Acting Styles: Sanford Meisner’s Technique

"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." ~ Sanford Meisner

What do Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Cruise, Stephen Colbert, Alec Baldwin, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall have in common? Besides being A-List actors and performers, they have all been trained in the Meisner technique, a specialized acting style that teaches students to “Live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

Once a follower of Konstantin Stanislavski’s System and Lee Strasberg’s Method, Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) developed his own distinct variation of both acting styles. Stanislavsky and Strasberg both used a technique known as “emotional memory” (Strasberg called it affective memory), where actors draw from their own emotional experiences to portray their characters as realistically as possible. Meisner veered away from this principle and created a style that focused on “The reality of doing.”

 

The Repetition Exercise

When students are learning the Meisner Technique, they practice the Repetition Exercise, an activity that is designed to train the actor’s responses. In this exercise, two actors face each other and say a phrase repeatedly, with variations in tone and intensity. It is designed to help move actors away from their comfort zones and promote truthfulness and spontaneity.

In these exercises, actors learn to focus on underlying emotions instead of dialogue. Students are taught to steer away from pretending and concentrate on reacting emotionally and authentically. In advanced stages, physical tasks are added to the dialogue and the relationships between the actors become more complex.

 

Emotional Preparation

Another major component of training on the Meisner Technique involves “emotional preparation,” which is a process in which actors deepen their connections with their personal experiences so that they can develop an understanding of their characters’ emotional lives. This preparation helps actors react in a realistic and authentic manner, instead of attempting to act as their characters. On stage, actors are experiencing real emotions. Rather than acting excited or angry, they are excited or angry.

To prepare for their roles, many Meisner practitioners will perform research to gain a fuller and more personal understanding of the circumstances and emotions of their characters. As an example, an actress who has never been pregnant, but landed a role of a pregnant woman, may choose to go out in public and discuss her “pregnancy” with strangers to try to attain a new and more personal perspective of her character.

Using the Meisner technique is a very personal experience for actors. Meisner created the foundation, but actors must approach this style in ways that make sense for them personally.

 

Improvisation

“Act before you think – your instincts are more honest than your thoughts.” ~ Sanford Meisner

Through his teachings, Meisner endeavored to help actors lose their self-consciousness and remain in the moment during performances. The exercises he developed and the principles he taught were designed to develop an actor’s ability to improvise instinctively. Meisner’s goal was to prepare actors to demonstrate authentic emotions and reactions spontaneously and truthfully.

While his techniques and exercises may seem strange or unorthodox at first, actors who master the Meisner technique are able to achieve a level of authenticity that goes beyond other acting styles.

To learn more about Meisner’s Technique, you can read his book, Sanford Meisner on Acting.

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