A Guide to Meisner’s Repetition Exercise

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As Sisyphus can attest, repetition for the sake of repetition can feel senseless at best. However, repetition without replication can help keep you from feeling like you’re being punished by the gods—and can make you better trust your instincts as an actor. Here’s a rundown of repetition exercises and how to use them to improve your craft.


What is the Meisner technique?

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The Meisner technique is an acting method developed by acting teacher Sanford Meisner nearly a century ago. Meisner focused on developing actor instincts and improvisation to help them respond naturally to their environment and other actors. The core tenets of the Meisner technique are “the reality of doing” and “to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

  • The reality of doing: Meisner emphasized refining an actor’s ability to react to the world around them through repetition exercises.
  • To live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances: Meisner also believed that actors perform best when they listen and respond to external stimuli to create a natural performance.

Meisner technique examples

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These repetition exercise examples build upon one another to help actors develop emotional complexity in their performances. 

The repetition exercise

Scene partners sit across from one another. The first actor makes an observation about the other: “You have blonde hair.” Then, the second actor repeats the same observation back word for word.

Eventually, the actors add their own point of view to the statement, for example: “I have blonde hair.” The two actors repeat but add onto the phrase instinctually until it changes shape in tone, intensity, and meaning: “Yes, I have blonde hair, and it looks great,” an actor might say with pride, while combing their fingers through their hair. The other actor may respond, “Yeah, you have blonde hair, but it’s becoming tangled,” with a derisive tone. Over time, lines and behavior continue to evolve spontaneously and freely. 

Independent activity

Once actors have the original repetition game down, the next step is to bring in an independent activity that’s feasible yet challenging. For example, an independent activity could be trying to finish the last question of a difficult exam, or taking a reactive dog for a walk. One actor tries to do their activity while the other begins the repetition exercise. The actor doing the independent activity must try to follow the rules of the repetition exercise while still performing their activity. They may take longer to respond, which should lead the actor not performing the activity to keep responding in small ways, such as raising their eyebrows or holding out their hands. 

Knock at the door

The next step is to add what Meisner names the “knock at the door.” One actor is inside a (literal or pantomime) room, doing their independent activity. The other actor knocks at the room’s door from outside. They must achieve the energy level that interrupts the flow of their partner’s independent activity in order for the door to be opened.


Finally, actors are in a state of preparation, or what Meisner calls “that device which permits you to start your scene or play in a condition of emotional aliveness.” The actor knocking on the door prepares their imagination to enter the scene and enters from that state of fullness. 

Meisner used the repetition exercises to allow students to understand the difference between pretending to act and actually acting. If one of his students deviated from the exercise in a way that he considered a purposeful attempt to make it more interesting—what he called “readings”—Meisner would stop the exercise and have them start over. He believed that these readings indicated that the student was shifting focus to the theatrical nature of the exercise rather than generating an innate instinctual response.

Meisner technique challenges

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Meisner provides two guidelines for common errors with the repetition exercise:

  • “Don’t do anything unless something happens to make you do it.”
  • “What you do doesn’t depend on you; it depends on the other fellow.” 

These directives mean that each actor must actively pay attention to what their partner is doing and respond accordingly—think of the repetition technique as the precursor to the improv “yes, and” exercise.

Benefits of the repetition technique

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The Meisner technique can help actors trust their instincts, relate to their environment, and gain confidence in their craft.

  • Improved instincts: Due to its focus on physicality, the Meisner technique can help actors to go with their gut and stay connected to their bodies, creating more natural, realistic scenes.
  • Awareness of environment: Repetition exercises encourage actors to truly inhabit their bodies and environments.
  • More confidence: The technique’s focus on repetition exercises means that actors have something to fall back on if they start feeling overwhelmed during an audition or performance.

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