What Is the Meisner Method of Acting?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Meisner method of acting is named for its inventor, Sanford Meisner. This popular acting technique is based on a total understanding of yourself, your character and the surrounding of any given scene or play. The goal of Meisner method is to eliminate the actor on the stage, leaving a character that exists completely within the moment.

The Meisner method focuses on the character rather than the actor.
The Meisner method focuses on the character rather than the actor.

Sanford Meisner was born in 1905 in New York to an immigrant family. As a professional actor, he was a founding member of the influential Group Theater, which is responsible for much of modern American acting theory. Starting from 1935, Meisner worked to develop his own approach to acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse where he headed the Drama Department. The theories of Lee Strasberg, the Russian theater master Constantin Stanislovski, and the work of Stella Adler also influenced him.

The Meisner method is based on a total understanding of oneself and one's character.
The Meisner method is based on a total understanding of oneself and one's character.

The founding principle of Meisner method is total commitment to the character’s objective. You must fully understand what the character wants and be committed to getting it, in order to truly become the character. This is combined with training in concentrated focus on the other characters in a scene, those who may provide help or obstacles on the path to achieving an objective. Meisner method students go through a variety of exercises to help them refine these goals.

Repetition exercises are usually the first thing done by Meisner students, although they can seem extremely disorienting to theater beginners. In the classic repetition form, a phrase is repeated between two partners to see if they can attain spontaneity between the two of them. For instance, one actor will say “You have a glass of water,” and the other will reply “I have a glass of water.” The phrase is then repeated over and over, with each partner building on the inflection and subtext the other is giving the phrase. This exercise removes the importance of complex memorization or unclear motives, and allows partners to just concentrate on one another.

The key to Meisner method acting is that you must personalize the character. The theory suggests that to do so, you must reflect to discover that if you were in the character’s situation, what circumstances would impel you to make the same choices that they make. By identifying with the character and discovering how you would act as they do, you eliminate the barrier between actor and character. You are never supposed to “act” in Meisner method, you are only supposed to “be.”

Although Meisner method seems incredibly rigid, Sanford Meisner was quick to point out that it was not the only way to achieve good acting, nor was it the best way for everyone. Studying Meisner technique is recommended for young actors, as it instills some valuable lessons of preparation and focus. While not many actors follow Meisner method exclusively, its principles are extremely valuable to actors, and are an excellent building block to help discover your own acting style.

The Meisner method is an excellent building block to help actors discover their own acting style.
The Meisner method is an excellent building block to help actors discover their own acting style.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Armas1313: Having worked in both the worlds of acting and business, it is my opinion that the most truly dangerous deceivers are to be found in the home, on the way to work and when you get there.

Actors are constantly reminded there is a dichotomy between what happens on the stage or screen and what is “real” after the makeup has been removed. A manager, spouse or salesperson has “really important reasons” to reach their goals and their deception takes place in the world that they perceive as being the only real one. In fact, at the workplace, it can be the mom or grand-mom from next door who ends up most reminding you of Hannibal Lecter. And the higher you rise in a company (in politics, religion or national defense), the more individuals you will find who reached their positions by having developed the capacity to manipulate others in what they perceive to be the real world.

There are a lot of psychos up there, next door, in the sales department trying to sell you a whatever, in the next room, but no one tells them “that’s a wrap”, has them take their bows and sends them home. They are perpetually trapped in the illusion with you. This state of self-contradiction is known by many under the moniker of “real life”.

You’ve really got to watch those non-actors. They never know when the play is over. --J.H.


@Anon1313: There is a big difference between acting and lying. An actor works to achieve honesty on stage because it is their talent/craft. Their focus is not to deceive but to bring life to the stage so that an audience is, for a short time, swept from their reality and into another world. Do people lie? Sure, but liars make terrible actors. I'll say OJ Simpson and rest my case.


I think the author has got meisner wrong. It's not about achieving your objective at any cost, Meisner is against that. That is Stanislavski and The Method.

Meisner is about putting all your attention on the other actor/s and letting your objective be flexible and malleable in regards to what the other people on stage make you do.

The method makes you become a character, and live like them as you use your own experiences to create the character, which I think is mentally exhausting. Meisner was against all that. You should know that you're acting and it's your imagination that take you to the places that the character goes, not your own experiences.

I trained with Bill Esper who trained with Meisner as a teacher for 15 years.


I worry that people can get so lost in the world of acting that they lose touch with reality. After memorizing a large number of lines for a long period of time, phrases and ideas get stuck in the subconscious which might actually affect a person in real life. I wonder if actors with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia relapse into acting roles.


Directing is like engineering. You have to understand what each part has to play in the general machine of the storyline. Each actor needs to be properly selected to convey the part that they must play perfectly and in sync with everyone else. In a movie, even one misplaced or miscast part can ruin the whole thing. That is why making a movie requires both the mind of an artist and the mind of an engineer.



I think that you have to trust that everybody is human, and therefore, everybody needs to be themselves sometimes. Instead of dismissing actors as untrustworthy, it is better to recognize that they are people too, with all-too-human problems, just like everybody else (and often worse than everybody else).


People who can effectively employ the Meisner method scare me. If they are able to so convincingly become someone who they aren't, how do I know they won't be pretending in real life? A truly good actor could effectively make me think they're my friend, just to get a buck out of me.

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