Shaun Benson: Meisner Technique & Life as an Actor

Sailfin Sessions

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Hayley Butler

In the Sailfin Sessions, the team behind Sailfin Productions chat to talented professionals in the entertainment industry to bring you exclusive interviews and behind the scenes content. We’ll be exploring the stories of actors, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and more!   

Today we spoke with the incredible Shaun Benson who shared a ton of great info with us about the Meisner Technique, acting classes and living a meaningful life as a working actor. 

If you don't have a life that's full and matters away from acting, the second the acting isn't phenomenal, your sense of self is diminished. If you get smaller every time you don't get hired, because it's all that matters to you, that is the biggest pitfall of all.

Shaun’s passion for acting blossomed while attending the University of Western Ontario for a biochemistry degree. He’d spend 40+ hours a week working in the science lab, then head to a dance show. His love for ballet and modern dance soon led him down the path of theatre performance.

After dropping out of the theatre program he attended at George Brown, Shaun booked a lead role in a law series called “The Associates”.  His career has continued to thrive over the years with almost 70 acting credits to his name.

Shaun branched into directing in  2015 with the film “Barn Wedding” and presently teaches Meisner acting classes in Toronto, Ontario. 

The Meisner Technique is an acting tool Shaun deeply believes in. This technique was developed by a man named Sanford Meisner. He was a contemporary that worked in The Group Theatre with Elia Kazan, Stella Adler & Lee Strasberg. Most fundamentally, Meisner and Strausberg didn’t see eye to eye. Strausberg saw the power in emotional recall and internal work, while Meisner felt actors needed to get out of themselves and onto their scene partners. Meisner created a series of repetition exercises to help keep actors present and in the moment.

Shaun and Bella Thorne on the set of "I Still See You"

Why do you like the Meisner technique?

Shaun Benson: I was 28 years old when I started studying in Los Angeles. I had shot series leads and Blockbuster movies and I had no idea why on a Tuesday I could be good and on a Wednesday I’d be dreadful. I started doing this repetition work, and that first night I understood everything that had always plagued me; the veil between me and this thing called ‘character’. I understood there’s no such thing as character, it’s me. Different aspects of me, different voices, different ways of walking or talking, but it’s me. All of a sudden it just became all the joy and fun and excitement that acting always felt like it could be.   

What does acting mean to you?

Shaun Benson: To me, acting really just means entertaining. I know a lot of people can get really deep with it and I do when it comes to a deep scene, but I grew up watching John Ritter on Three’s Company and Michael J. Fox on Family Ties and Gene Kelly…if the audience is entertained, then I’m happy. The entertainment can come through something deep and cathartic or just a joke, but to me acting is entertaining an audience.  

Shaun on Gangland Undercover (History Channel)
Shaun (left) with actor Tom Holland on the set of "Edge of Winter"

What makes someone a good scene partner?

Shaun Benson: The biggest thing for me that makes someone a good scene partner is if I have no idea what they’re going to do next. When they just come out and they’ve worked out exactly what they’re going to do, they might do it very well, but there will be no chance for a surprise for me and therefore the audience. 

What are the pitfalls of acting classes?

Shaun Benson: I love teaching, I really do. I like it as much as acting. I think a lot of teachers make the work about themselves and not about the work. Sometimes the teacher is more interested in having their stamp on the student.

The biggest pitfall is when a teacher adheres to the break-you-down-to-build-you-up principle, but doesn’t know how to build you up. It’s not very hard to suggest to someone they have ‘mom issues’ or ‘dad issues’ but it can be very psychologically damaging if you don’t know what to do with that in a way to nurture and grow. 

Behind the scenes shot of Shaun working on set
Shaun (left) and Robbie Amell at TIFF 2016 to promote their film "ARQ"

Why would you recommend attending a Meisner class?

Shaun Benson: I don’t think there is a better type of acting training that will get you being you, and I think you’re the thing we’re going to want to watch.  For me, this work is how you get to line up who you are with a scene. It’s one of the only things I know where the work is the answer not a theory. If you just come in and practice this stuff over and over, you’ll get better at it. The answer is in the doing. I don’t have your answer, I have your exercise or your note for the exercise; you get to go run with it. 

How important is maintaining your sense of self?

Shaun Benson: Even in my most successful year I might shoot 100 days. That’s still only half what a normal person works. There is too much free time. If you don’t have a life that’s full and matters away from acting, the second the acting isn’t phenomenal, your sense of self is diminished. If you get smaller every time you don’t get hired because it’s all that matters to you, that is the biggest pitfall of all. You’ll look for ways to feel good, it won’t necessarily be substance abuse, but it’s important to emanate from the inside-out. I think that’s true for everyone, actor or not. 

Fun Fact: Shaun (right) has a black belt in Karate!

Follow Shaun on Instagram & Twitter to stay in the loop about his latest projects and upcoming acting classes! 

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