What is the Meisner Acting Technique and How Far Does it Go?

A little review of the work on which my studio is based – Meisner Technique, one of the 3 or 4 major American techniques, employed by many actors across several generations, from iconic actors like Gregory Peck and Steve McQueen to Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and James Gandolfini.  Sandy Meisner was one of the three major teachers of the seminal generation that founded the American school – Meisner, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg.

Meisner Technique is based on “truthful acting” and promotes a type of acting I like to call Behavioral Realism, a form of acting that it shares with Stella Adler’s work.  The other major division of American acting can be called Psychological Realism, and is represented by Lee Strasberg’s “Method” acting.  Both have a commitment to a sense of reality in acting, but Meisner emphasizes truthful behavior and imagination, while Strasberg emphasizes personal memory and emotion combined with imagination.

Meisner Technique is known throughout the acting world as a “real people” technique that is able to train actors to appear and act like actual human beings rather than like actors.  The measured and integrated behavior that Meisner-based actors provide makes the technique popular among filmmakers who like to see varied and specific behavior on film, and gestures and facial expressions that will stand up to a tight closeup without seeming forced or phony.  Filmmaker Sidney Lumet, who recently passed away, was a trainee and disciple of Meisner, and his intense version of realism in many courtroom and police dramas and other streetwise films set a standard for in-your-face reality on screen.

This sense of realistic behavior and the penchant for realism in many films of the last few generations has given Meisner Technique and its teachers a reputation for training actors in this kind of street-level behavior and realistic acting, what Meisner himself called “kitchen acting.”  And Meisner’s main exercise, the Repetition Exercise, his well-known original contribution to the actor’s training, has become known throughout the acting world as the major ingredient of this technique.  The Repetition Exercise trains actors to respond “truthfully” – a favorite Meisner word – to behavior and circumstances from moment to moment, yielding a kind of controlled improvisation in the way the actor works.  A Meisner actor can easily supply an impromptu sequence of behavior that can occur without words, between lines, or in response to an imaginary event, as JoBeth Williams – a Meisner-based actor – did years ago in Poltergeist, responding with imagination and specific behavior to the appearance of ghosts in her character’s house.

Of course, when JoBeth filmed that sequence there was nothing there. She was working against a blue screen or green screen and her response was given to imaginary suggestions of what would be there in the final film.   And this brings up an important point: while the repetition exercise teaches actors to respond truthfully to another person who is really there, it thereby gives actors the ability to respond truthfully to what is not there.  The training is not restricted to live interaction or improvisation with another person, but can then be extrapolated to other acting skills.  I would like to say a little more about this and what I feel are the consequences of mistakenly thinking that the Repetition Exercise represents the full capability and capacity of the Meisner approach to acting.

Many people in the acting community, including a fair proportion of acting teachers who teach Meisner Technique, have arrived at the conclusion that the heart of Meisner, and sometimes the whole of Meisner, is the Repetition Exercise and truthful personal acting.  That is true of what is known as the basic Meisner program, also known as the First Year work in Meisner circles, but it is not true of the technique as a whole.  I think a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that many more actors have taken the First Year work than have gone on to the Second Year work, also known as the Interpretive work.

And that is indeed the dividing line between the Repetition exercise in Meisner and everything else.  The First Year work teaches truthful acting and interactive improvisational work associated with the Repetition Exercise.  The Second Year work is interpretive.  It deals with breaking down scenes within the rehearsal process, and even more significantly, Character Work.  What is truly unique about the Meisner training  is not, as important as it is, the Repetition work.  It is the methodology and specificity of its Character program.  Meisner is one of very few techniques that I have ever encountered in mainstream U.S. training that has a systematic, detailed and comprehensive way of teaching actors to fully construct a complete character and transform themselves into “another living being” as one teacher put it.

This kind of complete character work, a subject that I detail in my forthcoming [hopefully sooner rather than later…] book, is the ultimate, highest achievement of the actor’s craft, because rather than being simply the ability to throw oneself truthfully into an imaginary situation – a great ability in its own right – it is an actual artistic creation that represents the fully crafted and imaginative result of the high arts, from painting and literature to the performance arts.

Yes, it is great to be “oneself” and be able to function truthfully in the imaginary world, and it is great to be able to give filmmakers realistic behavior that stands up to the scrutiny of the camera.  But this in itself does not elevate acting to the creative stature of the other arts.  Full Character Work does.  Meisner is capable of delivering this difficult and valuable creative contribution to the actor’s work and elevate the actor, an interpretive artist by definition, to the status of a creative interpretive artist, something that I will talk about in more detail in future posts.  For now, suffice it to say that those whose understanding of Meisner is focused on basic truthful work do not understand the full scope of the technique, and should really look further into it’s most important achievement, which is in its interpretive craft.  The basic truthful acting of the First Year work opens the door to interpretation.  Those who walk through that door have the opportunity to become fully fledged artists.

To make this possible we need Meisner teachers who understand and are able to offer the advanced work of the Meisner Technique.


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