Actor, author, director and filmmaker J.J. Ruscella, M.F.A., assistant professor of theatre/acting and director of Shenandoah Conservatory’s new acting program, and his artistic colleagues are on a mission. That mission — and they choose to accept it — is to build the pre-eminent Sanford Meisner technique-based undergraduate acting program in the United States, and perhaps the world, to prepare professional working actors as versatile storytellers, adept at adapting their craft to any medium in any industry.
The new program, poised to become one of the top realism programs in the country, is built on the strengths of its eclectic, innovative faculty and the conservatory’s long-standing reputation as one of the top musical theater programs in the country. The curriculum integrates the realism of the Meisner technique — considered the next generation model for method acting and the preferred technique for film and television — with video and new media technologies to prepare graduates to get good-paying jobs and build working careers as professional actors. In addition to learning the skills for authentic acting, students also gain the knowledge needed to self-produce and promote themselves.
“We’re preparing professional actors to work — in live performance and across a wide range of media — as creative artists, not passively waiting around for the next job, but capable of creating their own art and their own opportunities,” said Ruscella.
The Meisner Technique
The Meisner technique is a behavior-based method, originally created and later refined by American theatre practitioner Sanford Meisner, who developed the approach after working with renowned acting coaches Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre. Meisner served as head of the acting program at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse founded in 1931. His approach taught that by reacting to the other people on stage, an actor’s performance would be more honest and, therefore, more interesting for the audience.
“When we tell a story, whether it’s onstage or in front of the camera, we’re hopefully expressing those apex moments of life, when we have our most profound experiences,” explained Ruscella. “For artists to convey that, they must learn to play themselves like an instrument, to know their chords — almost as if they were a trumpet. To play the notes well, they need to tap into an understanding of where to go to bring forth the truth of that experience.”
This step-by-step method, which takes several years to learn, introduces a series of interdependent training exercises that build on one another and emphasize in-the-moment authenticity. Through communication with other actors, students learn to generate behavior that is real rather than a pretense.
‘Nuts and Bolts’ of the Program
“When young artists come to study with us, we treat them like novices,” explained Ruscella. “We teach them how to breathe and speak, as if they never knew how to breathe and speak before. In the second year, we treat them as apprentices. We teach them how to mold the clay. In their third year, they become journeymen. They begin to build and create very crafted performances, including Shakespearean and period pieces. In their junior year, they begin acting in front of the camera and might consider a semester of study abroad. By their senior year, we consider them adepts. They become members of a professional troupe, producing a touring show and making a feature film. In their last semester of their senior year, they take their show to a major metropolitan city.”
In addition to training students how to use and perform in front of a camera, students also interact with casting directors across various entertainment genres from New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., who visit campus to observe and give professional advice as students develop their professional portfolios.
“Our goal is to build Goliaths — actors who are powerful, courageous, confident and whole,” Ruscella explained.
While co-creating the new curriculum, Ruscella and the acting faculty aligned their new program — as well as their textbooks — with one of the most widely published Meisner experts in the world: internationally renowned actor, author, director and True Acting Institute master teacher Larry Silverberg. He has also written a series of textbooks on acting, including the renowned four-book series, the “Sanford Meisner Approach,” widely considered the primary source for training actors at studios worldwide. In addition to writing and teaching workshops, he runs his own company, the True Acting Institute.
Last spring, Ruscella invited Silverberg to teach a masterclass with his sophomore acting students. Silverberg returned to campus this August as the honored guest speaker for Shenandoah Conservatory’s Convocation.
He also delivered the first of three masterclasses he will teach as a visiting master teacher this academic year.
“I’m here to be a full participant in the building of this absolutely rare, extraordinary center for helping young students fulfill the craft of acting, fulfill their own desires [and fulfill] their hunger to be more adept,” said Silverberg. “My vision [for Shenandoah] is to become the center of the Meisner work and authentic acting that really represents a new generation in actor training.”
“To me, the Meisner technique is the most organic, healthy and human means of reinvigorating a person’s natural ability to be fully involved, fully engaged, fully attentive and fully in communion with the world around them,” said Silverberg. “Each step in the technique lays a foundation for something that’s coming ahead.”
While the newly developed program “officially” launches next fall, current acting students are already learning their craft within the new curricular model.