The Meisner technique developed by Sanford Meisner in the 1930’s had a huge impact on the world of acting. This discipline is still alive and well and remains one of the most common techniques studied today. Acting students would do well to investigate the principles of the Meisner technique if only for the sake of understanding the influence it had on American theater. As an offshoot of the method of acting developed by Stanislavski, Meisner acting classes teach acting as a discipline that requires systematic, rigorous work over a long period of time.
Acting classes that are based on this technique have a deep respect for the human condition, be it noble, evil or more typically somewhere on the spectrum. The craft of acting is a term thrown around freely in many acting classes with little regard for the definition of the phrase. Above all, acting is a discipline and despite the creativity inherent in the practice, there is a need for a systematic approach to master the fundamentals. Sanford Meisner took a systematic approach developed by Stanislavski and adjusted it to be more accessible to American actors. If acting classes are part of an overall system, set up in progressive steps, that lead the actor further and further into mastering deeper and deeper skill sets, than it is likely utilizing some of Meisner’s principles.
Having mastered the fundamentals, a Meisner acting student is able to listen fully to other actors involved in scene study, exercises or during a play and respond freely while concentrating in such a way that the focus is on each present moment as the scene unfolds. The focus and impulse are based primarily on what the other actors do. The greatest actors will make this look extremely easy however, it involves a great deal of discipline and many many years of serious work.
The ultimate goal of a student trained in this techniques is to have imagined and taken in the thoughts, feelings and responses of the character so deeply that their focus is ultimately on the other actors and the happenings throughout the work. They respond immediately and spontaneously moment by moment, concentrating on the other actors and the events as they unfold. Done successfully this gives a performance a vibrancy and and edge that actors merely reciting lines in a rehearsed are unable to give.
The most truthful performances come from a deep understanding of the issues inherent in the story. A thorough, thoughtful analysis of each scene is required as well as each character’s purpose for being present in it. Clues to a character’s feelings, impulses, motivations, history etc. are in the text but they must also be created and imagined by the actor and made real. A great actor breaths reality into all of it and presents it spontaneously and naturally throughout a performance. While actors generally do not rely solely on Meisner principles or any single method, any accomplished actor has adopted some of Meisner’s fundamental principles.
Frequently asked what are you playing or what are you doing, actors studying Meisner techniques are often reminded that they are moving toward an objective not reciting a script. Everything from actions to stillness or silence should not be done without purpose. If the concentration is on the other actors and whatever is happening as the work progresses, the actor is able to “live” the character fully and truthfully in a moment by moment manner. There should not be a thought process involved, just natural, emotional reactions and deliberate committed actions. When done well, a new reality is created that is so spontaneous and yet natural the play has an authenticity that completely absorbs the audience and cast alike for the duration of the play.
As expected, this is a difficult and challenging skill to master that requires years of rigorous training and discipline. The costs can be very high emotionally at times. But, any actor who has experienced living fully onstage as another, completely absorbed in every moment for the duration of a piece of work has found deep satisfaction in doing it well.