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The Meisner Technique

By Yann, published on 12/01/2019 We Love Prof > Arts and Hobbies > Acting > Grasping the Basics of the Meisner Technique

“Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.” -Alan Rickman

The belief that the majority of actors working in Hollywood have egos the size of Range Rover’s and brains the size of thimbles is often erroneous. While we cannot speak for the select few performers who use their fortunes on selfish gains, there is a vast majority of actors who use their platform of power and influence to promote positive changes in the world.

The world’s biggest stars like Matt Damon and Leonardo Dicaprio have founded charities to help provide clean water in African countries, protect wildlife around the world and raise awareness for global climate change. 

It is true that the influence of powerful actors can affect the way others view things and incite positive changes to our crumbling world. Nevertheless, not only do thespians humanitarian efforts inspire adjustments, but their influential work as an actor can spark change and influence future generations to be better people.

Films with great performances such as Philadephia, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Forrest Gump, Annie Hall and Life of Pi affected the way many people think, dress, speak and treat others.

It is an undeniable fact that a powerful performance from a great movie can change your life forever. 

To inspire other human beings, the best actors complete many acting classes and learn about various acting techniques to hone their skills and be compelling at their craft. Superprof will now examine the Meisner acting technique and the actors who practise it to make an impact on the world of cinema, television and theatre.

Origin of the Meisner Technique

acting on stage The Neighbourhood Playhouse is considered the home of the Meisner technique. (Source: New Play Exchange)

“To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to ever 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.” -Sanford Meisner

Sanford Meisner who developed the Meisner method was born in 1905 and was well known as a theatre practitioner and acting coach. He broadened his technique after working with Lee Strasberg, pioneer of method acting, and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre in New York City.

After a few years with the Group Theatre, he moved on to join the faculty of The Neighbourhood Playhouse, and while working there, he perfected his technique. The Neighbourhood Playhouse, located on East 54th Street in NYC, is known as the home of the Meisner technique.

It is important to state that the Meisner technique is often confused with the Method since they both stem from techniques introduced by Konstantin Stanislavski, trailblazer of the System and Classical acting techniques.

Actors know the Meisner method as “truthful acting” since it is based on and emphasises correct behaviour and imagination. Many actors enjoy the Meisner technique, and in 1980, 17 years before Meisner’s death, a group of past alumni of the Meisner technique got together and directed a master class to preserve his invaluable methods for future generations.

The bottom line of Meisner’s technique is to get actors out of their head to behave instinctively with the surrounding environment. Sanford Meisner wanted actors to perform like real people instead of performers.

Elements of the Meisner Method

Becoming the best performer Improvisation is a fundamental element of the Meisner technique to keep acting truthful and spontaneous. (Source: TakeLessons.com)

Since every acting system is unique, there are various techniques included in each one. Budding actors should not be too rigid and focus only one acting technique. By keeping their options open and learning about many acting methods such as classical acting and Brechtian acting devices, young actors find the way that best suits their acting style.

The Meisner method is based on truth and here are a few components that make this technique different from the others:

  • Repetition: the repetition exercise is Meisner’s first exercise used to train actors. Performers are expected to respond truthfully to behaviour and circumstances from one moment to the next. This exercise equips performers with the ability to supply impromptu behaviour without words and in response to an imaginary event that might be taking place in the scene. In today’s day in age with CGI and giant green screens being used, this exercise from the Meisner method is an essential way to make an actor’s performance believable when being chased by dinosaurs or travelling through space saving the galaxy from imaginary evil beings,
  • Truthful Acting: actors are motivated to perform like real people instead of performers. Meisner emphasised Gestures, facial expressions and body movements that are realistic and not phoney. Many directors such as Sidney Lumet, a trainee of the Meisner method, wanted his actors to portray an intense version of realism that would make any scene from any film truthful. Actors are true to themselves which results in accurate and compelling performances. The bottom line is that no one enjoys watching phoney acting and the Meisner method prevents this from occurring,
  • Improvisation: Meisner’s technique develops students abilities to improvise and access an emotional life. The improvisation skills attained to create a believability and spontaneity in the performance of a character. Energetic and exciting choices that are improvised make the performance of an actor feel more spontaneous in a film or stage play.  In the theatre, the environment of an actor can change quite drastically. Therefore, those who have mastered improve can make any scene truthful to the audience and their character,
  • Imagination: by imagining an emotional scene, actors become experts at reacting and portraying sentiments in the present. A lot of realistic acting comes from imagination. By visualising something that has not happened, actors can sense fear, cry, be angry or surprised etc.

The Meisner technique should be studied by all young thespians looking to make it big in the world of theatre, film or television.

Where to Study the Fundamentals of the Meisner Method

As a result of the fact that the Meisner method is considered by many sources as being one of the most essential acting techniques, there are many institutes and vocational schools that offer the Meisner method for aspiring actors of all ages.

Here are some of the most reputable spots to study the Meisner method in the United Kingdom:

  • City Academy London: two Meisner technique acting classes are offered to interested students. The first is for beginners with no previous knowledge on the method and the second is a level one class designed to improve your understanding of the techniques in the Meisner system. The first class is priced at £139.00 and the second costs £228.00. Students are very pleased with the previously mentioned courses since the Meisner method has been helping young actors to address the most fundamental questions with which actors often struggle,
  • The Salon Collective: found at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London, the Meisner technique classes are taught by experienced teachers who equip students will the necessary principles of this method.

The United Kingdom has great institutes for acting courses. However, here are a few options for those who wish to study the acting methods of Meisner abroad:

  • The William Esper Studio: founded in 1965 by William Esper, one of Meisner’s most recognisable first-generation teachers, in New York City, this performing arts school was named by The Hollywood Reporter one of the top 25 drama schools. Two-year and six-week intensive programmes are offered to students wanting to learn the Meisner method,
  • Taylor Acting Studio: this acting school, located in Burbank, California, was formerly known as the Sanford Meisner Studio. It is the only school that still works with the Meisner estate and has been voted by Backstage magazine as the best acting school in Los Angeles every year since 2010. The motto of the school stays true to the Meisner technique and states, “The truth of ourselves is the root of our acting.”

All of the acting schools mentioned above specialise in the Meisner method and have the goal of making realistic acting more commonplace.

Famous Thespians Who Apply the Meisner Technique

one of the best actresses One of the most recognisable faces of an actor using the Meisner method is Diane Keaton who has ruled the screen for five decades. (Source: Visual Hunt)

“Take it from a director: if you get an actor that Sandy Meisner has trained, you’ve been blessed.” -Elia Kazan

If Elia Kazan, director of classic films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, said it, it must be true!

Some of the most successful actors in the history of the cinema studied the Meisner technique. Here are some of the most famous performers who have considered the Meisner method:

  • Diane Keaton: known for her quirky comedies with Director Woody Allen, Keaton always portrays her characters with a considerable amount of believability that keeps audiences coming back for more. Her honesty and knack for improvisation in dramatic and comedic roles have made her one of the most recognisable actors of the Meisner technique,
  • Robert Duvall: known for his performance in the Godfather franchise, his role as an alcoholic country singer in Tender Mercies and his iconic role as Lt. Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. Duvall acts on impulse and instinct which has resulted in many memorable scenes that are exciting and spontaneous,
  • Sandra Bullock: recognised by many for her romantic comedies which earned her the title, “America’s Sweetheart.” Her no-nonsense performances are always true to herself. Her facial reactions are never phoney and she her emotions always seem natural to the audience.

Other famous performers who have implemented the Meisner technique in their acting style include old-Hollywood legends Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck, rising stars Amy Schumer and Timothée Chalamet, and audience favourites such as Tom Cruise and Jeff Goldblum.

Audiences usually adore actors who apply the Meisner technique all over the world for their authenticity and understanding of human nature. They rarely come across as phoney and rehearsed.

If you’re an aspiring actor wanting to bring truth to each performance, the Meisner technique is worthy of consideration and implementation. The performing arts are at their best when actors work hard to portray real-life characters with honesty and grace.

Other acting methods worthy of consideration include Stanislavski’s revolutionary system and the devices included in practical aesthetics.

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