We have taught the Meisner technique at the Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., for more than 25 years. Joanne, for example, studied and taught in New York City with William Esper at the William Esper Studio and studied with Sanford Meisner in his private class at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Finding Meisner's technique to be an artistic and life-changing revelation, we both committed ourselves to it and became Meisner teachers.
Because our studio is dedicated to maintaining the integrity of Meisner's technique, we want to clear up some misconceptions regarding it. Especially in recent years, we've often heard the Meisner technique described as helpful merely for beginning actors, an approach limited to "repetition" exercises. While repetition exercises are unquestionably a powerful tool for teaching actors to be unselfconsciously in the moment, which is fundamental to any quality performance, they're only the first stage of the system Meisner envisioned. His system also teaches advanced skills in, for example, script analysis and character interpretation.
In the first year of Meisner training, the behavior of the actor is generated through what we call "accidents" resulting from improvisation exercises. Actors are trained to respond spontaneously and with the fullest magnitude to the imaginary events that occur during these improvisations. At first they're trained to repeat and respond to the last thing said by the actor with whom they're working. Let's say one actor says, "Please leave me alone." The second actor would respond, "Please leave you alone," hence the term "repetition." The idea is to train actors to read behavior, to react in the moment during the exercise. An actor can change what is being spoken so long as it's an organic, impulsive change; so long as the change is not born of intellect, such as a knee-jerk impulse to argue.
When obligated to repeat exactly what has been spoken to them, actors must listen and be present; they must learn to express themselves through behavior, not words, just as they'll have to express themselves freely even when they're confined to the words of a text. Periodically, actors are asked to replicate the experience of these increasingly sophisticated improvisations within simple scenes. The actors enter into an imaginative scenario where the behaviors they render are their own, not character-based.
As in all art forms, acting requires both form and content. The form is created through behavioral actions: who a character is, what the character does in pursuit of his or her objectives. The content is emotion, which fills and fuels the character's inner life. Meisner knew that performance requires more than an emotionally alive actor saying lines. He taught that a fully developed performance requires artistic selection and that the character's specific actions, the things he or she does, should be predetermined so as to illuminate the character and the character's world. Stella Adler is known to have said, "Your talent is in your choices."
Thus, in his program's second year, Meisner sought to train actors how to predetermine their responses so they could represent characters different from themselves and effectively render various styles of material. Meisner held to the philosophy that only a performance crafted out of predetermined choices could achieve greatness; that for an actor to be an artist of the highest caliber, he or she must interpret material and then create the specific behavior that will fully serve the story and the author's intent.
Here's the problem: To date, there have been no books explaining Meisner's program and precise methodology. And because they have been transmitted orally, there has been a natural dilution of his theories and practices. Indeed, many Meisner-based schools cover only his basic exercises, continuing the confusion that that's all there is to his technique. Actors who utilize only the first part of Meisner's training, however, will be limited in their abilities.
Character work and nonnaturalistic material require actors to represent foreign ways of speaking and moving, not to mention values from different times and cultures. That Meisner's improvisation exercises develop relaxed, deeply unselfconscious actors who live truthfully under imaginative circumstances is undeniably a profound feat. But the idea that this alone could provide sufficient preparation for actors to assay the great challenges of O'Neill or Williams or Shakespeare is unrealistic.
On the other hand, scene-study classes that do teach character interpretation and style are often very short on basic technique. Meisner's technique holds that without a foundation in unscripted improvisation, there's a good chance that actors will not have had enough practice in fully engaging with the imaginary world of the play with the kind of freedom of responsiveness that generates true spontaneity in acting, nor will they have established within themselves a sense of their own basic human truths to use as a base from which to connect to different characters and circumstances. Without such fundamentals, an actor may be left acting ideas, not characters; presenting or indicating a performance rather than knowing how to live it by being attuned to experiential "accidents" on stage.
Meisner's technique is also essential to the film actor, for whom a key priority is to appear natural, to adopt only a relaxed, moment-to-moment presence so that he or she will look like a character who is experiencing, not an actor who is acting. We can see this demonstrated by film actors who rely on playing themselves from role to role—what's called "personality acting" or what Meisner called "straight acting." Performances such as these don't rely on a great deal of interpretation; the actor simply relates to the given circumstances and emotionalizes and lives through the event. This is why some film actors may be particularly challenged by the responsibility of creating clear, vivid characters in live theatre.
Only an actor who understands how to interpret and break down a script can craft a complex performance, one specific to the material's requirements, and this is where second-year Meisner training is essential. Actors are taught how to interpret the text and identify the author's intention; they are then taught how to create the specific behavior necessary to bring their characters to life. This is why first-year Meisner work is sometimes called the "emotional bridge" and second-year work the "bridge of doing" or the "interpretative bridge." For every character, there are interpretive questions to answer, from birthplace, profession, parentage, religion, and education to class, politics, sexual history, and so forth. Actors are taught to answer these questions in such a way that the process culminates in the actor selecting behaviors that he or she will then practice in order to do the things the character would do, giving the character life and breath. After practice, including great effort to make as much of the work unconscious as possible, the actor then wants to re-create the improvisational accident as in those first beginning Meisner improvisations. The plan now must be lived one moment at a time as a seamless accident.
In his advanced training, Meisner's great genius was that as he taught actors to work on more-complex material, instructing them to plan and execute specific behaviors, he created a technique that would remain naturalistic and personal, presenting acting that's vibrant and in the moment.
It is our hope that the full measure of Meisner's work—especially its effectiveness and practicality—can be appreciated, respected, and taught wherever possible, so his gift to the world of acting can continue providing mastery of the craft to the actors who practice it and delight to those who witness it.
Joanne Baron and D.W. Brown have been actors and teachers for more than 25 years. Their New York and Santa Monica acting studios have trained and coached such actors and directors as Halle Berry, Robin Wright Penn, Patrick Dempsey, Mariska Hargitay, Jamie Kennedy, Kirstie Alley, Keanu Reeves, Tom Shadyac, Sam Raimi, and Martha Coolidge. Baron has appeared in numerous films, television shows, and theatre productions, most recently The Trouble With Cali, opposite Paul Sorvino; The Ungodly, opposite Wes Bentley; Bare Knuckles, with Anthony Hopkins; and The Sitter on Lifetime. D.W. Brown starred in the classic film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, was most recently seen on ER, and is now directing a feature, Fleas. Together, Baron and Brown have created and produced several films, including Perfume with Jeff Goldblum, Profoundly Normal with Kirstie Alley, and Brooklyn Babylon with Tarik Trotter.