Over the past three Monday mornings, Providence Christian College welcomed guest instructors Bryan Crossan and Amy Knutson to offer some introductory acting workshops for the cast of our upcoming fall production, Jean Anouilh’s modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. Each instructor is from a different school of thought on the method of acting, but both brought a cohesive Christian ethic to their presentation of the craft.
Brian Crossan, who received his MFA in acting at Florida State University, headed up the first two sessions. He gave the participants a working knowledge of the Meisner technique which he studied at Playhouse West, an acting school here in California founded by Jeff Goldblum. The Meisner technique can be summed up in William Shakespeare’s own words, as spoken by Laertes in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” The only difference between an actor and his character, in other words, is their backgrounds and circumstances. This does not mean the actor becomes the character, as is the case with method acting. Crossan emphasized the important distinction between empathy and sympathy with one’s character in order to avoid trouble stepping out of the role.
Amy Knutson graduated from Covenant College with a degree in theater and cast Max Belz, Providence Admissions Counselor, in the main role for her senior directorial debut, Rope. She has been heavily involved in theater ever since and now works here in Los Angeles, CA, for The Unusual Suspects Theater Company, a non-profit mentor program that works with at-risk youth. Although Knutson has a great deal of respect for the internalized Meisner Technique, her own technique is based on a more externally driven method called Viewpoints. This technique is based on the idea that physical actions associated with a certain emotion can elicit said emotional responses. Learning this method begins with exercises on a grid of masking tape that help actors explore the varying factors of their physical movements. At some points the actors zig-zagged across the grid while learning the difference between tempo and duration in each step, and at other times they gathered in a clump to experience how placement on stage in relation to other actors impacts the relationships between their characters.
The students learned the basics of breathing properly onstage, having good posture without straining, and warming up the “five reeds” of the vocal instrument (throat, soft pallet, jaw, lips, and tongue). Each cast member threw themselves unflinchingly into whatever task they were given, including imitating what animal they associated with their character and shouting “Let Zeke be!” to the other side of the room. In so doing, the cast made some great discoveries about the physicality of their characters and the relationships between characters. Junior Ellen Avants discovered that the nurse whom she plays in Antigone corresponds best to a koala, while junior Evelyn Vane came up with a battle horse for the animal equivalent of the title role.
Through the three acting workshops, the Antigone cast was able to get a taste of two very different approaches to acting while learning the common basics behind both. However, each instructor encouraged the students to decide what was helpful from each method and to make it their own. Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is an especial favorite theatrical piece of Crossan and Knutson’s. Both are eager to see what will become of it in the hands of Providence’s drama association for this November’s production.