The Actors Centre

The Bubble of Belief

17 July 2015

Acting: living truthfully under given circumstances

When teaching in Paris a while ago, one of the actors - a genial fellow named Bertrand Quoniam - said this phrase and it caught my ear: “the bubble of belief.”

We were talking about Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting. Most likely, you know it. Whenever I introduce it to an actor for the first time, I always feel a little thrill of pleasure: it’s so perfect, so complete, so “on message.” Here it is:

“Acting”, according to Sanford Meisner, “is living truthfully under a given set of circumstances.”

If you give that definition a moment’s thought, perhaps you’ll agree with me that it’s the absolute and total identification of what you think makes for good acting. We could even break it down:

“Living Truthfully”

I was teaching a class for the great Mark Wing-Davey when he ran the London Actors Centre some time ago. (Mark is now the Chairman of the Graduate Acting Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.) He observed a three-hour session, and finally at the end of it, couldn’t hold back his frustration any longer. “Scott,” he said, “I sit here and I hear you say ‘living truthfully’ and I look around at everyone nodding in agreement, but isn’t it just the same as saying ‘I hate war’ - so general and without any real meaning?” A great point, I thought, for my work mustn’t devolve down to mere jargon if it is to have any value. I said to Mark, “I think I can define what I mean by ‘living truthfully’: it’s an impulsive response to a clearly observed moment of behaviour.” That seemed to answer his question.

“A Given Set of Circumstances”

When I was studying with Meisner, he would sometimes say “…an imaginary set of circumstances,” and sometimes “…a given set of circumstances” and sometimes even “…an imaginary given set…” He used the terms interchangeably. After many years of frustration in my teaching, I finally realized that I was confusing my students by mixing those two terms, and I stopped using the first (and arguably more famous) construction. Because the moment I use the word “imaginary” actors disappear down a rabbit hole. Their eyes glaze over, they stare into the middle distance and they leave the one place I think they need to be: the present moment.

And Meisner didn’t mean the actors’ imagination anyway. He was working with an actor once the actor working on a scene. As the actor stared out a window in the classroom in the middle of the scene, Meisner stopped the work and asked the actor, “what do you see.” The actor staring out the window said, “I see the Alps, there’s a little skier going down the hill, the snow is falling…” Meisner walked over to the window, looked out and then back at the actor. “I see bricks,” he said.

So when that phrase, “the bubble of belief” was spoken in the class I was reminded that the distinctive characteristic of Meisner’s work is its involvement in the present moment. If you’re all wrapped up in the heavy effort of believing – which is a lot of work by the way – you are less engaged with the quicksilver of the moment itself. And therefore less able to… wait for it… live truthfully.

I don’t expect actors to believe in anything. I want them to live in circumstances. My phrase to illustrate that is this: “fish don’t believe in water, they swim in it.”

In my work, when you act you aren’t engaging in a process of believing. Let’s pop that ‘bubble of belief.’ You should see bricks. Or, if you prefer, have a lovely swim.

Scott Williams - Tutor at the Actors Centre and founder of Impulse Company