The Definitive Guide to the Meisner Technique

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Chances are you have heard the phrase, “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That coined catchphrase was the mission of legendary acting guru Sanford Meisner, whose techniques have shaped the American understanding of what qualifies as good acting.

In the 1920s, theater in America permanently changed when the Moscow Art Theatre toured Stateside and inspired a few young, curious actors in New York to adopt Stanislavsky’s System and modify it with specific emphases. The Russian style of acting magnetized American actors because of its naturalism, which was crafted through an internalized acting technique far different from the presentational style that dominated American performance prior. The injection of a naturalistic technique spread through America because it coincidentally coincided with the evolution of film and the rise of Hollywood—which demanded a more nuanced style of performance because of the intimacy of a camera’s lens.

Sanford Meisner, the bisexual son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary, was on the ground when the System emigrated to America. As a member of the iconic Group Theatre—an American acting ensemble which aimed to knockoff the Russian movement—Meisner became a notable actor. But his true calling, he would discover, was to be a teacher of actors.

At the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, Meisner developed his self-named technique encouraging an approach to acting that conveys naturalism while not over-intellectualizing the feat. Meisner’s methods, which are still frequently used in theater classrooms to this day, are distinctive because they are purposely repetitive. While many actors testify that the exercises are the key to unlocking authentic characters, others might give a visual cringe when Meisner’s monotonous tactics are recalled.

Not quite sure how to feel about the Meisner technique? Well, Backstage has you covered. Below, we’ll explain the intentions behind Meisner’s method and let you decide for yourself if it’s right for you.

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Who was Sanford Meisner?

Sanford Meisner is an American actor and acting teacher who created the Meisner technique.

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. Clurman introduced Meisner to Lee Strasberg, whose interpretations of Stanislavsky’s System would manifest as 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.

It was in the Group’s ensemble that Meisner met actor Stella Adler—who was a student of two Stanislavsky-trained actors from the Moscow Art Theatre who had transplanted to America. Adler would eventually develop a recipe for Russian-inspired acting that rivaled Mesiner’s approach.

In the Group’s limited lifespan, Strasberg’s approach was seen as revelatory and—eventually—ridiculous. Strasberg stressed the Stanislavsky principle of “affective memory,” re-termed as “emotional recall.” This obsession discontented Stella Adler who saw the approach as psychologically manipulative to less-experienced actors. Outraged and battle-fatigued, Adler found Stanislavsky in Paris and confirmed that the originator of the System himself that Strasberg's approach was wrong.

When Adler returned, the tide turned against Strasberg, and the Group’s ensemble shifted focus away from “affective memory” to put a new emphasis on “given circumstances”—the high-stakes conditions that influence a character’s decisions. This shift in ideology provoked Strasberg to resign from the Group to lead the Actors Studio. The ideological shift also divorced the ensemble—with Meisner aligning with Adler’s rebellion.

The shift towards an emphasis on “given circumstances” made space for Meisner to put his unique spin on the approach. While Adler took the pivot in the direction of training actors to have 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, an actor must have their creativity provoked by fierce attention to their fellow actor—which creates a tension the audience can observe.

At the Neighborhood Playhouse, Meisner created a system of routines designed to discover authentic acting choices from organic impulses that were provoked by one’s scene partner.

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What are the key elements of Meisner’s technique?

The Meisner technique has three main components that all work hand in hand:

  • Emotional preparation
  • Repetition
  • Improvisation

Meisner felt that the process of activating “affective memory” in the scene removed the actor from the live moment; therefore, his fundamental principle was presence and an intense observation of a scene partner. Choices, inspirations, and provocations must be inspired by a relationship to another person—which not only deepen an actor’s awareness but also necessitates that every actor make definitive choices that provoke creative reactions. In this way, Meisner encouraged a symbiotic ecosystem in a scene where each actor must build off one another. This is part of what he called “emotional preparation.”

The foundation of Meisner’s technique is repetition, which removes the pomp of aesthetic acting and also gets actors out of their heads so they can rely on their organic instincts. It is these authentic instincts, as provoked by another person in the live moment, that capture realistic human behavior, Meisner taught. Repetition also creates a system of preparation that gives the actor the courage and confidence to feel comfortable in the scene.

Meisner preached that no choices should be made until a force provokes the choice, thereby justifying it. If an actor only responds to justified and organic stimuli improvisationally, they must be in-the-moment and watchful for that meaningful stimuli. This creates the “given circumstances” of the scene. Once an actor has a clear sense of the “given circumstances,” inspired by the stimuli, then they could create an abundant inner life for the character to draw from, Meisner taught.

Meisner also emphasized Stanislavsky’s concept of the “magic if.” Through his practice of “particularization,” Meisner encouraged students to use meaningful personal experiences to bring dramatic text to life.

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How do I know if Meisner’s technique is right for me?

The Meisner technique is right for you as an actor if you:

  • Find other techniques frustrating
  • Overintellectualize emotions

The Meisner technique can be helpful to actors who overcomplicate emotions or choices with overly-intellectual analysis or scene prep. If you feel frustrated by methods that demand a lot of mental justifying, Meisner’s techniques might be helpful; however, it is not a path for the easily frustrated. The repetition exercises at the root of Meisner’s method can easily annoy, frustrate, and overwhelm actors. It is vital that actors be patient with the technique, as it’s only by pushing through perceptions of the exercises’ awkwardness or meaninglessness that actors become aware of nuanced instincts which convey a character’s emotion and represent clear universal reactions to the human experience.

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Where can I learn Meisner’s technique?

You can learn the Meisner technique around the country at various training programs.

Meisner is taught in most acting training programs around the country because his exercises approach the actor’s craft from a unique angle. In academic environments particularly, students can quickly get swept up into over-intellectualizing their instincts, which paralyzes them onstage. Many instructors utilize Meisner’s technique to mitigate overly-internal or academic acting. In New York City, the Neighborhood Playhouse—where Meisner called home—offers a two-year training program for actors. In Los Angeles, the Sanford Meisner Center trains West Coasters in the approach. Meisner co-wrote a textbook of his technique and training progression with Dennis Longwell called “Sanford Meisner on Acting,” which is written in the same style as most textbooks by acting gurus—as a reflective, narrative account of their classroom teachings in a diary structure.

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What are the downsides to Meisner’s technique?

The Meisner technique’s main downside is it’s better for film and TV performances than theater.

Because Meisner’s technique emphasizes nuance and rote repetition, it has been subject to persistent scrutiny and skepticism. Critics have pointed out that while operating with such subtlety can be helpful when performing for television or film, on the live stage or with classical pieces, it fosters flat and unspectacular performances. When faced with this criticism, Meisner argued that characters in the classical canon are still rooted in humanity—it’s just heightened; therefore it was up to the actor’s level of talent to reach those heights and portray the humanity of exaggerated characters. Meisner called this the “human scope,” and he felt that talented actors could use his technique to access different levels of that scope.

How long does it take an actor to learn Meisner’s technique?

Most Meisner technique training programs last two years.

This is always a tricky question because the most earnest answer is that there is no timeframe on learning any acting technique—an actor’s craft is ever-evolving because “good acting” is a fluid concept dependent on the fluctuations of society and behavior. Actors are always encouraged to be training and refining their “instrument.” That being said, most Meisner progressions last for two years and are strictly scaffolded into different levels like most conservatory training.  

How will Meisner’s technique help and evolve my acting?

The Meisner technique will make you a better actor by forcing you to be in the moment with your scene partners.

You will notice that your approach to performing a scene onstage will feel fundamentally different because you’ll be attacking the “given circumstances” of the character from a different angle; you will be relying on observation and presence to register stimuli from your scene partners and the stakes of the plot to encourage and provoke your acting choices—which will force you to listen and react with clarity.

What acting methods complement Meisner’s technique?

There are two techniques that actors who study the Meisner technique can also benefit from.

  • Stella Adler’s technique
  • Strasberg’s Method

Rarely do actors rely on one technique. Usually, professional actors use different techniques as a carpenter would use various tools in a toolbox—whatever gets the job done best for a particular task. For sibling techniques that emphasize an internal style of acting, Stella Adler’s technique and Strasberg’s Method are helpful to understand because they were in conversation with Meisner as he constructed his approach. After all, many of Meisner’s most famous students also studied with Adler or Strasberg. Engaging in more external training might complement the Meisner technique, as well; physical approaches like Grotowski and Viewpoints would create a helpful juxtaposition for an actor to gain perspective on the craft and clarify the benefits of each method. For snapshots of other techniques, Backstage has a list here.  

Who are some famous actors who studied Meisner?

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

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

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