April 22nd, 2001
Sanford Meisner
About Sanford Meisner

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

A leading acting teacher who trained some of the most famous performers of the stage and screen, Sanford Meisner was a founding member of the Group Theatre. The Group Theatre, a cooperative theater ensemble, became a leading force in the theater world of the 30s. Meisner performed in many of the group’s most memorable productions, including The House of Connelly, Men in White, Awake and Sing, Paradise Lost and Golden Boy. While still a member of the group, Meisner became the head of the acting department of New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. After the Group Theatre dissolved in 1941 Meisner devoted himself to teaching, appearing only occasionally on Broadway and in films (most notably, in Clifford Odets’ 1959 The Story on Page One).

Over the course of forty-eight years at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Meisner honed his skills as an acting instructor. Growing out of the days with the Group Theatre and the Russian theater theorist Constantin Stanislavsky, Meisner created a series of exercises for actors. For Meisner, acting was about reproducing honest emotional human reactions. He felt the actor’s job was simply to prepare for an experiment that would take place on stage. The best acting, he believed, was made up of spontaneous responses to the actor’s immediate surroundings. Meisner explained that his approach was designed “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

The primary tool Meisner employed in preparing his students was spontaneous repetition. Among his many exercises was one in which two actors looked directly at each other and one would described a feature of the other. After this, the two actors would simply say the phrase back and forth. Because the phrases (such as, “You have soft eyes”) came from a physical reality apparent to the actors, the statement retained meaning no matter how often they were repeated. Another example of Meisner’s method has two actors enter a room playing specific roles without specific lines. They begin to speak and the plot is formed out of nothing but the surroundings. The actor’s concern is to remain in character. Techniques such as these allow actors to move beyond the printed script and address the underlying emotional or philosophical themes of a play.

Meisner’s role within the theater community remained important throughout his long career. Among his more famous students were actors Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Diane Keaton, Joanne Woodward, Lee Grant, and Peter Falk. Gregory Peck said of Meisner, “What he wanted from you was truthful acting…He was able to communicate, and the proof of that is the number of people that have come out of [the Neighborhood Playhouse] over a forty-year period who’ve gone on to become people who set standards of acting.” Though troubled with a number of physical problems, including losing his larynx, Meisner continued to be an active part of the theater community for his entire life. During his final years, he split his time between the Caribbean island Bequia and New York. He died at age 91, leaving behind a legacy of commitment and enthusiasm rarely seen in any art.

  • Brittney davis

    this was good and interesting! but i need more information are u able to give me a location to find the information i need??

  • Victoria Won

    Where can I purchase the dvd?
    Thanks.

  • Damir Ibrisimovic

    My Tribute to Sanford

    Prologue

    Each performance in the live theatre is unique. Unless all of us who read this, together shared experiences of a phenomenon – we will have difficulties in fully comprehending experiences of each other. I therefore propose a different approach to peer reviewing of this paper.

    • The best proxy would be, in my opinion, a shared movie that demonstrates almost all aspects of the phenomenon we call live theatre. For this, I opted for Heath Ledger’s “A Knight’s Tale”.
    • After watching the movie, I suggest, rereading this paper and then comment on components and the whole.
    • Since the watching of the movie is essential, I cannot go into details. I will only state my general thesis and few suggestions for watching. I am also hoping for names of peer review candidates in this, experimental approach to the theory.
    • After receiving few notifications about watching the movie, I will list my peers in this document and then elaborate and exemplify with the movie.
    • After that, we might be able to finalise the peer review process.

    Thesis

    Note that this thesis has Complex Adaptive Systems Theory in the background. With this, the thesis inherits quite solid formal logic and math. The only thing missing are our emotions. Because of that, I will also draw from my thesis on perception and further elaborate on how shared emotions enable us to tune with each other.
    Each performance is a unique phenomenon emerging from complex interplays between following agents:

    • Individual actors and supporting staff that through their interplay enable emergence of agent we call ensemble. As soon the ensemble emerges as agent, the individual members are tuned to each other. The tuning itself is driven by shared emotions.
    • The individuals in audience usually share little. Consequently, the emerged ensemble has to gradually induce similar or the same emotions in the individuals that will help them tune to each other until the audience emerges as an agent.
    • The interplay between ensemble and audience enables emergence of the unique phenomenon – theatre; enabling peak performances. Since this interplay is not enabled in movies, I will elaborate on it further.
    It is important to note that emergent agents do not always follow the presented order of emergence. In fact, sometimes they do not emerge at all during the performance. The reasons are many, but we usually grade them as technically good or bad, potentially good or hopeless… Unfortunately, the reaching of the full potential, when the whole of the theatre emerges as single agent, is quite rare…

    Emotion

    As I explained in my proposal for “Emotional Epidemiology”, emotions of others impact us significantly. We might not be aware of the impact, but we do register it, mostly non-consciously. The awareness of the impact is the highest in the stage acting industry, but even there it is mostly intuitively registered and utilised. It is, therefore, important to turn to the science here for, at least, partial understanding.
    Ensemble

    Unfortunately, stage acting professionals are having a hard time maintaining a stable ensemble on long term basis. The reasons are mostly financial, but even then they are often willing to be paid less only to prolong the life of their ensemble. I will therefore describe ensemble in rather idealistic terms…
    An ensemble is like a mini culture composed of actors, directors and supporting staff. It is often seated in the same building for a long time and each member knows everything within it very well. As each culture, it obtains its traditions mostly through generational changes. And the longer it lives the richer its traditions are.
    The most valuable contribution a culture gives its members is full emotional understanding of each other. This “glue” is often incomprehensible to outsiders, but professionals within utilise it to a perfection. In an ideal world, ensemble would be a constant that would not need to re-emerge all the time before the performance. But our world is not ideal…

    Sensing that, individuals of an ensemble gather together in the theatre at least one hour before the performance. Supporting staff cushion outside disturbances enabling actors to tune themselves with each other.

    How a person tunes emotionally with others varies significantly between individuals. There is not really a common rule. However, working on fundamentals of emotional understanding is critical for (re-)emergence of the ensemble. The tradition of a theatre builds upon these fundamentals and enables emotional longevity of the ensemble. To support this, I can only call for an emotional agreement of practitioners.
    Once the ensemble emerges, it reaches to the outside. Individuals within it often meditate gradually expanding their awareness to the building, surrounding streets and further. Since understanding between tuned individuals is almost instant and often without a need for words, this awareness is extended to the ensemble itself .

    With such awareness the ensemble is ready to act before individuals of future audience.

    Audience

    The major, and most difficult, task ensemble has is to enable emergence of audience as the agent. This could be done along the lines of the following steps:

    • The first step in bringing the audience together is arousing of similar expectations. This is usually done by dimming the lights and manifested by emerging silence in the future audience.
    • One of the critical parts of enabling emergence of audience is to establish a rhythm of breathing. This is usually done by an act that forces individuals within future audience to hold its breath for a moment – enough that the most in the future audience starts to breathe in unison. This is a solid base for the ensemble to start tuning emotions of individuals within the future audience.
    • Depending on the deepest feelings of individuals within the ensemble, the ensemble starts to play on the most likely basic emotions of individuals within future audience. And since prevailing emotions of individuals near us – do impact us – the tuning within future audience is enabled.
    • Usually, the most experienced actors start to fine tune the audience here until the whole theatre starts to revibrate with the same emotions. – And the theatre as a unique phenomenon emerges.
    The first two steps are usually quite technical and could be executed in a rapid succession. The third step is rather tricky; especially if (re-)emergence of the ensemble was not strong enough. This is where the performance is in danger to be technically sound only. Theoretically, the third step should be made within the first few minutes. And if this step is not made, the performance lingers. However, if it is made – the critical mass of shared emotions is reached. And experienced actors are enabled to start the chain reaction in the fourth.

    If we are lucky, we will witness the fourth step made and experience degrees of what follows. There is a phenomenon in physics and music called resonance. And it is achieved through a process we call tuning; with or without “emotional” as an attribute…
    What actually starts to happen after the fourth step could be only metaphorically expressed. Each “individual” is like being “possessed” and invests the most of his or hers energy in amplifying emotions revibrating in the theatre. Each emotion is augmented beyond belief – until – at end – each of the individuals within both, ensemble and audience is exhausted. I have been close to this only twice in my life, and it took me a lifetime to become able to analyse and articulate such experiences…

    Such peaks are followed by a long period of complete silence. As if, everybody is afraid to break the spell…

  • Danielle

    The DVD is amazing. Watching Meisner work with the students inspires on so many levels. The previous poster is right…there is a spell woven as we watch the class work and develop. The hush after each “peak” is for us to catch our breath and collect our wits. We can do this…

  • Reva

    This liitle peace on Mr. Meisner was very interesting and telling, It feels good to broaden my horizon on such good works related to acting since I act!

  • MAX

    I would love too, to get the DVD of the American Masters, but cannot find it is released. Can someone help or is it NOT going to be released???

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