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Acting Zen 

Sanford Meisner's master class lives on in next generation of actors


Award-winning actor Jim Jarrett began teaching the craft of acting almost as soon as he started to act himself, but as he tells it, teaching was never his goal. It was his own teacher, the legendary late acting coach Sanford Meisner, who informed Jarrett that he would be a teacher, whether he saw himself that way or not.

"Sandy saw something in me early on," Jarrett explains, recalling his first class learning the Meisner Technique under the man for whom the characteristically intense acting methodology was named. "So he had me assist or mentor—call it what you want—he had me work with the students from his first-year classes. But again, I never had designs on being a teacher. In fact, all the way up to the final day in Sandy's class I thought that was it, that was the end of my 'class time' with Sandy. We all lined up to say our thank yous and goodbyes, and when it was my turn, I was quite emotional. As I tried to gather myself, he said, 'Relax. I'm not done with you. Next, you'll study with me so that when you're ready to teach, you'll know what the hell you're doing.'"

Admittedly shocked, Jarrett says this wasn't what he'd expected his fabled teacher to say at that point in his budding acting career. In response, he said, "Sandy, I don't want to teach. I just want to act."

"And then," Jarrett says, "Sandy answered, 'You'll have to teach. You'll have no choice. Do you know why?' I shook my head, 'No,' and he said, 'You'll see.' What he meant, I think, was that he'd recognized that I had a very deep respect for the craft of acting. I cared passionately about what good acting, good film and good theater could do, so he felt it was inevitable that I would have to teach."

Jarrett spent the next four years mentoring under Meisner, and has been teaching ever since, sandwiching classes in between acting gigs all around the world. He is spending August in Scotland, performing his one-man show Vincent to sold-out audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As a teacher, Jarrett is among the few acting coaches specifically appointed to teach the Meisner Technique, though Jarrett has in turn anointed others to carry on the craft.

Though based in Utah, Jarrett has, in recent years, established the Meisner Technique School of Acting, with ongoing classes in San Francisco and, starting this fall, a second round of classes in Santa Rosa, where he ran a class two years ago. Apparently, over 20 years after being hauled, kicking and screaming, into the world of teaching, Jarrett can now say he teaches because he enjoys it.

"Sandy was right, I don't have a choice," he says. "It's an honor to help anyone who truly cares about the craft of acting, to help anyone with their dream of becoming an actor."

Dan Saski, currently appearing in Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival's Taming of the Shrew and about to appear in the Narrow Way Stage Co.'s world premiere of Dan Farley's Darryl Come Home, is one of Jarrett's former students, and he praises the experience as among the most important—and, yes, "useful"—education experiences of his life.

"Jim's Meisner class is simply the best, most professional training I have ever received," he says. "I have never worked so hard and learned so much about the craft of acting."

Jarrett, who quotes Meisner the way some people quote the Bible, is an adherent of the master's conviction that an actor should never stop studying, and that no level of professional success should make an actor feel they are "beyond" needing additional training.

Says Jarrett, "Sandy once said, 'Actors are the laziest segment of the artistic profession. They should be in constant training, and they should work, as other artists, to maintain their fitness for their art. But most actors don't want to do that. They just want to be stars.'"

Simply put, the Meisner Technique is a philosophy of training that goes in the opposite direction of the Method training developed in the early part of the 20th century by Lee Strassberg, with whom Meisner himself once studied.

"Sandy eventually developed a very practical, applicable process to train the actor to be able to work in any medium and, as he said, 'to call yourself an actor and have it truly mean something,'" explains Jarrett. "He didn't say that to be arrogant, but because when you finished studying with him you were a craftsman. You knew how to consistently produce truthful, believable work independent of him.

"Sandy taught acting for 65 years," he continues. "The foundation to his approach never wavered. The foundation is this: before anything believable, connected, authentic or organic can happen onstage, the actor must be present. For that to happen, they must get out of their heads and put their focus and attention on the most important thing, the other actor. From this very simple principle, Sandy created the Meisner Technique, basically a series of exercises to get actors out of their heads and in the present moment."

Sounds like the Zen of acting, and Jarrett says that's not far from the truth. In fact, a lot of what Meisner said about acting bears a strong resemblance to certain Zen koans, puzzling statements meant to inspire one to reflect deeply on important matters.

"The Meisner Technique of acting," Jarrett says, "is about not acting, and instead, being authentic. Sandy would say, 'How does it feel to be in an acting class where no acting is allowed?' And that's what this work does. It strips away all artifice in the actor's instrument. Actors who are properly trained in the Meisner Technique don't act, they don't fake, they don't push, they don't give more than they've got. Their work is 'believable,' a big word for an actor."

Jarrett says he is looking forward to beginning new classes, since the last time he taught here ranks as one of his favorite teaching experiences.

"I can honestly say that the class in Santa Rosa last year was the single greatest class I've ever had the pleasure of teaching," he says. "It was a remarkable class. Everyone was so dedicated, committed and open. And a year later, I'm extremely proud of what they're all doing with it. They've gotten to work and made quite a ripple in a very short time, both in the Bay Area and beyond. And two of them—Melissa Thompson Esaia and Eric Burke—have been so dedicated, so impressive and so committed that they are now on staff and teaching at my school."

Ultimately, Jarrett believes that his work could have a profound impact on a local theater scene that is already heating up to be a place where actors can learn and perform quality work.

"I just spent a month in Edinburgh, Scotland," Jarrett says, "at what is the largest theater extravaganza in the world, and there were over 2,800 shows every day, and I'll tell you, Edinburgh's very cool, but based on what I've seen in the North Bay over the last couple of years, I'd much rather live and work in Santa Rosa any day."

For information on the Meisner Technique School of Acting and Jim Jarrett's free upcoming orientation classes, Sept. 1&–2, go to

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