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An Actor’s Guide to the Meisner Technique

No matter how creative and unique you are as an actor, you can benefit from the learning of those who went before you. The Meisner Technique aims to work with your creativity to help you with the realistic portrayal of the roles you play. Although it provides a framework for your development as an actor, it doesn’t dictate how you should perform a role. Instead, it gives you a pathway you can use to explore the characters you portray and give a convincing and personal interpretation of their behaviour.

Although one can easily write a series of entire books on the Meisner acting technique, we’ll use this article to introduce it and briefly outline what it is, how it works, and how it can benefit you. 

Who Was Sanford Meisner?

Although he made a major contribution to the philosophy of acting, Sanford Meisner was not simply a theorist. He was an enormously successful actor who preferred the stage to film. Despite his preference for live performance art, we can still see him in action in the few films he played in, including Tender is the Night and Mikey and Nicky. He was a key figure in the development of method acting until he developed an unorthodox approach to acting of his own. At all times, his aim was to create realistic portrayals that would elicit an emotive response from audiences. 

What is the Meisner Acting Technique?

The whole idea behind the Meisner technique is that an actor playing a role should never seem like one. Instead, he or she should appear to “be” the person they are portraying. This level of realism requires actors to trust their instincts and explore their creativity, responding naturally to outside stimuli with authentic-seeming emotions and behaviour. One of the best ways to sum up the technique is to say that actors who use it deliver genuine responses in imaginary circumstances. 

The Difference Between the Meisner Technique and Method Acting

In its purest form, method acting requires the actor to dredge up emotions from their own past and express them while playing a role. At first, Meisner genuinely appreciated this technique, contributing substantially towards its development. However, he later came to believe that it focused too much on emotion and left too little room for action. He argued that imagination was all that was needed for realism. Instead of “becoming” a character, “imagining” a character within a set of circumstances would be sufficient to elicit a realistic interpretation of the role. 

The primary difference between method acting and Meisner’s technique is the focus area. In method acting, it is inward-facing – the actor focuses on themselves. Meisner, on the other hand, encourages focus on external stimuli and the delivery of a natural response to the events surrounding a character. 

Meisner’s Repetition Acting Exercise

Meisner’s repetition exercise is an excellent example of how actors use his techniques to express themselves in an authentic way. It also shows actors that the way words are said is more important than the words themselves. 

Working in pairs, actors face each other, and one leads with a simple statement. Their partner repeats the same statement, and this is the cue for their partner to respond using the same words. During the exercise, the words will be delivered in different ways, ultimately becoming a “conversation” that reflects a variety of emotions without any change in the spoken words. Each actor is encouraged to focus on his or her partner, rather than themselves, allowing their turn to repeat the phrase to become a genuine reaction to an external stimulus. 

Actors Who Use the Meisner Technique

A great many famous actors use the Meisner Technique. Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Alec Baldwin are just some of the famous names who have subscribed to this approach to acting. As for those who studied the technique under Meisner himself, 37 of them went on to become Academy Award winners. 

It’s said that many directors prefer Meisner Technique actors over method actors, since the latter sometimes become sufficiently immersed in their characters for it to spill over into daily life. With their outward focus, Meisner actors are better able to “switch off” their characters, making them easier to deal with as professionals while still delivering realistic performances.

Where Can I Study the Meisner Technique?

Most acting schools and centres offering acting workshops will explore the Meisner Technique at one time or another. True to its name, the London Meisner Company focuses on this technique, offering weekly classes for beginners and professional actors alike and has a good track-record of alumni accepted for major roles on stage and screen. The Meisner Technique is focussed on “doing” and is therefore best learned in an interactive, facilitated environment. 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Meisner’s Technique

Meisner’s techniques, taught through repetition exercises, show actors the difference between acting out a behaviour realistically and actually “living” it. Instead of waiting for their cues, they listen to their fellow-actors and respond in accordance to what has been conveyed. 

Instead of imposing their inner self on a role, they interpret it. They don’t do this in isolation, but as part of the cast, using what they pick up from others to instantaneously choose a style that will complement the work being done by other actors in the cast. Instead of reaching inwards to their past experiences, they’re able to look ahead and use their imaginations. And while scripts are to be respected, they’re not incapable of improvising when the situation calls for it. 

On the downside, some Meisner practitioners can become overly rigid, refusing to accept direction. Other critics of the Meisner Technique, though accepting its value in relating to fellow cast members, note that believable performances are not always brilliant or memorable ones. For true brilliance, they require imagination – a quality that, though it can be developed, can’t easily be taught. 

Practising the Meisner Technique in Real Life – and Getting Paid to Do It

Any reading of a script with another participant can become a way to sharpen up your Meisner Technique skills. What is Meisner Technique, after all, other than a way to respond appropriately when delivering a scripted response? Call centre work offers a unique opportunity to listen and deliver nuanced interpretations of simple scripts. Best of all, it’s a way to earn an income while you’re training as an actor and while you’re between roles. 

RSVP, a London-based customer service company, appreciates the value of skilled actors in a professional call centre environment, and provides the flexibility they need to further their acting career in London. Meanwhile, there’s steady work, employers that understand and appreciate actors’ ambitions, and plenty of opportunities to practice portraying a persona that matches our clients’ brands. There’s just one drawback: you might find customer service and marketing even more to your liking than an acting career! 

Visit the RSVP Careers page to make the first move towards flexible employment for actors. We support your dreams and are proud to offer your talent to our customers as one of the things that set our team apart from all the rest. 

 

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