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How the Repetition Technique in Acting Defines Performance

Ever wondered what makes certain performances stand out with a magnetic authenticity? The best actors have often spent years training themselves at the top acting programs in the country. 

Acting is an art form, and is no different than music, dance, or painting when it comes to craft and technique. At the Maggie Flanigan Studio, students are fully immersed in the full two-year progression of the Meisner Technique

Created by Sandy Meisner in the 1930’s, this brilliant approach to actor training provides a solid, consistent way of working for any serious actor. The bedrock of acting is listening, and this skill is what separates a Meisner trained actor from all others. 

Meisner’s repetition exercise, the seed of the first year training, is the foundation of what ultimately becomes a deep, sophisticated exercise that instills all of the fundamentals of acting into the actor.

The repetition exercise is seemingly simple, but the challenge it represents is surprisingly difficult. It requires that the student become still, fully present, connected to another human being, open and vulnerable to the flow of moments that come to them. 

This is the beginning of Meisner’s technique for training serious actors.

Key Takeaways

  • Sanford Meisner’s technique emphasizes genuine moment-to-moment respones. It teaches actors to respond truthfully under imaginary circumstances with spontaneity and impulsivity.
  • The Meisner repetition exercise is designed to foster deep, concentrated listening. This enables actors to be fully present, malleable to the nuances of the moment. 
  • Meisner-trained actors who go through the full two-year program will come away with a solid process, a way of working that will allow them to consistently create vivid, organic, fully realized human behavior.

How Meisner’s Experiences Shaped Modern Acting

A classroom in the studio showing a wall full of historical photos

Sanford Meisner, an icon in the theater and film industry, boasts a deep-rooted association with two of the most esteemed institutions in the acting world: The Group Theater and the Neighborhood Playhouse. These affiliations not only shaped his career but also played a pivotal role in the creation  of the  Meisner Technique.

The Group Theatre was formed in 1930 by Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman. For 10 years, the Group Theatre became the most important theater company in the United States. 

The collection of actors and writers and directors went on to become some of the most significant creative artist this country has ever produced. Group Theater members included Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Bobby Lewis, Sandford Meisner, Francois Tone, and Stella Adler.

The majority of acting training in the United States has its roots in the techniques and teaching styles of these luminaries.

Meisner, who was an integral part of the Group Theater, often found himself at odds with the method acting techniques developed by Lee Strasberg. This fundamental disagreement about the craft of acting led to the eventual demise of the Group Theater, and two different approaches to acting.

The Neighborhood Playhouse, became Meisner’s playground for innovation, and where Meisner created his technique which is now known world wide. 

Strasberg emphasized on the use of sense memory and emotional recall, the core components of his method, and Meisner sought to break away from it. His belief was that genuine acting isn’t about dredging up past traumas and tragedies, but about harnessing our imagination, and developing and using or innate ability to daydream and fantasize to the acting process.

Meisner’s motivation stemmed from a simple yet profound belief in the importance of truth and authenticity in acting. He understood that the bedrock of good acting rests in the ability to listen, to be able to be fully present, going from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment.

This foundational idea led to the development of the Meisner repetition exercise. It is the beginning of the Meisner Technique, and is an essential tool designed to help actors focus by getting out of their head, into their heart, and onto their spontaneous impulses.

This exercise is the seed for what ultimately progresses in the first year of the training into a deep, profoundly personal, and sophisticated improvisational exercise which instills in the actor all of the fundamental, making them second nature.

Listening Beyond Words: The Repetition Technique Explained

Two actors doind repetition exercises

In the vast and intricate world of acting techniques, the Meisner Technique, brought to life by the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, stands out for its profound emphasis on genuine moment-to-moment performances. At the heart of this technique is the repetition exercise. Let’s delve deeper into these core concepts:

The Repetition Exercise: Beginning with a duo

Every acting class teaching the Meisner Technique should begin with the repetition exercise,  positioning two actors face-to-face, about 10 feet apart. 

This simple yet vulnerable and initially uncomfortable setup serves as the starting block for actors to strip away defenses and become more vulnerable and sensitized. 

The repetition exercise then begins with one person making a spontaneous opinion about something they see on the other. The other actor repeats this and eventually adds their own observations. This forces their scene partner to not only get in touch with their point of view and opinions, but find the courage to be direct and honest, without hesitation or judgment. 

This is quite a challenge at first, because in life, we are actually taught the opposite. Think before you speak, choose your words wisely, calm down, relax, don’t rock the boat, be polite.

These are important life skills, but they won’t help you as an actor. This is what Meisner’s first year training addresses.

Deep Listening: The Importance of Subtext

While the repetition exercise undeniably sharpens an actor’s listening skills,the ability to respond not just to what is being said but how you are being talked to is everything. 

What a person says and what they mean are often two different things. This is subtext. The line might be “You look good in that dress”, but I promise you, you are not responding to the line, you are reacting to the underlying meaning. 

A good actor is malleable to the nuances of the moment, able to respond in every moment to how they are being treated. The first year of the Meisner Technique hones the actors ability to work off subtext.

An well-trained actor knows that to truly “listen” means to absorb and react to both external stimuli and the nuances of the partner’s behavior

Being Present: The Art of Attuned Awareness

Acting is so much more than just about memorizing lines and delivering them. It’s about being alert, tuned in, and fully present. 

The repetition exercise emphasizes this, challenging actors to stay connected and attentive. This allows them to respond genuinely and sponteneously to their partner’s words and actions. It’s a training tool that develops the ability of actors to be in the moment, constantly adapting and reacting.

Deciphering the Layers: Reading Beyond Words

Words are merely vessels that carry the weight of emotions, intentions, and truths. In the repetition exercise, actors learn to sift through the spoken phrases and latch onto the subtext. 

By repeating and responding to words and meaning, actors develop an acute awareness of the emotional connection between them and their partner. Whether it’s a subtle shift in tone or a slight change in facial expression, recognizing the subtext is key to delivering a truthful and spontaneous performance.

Beyond Repetition: Evolving within the Meisner Technique

An actor full of emotion

First year Meisner begins with the repetition exercise, but over the course of nine months, it evolves into a deep and sophisticated improvisational exercise. This is where the important fundamentals of crafting are taught. 

Students learn how to craft a previous circumstance, an acting relationship, and shared circumstances. Another major fundamental that is taught in first year is emotional preparation.

This is one of the major distinctions with Strasberg’s Method. Meinser teaches the actor how to harness their ability to daydream and fantasize in order to induce organic emotion off-stage or off camera. 

Transition from Repetition to Personal Response

After the first round scenes of first year, the Meisner Technique returns to the exercise. The first major shift is the slow removal of the repetition. 

Think of the repetition exercise as training wheels. It’s brilliant in the beginning, because it gets the student out of their head and onto their impulses. You never have to think about what to say.

Once the class gets comfortable responding personally on impulse, the repetition is slowly removed, ultimately allowing for a deeper, more truthful moment to moment communication.The principle of not thinking about what to say never changes. Now it becomes about responding for how you feel on the impulse.

This progression within the Meisner technique moves from mere repetition to a personal response. Actors are encouraged to delve deeper into their emotional reservoirs, transcending the surface level and responding with authenticity. 

This evolution is a testament to Sanford Meisner’s vision of training actors who don’t just indicate, but feel, understand, and respond from a personal place.

Truthfully Doing Under Imaginary Circumstances 

The whole point of the Meisner repetition exercise is to take the fundamental skills which are being taught and apply them to text. In the first year of the Meisner Technique, if taught accurately, students should do three rounds of scenes. 

Meisner lays out the technique very methodically and deliberately. At three different times during the year, the class applies all that is learned to scene work. 

At this stage of training, Meisner was not concerned with script analysis, and the many requirements that go into breaking down a script. That is addressed in second year. 

With these first year scenes, actors do not even read the plays. Over three rounds, students learn how to pin down the previous circumstance, emotionally prepare off-stage, and then come into contact, leave themselves alone, and go from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. It’s important to discover how much can be solved with solid fundamental technique.

Additionally, actors learn how to break out of bad habits, whether that’s line readings, adjusting to the text, forcing out emotion, or merely waiting for their cues. These are the marks of a hack actor, and need to be eliminated from the acting process.

The Impact of Repetition in Theatre and Film

Two actors rehearsing a scene

Repetition is more than just an actor-training technique. It’s a tool that allows the actor to become more open, more available, more vulnerable, and fully present. It is a simple but quite sophisticated approach to training professional actors.

Here’s how repetition has become an indispensable tool in shaping a well-trained actor..

Trains the actor’s focus

Repetition teaches an actor the art of attentive listening. It’s not about just hearing words. It’s also about absorbing the meaning of what is being said, the subtext of the moment. It gets the actor out of their head, their placement of concentration on the other person, and onto their spontaneous impulses., 

This fine-tuned hearing allows for something that is beyond the merely superficial. Listening, truly hearing what is being said and how, and ultimately taking that personally is what will allow for a rich experience not only for the actors, but for the audience.

Builds emotional resilience

We can probably all count on one hand the most vivid emotional experiences of our lives—the heartbreak, the grief, the shame, humiliation, joy, and rage of the human experience. For the actor however, those emotions must be accessible eight shows a week, or 15 takes on a set. 

The first year Meisner Technique not only gives permission for the actor to explore the whole range of human emotion, but over the year, creates an actor who is comfortable functioning from all aspects of our humanity. 

Elevates performances both on-stage and screen

The most important thing to know is that acting is acting, regardless of the medium. The ability to do truthfully under imaginary circumstances is the definition of acting regardless if it takes place on camera or on stage. 

Yes, there are different techniques to consider for filling a stage, or the simplicity of the camera, but the necessary fundamentals are the same.

Maggie Flanigan Studio’s Emphasis on the Meisner Repetition Technique

Charlie Sandlan and a student sitted inside the classroom

At the Maggie Flanigan Studio, the heart of the two-year professional acting conservatory is rooted in the full, accurate progression of the Meisner Technique. It is taught by Artistic Director & Master Teacher Charlie Sandlan, who has spent the last three decades committed to the art form, and the last 20 years mastering the teaching of Meisner’s work.

Our unique approach to training actors using repetition

Maggie Flanigan Studio was founded by master teacher Maggie Flanigan, whose 40-year career led her to become the most revered Meisner Teacher in the United States. Her belief in a small, boutique studio with the highest professional expectations, and rigorous standards is what makes MFS unique from the countless studio’s that claim to teach acting. 

Charlie and Maggie have devoted their entire professional life to not just the Meisner Technique, but to the art of teaching. They possess the ability to create a nurturing, safe space for students to operate outside their comfort zone, but also challenged to work like serious artists.

Testimonials: The living proof of repetition’s impact

Actors from our studio often speak of their transformation. Notable names like Sam Rockwell are testimonials of the technique’s effectiveness. 

Their performances echo our studio’s training—always listening, always present. Our studio’s commitment to the repetition technique molds actors to resonate truth and raw emotion in every performance.

Summary

The repetition exercise, a cornerstone of Meisner’s acting technique, emphasizes real moment-to-moment connections between actors. By observing and repeating spontaneously, actors get out of their head, into their heart, and onto their impulses.

Indeed, the benefits of this exercise are numerous—including crafting in a simple, specific, and personal way, emotional ease and fluidity, and truthful moment to moment sponteneity.

An acting technique pioneered by Sanford Meisner and championed by institutions like the Maggie Flanigan Studio, this method has empowered actors, such as Sam Rockwel and James Gandolifinl, to deliver performances rooted in truth and raw emotion.

The Repetition Journey at Maggie Flanigan Studio

The repetition exercise is a transformative tool, designed to amplify your on-stage and on-screen performances. Creating organic behavior is the actors job, and this training makes that something consistent for the serious actor.

At Maggie Flanigan Studio, we prioritize hard work, attention to detail, and a commitment to artistry. This fool-proof technique is the core of the Maggie Flanigan Studio, and our high standards will challenge and inspire the serious student to become a first-rate professional and interesting actor.

Ready to elevate your acting skills? Reach out to us today and begin your path to acting excellence.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is repetition important in acting? 

Repetition in acting serves as the foundational tool of the Meisner Technique. It streamlines an actor’s ability to truly listen, be fully present, and respond authentically and spontaneously in every moment. This allows for an actor grounded in fundamental skill, vulnerable, empathic, and able to work from their heart.

How is repetition used in acting? 

The repetition exercise is the seed to a very deep and sophisticated improvisational exercise created by Sandy Meisner. The best actors are able to respond personally from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. 

This requires a continual sense of surprise and curiosity. The actors job is to create behavior, and the full progression of Meisner’s repetition exercise in first year provides the fundamental skills necessary to create the flawless illusion of life.

What is an example of a repetition exercise? 

The very beginning of the classic repetition exercise involves two actors standing face-to-face. One actor shares a spontaneous opinion about something they see on the other, such as “I love the color blue you are wearing.” The other actor then repeats the observation with a personal response, repeating, “You love the color blue I’m wearing.”

These moments continue until they pile up into a change. As the exercise progresses, actors learn how to make the organic impulse changes that ultimately make the Meisner Technique a lively, spontaneous, and deeply personal experience.

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