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3 Lessons Great Actors Learned from Sanford Meisner

November 21, 2013 • Topics: ,

3 Lessons Great Actors Learned from Sanford Meisner

I’ve received some interesting responses for our 5 books every actor must own article. Most of them were opinions from other performers on exactly which books and teachers helped them the most.

What I really found curious was actors paraphrasing quotes about “actor’s faith” and “truthful acting“, while at the same time saying how none of the Meisner books really spoke to them.

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind our young thespians of some lessons that Sanford Meisner has taught thousands of successful actors and acting teachers that are passing along his wisdom today, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Further in this article, I will address the public unfamiliar with Meisner’s work and hopefully introduce them to it.

3 Lessons Great Actors Learned from Sanford Meisner

A disclaimer in advance: We’re not going to focus on Sanford Meisner’s acting exercises but rather his theory of what truthful acting really is. And so as to not rewrite the whole book here (which I would happily do), I’m only going to pick out quotes and leave it up to YOU to understand the meaning.

You might notice some familiar quotes that seem to have stealthily blend into the acting craft, but they all came from just one person. I’m now going to quickly grab my copy of Sanford Meisner on Acting book so as to not screw up those quotes that we all so cherish. Let’s see which three lessons out of a hundred can we pick?

1. Actors Must Really Listen

The foundation of acting is the reality of doing.

How many times have you heard that if you want to be a good actor, you must learn to listen? As it is mentioned in his book, after a short speech Meisner asks his class: “Are you listening to me? Are you really listening to me? […] That’s the reality of doing. If you do something, you really do it!”

This is the first and most important lesson aspiring actors must learn. What Sanford here says is that when doing a scene, YOU are the character. You do not listen “as the character”; you listen as yourself and you react as yourself. Do NOT pretend to be doing something just for the sake of it — really do it.

That is the foundation of listening, which is every actor’s number one tool; ergo the foundation of acting.

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.

2. Actors Must Use Their Instinct

It is my belief that talent comes from instinct.

When it comes to living truthfully within a scene, actors must trust their instincts. Once again, you don’t need to pretend to react on your instincts; you just react, without thinking. As Meisner mentions, the problem that a lot of actors have is that they follow only the instincts that are socially acceptable. That is NOT what truthful acting is.

“We fear being branded as uncivilized for liking or disliking something,” is what Sandy says. And that, my friends, is where self-consciousness is being born. Self-consciousness is the death of a good actor.

Here is what he says to one of his students after interrupting their exercise: “Listen, Philip, you have some kind of cockeyed idea that acting is an imitation of life. […] You try to be logical, as in life. You try to be polite, as in life. May I say, as the world’s oldest living teacher, fuck polite! […] You cannot be gentleman and be an actor.”

One of Meisner exercise’s principle is “Don’t do anything unless something happens to make you do it,” because that is what generates instinct. And the other: “What you do doesn’t depend on you; it depends on the other  fellow.” These are important principles to remember, but since we’re not covering exercises today, you’ll have to explore that one on your own.

Working of your instincts brings spontaneity to an actor’s performance, and that is when the act truly comes to life and is much more interesting to watch.

“Let your instincts dictate the changes,” says Meisner. And to illustrate what that means, Sandy pinches one of his students and she shouts “Mr Meisner!” That pinch justified the ouch; it brought a truthful and spontaneous reaction.

3. Actors Must Live, not Plan

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

Sanford Meisner was a strong proponent of improvisation, which allows the actor to bring spontaneity into the scene. Today, everybody values great improvisation skills — it’s a vitally important tool to have. This skill would give the actor enough courage to come into the scene emotionally unattached, and in turn let the emotions be guided by imaginary circumstances of the scene.

To explain it, Sandy used a metaphor: “The text is like a canoe, and the river on which it sits is the emotion. The text floats on the river. If the water of the river is turbulent, the words will come out like a canoe on a rough river. It all depends on the flow of the river which is your emotion.” In other words, you work off your partner, moment to moment, and that is what gives birth to your emotions.

Punctuation is emotional, not grammatical. If you say, “To be [pause] or not to be [pause] that [! pause] is the question,” there are three commas, three emotional commas, and an exclamation point in those lines, but they’re not on the paper.

Additionally, you must have heard this advice a million times by now: “don’t judge your character.” This should be applied to acting in general. You must never try to understand the scene intellectually, from your own point of view. As Meisner said, intellect has nothing to do with acting.

What drives the new emotions into an actor who is ready to absorb? Listening, instincts and impulses. When doing a scene, you do not pick up on cues, you do not wait for the line — you pick up on impulses (something in your partner’s words or behavior that makes your emotions tick). That is what real listening is all about.

To understand it better, think of one of the first rules of improvisation: you cannot prepare anything — you respond to what you are given. When an actor listens to their partner, picks up on their impulses and then reacts with spontaneity, that is what brings the scene to life.

Anybody can read. But acting is living under imaginary circumstances.

Additional thoughts

After you have read this — and if this is your first ever meeting with Mr Meisner — you might have a boatload of questions. Please, read it once again; it takes time to sink in. But most of your questions will be answered in Sandy’s book.

You will hear a lot of opinions, especially people saying that William Esper’s The Actor’s Art and Craft is more complete. And that is true, when it comes to actual exercises of the Meisner Technique. But nonetheless, I suggest you read Sanford Meisner’s book first, if not for the exercises then for the passion of the craft and understanding of what truthful acting really is.

I also want to say that I wholeheartedly believe Sandy was right when he said “it takes twenty years to become an Actor.” Javier Bardem, an amazing Oscar-winning actor says he’s still going to acting classes on a regular basis because he needs to learn how to become good. A lot of our young thespians fail to understand the simple analogy of “practice makes perfect”. Study, learn and practice.

But remember, when it comes to acting techniques, there’s no “one size fits all”. Meisner Technique is not complete — and no method is — but it’s a great foundation for every actor; it’s where you start building your house of talent. So don’t be an actor “staring through the window on the stage for two months to see the snow”, learn how to live in the scene through your imagination.

I now leave you with some words of wisdom from Sanford Meisner and a very inspirational documentary I found of him on YouTube that’s worth watching.

Life beats down and crushes our souls and theatre reminds us that we have one. At least the type of theatre that I’m interested in; that is, theatre that moves an audience. You have the opportunity to literally impact the lives of people if they work on material that has integrity. But today, most actors simply want to be famous. Well, being an actor was never supposed to be about fame and money. Being an actor is a religious calling because you’ve been given the ability, the gift to inspire humanity. Think about that on the way to your soap opera audition.” – Sanford Meisner

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  • Foundstar

    I have been a professional actor for over 40 years. To this day i strive to ‘be’ what Sandy teaches and it is the hardest thing to do…The moments where i a truly am ‘in the moment’ are the most freeing and exciting of my craft. It is a constant struggle and goal which keeps me hanging on…

  • Clark Renney

    This is a very good article and I enjoyed reading it very much. I have come to acting in my fifties and am particularly drawn to the work of Sanford Meisner. I am hoping to study his technique in depth at a good London school and have been looking at The Impulse Company. The main question I have about Meisner was summed up by a Tutor I had on an evening course at Royal Central. She said: “the danger with acting ‘in the moment’ is that the responses become those of the Actor and not the character”. My question then is whether Meisner’s approach is ultimately rather shallow, and does not explore character in any real depth, since the Actor or Actress is only really playing themself. But as I said, I need to find a good school and really understand it fully!

    • Tom London

      Hello Clark,

      Very good question!

      The problem with a lot of actors today is that they are caught up in this hype of “getting into the character”. I personally think that such things as “certain character traits” that Method actors like to use to “build the character” are just unnecessary work that takes from you being good at acting itself. Meisner Technique teaches actors how to *be* the character rather than copy somebody else, and that is their secret – the reason why Meisner-trained actors are so believable is because they draw everything from themselves and their imagination. In a way, one can say that there’s no faking involved. Let me bring you an example from Sandy himself to better explain this:

      Let’s say you’re reading a text, and one of the directions read “it’s snowing outside,” and you’re supposed to react to that.

      What a Method actor would do in this case is try to SEE the snow. They will do anything to make themselves believe that they are seeing snow. But they will never see it because it’s not there; what they will see is a stage manager, somebody yawning in the audience and the guy who picks his nose.

      What a Meisner actor would do is BELIEVE that there’s snow in there using the power of their imagination. They will then react based on that EMOTION, based on how “imagining that there’s snow out there” made them feel, and go from there. You don’t have to actually see the snow, you just have to imagine that it’s there and work off that emotion. It requires you to train your imagination a lot and be good at improv, but that is why Meisner Technique is the most truthful acting approach we have today.

      Please, do not fall into the same trap as a lot of other actors who believe in the gimmick that “becoming a certain character” is better than acting truthfully under imaginary circumstances. It’s not. It really isn’t.

      Anthony Hopkins has been trained in traditional ways of acting (non-Meisner) in two different and great UK’s drama schools. He has since adopted Meisner’s approach, and it’s not difficult to tell how amazing he is at it.

      But in the end, to each their own. Every actor eventually finds the approach that they are most comfortable with and what works for them, so that is what I wish to you, Clark – explore and find what makes YOU a better actor. Enjoy!

  • Craig Gustafson

    “You make it so difficult — acting is easy. You walk in. You look the other fella in the eye. You say the words. But you have to MEAN them.” — James Cagney, while discussing Method Acting with Jack Lemmon.

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