The Meisner technique is one of the most intense and respected acting methods for aspiring actors.
It was developed by Sanford Meisner in the 1930s and has been adopted by acting studios across the world ever since. It all began when Meisner was working at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
He took his observations of acting and the teachings of Stanislavski to create a new method that would bring out real, powerful performances from his students. These tips will help you to learn the Meisner technique.
What does the Meisner technique require from actors?
Each school will have their own personal interpretation of the Meisner method. Some will adopt the basic principles along with other teachings while others stay true to the original formula.
The leading authority on the technique is said to be the William Esper Studio in Manhattan.
At its heart, the technique relies on three key elements: improvisation, emotional life and the ability to apply those responses to a given text.
Some schools don’t even get to the third stage until the second year. That is how important the skills are.
The script is there to be interpreted by the actor and there are no set ways to play it. Actors need to forget their personal instinct about the lines and the scenes they know and go deeper.
An important tool in this technique is repetition. The repetition exercise requires two actors to communicate through a repeated phrase. Eventually, the words and context of the phrase lose meaning. It is similar to that phenomenon where a word said too many times without context no longer sounds right said out loud.
The phrase could be as simple as “The weather appears to be getting worse”. After a few repetitions, the context of the weather is not important. All that is left is the tone, purpose and feeling behind the words. Actors take their cues from the response of their partner, not the words and this brings out a new approach to the scene. For Meisner, it was all about creating authenticity in a character through the actor’s choice. He once said that
“For you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all”
It is important to remember that this is not method acting. This is a whole other approach that goes against the inward-looking methods of other teachers.
Some often misguidedly attribute the Meisner technique to method acting. There is a need to go deeper into a character and to let go of inhibitions, but the directions are external and environmental rather than internal and personal. There is as much reliance on the other actor in the scene. The Meisner technique requires a lot more commitment and skill than the decision to go and live in the woods for a week or live life in the style of a historical figure.
This approach is also greatly different from the Strasberg method as it doesn’t rely on inner pain and emotions, but rather external sources. There is the cliche of actors being able to cry on command for scenes by bringing up personal experiences that relate to the scene or the memory of a dead pet. This method is completely different as it goes against the idea of a personal experience to create a real response for the character. Actors need to inhabit the skin of the person they are playing, not regress deeper into their own. Meisner once remarked that “actors are not guinea pigs to be manipulated, dissected, let alone in a purely negative way” adding that the approach was “not healthy”.
This is a technique that encourages actors to get out of their own heads and to forget about their instinctive reactions to the scenes, scenery and lines. Basically, it is a chance for actors to stop behaving like themselves and to really act as the character would. This can be tricky for new actors that struggle to go past their comfort zone or instincts.
Why is the Meisner technique so revered in the acting community?
There are two simple reasons why the Meisner technique is still held in such high regard today, almost twenty years after the great man’s death. Firstly, the method has helped new actors to develop their range in ways they had not expected. Secondly, directors know that they are in good hands when they have an actor trained in this manner. In fact, Arthur Miller once said,
“Every time I am reading actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don’t lay on complications that aren’t necessary”.
This ability to look beyond instinctive reactions and to provide a new, “real” approach to a character ensures a better performance from the actor. It allows them to increase their range and take on roles that may seem out of reach. This will prevent type-casting and showcase their true skill of the actor. As a result, there are many directors that appreciate the work of Meisner and the chance to work with actors trained under this method. Actors that pass these courses often feel that they were pushed to the extreme, but they came out of the experience a better actor. It showed people just how far they could go with their performance if they let go of those instincts and worked on those emotional responses and improvisations.
The Meisner technique is now seen as one of the most important techniques in acting and continues to be studied across the world.
There are many that believe that this method is still the only way to bring out a real, powerful performance from an actor. That is why so many schools stick to the old techniques and why there was such an effort to preserve them. A film was made in 1980, directed by Sydney Pollack, of Meisner teaching a class. It has since been digitally transferred for posterity, such is its importance in the acting world. There is no doubt that as long as schools continue to stick to the methods handed down by Meisner and his pupils, we will continue to see actors emerging with greater range and authenticity in their performances.