Without Sanford Meisner there would be no Meisner Technique. Without Meisner Technique, most acting schools and certainly acting classes would be hard pressed to find a way of teaching a concrete way for actors to listen and spontaneously answer one another. Everyone hears about the repetition exercise, Meisner Technique Activities, and the brilliant acting it can produce if taught by someone who understands the technique at its core and has preferably studied with Mr. Meisner. Most actors, however, usually experiences a version of the technique learned from someone who studied with someone who studied with someone who knew Sanford Meisner. And it’s a shame…
So who was Sanford Meisner? Sanford Meisner, along with Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis, Elia Kazan, and Stella Adler, was one of the founding members of perhaps the most influential movements in American acting training- New York’s 1930’s Group Theater.
Based on Russian theater innovator Konstantin Stanislavski’s approach to acting, the Group Theater would in turn revolutionize acting in America. Revolutions, however, especially those of the creative variety, are not without internal strife. Sanford Meisner would leave the Group Theater in the 1940’s and create what is now called The Meisner Technique. He would focus on the truth of the moment, and abandon Strasberg’s idea that actors had to bring in and re-create their personal experiences in order to play their parts. Meisner focused instead on the reality of doing, hence Meisner Technique activities became important, as did the truth of the moment.
By the 1990’s, The Sanford Meisner Technique had trained a number of generations of actors, including Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Bob Fosse, Jon Voight, Jeff Goldblum, Grace Kelly, Diane Keaton, and so on. The Meisner Technique had become the dominant acting technique among successful film and television actors and almost every acting school in California began to offer some kind of Meisner training.
And how did the Meisner Technique accomplish all this? Simply by getting actors to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The Meisner Technique purports that actors need to concern themselves with playing actions, and that emotion and subtextual meaning is to be arrived at through actors’ truthful reactions to one another, rather thanprescribed, pre-determined, often self indulgent emotions which have little to do with the other actors or anything to do with the specific world of the play or screemplay at hand.
The Technique is mainly taught through an acting exercise called the Repetition Exercise, where an actor makes personal, behavioral statements about the other actor, statements which are then repeated by the other actor until there is an authentic connection between the two actors based on the truth of the moment. Then, after a while, Meisner Technique Activtities are brought in. These are tasks that actors perform in order to connect them to their physical reality and put their focus on an task outside themselves. This task needs to be meaningful, urgent, and difficult. The Meisner Technique thus teaches actors to create a bond based on each other’s truth—in short, there is simply NO better technique of training actors to respond to one another – in the moment. The only problem with all this, and certainly a problem which has been universally acknowledged but rarely addressed, is that the spontaneity created by the repetition exercise is hard to bring into scene work.
The Sanford Meisner Technique is brilliant, but practical application of it is hard to come by. The Acting Corps recognized this need early on, and began finding innovative ways of introducing The Meisner Technique, including Meisner Technique activities into scene work and cold readings at the very beginning of an actor’s training. Though the Acting Corps’ approach has been much duplicated (the highest form of flattery, Mr. Meisner would say), the original Actors’ Boot Camp remains the only place where this unique approach of bringing the Meisner Technique into cold readings and scene study exists.