Sanford Meisner was an actor who became one of the three founders of the Group Theatre. The Group Theatre was largely popular in the 1930's. The Group Theatre was a joint effort that was started in New York City by Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. The primary purpose of the company was to provide the opportunity to explore and create dramatic theatre in a systematic and deliberate manner based on the acting technique developed by Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director, is credited as the first to approach acting systematically.
The exercises that Stanislavski created involved voice, physical movements, concentration, observation of hum behavior, dramatic arts analysis and the technique called emotional memory. While considered to be a universal approach, Sanford Meisner began to consider certain aspects of this method and practice too European for American theatre actors. He founded the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City to further develop this work. Meisner’s goal was to find a system that would allow American actors to live truthfully and yet imaginatively, under the circumstances they found onstage.
The Meisner technique has been well respected and practiced for over sixty years. Meisner identified that the internal emotions are responsible for creating impulses. The impulses then create external reactions and behaviours. It was the full range of emotional impulses, he believed, that resulted in verbal responses, physical reactions, and voice qualities. Meisner believed that these could all be learned and mastered to create spontaneous, genuine and more authentic performances onstage.
Training actors to follow these natural human impulses freely, without the barrier of their own thoughts and emotions was the best way to get honest, human authentic performances. To be able to perform in this manner, actors have to be taught how to eliminate their conscious fact that they are performing, and instead to react immediately and honestly as the character would, a character that has its own set of emotional and physical triggers and responses.
Word repetition exercises are a widely known aspect of the Meisner technique. During this exercise actors repeat a phrase back and forth to each other about something that they have between them. The actors repeat this phrase back and forth, repeatedly. As they repeat this phrase to each other the phrase starts to take on a different meaning, based on what happens as they are saying it to each other. The words and the exact phrase do not change, but the phrase begins to represent a wider range of emotions. On the surface the exercise appears simple, but the actors’ ability to experience and respond as a real individual is an advanced skill to fully master. This skill requires more than the ability to process. It requires the practice and mastery of complex emotions and reactions do not belong to the actor.
The systematic training of Meisner uses a set of exercises that are all intended to build on each other as the actor’s skill level deepens. Through the experience of more complex situations and relationships the actor’s ability to add more sophisticated meaning and subtleties to the script grows and creates more truthful, spontaneous reactions. The primary goal is to create a lead character that embodies an entire range of emotions, experiences and contexts within the imaginative surroundings of the performance. The master actor is able to enter into the performance as the character, without any awareness of self or the actual performance to hinder their character’s behavior.
The Meisner technique also includes the interesting practice of memorizing lines without any physical movements or vocal inflections. This method of memorization, known as “dry memorization” allows the actors to learn not to speak their lines out of habit or in any predetermined manner. When the actors are performing together then in practice or in a performance, they are more intent on making their responses based on the interaction with the other actor, as it unfolds, moment by moment. When this is done extremely well it pushes the scene forward with a sense of urgency and immediacy that removes the actors’ awareness of themselves. The actors are not merely repeating lines. They are real living characters interacting with each other.
The Robert Winsor Institute is an institution located in Irvine, which specializes in developing acting and personal improvement skills in children. The RW Institute’s performing arts programs are offered in various courses suited to your needs and schedule. We have full-time and part-time courses, short and drop-in classes. All the courses are geared towards your development as an actor.
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