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Meisner Acting and Emotional Memory

Emotional memory has been part of method acting since it became a discipline decades ago. While emotional memory still has its place in the study of acting, Sanford Meisner, whose impact in the theater community is legendary, took the idea of emotional memory and added an entire philosophy and systematic discipline on top of it to create the Meisner technique. One of the most respected techniques in the business, Meisner trained some of the most revered actors of all time, including Joanne Woodward, Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Lee Grant-the list goes on.

Considered by many to be the master of all master teachers, Meisner is famous for his phrase “The basis of acting is the reality of doing.” Emotional memory plays a very small part in this respected practice. Looking to eliminate the practice of “pretending” in acting, one of the goals of the Meisner technique is to help actors to learn to “do” in the moment. Actors must learn how to commit to actions and dialogue quickly, deeply and truthfully so there is no chance to focus on yourself or get distracted as you “watch yourself” act. “Doing” creates specific moments, and real people living those moments onstage. In fact, the true character is only revealed in the process of “doing” the play.

Meisner trained actors do not “practice,” rather, each performance is an experiment that one must be ready for by immersing oneself in imaginary circumstances. Emotional memory can be used to feed that imagination but, it is the power of imagination used consistently, and constantly that gives the actor what they need to call upon at any time, to act spontaneously and creatively onstage.

A series of interdependent exercises that one can work through sequentially, Meisner studies begin with simple word repetition exercises. Actors repeat a phrase back and forth, with no apparent meaning, until one of the actors feels a deep instinctive reaction to the other actor and commits to “doing” something different. While the phrases continue to be seemingly irrelevant, the emotional “listening” one does and the “doing” as they react, are key.

Other exercises use listening and observation. Actors repeat what they observe, until they can both hear and repeat what they hear. This can seem silly to the uninitiated but Meisner believed that these types of exercises are what help the actor to make real connections and genuine emotional dialogue.

With Meisner, silence can be as important as speaking and listening even more so. He believed that acting is not an imitation of life, it is a new reality created by actors who are committed to “doing,” moment by moment onstage. Studying, in part, is meant to eliminate the head work, so the actor is free to work spontaneously during a performance. By remaining open to the technique and having a willingness to put in some very hard work, an actor can achieve the goals they have set for themselves by studying Meisner. Just remember another often used Meisner phrase: “It is okay to be wrong but it is not okay if you do not try.”

Maggie Flanigan Studio provides Meisner acting classes in New York City. To learn about Meisner and other acting classes at the studio call (917) 794-3878.