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What is the Meisner Technique

Of all acting teachers in America, Sanford Meisner is among the most revered. His students include venerated actors like Anthony Hopkins, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Naomi Watts. Acting is a creative and performing art, so there's no universal best way to do it. Nonetheless, learning certain acting techniques empowers actors to be better performers. Among these techniques is Meisner's eponymous approach to acting: the Meisner Technique.

Principles of the Meisner Technique

1. Real vs Simulated Actions

Meisner believed that acting is better when the actor is doing as opposed to pretending to do. He would therefore have actors actually perform an action, such as actually cocking a prop gun, rather than simulate it. This principle permeated every detail of an actor's performance, no matter how trivial it may seem.

2. The Pinch and the Ouch

Responding proportionally to external stimuli, usually a fellow actor, is one of the focal points of the Meisner technique. The "Pinch and the Ouch" is one of the famous examples of this principle. "Ouch" is an expected response to someone pinching you in real life, and the intensity of the response would match the pain from the pinch. The Meisner technique demands the same degree of proportionality between an actor's response and stimuli in the environment.

3. Improvisation

According to Meisner, an actor's instinct is a precious resource that becomes increasingly valuable through practice. He encourages his acting students to prioritize spontaneity above routine as a way to channel their vulnerability and inspire courage. For example, rather than focus rehearsals on script work, Meisner has an actor and their screen partner on their feet using their presence and observation to breathe life into the scene.

Applying the Meisner Technique

Using the Meisner technique involves three essential exercises.

  • Repetition. The actors stand facing each other until the "text" eventually proceeds to something else. Trivial as this exercise may seem, it eliminates overthinking and focuses the actors' attention on the subtext and relationship between the characters.

  • Emotional Preparation. Meisner encourages actors to become "emotionally full" rather than try to trigger their "affective memory." He asks them to tap into their real emotions and put them on display during their performance. Exercises include actors meditating on things that terrify them, bring them to tears, make them laugh, etc.

  • Imagination. Personal experience may not be sufficient to evoke the emotions an actor needs to access for their performance, so Meisner encourages actors to develop powerful imagination to fill the gap. One way to do this is to thoroughly research the world of a character that the actor struggles to relate to.

An Invaluable Addition to Your Acting Toolkit

As an actor, honing your skills is an unending process and you benefit from learning different techniques. Some may be unconventional and strange; others may even contradict each other. Nonetheless, having several techniques in your toolkit makes you a well-rounded and versatile actor whose talent stands out in different roles and settings. The Meisner technique is one of the best techniques to perfect your performance.