Actors looking for the most authentic performances should explore the Meisner acting technique. This approach uses a systematic series of exercises and a complex, practice commonly known as emotional preparation. Well known American actor Sanford Meisner developed the Meisner acting technique after exploring the system of training actors created by Constantine Stanislavski. Meisner respected the Russian actor’s approach but, felt it needed to be tweaked to suit American actors and the Meisner technique was born.
Meisner acting classes are known for beginning with simple exercises known as word repetition, where two actors say a simple phrase that has no meaning back and forth to each other. As the exercise progresses, actors repeat the phrase and eventually there emerges an emotional context, which leads their acting partner to respond with their own unique emotional interpretation and so on.
The goal of this practice is to not rely on dialogue at all but rather, an underlying current of emotion. By increasing these exercises as the student progresses, adding physical tasks, movements etc. and further down the line presenting more complex relationships between actors, the student learns to eliminate any reliance on the words of a script or pretending but, instead to react emotionally first and foremost. While this is all part of preparing for a part under any circumstance, in Meisner acting technique emotional preparation represents something even more specific.
Many beginning students assume that acting is pretending, as well as one can, to feel something. This is the kind of assumption that leads to poor acting choices, bad habits and less than stellar performances. With proper preparation actors deepen their connection to their personal emotional lives, and then translate that into creating “emotional circumstances” for their character. By tapping into their own feelings and desires, and using them to create an imaginary but true “emotional life” for the character, Meisner trained actors act instinctively and in the moment.
In the beginning this can be challenging for many. First, getting in touch with their deepest loves, lusts, fears, joys and losses, actors must face their own inner demons and most noble selves. Strong, vibrant connections to these feelings must be made to the imaginary emotional life of the character they are to play. Then they must know it so well that they can access it onstage without thinking. This may include the challenge of seeing themselves differently than they ever have before in both positive and negative ways. By doing full emotional explorations and heightening them, they will have a vast pool of resources that they can easily draw from during a performance without having to think about it.
The well known phrase “acting is doing” was one of Sanford Meisner’s mantras and by preparing emotionally the Meisner trained actor has the freedom to step onstage without a preconceived idea of how each performance should go. They emerge, Instead, completely steeped in the created emotional life of the characters ready to commit to any and all actions onstage with confidence and fully available emotionally to the other actors. This allows for more spontaneous performances.
An actor that has worked hard to gain a deep understanding of their own personal experiences and align those with that of their character can explore a deeper more meaningful way to be the character onstage. While the Meisner acting technique is a systematic deliberate practice, many aspects of it remain individual to the actor. In doing the emotional prep for a part actors can approach it in endless ways. No matter how they gain it, their understanding of the deepest human emotions related to the part must be complex, and completely truthful.
Before going onstage, actors must put themselves completely into the circumstances and resulting emotions before stepping onstage. If they have done the preparation work they will be able to transition into this state quickly and completely and respond to their fellow actors as the character with no self awareness at all. They are not acting angry, they are angry and along with that the audience and other players sense other undercurrents of deep desire, frustration, conflict, thwarted love, whatever the character and scene calls for.
As highly emotional beings, humans “do” much out of our stronger desires. Actors trained in the Meisner acting technique prepare by diving headlong into this emotional undertow, and while not always obvious to the audience at all times, that undertow creates an intriguing tension and authenticity to their performance. We are never feeling just one thing and no character should either. From the deepest grief to the highest joy, the actor must find it all with no effort, which leaves them free to focus on the other actors, in a raw, natural way.