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.
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 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.