“To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that’s what we’re here to do.” – Sanford Meisner on Acting
You might wonder what actors do to learn their craft. Of course, it takes a lot of practice, but to really succeed, an actor needs the right approach. One approach that many actors have had success with is called the Meisner Technique, which was developed by Sanford Meisner, an American theater practitioner.
In some approaches to acting, like Strasburg’s method, the process is very internal, reaching inside to remember actual memories to emotionally connect. The Meisner Technique is different, in that it’s much more external.
Actors focus less on themselves, and more on the other actors around them. This allows them to be in the moment and not in the past. And all emotion is a byproduct of what they are doing and the stakes of their scene. It’s a technique where the emotion behind the words is as important, if not more, than the words themselves. It differs from method acting, which focuses more on the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. The Meisner technique focuses on the other actor, or actors, in the scene.
An actor training in the Meisner technique will participate in several training exercises, each one building on the previous one. These exercises are improvisational, meaning they are without scripts. Students first learn to listen, then learn to access an emotional life, then they learn how to allow their emotions to create behavior, and then finally learn to bring the spontaneous style of improvisation and the emotions of personal response to a dramatic text. The technique develops an open and available instrument, improvisational skills, as well as empowers actors to interpret a script, and create the physical characteristics of the character being played.
The repetition exercise is the foundation of the Meisner technique. It involves two actors standing across from each other, responding to each other with a phrase that’s repeated. At first, the phrase focuses on some physical property, such as “You’re wearing blue jeans.” But as the exercise continues, the phrase becomes more about the actors’ behavior, such as “You look upset with me.” The way the words are spoken changes in tone, intensity and overall meaning as each actor reacts to the behavior of the other actor. This causes the actor to stop thinking about what to say and do, and answer in a more spontaneous fashion.
How the Technique Was Developed
Sanford Meisner began developing his acting approach back in the 1930s, while working with the Group Theatre. Over the next five decades, he would continue to refine it, while he was head of the acting program at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, as well as a teacher of private acting classes. As time went on, he would drop some exercises if he thought they weren’t effective, and he developed new exercises to help solve some of the problems his students were having. In 1980, a group of alumni decided to preserve his teachings for the actors of future generations.
List of Meisner-Trained Actors
The list of Meisner-trained actors is a long one. Some notable names include:
Charles Michael Davis
The Meisner technique has stood the test of time and has proven to be a highly effective technique for a great many successful actors. Training in the Meisner technique should be considered for anyone serious about getting into the acting profession.