‘Sanford Meisner on Acting’

We did a bit of Meisner in my acting classes but it wasn’t doing much for me. I’d heard it could be very effective so I read the book to find out what wasn’t working. It’s a good read. Like Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares it describes Meisner teaching students, which is an effective and enjoyable way to deliver ideas (the only difference being Stanislavski’s was narrated by a student, while Meisner’s is described by a neutral observer). Meisner is all about being truthful — stop acting, stop being polite, and start doing what feels honest. Inspiring stuff, but I need to do it rather than just reading about it for it to sink in…

Introduction by Syndey Pollack

xiv Meisner came from the Group Theatre; The Method tradition. For Pollack, Meisner’s variety of the Method is “the simplest, most direct, least pretentious and most effective.”

xv With Meisner you learned technique as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Maxim Gorky: “In Chekov’s presence everyone felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self.”

1. Setting the Scene: Duse’s Blush

7-9 Stanislvaski was co-director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya were taught by him, emigrated to New York and in 1924 founded the American Laboratory Theatre. Stella Adler, Ruth Nelson, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Eunice Stoddard were students there, and were in the Group Theatre, formed in 1931 (by Clurman, Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford) with Meisner among the 31 founding members.

9-10 In 1934 Adler spent five weeks with Stanislavski in Paris to clarify difficulties with the System. They de-emphasised “affective memory” — the attempt to remember circumstances surrounding an emotional event from the actor’s past to stimulate emotion. Stanislavski now thought true emotion was to be found in the “given circumstances” contained in the play itself. Meisner agreed with Adler on this; Strasberg eventually resigned from the group.

2. Building a Foundation: The Reality of Doing

16-19 Meisner asks the class to do things — listen for cars, count lightbulbs, etc. Do you do it, or are you just a character doing it? Do you really do it?

20-22 The Word Repetition Game. In pairs. A makes an observation of B (“Your hair is shiny”). B repeats the words. A repeats them. etc. “It’s mechanical, it’s inhuman, but it’s the basis for something.” It’s Ping Pong. We’re starting to listen to each other.

22-23 Next step of the game, answering. eg, “You curl your hair.” “Yes, I curl my hair.” “Yes, you do.” “Yes, I curl my hair.” “I said, ‘yes, you do’.”. etc. It’s the Word Repetition Game from your point of view. Human conversation.

24-5 The “reality of doing” — you really do something rather than pretend. You don’t do it like a character. “If you’re really doing it, then you don’t have time to watch yourself doing it. You only have the time and energy to do it.”

3. The Pinch and the Ouch

26-30 Next, in the Word Repetition Game, use your instinct to break from the repetition and say something else. Your partner looks bored? Say “you look bored.” If you take your time, the change in you, which is spontaneous, will happen. The opposite of this instinctful action is to only say what is acceptable socially.

30-31 In the game, don’t think about what to say. Your only task is to repeat what’s said to you. If your instinct says to say something different, then do. But don’t think.

32 If you get no answer from your partner, use the silence as a new moment.

33 Meisner says “Fuck polite.” Follow your instincts. “You cannot be a gentleman and be an actor.”

34-6 Two principles:

  • “Don’t do anything unless something happens to make you do it.”
  • “What you do doesn’t depend on you; it depends on the other fellow.”

He illustrates this by giving a student a line: “Mr Meisner.” He pinches the student suddenly, who shouts out “Mr Meisner!” The pinch justified the ouch. The reaction is spontaneous and truthful.

36-7 The repetition removes need for the brain. It removes the intellectuality of improvisation — saying what you think will be effective — and relies solely on impulses.

4. The Knock on the Door

38-40 Find an activity to do that is difficult, maybe impossible. It should take up your attention and there should be something at stake. Once you’re into it, someone else should come in and begin the repetition (eg, “What are you doing?”). Don’t look up, carry on, but continue the repetition with them. Neither person must say anything — “Silence. Until something happens to make you do something.”

46-8 Now, the person coming in must knock at the door. [He’s not entirely clear about the process next, but I think that either…] The person doing the activity lets them in, then goes back to the activity. [or…] The person at the door knocks three times before being let in. [either way…] But nothing happens until you feel it must. The knock should have some kind of meaning.

5. Beyond Repetition

57 Next, the person coming in must have a reason — simple and specific and not death-defying (eg, to get a can of soup).

59 Strasberg and The Actors’ Studio people “introvert the already introverted.” You go inside and can get stuck there.

61 A good actor believes in the given circumstances and eliminates any doubt in the audience about the circumstances’ truth. Intellect has nothing to do with acting. [Thinking about the emphasis of acting on impulse, not thinking about it. How does this not just generate impulsive characters who never think of consequences? Or is this an extreme exercise that you would reign in if playing a more cautious character?]

66-71 Given scripts, the students are told to learn the words with no emphasis at all — completely mechanical and neutral. Without any emotions attached to the lines, we’re free to perform them in any way, almost improvisationally.

71-3 In a scene, you don’t pick up cues [ie, when a person has finished their line and it’s your turn], you pick up impulses [the part of their line that makes you want to say something]. If the impulse comes early on in their line you must sustain it until you speak.

74-5 If you have to look out of a window and see snow… At the Actors’ Studio you’d spend months seeing the snow. But looking out the window is for the audience, not for you. How you feel about the lines you deliver while looking out is already in you when you’re reading the script.

77 He recalls an actress who wrote all her lines out as one continuous sentence so others’ lines always came in like unpremeditated, spontaneous interruptions.

6. Preparation: “In the Harem of My Head”

78-83 Stanislavski originally said that if you needed to access a particular emotion, you recalled a time when you experienced it in the past — “emotion memory”. But after thirty years he stopped using this, and nor does Meisner. One reason: you don’t always have a relevant experience to draw on. Another: the meaning of past events changes for you over time. So, you should use your imagination — this can be even stronger than recalling real emotions. But imagine situations and emotions that stimulate you, not necessarily related directly to your scene, as long as it generates the right emotion. “Don’t come in empty.”

84-6 Freud said that fantasies come from either sex or ambition.

86 Preparation is private — you don’t have to reveal your fantasies to anyone else.

88-9 The preparation is only to carry you through the first moment of the scene. It might not come up again.

7. Improvisation

98-103 Doing the same exercise — one person coming in. But this time the two characters live together (so there’s probably no knocking), there’s a relationship of some kind. The person coming in must have just “come from a strong situation which gives you a springboard for a full preparation.” It must really affect the person emotionally, the situation must matter. Don’t hold back on the emotions. The situation should be “specific and meaningful” to you.

105 The person already at home must be involved in their activity.

105-7 We should be losing much of the repetition now, answering questions more reasonably. The illogical nature of the repetitious dialogue “opened you up to the impulsive shifts in your instinctual behaviour caused by what was being done to you by your partner, which can lead to real emotion.” We’ve moved beyond that now.

110 If you don’t believe your partner’s activity, use that. Don’t be polite and gloss over it — your character wouldn’t believe what your partner’s doing either.

114 “Philip is a sweet kid. … It’s clear to me that he wants to act but that his inhibitions — I blame it on his parents — have crippled him. I seriously doubt that he will ever become a successful actor.” [Spooky.]

8. More on Preparation: “Quick as Flame”

115-6 On learning lines without emotion: The text is a canoe that floats on the river that is your emotions. Its behaviour is dependent on the emotions/river.

120-1 Don’t make your initial emotions bigger than they need to be. You just need to make sure you don’t come on “empty”.

128 “Don’t be an actor. Be a human being who works off what exists under imaginary circumstances.”

128-130 He has two people do their scenes, with learned lines, while each of them does a task (writing an important letter, tidying the room). The task is the river. Then he gives each emotional circumstances instead of the task. Now the river is inner and may change during the scene. They go off to practice it.

9. The Magic As If: Particularization

136-8 If a text’s circumstances are alien to you and you can’t get emotional, use a particularisation — “as if” — “to evolve for yourself a situation that would bring you personally to the emotional place you need to be in for the sake of the scene.” Something real or imagined that has the effect on you that the scene should have.

140 If you’re doing a long run you might change your preparations many times, but the particularizations, “which have been worked out in rehearsal and are now those elements that give form to your role — remain constant.”

142 “Particularization is really very simple and not nearly as complicated as preparation — nor as subtle.”

142-3 There are some parts we can/should never play as we just don’t have the right temperament for them.

143-4 You don’t need to completely immerse yourself in a world to play a part. eg, no need to visit an asylum to play in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

144 Particularisation makes the acting have a point.

145-7 After you’ve achieved basic reality on a conversational level, you must explore a part for the things to which you can react personally. You must know what you’re saying — and what you’re reacting to — means to you. Use “as ifs” to help create your emotional reactions. Having the basic reality keeps things believable, but the emotions, on top, must be at a level above real life or they don’t communicate.

10. “Making the Part Your Own”

148-165 Don’t pick roles in response to your ambition or what your head says. Pick in response to your heart. (Unless you need a job.) The material should come from your gut. Prepare for a piece of text, find what it means to you. Say it in your own words, improvising. Then read it. Alternate, always prepared. Use the emotion of what hte piece means all the way through.

11. Some Thoughts on Actors and Acting

178 “Anybody can read. But acting is living under imaginary circumstances.”

191 In a script, cross out words like “softly”, “angrily” or “she begins to blush” in the stage directions. “Because they dictate a kind of life which can only be there spontaneously.” [Exactly what Hagen says too.]

12. Final Scenes: “Instead of Merely the Truth”

193-200 Don’t speak the lines and expect the emotion to come from that. Prepare, reach for the right emotion for the start of the scene, then talk, and each moment feeds and changes the initial preparation. The river comes by working off and with your partner, moment by moment.

[Then examples of scenes the students work on, and descriptions of how Meisner gets them to discover the necessary emotions.]

Comments

  • Hello Mr. Gyford,

    What a wonderful annotation of Mr. Meisner’s book.

    Thank you for providing it.

    All the best,
    José Angel Santana

    ps: really like your blog too!

  • What an amazing post! I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are putting very good effort into the stuff you post. Keep up the good work.

  • Wow - excellent work on this. I also summarized the book for my own use in teaching classes, and it is so lovely to have yours to compare with!!! You really captured the key points and I thank you for your hard work. All best wishes! Elizabeth Karsell, Director, AuditionBetter Acting School.

  • Thank you very much for this. You’re helping a lot of people with your work and I appreciate it very much.

  • We are senior citizens performing just for fun and maybe something more I just discovered the Meisner technique I feel it makes the most sense to me.Even though I can draw on my past experiences,its better to draw on my characters past experiences via the magic of making believe I also feel that to react is better than -trying to act. Thank you Norman