History of the Meisner Technique

sanford-meisner

At Green Shirt Studio, we specialize in teaching the Meisner Technique, a specific form of acting training first developed by Sanford Meisner in the 1940s.

But where did his method really come from?

Meisner was born in 1905 in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. When he was a boy, his family took a vacation to the Catskills, where his younger brother drank unpasteurized milk and died – a tragedy that Meisner never recovered from.

After high school, Meisner began pursuing a career in acting, and he received a scholarship to study at the Theatre Guild of Acting, under the direction of Lee Strasberg.

Strasberg’s approach was to encourage actors to feel and experience the same emotions as the characters they portray so they can use their own personal experiences to fuel their emotional response to the work.

Today, Strasberg’s technique is referred to as “method acting.” We’ve all heard the stories of actors who have gone to extremes to try to get into the shoes of their characters, such as Daniel Day Lewis only eating what he could hunt and kill himself in the months leading up to filming the Last of the Mohicans, or Hillary Swank living as a man for several weeks before shooting Boys Don’t Cry.

In 1931, Meisner, Strasberg and two other members of the Theatre Guild, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, formed their own theater collective, called the Group Theatre. However, it wasn’t long after that that Meisner began to take issue with Strasberg’s teaching method, which encouraged students to recall intense emotional experiences from their past as a way of accessing emotions.

Instead of reliving past experiences, Meisner believed the actor’s job was to live “truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” He believed that actors need to learn how to respond authentically to what is happening in the moment, to make their performances more real and lifelike.

When the Group Theatre disbanded in 1940, Meisner became head of the acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where he began to develop his unique series of exercises that are today known at the Meisner Technique.

To encourage an authentic emotional response and to get actors to be fully present in the moment, Meisner developed an exercise called repetition, where one actor makes an observation about another actor, and the other person repeats the phrase back to them, repeating the process over and over as the emotions and behaviors change among the actors.

One of Meisner’s philosophies was that actors don’t need to learn how to be someone else. They simply need to learn how to be more honest and authentically themselves by allowing themselves to be affected by what else is happening on stage. As he put it: “To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that’s what we’re here to do.”

Meisner continued to teach at the Neighborhood Playhouse until 1958, when he moved to Los Angeles to become the Talent Director at Twentieth Century Fox. However, he returned to the Playhouse in 1964, becoming head of the drama department until 1990. In addition, he and his partner, James Carville, opened the Meisner/Carville School of Acting in the Caribbean and Los Angeles in 1985, and later opened a third acting school, The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, in 1995, before he passed away in 1997.

Through all of these endeavors, Meisner influenced hundreds of actors over the years, including Christoph Waltz, Diane Keaton, James Gandolfini, Sydney Pollack, Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Tom Cruise and more.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Meisner Technique, our next Level 1 classes start Jan. 8 or Jan. 13!

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