The Meisner Technique
"Take it from a director: if you get an actor that Sandy Meisner has trained, you've been blessed." - Elia Kazan
A leading acting teacher who trained some of the most famous performers of the stage and screen, Sanford Meisner was a founding member of the Group Theatre. The Group Theatre, a cooperative theater ensemble, became a leading force in the theater world of the 30s. Meisner performed in many of the group's most memorable productions, including The House of Connelly, Men in White, Awake and Sing, Paradise Lost and Golden Boy. While still a member of the group, Meisner became the head of the acting department of New York's Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. After the Group Theatre dissolved in 1941 Meisner devoted himself to teaching, appearing only occasionally on Broadway and in films (most notably, in Clifford Odets' 1959 The Story on Page One).
Over the course of forty-eight years at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Meisner honed his skills as an acting instructor. Growing out of the days with the Group Theatre and the Russian theater theorist Constantin Stanislavsky, Meisner created a series of exercises for actors. For Meisner, acting was about reproducing honest emotional human reactions. He felt the actor's job was simply to prepare for an experiment that would take place on stage. The best acting, he believed, was made up of spontaneous responses to the actor's immediate surroundings. Meisner explained that his approach was designed "to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor's instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him."
The primary tool Meisner employed in preparing his students was spontaneous repetition. Among his many exercises was one in which two actors looked directly at each other and one would described a feature of the other. After this, the two actors would simply say the phrase back and forth. Because the phrases (such as, "You have soft eyes") came from a physical reality apparent to the actors, the statement retained meaning no matter how often they were repeated. Another example of Meisner's method has two actors enter a room playing specific roles without specific lines. They begin to speak and the plot is formed out of nothing but the surroundings. The actor's concern is to remain in character. Techniques such as these allow actors to move beyond the printed script and address the underlying emotional or philosophical themes of a play.
Meisner's role within the theater community remained important throughout his long career. Among his more famous students were actors Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Diane Keaton, Joanne Woodward, Lee Grant, and Peter Falk. Gregory Peck said of Meisner, "What he wanted from you was truthful acting...He was able to communicate, and the proof of that is the number of people that have come out of [the Neighborhood Playhouse] over a forty-year period who've gone on to become people who set standards of acting." Though troubled with a number of physical problems, including losing his larynx, Meisner continued to be an active part of the theater community for his entire life. During his final years, he split his time between the Caribbean island Bequia and New York. He died at age 91, leaving behind a legacy of commitment and enthusiasm rarely seen in any art.
The Meisner Technique was originally developed by Sanford Meisner (1905-1997), one of the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century.
Meisner was one of the original members of the Group Theater along with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Harold Clurman, from 1931 until it disbanded in 1941. After the Group Theatre's demise, Meisner led the acting department of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in Manhattan for nearly half a century. Among Meisner's students were Robert Duvall, David Mamet, Jon Voight, Diane Keaton, Lee Grant, Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly, Sydney Pollack, and Steve McQueen.
Meisner's students acted on screen and stage across the United States using what had become known as the "Meisner Technique." Meisner's technique of acting is based on Constantin Stanislavski's method of acting, but is best known for the repetition exercises Meisner developed to strengthen an actor's capacity to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances
Born August 31, 1905, and raised
in Brooklyn, New York, Sanford Meisner graduated form Erasmus Hall in 1923 and
attended The Damrash Institute of Music (now Juilliard), where he studied to
become a concert pianist before talking his way into a job in a Theater Guild
production of Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. He realized
then that acting which really "dug at him" was what he was looking to find.
In 1931, a fervent group of young actors, including Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman, among others, joined together to establish the Group Theatre. It was the first permanent theatre company that brought "Method" acting, rooted in the methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, to practice and prominence in America. Meisner appeared in twelve Group productions, including the first, The House of Connelly, and all of Clifford Odets' plays, including Waiting for Lefty, which Meisner co-directed with Odets in 1935.
In 1933 Meisner became disenchanted with pure "Method" acting. He wrote, "Actors are not guinea pigs to be manipulated, dissected, let alone in a purely negative way. Our approach was not organic, that is to say not healthy." Meisner had ongoing discussions about technique with Adler, who worked with Stanislavsky in Paris, and Clurman, who took a deep interest in the American character. Eventually Meisner realized that if American actors were ever going to achieve the goal of "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances," an American approach was needed. The Neighborhood Playhouse provided him with a venue to develop that approach on his own.
In 1935 he headed the Drama Department at The Playhouse, while continuing to act and direct plays produced by The Group Theatre until its demise in 1940. He also appeared on Broadway in Embezzled (1944) and Crime and Punishment (1948). He directed The Time of Your Life (1955) and acted in The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958).
Meisner left The Playhouse in 1958 to become director of the New Talent Division of Twentieth Century Fox. He moved to Los Angeles, where he was also able to cultivate his career as a film actor. He starred in Odets' The Story on Page One (1959), Tender Is the Night (1962), and later Mikey and Nicky (1976).
He returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse as head of the Drama Department from 1964-1990. In 1985 Meisner and James Carville co-founded The Meisner/Carville School of Acting on the Island of Bequia in the West Indies. They later extended the school to North Hollywood, California, where it still exists with Martin Barter as Artistic Director and head teacher. Meisner, Carville, and Barter opened The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts in March 1995, and later the school and theatre were combined to form The Sanford Meisner Center, today the only school and theatre to operate under Meisner's name.
Meisner received commendations from Presidents Clinton, Bush and Reagan. He was honored by California Governor Pete Wilson and was named the "Humanitarian of the Year 1990" by The Washington Charity Awards. His final appearance as an actor was in a guest starring role on a special episode of "ER" that aired in February 1995. Upon his death on February 2, 1997, Backstage West dedicated an issue to Meisner and his world-renowned "Meisner Technique."
Arthur Miller once said of Meisner, "He has been the most principled teacher of acting in this country for decades now, and 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."