The Definitive Guide to the Meisner Technique

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Chances are you have heard the phrase, “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That was the motto of legendary acting guru Sanford Meisner, whose instinct-based techniques have shaped the American understanding of what qualifies as good acting. Meisner’s technique stands out from other naturalistic acting methods because it relies on motivated impulses over intellect. As a teacher, Meisner was well-known for encouraging his students not to “think too much.”

His approach is defined by the verbal repetition exercises he developed to build connections between actors quickly. Many actors believe that these exercises are the key to unlocking authentic characters. (Others simply find them monotonous.) Below, we’ll explore Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting—and let you decide if the Meisner technique is right for you.

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Who was Sanford Meisner?

From a young age, Meisner knew he wanted to be an actor. After studying piano in the conservatory that later became the Juilliard School, he trained with the Theatre Guild. There, he met Harold Clurman—the eventual co-founder of The Group Theatre, an acting troupe that changed American acting history. Clurman introduced Meisner to Lee Strasberg, whose interpretations of Stanislavsky’s System would become the iconic acting technique known as the Method. Clurman and Strasberg had an enormous influence on Meisner—then an eager 20-something—and pulled him into the Group’s ensemble as a founding member.

In the Group’s ensemble, Meisner also met actor Stella Adler, who developed her own acting theories that were the opposite of Strasberg’s. Strasberg and Adler fundamentally disagreed about the Stanislavsky principle of affective memory; Strasberg emphasized it while Adler thought it manipulated and tortured actors. Adler’s and Strasberg’s disagreement split the Group’s ensemble. In the end, Meisner sided with Adler (who was also supported by Stanislavsky himself). 

After Strasberg left the Group, the ensemble shifted focus away from affective memory and instead emphasized “given circumstances,” the conditions that influence a character’s decisions. The shift towards given circumstances made space for Meisner to put his unique spin on acting technique. While Adler trained actors to develop a rich imaginary life to animate the stakes of a scene’s given circumstances, Meisner felt that a mental approach was too internal. Instead, he insisted that an actor must have their actions provoked by fierce attention to their fellow actors, creating tension the audience can observe. 

At New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse, Meisner developed a system of exercises designed to rid actors of their habitual behaviors and uncover organic impulses.  He taught his Meisner technique for over 65 years, starting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and eventually founding schools in the West Indies and North Hollywood. He died in 1997, after a long battle with cancer, at the age of 91.

What is the Meisner technique?

The Meisner technique involves three main components that work hand in hand: emotional preparation, repetition, and improvisation.

Meisner explained emotional preparation as doing whatever is necessary to enter a scene “emotionally alive.” He instructed actors to use whatever affected them personally to put themselves in their character’s emotional state. Actors could use imagined circumstances or real personal memories. But the prepared emotion was only to be played in a scene’s very first moment. After that, all action and reaction must be based organically on what other actors in the scene are doing. In this way, Meisner created a symbiotic ecosystem in a scene where actors build off one another. 

Meisner used repetition exercises to develop his students’ skills of observation and instinct. He believed that repetition gets actors out of their heads so they can rely on their organic instincts. Meisner taught that these authentic instincts, as provoked by another person in the live moment, capture realistic human behavior. 

All the preparation ultimately leads to improvisation and flexibility in a performance. Meisner preached that an actor should not make any choices until something provokes them, thereby justifying their behavior. To react to justified and organic stimuli improvisationally, actors must be fully connected to the other actors so they don’t miss meaningful actions or reactions. This creates an abundant inner life for all of the characters in a scene.

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What is Meisner’s repetition exercise?

Meisner’s repetition exercise (which he called “the Word Repetition Game”) requires an actor to sit across from their scene partner and make an observation about them. The scene partner then repeats the observation back. This exercise aims to create a connection between the actors by ensuring that they are actively listening to one another. Meisner described it as a ping-pong game that becomes the foundation for emotional connection. 

Initially, the actors begin by repeating the exact same sentence, such as “You’re looking at me.” Then they advance to repeating the observation from their own points of view, as in “You’re looking at me,” followed by the other actor saying, “I’m looking at you.” Or, if the actor is not looking at their scene partner, they could respond, “I’m not looking at you.” The Meisner repetition exercise then grows into an entire scene of naturalistic, improvised dialogue. 

Meisner’s repetition exercise doesn’t exactly leap off the page. But once you try it, you’ll be surprised at how the act of repeating your scene partner can affect your own line delivery. 

More advanced Meisner technique exercises build on this foundation of repetition, including repeating a scene partner’s movements and using instinctual observations to advance a scene’s emotional action. 

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What actors use the Meisner technique?

Meisner taught for over 65 years, so many actors passed through his studios. The most famous Meisner actors include: 

  • Alec Baldwin
  • Jeff Bridges
  • Stephen Colbert
  • Allison Janney
  • Alexandra Daddario
  • Tina Fey
  • James Franco
  • Jeff Goldblum
  • Tom Cruise
  • Christopher Lloyd
  • Gregory Peck
  • Michelle Pheiffer
  • Mary Steenburgen
  • Naomi Watts

Where can I study the Meisner technique?

You can study the Meisner technique at several acting schools across the U.S. The most popular Meisner training programs are at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse—where Meisner initially taught—and in Los Angeles, at the Sanford Meisner Center.  

In academic environments particularly, students can fall into the habit of over-intellectualizing their choices, paralyzing them onstage. So many undergraduate and graduate-level acting programs also teach some Meisner.

You can study Meisner independently via the book he co-wrote with Dennis Longwell. Former Meisner students have also written guides and exercise books that provide a detailed look at the Meisner technique. 

Some of the best books on the Meisner technique include: 

What are the pros and cons of Meisner’s technique?

The Meisner technique is great for creating nuanced, modern characters on stage and screen. Meisner’s methods are best applied when you have a long rehearsal period or are working with other Meisner actors. 

One major pro of the Meisner technique is its accessibility. Actors that lack a deep dramaturgical background will still be able to grasp the tenets of this method. Meisner actors also say that the technique allows them to be instinctive and create honest performances without dredging up torturous personal emotions. 

Some Meisner technique critics argue that, while this nuance is excellent for playing contemporary characters, it can lead to flat performances in classical acting roles. Because Meisner technique is built on connecting with your scene partner, it is also best applied with other Meisner actors. Meisner’s command that actors “don’t do anything until something makes them do it” is also controversial. Attempting to provoke a response from an unresponsive scene partner can lead some actors to make dangerous choices. 

How will my acting evolve using Meisner’s technique?

The Meisner technique will force you to be in the moment with your scene partners. Your approach to performing a scene will feel fundamentally different because you will rely on observing your scene partner’s behavior to provoke your acting choices. This will force you to listen closely and react with clarity.

What other acting methods complement Meisner’s technique?

Meisner actors who work primarily in film and television will want to supplement Meisner technique with other internal methods like Adler and Strasberg. Stage actors—who may be called on to stage fight, dance, or recite long soliloquies—should also study classical acting techniques

Stella Adler’s technique and Strasberg’s Method are helpful to understand because they were in conversation with Meisner as he constructed his approach. Many of Meisner’s most famous students also studied with Adler or Strasberg. 

Physical approaches like Grotowski and Viewpoints would expand an actor’s physical vocabulary, giving them more exciting behaviors to play. Likewise, improvisational methods like the Spolin technique are an excellent way to add more levels to your Meisner training. 

Want to know more about acting techniques? Backstage has got you covered.

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