How the Meisner Technique’s Repetition Exercise Can Be Therapeutic for Performers

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If you’ve ever said, “Thanks, you too!” when your waiter’s just said, “Enjoy your meal,” this article is for you.

So often in life, we try to make light conversation instead of truly listening to one another. In art and especially in theater, we crave genuine human connection. The exercise of repetition in the Meisner technique can help get us there both theatrically and therapeutically.

Sanford Meisner created the repetition exercise to get us out of our heads. In the book “Sanford Meisner on Acting,” he says, “A composer doesn’t write down what he thinks would be effective; he works from his heart. I decided I wanted an exercise for actors where there is no intellectuality. I wanted to eliminate all that head work, to take away all the mental manipulation and get to where the impulses come from.” 

He continues: “I began with the premise that if I repeat what I hear you saying, my head is not working, I’m listening, and there is an absolute elimination of the brain…. That’s repetition, which leads to impulses. It is not intellectual. It is emotional and impulsive, and gradually when the actors I train improvise, what they say—like what the composer writes—comes not from the head but truthfully from the impulses.” 

Repetition has abundant benefits for actors who want to get out of their heads. But there’s a benefit to this exercise that goes far beyond evading self-consciousness.

Here’s the deal: Humans long to be heard and understood. The repetition exercise allows people not only to be heard and taken seriously, but also to become expert listeners and steadfast focusers. Because of this, repetition isn’t only useful in the acting world, it’s also a scientifically proven tool to show understanding and cultivate trust, called “mirroring” in psychotherapy. Mirroring is used to show empathy and foster safety.

In her essay “Mirror, Mirror: Our Brains Are Hardwired for Empathy,” body-psychotherapist Babette Rothschild says, “We’re hardwired, it appears, to feel each other’s happiness and pain more deeply than we ever knew. Moreover, the royal road to empathy is through the body, not the mind.” 

When we repeat back what we’ve just heard and pay close attention to the human behavior of the person in front of us, they are predisposed to feel joy. Our brains can’t help but feel happy when we’re mirrored.

A 2009 study conducted out of Ghent University found that the reward centers of our brains light up when someone mirrors our behavior or words. When someone repeats exactly what we’ve just said back to us, we feel heard, understood, similar, and accepted. Though the repetition exercise’s purpose is to communicate honesty over pleasantries, the action of repeating back what we’ve just heard is innately therapeutic in nature, even if it isn’t perceived well. 

So the next time you’re singing, try repeating what you feel in the moment. Let the truth of what you feel hit and affect you without judgement. Similarly, the next time you’re in conversation, try repeating back what you’ve just heard in the moment. Mirror what the person has just said and affirm that you’ve fully understood them without judgement.

In your art and in your personal life, you’ll witness the repetition exercise doing amazing things.

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This post comes from our partner Meisner in Music.