The Sanford Meisner Technique is studied by many actors and is proven to be one of the most effective tools for actors to consistently deliver truthful and memorable performances, whether they are working in a play or a film. The Meisner Technique is traditionally taught over the course of two years, and the curriculum is based on specific exercises that become more and more difficult as the actors build upon their training. As the actors become proficient with the exercises, they work on scenes from plays that utilize their new-found skills. The three main goals of the Meisner Technique are: 1) to break down the actors' obstacles to acting, 2) to increase the actors' emotional availability, and 3) to teach the actors how to break down a script and play a character that is different from themselves.
Sanford Meisner was one of the most influential acting teachers in the 20th century, along with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. They were part of The Group Theatre in New York City, and their aim was to present works that were naturalistic and truthful. Their acting style was largely influenced by the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski, who brought a profound sense of reality, discipline, and artistry into the world of theatre.
In the first year of the Meisner Technique training, actors begin with repetition exercises that are designed to eliminate the actors' self-consciousness, a major obstacle to acting, and build the actors' concentration of their external environment. Since Meisner actors are taught to focus their attention on something other than themselves, the repetition forces the actors to concentrate on what the other person is doing and how one feels about it. In order to teach actors that emotions very rarely have anything to do with the actual words coming out of one's mouth, the repetition exercises uses the same words going back and forth between the partners, and the actors are supposed to pick up the subtext. For example, an exchange might sound like: "Your eyes are lovely." "My eyes are lovely." "Your eyes are lovely." "My eyes are lovely." As this exchange repetes continually, the actors learn to decipher their partners' emotions and how they are changing constantly.
The exercises then become more complex and require the actors to write their backstory for an improv scene. In these exercises, two actors are on stage. One actor is involved with an activity, and the other actor comes into the room with a specific objective that can only be achieved through the partner. This naturally creates tension since both actors have different needs within the scene, and their exchange must be truthful and emotional responses at all times. Layers of complexity are added by requiring the actors to be clear on the kind of relationship they have with each other (enemies, lovers, etc). The actors are encouraged to choose emotionally-charged circumstances so that they can be "doing things truthfully under imaginary circumstances," which is how Sanford Meisner defined acting. The actors learn what is called the emotional preparation, which uses fantasy and imagination to help actors reach the specific emotional state needed in the scene.
The second year of the Meisner Technique training focuses on character interpretation and script analysis. The exercises get added with another element, called the character addition or impediment. This is where the actors choose a specific condition to portray in the exercise, whether it is an accent, pain, mental impairment, alcohol intoxication, drug use, or blindness. The actors also begin learning aesthetics of theatre, thereby increasing their awareness of the audience and learning how to carry out the exercise as if it were being performed. Once the character addition work is completed, the actors work on plays ranging from Ancient Greek to modern American such as Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. The actors are trained how to break down material and choose an acting style that is truthful to that period and context.
The core belief of the Meisner Technique is that acting must be done truthfully. As Sanford Meisner used to say, "Bore us with the truth."