, including the following:

How can acting techniques such as Meisner be translated into acting through song? Can you explain the objectives of the SAVI technique? How does it differ from other techniques and is it applicable to all styles of musical theatre song ie, operetta, to golden age, to rock musical?

The phrase “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is a direct quote from Sanford Meisner, but my experience is that this pedagogical approach by itself is not sufficient to the singing actor’s training needs. I have observed that students capable of success at living truthfully under imaginary circumstances can still be incapable of crafting successful performances in plays and musicals, and I set out trying to figure out what it what else it was they were lacking.

I named the four key attributes that the acronym SAVI refers to – specificity, authenticity, variety and intensity – after considering over a considerable period of time what what else was missing that kept them from crafting successful performances. In addition to being truthful (an elusive concept in itself and one subject to a wide range of interpretations), the performer must also be able to make choices which are specific to the dramatic circumstances and that vary in response to the changing circumstances of the drama. In addition, I observed that students needed to have the ability to create a greater intensity as singing actors that they might otherwise be called upon to create in non-singing repertoire. Though the study of Meisner/s technique is highly effective in cultivating authenticity – enabling students to “sing their truth,” if you will – the SAVI technique provide some tools and strategies for achieving greater specificity, variety and intensity.

SAVI promotes the idea that the singing actor’s job is to “create behavior that communicates the dramatic event phrase by phrase.” This, as you’ll see, is substantially different from Meisner’s “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The SAVI singing actor takes an active approach to the notion of “creating behavior” – it’s not something that magically or providentially occurs, but is crafted or authored by the performer, with painstaking “phrase by phrase” detail.

It is a short step from the idea of “creating behavior” to the notion that different musicals from different eras require different “behavior vocabularies,” a term that can incorporate physical behavior, social mores and manners, and even vocal behaviors (like the use of “vocal dirt” as a gritty signifier of truth in contemporary musicals which would be wildly inappropriate in an upperclass nineteenth century milieu). In my studio, students study the “behavior vocabularies” of different eras as they explore the repertoire of those eras.

What’s your experience? Did the Meisner technique give you everything you needed to be a successful actor? Leave a comment below.