The Meisner technique is an approach to acting based on the practices of an American teacher and actor, Sanford Meisner. The main objective of the method is to develop the actor’s instinct and responsiveness while performing. Meisner believed that if an actor could “get out of his head,” he or she would bring a new layer of realism to their performance.
Who was Sanford Meisner?
Sanford Meisner began studying theatre at the Theatre Guild of Acting in New York. It was here that he met Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. Strasberg went on to become another hugely influential acting teacher and theorist, developing the method acting technique that is still well known and frequently practiced to this day.
In 1931, Meisner joined the Group Theatre, a new company founded by Strasberg and Clurman. The Group Theatre based its techniques on the principles of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the seminal Russian acting teacher. When Stella Adler, a fellow company member, returned from a trip to Paris in 1934, where she had personally studied with Stanislavsky, she informed the Group that Stanislavsky had altered his methodology and suggested that the Group Theatre follow suit.
According to Adler, Stanislavsky had become less interested in the actor’s own “affective memory” and instead had begun to place greater significance on a character’s “given circumstances.” It was at this point that Meisner and Strasberg began to differ in opinion and approaches to acting, ultimately resulting in their two similar but distinctive techniques.
Meisner began teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York in 1935. When the Group Theatre disbanded in 1940, Meisner chose to continue teaching. His technique continued to crystalize during these years, the aim being to “live truthful under given imaginary circumstances.” Notable alumni include Gregory Peck, Dianne Keaton, David Mamet, Allison Janney, and David Mamet.
When in 1947, the Actor’s Centre was formed, Meisner was one of their earliest teachers. Strasberg was not invited to teach until 1951, however, when he later took credit for teaching the center’s earlier students, the relationship between Meisner and his old friend and mentor soured.
What are the key elements of the Meisner Technique?
Because Meisner’s technique is based on Stanislavsky’s method, the two techniques share many of the same principles. Stanislavsky’s acting method is attractive to American actors because of its focus on naturalism and truthfulness. Also, the Meisner technique itself is based upon deeply internal, emotive work as opposed to performative, physically demonstrative work, thus differing greatly from the presentational acting style of the previous century.
Unlike Strasberg, who championed the notion of affective memory, in which actors attempt to relive a genuine, often traumatic memory from the past in order to generate sincere emotion, Meisner believed that this technique would only serve to remove the actor from the circumstances of the scene. Instead, the entire Meisner Technique is designed to keep the actor present and reactive within their imagined circumstances.
The three principles central to Meisner’s technique are:
In order to express truthful emotions, students of the Meisner Technique learn to delve into an imagined circumstance that will generate real emotions. Every actor learns to prepare emotionally in their own way. For instance, one might choose to visit locations that are relevant to their character in order to feed their imagination, while another may find it useful to listen to music or read relevant books.
Repetition is often said to be the heart and soul of the technique. Meisner believed that repetition exercises would eventually remove the affectations most actors unknowingly bring on stage. Instead, by ‘getting out of their heads’ and into their bodies, repetition helped actors to respond organically and instinctively to their surroundings on stage.
Improvisational exercises are used to encourage spontaneity and to reduce an actor’s self-consciousness. Because theatrical productions can differ greatly from night to night, it’s essential, according to Meisner, that an actor has the ability to adapt and react to anything that happens on stage.
Meisner Technique in Practice
Meisner developed a series of repetition based acting exercises designed to help actors grasp and embody the principles discussed above.
This game is all about spontaneous reaction and instinct. In this game, two actors sit across from each other and try to put all of their attention on the other person. The aim is for the actor to describe what they see in the other actor, who then repeats the phrase until someone notices something else. It usually goes something like this:
ACTOR 1: You are looking in my eyes.
ACTOR 2: I’m looking in your eyes.
ACTOR 1: You are looking in my eyes.
ACTOR 2: You have green eyes.
And so on. The trick is not to censor yourself or to plan ahead or to think of what has occurred in the past, but to exist at the moment. With enough repetition, actors should begin to understand what being in the moment really feels like.
As students progress, this exercise develops in complexity. Opinions, emotions, and given circumstances are added. Another version of the game can be played using a few lines of a script.
How do I Know if Meisner’s Technique is Right for Me?
An actor’s toolkit of techniques should be vast. Having only one method at your disposal can be limiting, and you may find yourself with a character you are struggling to find. Having another method to try can be a helpful way to approach a character in a new way.
Meisner’s technique can be a great tool for actors wishing to find a sense of naturalism in their acting. If you feel that you tend to overthink or over-plan your performances, Meisner’s principles might help you shake up your old habits and affectations.
Where is the Meisner Technique Taught?
Meisner’s technique is now a worldwide phenomenon and is a commonly taught method so most drama schools teach at least some elements of the method in their classes. However, Open City Acting Studio specializes in the Meisner Technique offering Meisner acting coaching as a standalone class and as part of the full Los Angeles Acting Classes Professional Acting Program. If you are interested in taking an intensive course, feel free to stop by and audit a class for free.
How long does it take to learn Meisner’s technique?
Many people claim that it takes around five years of active practice and work to grasp the principles of the method fully. While this may be true for new, untrained actors, experienced actors who are already familiar with Stanislavskian principles may find it easier to grasp since Meisner based his technique on Stanislavski.
Most programs last for two to three years. As these courses are typically intensive and rigorous, most actors emerge with an excellent grasp of the method and the ability to apply its principles to their future acting work.
Of course, good actors understand that training doesn’t stop with their graduation from an acting program. The principles of the Meisner technique should instead be jumping-off points that actors continue to use and develop in their subsequent work.
What Acting Methods Complement Meisner’s Technique?
It goes without saying that pure Stanislavsky principles and practices complement the Meisner technique. In fact, they are usually a good jumping-off point for new acting students.
Strasberg’s slightly infamous “method” (in which actors try to embody their characters by using personal emotional memories fully) is also fairly complementary and, when combined with Meisner’s method, can result in incredibly truthful acting.
To be a well-rounded actor, it is encouraged that you explore a variety of contrasting methods. In addition to studying Meisner, it can be beneficial to study a more physical or outward-in approach to acting, to see which one works best for you, or, indeed, to see whether some combination of the two works best for you.
Who are Some Famous Actors Who Studied Meisner?
There is an ever-growing list of well-known actors who have studied Meisner’s Technique and swear by it. Here is a list of a few of them:
Grace Kelly, Joan Fontaine, David Mamet, Diane Keaton, Allison Janney, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart, Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, Sandra Bullock, Timothee Chalamet, Jeff Goldblum, Jack Nickolson, Sigourney Weaver, and Kim Basinger
Since its conception, the Meisner Technique has quickly developed into one of the most renowned acting methods in the world. Actors emerge with unparalleled spontaneity and a captivating sense of realism. While the technique is initially strange and unusual for students in training, it is only through practice and, as Meisner says, repetition, that the principles can truly be understood. If you do choose to pursue a Meisner-based training course, you can rest assured that you will be equipping yourself with some incomparable techniques to help you achieve authenticity and realism throughout your acting career.