“Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
Sanford Meisner remains one of the most influential American acting teachers to date, with an impressive and surprisingly extensive collection of students including Sandra Bullock, Dianne Keaton, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck and Grace Kelly.
Although no one technique can ever promise to provide the absolute and definitive ‘key’ to acting, it can be immensely beneficial and empowering to add yet another tool to your belt.
Below is a brief overview of the Meisner method, its core principles, exercises and application, but should you wish to dive a little deeper, go straight to the source and get yourself a copy of Sanford Meisner on Acting.
1) The Reality of Doing
“The foundation of acting is the reality of doing.”
Meisner strongly believed that actually doing would always be more effective – and simpler – for the actor, than pretending to do. For instance, if the stage directions reveal your character is tying their shoe while speaking to the other character, Meisner would have you literally tie your shoe as opposed to simulating doing so. This is a rudimentary example, but the principle translates all the way from the tiniest detail, to your larger engagement with goals and objectives. If your character’s objective is to convince the other character to run away with them, Meisner would have you really try to convince them. Not just demonstrate the external appearance of what that may look like, but actively strive to do so moment to moment.
“It is my belief that talent comes from instinct.”
Meisner advocated that instinct was an extremely precious resource for the actor, but one that often required practice freeing. He believed that the actor should value authentic spontaneity over planning, and this necessitates a degree of vulnerability and courage on the actor’s behalf. For example, if you were in rehearsal for a scene, there would be little ‘script work’. Instead, you would be largely on your feet with your scene partner, relying on observation and presence to bring the scene to life. This can be a somewhat challenging approach for actors as it may feel too loose and/or ‘easy’, but the result – when one trusts the technique – can be unlocking the most uninhibited and effortless performance.
3) The Pinch and the Ouch
“What you do doesn’t depend on you; it depends on the other fellow.”
Meisner’s method places the focus on external stimuli (largely the other actor), and responding in direct proportion to what you are given. His most well-known example of this is the “Pinch and the Ouch”. If someone were to pinch you in real life, you would naturally react with a relative “ouch” according to intensity. However, in a performance context, actors can be inclined to react disproportionately, or ‘manufacture’ a response instead (eg. at its worst, reacting as if one had been stabbed instead of pinched, or perhaps not reacting at all). It can be a tremendously liberating discovery to realise and trust that you don’t need to do anything more than respond genuinely to the imaginary circumstances present.
Exercises & Application
The Meisner Technique’s most famous and foundational practice is the “repetition exercise”, and for the uninitiated, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
Two actors will (at least to begin with), stand facing each other and repeat real-life, objective observations until the ‘text’ organically moves to something else. For example: A: “Your shoes are white.” B: “My shoes are white.” A: “Your shoes are white.” B: “My shoes are white.” A: (Noticing B scratched their arm) “You scratched your arm.” B: “I scratched my arm.”
What this seeks to do is to remove the over-thinking, self-centred mind from the equation, as after even a short period of time, one realises the ‘text’ becomes essentially irrelevant, and it is the subtext and relationship that really matter. While perhaps a seemingly trivial exercise, this practice strengthens the actor’s ability to fully embody all three of the above core principles, and can prove to be far more confronting than one may expect!
2) Emotional preparation
Meisner was disenchanted by the practice of activating “affective memory” (a la Lee Strasberg), and instead suggested actors worked to be “emotionally full”. This asks actors to dive into deepening their connection to their own emotions and triggers, so that this wealth of authentic, uniquely individual information is readily available in performance.
‘Homework’ could include meditating on what makes you laugh, what makes you cry, what makes you scared etc. and uncovering what triggers these states, as well as how one experiences them within the body. Using these insights, the actor could then honour the “reality of doing”, entering the scene viscerally experiencing fear, for example, rather than ‘acting’ it – a subtle but hugely noticeable distinction.
A key point to highlight however, is that this preparation is only to be used to inform the first moment of each scene. The idea being the actor always enters with a rich, complex inner world (as we all do in day-to-day life), then completely surrenders to the subsequent flow of action and stakes (also as in day-to-day life). No doubt you can easily recall a time you entered a conversation or environment feeling one way, only to leave feeling quite the opposite. Humans are intensely emotional and highly reactive beings, so the same should hold true for the characters we embody.
Recognising emotional preparation based only off one’s limited personal experiences would not always be applicable, Meisner advocated actors developing a strong and agile imagination. A practical application of this is the “magic as if”, which requires the actor to undertake extensive research to thoroughly understand the world of a character they may not otherwise be able to directly relate to.
To take a straightforward example, if an actor was cast as a mother but had no first-hand experience of having children, this would see an actor vividly ‘daydream’ and ‘fantasise’ on the imaginary set of feelings, circumstances and context in which this could feel true for them.
Additionally, the actor might draw on external sources of research, eg. asking friends or family, watching interviews, reading books, and people-watching, to gather a library of additional material to provide inspiration. The actor would then synthesise these discoveries and integrate only those elements that genuinely resonate, and facilitate the creation of a possible alternate reality to respond and act from.
Honing your craft as an actor is a never-ending process (as it is for most things in life), and a great way to do this practically is to expose yourself to a wide range of different methods and techniques. Some may seem wildly conflicting, some may prove utterly baffling, and some just may not vibe with you at all, but absorbing what you can will only serve to build and refine your individual skill set and tool kit.
Who knows, maybe twenty years down the line when you are performing your 426th performance of All My Sons on Broadway, a residual of one of these teachings will happen to click, and unexpectedly unlock yet another layer of nuance and brilliance.