Philippa Strandberg-Long is passionate about the Meisner technique and will share this with us when she visits Luxembourg 28-29 January to offer a Meisner weekend workshop. NWTC interviewed Philippa and found out how she became a director and her belief in the power of using Meisner when acting.
What is your earliest recollection of theatre?
My earliest memory of going to the theatre and watching a show was in Stockholm, where I grew up, it was a classic Swedish folk tale performed for children. However, my earliest memory of going to the theatre and seeing something that in some ways led to my life being dedicated to this path, was the play Angels in America. I was 15 years old and the play (which is 7 hours long) was on at the National Stage in Stockholm. The play and the performances had such an intense effect on me, I went back twice to see the full-length production. The characterizations and the staging and the pure fantastical moments it offered mesmerized me. It had a profound impact on me choosing this profession.
What led you to a career in directing and teaching theatre?
I started out as an actress; I believed that was what I wanted to do. I went to drama school both in Stockholm and later in London. However in both places I was always fascinated by the rehearsals in general, not just for my scenes. I used to hang around and watch the director working with the other actors, and I would have images in my head of how I would stage something or what I would want the actors to discover.
Shortly after Drama school I started assisting other directors both in the Fringe, in Drama Schools and in the West End. Seeing how it worked in the big theatres – not a lot of time was spent on the small details of the rehearsal process and the relationship between the actors, I knew that was my strength and what I enjoyed. I decided to do a Masters degree in actor training to solidify my knowledge as an actor and director towards being able to teach it.
What inspires you in your work?
Relationships and people in general. I find human beings incredibly interesting and the psychology involved in human interaction. It’s what fires me up when I watch it on stage and equally on screen. Emotions that are being provoked for real by someone or something are incredibly engaging.
Is there a particular genre of theatre you are drawn to?
I am most excited by naturalist relationship dramas, due to my fascination with human interaction. The first play I ever directed was an Ingmar Bergman film, which I transcribed into a theatre play when I was 18. It was very relationship and dialogue heavy. I love dialogue, because people may say one thing and their interaction might say something else – that is where the actor’s creativity comes into play. The subtext and every detail of the relationship that plays out between the actors in a dialogue. I find it fascinating and exciting.
When did you first come across the Meisner technique and what is it that drives your passion for this approach?
I first came across it in my last year of Drama school in London. After that I decided to take classes outside of drama school and subsequently focus on the technique as the foundation of my Master’s Degree in actor training. My passion for the technique is driven by me myself having been very head-bound as an actress before discovering the technique. By head-bound I mean someone who would plan and overthink my decisions on stage, think “as the actress” rather than the character, while I was on stage. This technique freed me, I found a way to experiment and play with the interaction and not just did it become more fun, it became so much more alive and truthful. As a director and teacher I see the difference it makes to actors and how powerful it can be. Of course, since I thrive on the interaction and communication aspects of theatre and acting, this is the perfect technique to emphasize this as it focuses on the other person, rather than yourself.
What would you hope that people take away from the weekend workshop?
A new perspective on working on stage/screen. I want them to come away from the class having understood where the next stage of the technique can take you. The exercises can feel awkward in the beginning and the actors might go through a short phase of feeling higher levels of self-consciousness than before, however this is part of the training. Meisner technique is a process that slowly trains our minds to change our perception and attention outwards rather than know ourselves – it’s not a quick fix. I hope that this weekend will give the actors a glimmer of what the practice can do, putting the attention on another person can be very freeing in an acting situation!
You are a teacher, director and also a student (studying for a PhD in Meisner technique and Cognition) – what do you like about each aspect of these?
As a director I like being part of the whole story – not just my scenes, but the impression the audience will have of the play in its entirety, what the playwright wanted to communicate through me and the cast. I enjoy collaborating with actors and love when they surprise me with things I didn’t even know I wanted! I enjoy seeing each moment fitting together creating a lasting impression on the spectators with a clear message.
As a teacher I love helping the actors reach their full potential. All people are different, and in saying that, all actors are different, they all need individual attention and for a teacher to discover what makes them tick. I enjoy getting to know my students and helping them flourish through finding their own voice and instinct. I can be tough on them, but that’s because I always want them to do as well as they can.
Going back to university to do a PhD is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. A PhD is not taught, it’s reliant on me alone and my research into something that not yet exists, sometimes it’s hard to motivate yourself in that environment – interspersing my studies with the teaching of the technique definitely helps that aspect. I very much enjoy finding out more about the psychology behind Meisner training and I believe the findings are of great importance for the preservation, as well as the development, of the technique. I’m just honoured that I have been trusted to do that work.