Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Jarrett exposes Meisner

Play sheds light on important profession

Express Staff Writer

Jim Jarrett as Sanford Meisner. Courtesy photo

Acting teacher Sanford Meisner imparted an essential bit of advice to his students: To be an effective actor one must master "living truthfully in imaginary circumstances," i.e. the stage or screen.

What, one wonders, would Sandy, as he was known to his friends, students and fans, think of the play "an experience with Sanford Meisner" developed, written and preformed by his one time student, actor Jim Jarrett. After all, the imaginary circumstances Jarrett portrays in the play are based on words and lessons that came directly from Meisner.

Meisner was a member of the first American contemporary theatre ensemble, the Group Theatre, in New York during the 1930s and 40s. He eventually left to join the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he would re-imagine Konstantin Stanislavsky's Method into something that became known as the Meisner Technique. It was all about producing honest human reactions on the stage and making it believable. He remained until his death in 1997 one of the most highly regarded acting teachers in the business, along with the likes of Lee Strasberg, Herbert Berghoff and Stella Adler.

Among his most successful students are actors Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Gregory Peck, Peter Falk, John Voight and Mary Steenburgen, as well as the directors David Mamet and Sydney Lumet.

Steenburgen once said that Meisner "defines what the word teacher means." Voight claimed he was "tough as nails," and director Mark Rydell said "he opened the door to the world of art and gently pushed one through."

"I feel really blessed," Jarrett, a working actor who lives in the Wood River Valley, said. "I owe everything I have to Sandy. The things he said, personal things, what was important and how the theater is a remarkable place."

Over the course of two years studying with Meisner he transcribed 1,500 hours of instruction, word for word. One cannot overstate how important good teachers are in life. A good teacher can make or break a career.

"I am an actor who somehow makes a living doing theatre," Jarrett said. He remains amazed at his own personal journey. Meisner took him under his wing and, after two years, he became the master's assistant and with his blessing a teacher of the Meisner technique. Jarrett has spent the past several years touring with the one man play "Vincent."

While in Manila at the International Theater Festival in 2000, he was the keynote speaker on what were theater's great influences. It was a revelation, he recalled. He realized that the experience of sitting at the feet of a great teacher was also a worthy subject for a full-length theater piece.

"Most people have no idea what goes on in a legitimate acting class. It's such an incredible experience," Jarrett said. "That's what happens when people see it. It captures the essence of being in a class with Sandy."

Currently, he markets the show to art centers, colleges and high schools, but his near future plans include a possible tour to London and Europe later this year. But there's a catch, he admits. "How do you get people to come to a show about someone they've never heard of, even though they've heard of his former students.

"I am one branch removed. It's from a pure source; I had his blessing and was personally taught by him to teach. But it's not a play just for actors. My criteria were to give people the experience of what it was to be around this remarkable man. It transcends the topic."

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