Thanks, in part, to a man by the name of Sanford Meisner, American acting has a legacy of great acting, which is “Meisner acting”. Named for the well known actor and teacher, the Meisner acting technique is a disciplined, structured way to continually learn and grow as an actor. The method grew out of an acting practice originated by Constantine Stanislavski, the famed Russian actor and director. Sanford Meisner felt that essential elements of Stanislavski’s approach needed to change to make the techniques more culturally relevant to American actors, and the Meisner acting technique was born.
Meisner acting classes involve a systematic approach which begins with simple exercises that increase in complexity as the actor gains skill. Any acting class that boasts teaching the Meisner acting technique will likely use a beginning exercise known as word repetition. In this practice, actors exchange a meaningless phrase again and again, until subtle inferences begin to emerge. The actors are then respond to subtle cues, taking meaning not from the words but from all the other attending nuances of voice, body language and other emotional cues they discover in their acting partner.
The primary objective of this work is to eliminate self awareness and free actors up to focus on their partner. It is also intended to reduce their dependence on the script and develop a heightened sense of feeling and emotional impulse. Gradually, actors move onto more complex exercises that involve both dialogue and tasks. With he Meisner acting technique, emotional preparation is a common phrase which refers to the work actors do to prepare for a role and immediately before stepping onstage. This is a highly personalized process for every actor, however there are common goals to the practice.
“Acting is doing” is a phrase Sanford Meisner used often. Through this practice, the actor goes through a deep exploration of the many layers of emotion a character would be feeling in the work they are preparing for. The activities they engage in are intended to create an entire emotional “library” that they can draw from as they act in the moment during a performance. With enough of this kind of preparation the theory is that a Meisner trained actor will enter into every performance with no pre-conceived notions but, rather as a real character with a fully developed life history and a deep storehouse of emotional memories. This way, the actor is free to react to and focus on the other players with complete self forgetfulness. By playing off of the other actors, the dialogue is not practiced or rote but, fresh and real for every performance.
The emotional preparation one does for a role is approached in a very personal way. Some actors may spend countless hours imagining the specific circumstances of the character, not only in the context of the play but also an imagined history of events and experiences. Or they may go out into the world and experience circumstances similar to the character in very real ways. They may work as a night janitor or spend time with one. They might tell complete strangers that they are pregnant, buy infant clothing and bring it home, attend a child birthing class. Fantasizing fully about relevant circumstances, trying to live them out, is an important part of acquiring the basis needed for an authentic, more spontaneous performance.
The Meisner acting technique calls for a great deal of faith on many levels. First, actors must have faith in the technique. Full mastery requires years of effort. One must acquire a complete library of imagined feelings and experiences of many different kinds of characters. Also, the actor must have faith in his fellow actors, that they will fully prepare and act with the same authenticity and originality during performances. Most importantly, however, an actor trained in Meisner must have faith in each and every action and impulse as they propel the performance forward. Meisner acting classes teach actors to fully commit to the actions and emotional impulses they have onstage, as they have them. This is difficult to do at first but, the rewards of more “real” and energetic performances are great.
Read More: Meisner Acting and Emotional Preparation