Actors trained in the Meisner Acting Technique acquire a unique ability to engross themselves fully into the emotional “state” of the character onstage thanks, in part, to a practice known as emotional preparation. For example, these actors are not “pretending” to be upset, they ARE upset, a subtle but very important distinction. Founder Sanford Meisner believed that any actor utilizing the Meisner acting technique was obligated to do extensive prep work to develop an entire life full of what he called “imaginary circumstances.” The actor’s job is to paint an emotional landscape that includes a wide range of the deepest human lusts, compulsions, conflict, and feelings which make up the human experience. This is the only way to be interesting onstage.
Classes teaching the Meisner acting technique begin simply but, progress in a systematic way to a complex, multi-faceted discipline. The Meisner technique has been in practice since the early 1930’s and was based partly on work done by Russian actor Constantine Stanislavski. Meisner acting classes are most commonly known for teaching a practice known as word repetition. In this exercise, two actors repeat a simple statement to each other back and forth until one of them organically adds some kind of emotional nuance. This leads the other actor to respond with their own nuance, and so on.
Goals of this exercise are to help the actor not rely on dialogue to give meaning to their performance but, to learn to focus on emotions and the other actors. With the Meisner technique, the exercises become more complex. Simple physical tasks are added and become more challenging. Relational circumstances between the actors are added and become more complicated. This is the just the beginning of the work that is required to achieve the highest levels of preparation. These types of exercises help the actor to tune in to their own feelings and learn to exploit them as a tool for acting.
Actors that are steeped in the Meisner acting technique use emotional preparation to make the deepest connections they can to their emotional life and the impulses those emotions trigger. But, since each of us has limited experiences with certain emotions, actors must also fantasize fully to create strong, imaginary feelings as well. Rather than rely on memory, the actor must rely on a strong vivid imagination that they learn to eventually call upon at will. This is the key to preparing emotionally.
The belief that actors are just pretending when they work is a myth. In actuality, actors are immersed in and using real emotions and authentic actions drawing from a library that they have created. Of course, anything that has personal meaning can be used, but it must be translated and imagined into a fuller, more truthful story, the “emotional life” of a character. Sanford Meisner’s students have the phrase “acting is doing” ingrained because this was the core of his teaching. Actors are not free to commit fully to doing anything onstage, including focusing on the other actors, unless they have done extensive preparation emotionally.
The creativity of the craft means that each actor must find his or her own way to emotionally prepare. Meisner developed a framework but, it is the actor’s responsibility to find the specific methods that work for them. Should an actor visit a maternity ward to learn what it is like to give birth? Does one put themselves in danger to experience real fear? Every actor has to find what works for them.
Actors using the Meisner acting technique find a freedom in imagining and living out the strong emotions of a character onstage. If done well, it is extremely taxing and incredibly rewarding. As emotional beings, any actor that taps completely into our deepest undercurrents of desire will be the most mesmerizing onstage. Certainly, that is the goal that any great actor aspires to.