The Meisner Technique

Acting is a performing art, and just like other forms of art, there are multiple ways to approach it. No matter an individual’s natural talent, to act well one must study techniques and philosophies. An actor is in a constant state of discovery and refinement. Having curiosity, and an open mind is mandatory.

Here at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, we teach acting through the lens of the Meisner Technique. In the Meisner Technique, actors “get out of their head” and act instinctively based on impulse. Meisner Training is a series of exercises that build upon each other in an effort to create authentic, raw, multidimensional behavior, no matter what script an actor is working from.

Acting is a cornerstone of American culture–we know good acting when we see it. It is powerful, meaningful, and it captivates us like not much else. While the Meisner Technique was first created long ago, its philosophy and teachings are more alive today than ever before.

History of the Meisner Technique

Today the Meisner Technique is recognized worldwide within the acting community, but it all started with one man—Sanford Meisner. Born in the early 1900s, Sanford (also known as Sandy), grew up in New York City, the son of Hungarian immigrants. From an early age, Sandy displayed a strong interest in the arts, particularly music. He was enthralled by the piano and eventually attended the Damrosch Institute of Music (which is now the Juilliard School), where he studied to become a concert pianist.

Due to the Great Depression, Meisner’s father had him leave school to help keep the family’s fur business afloat. However, after graduating from high school, he left piano playing behind to pursue another area of the arts: acting. Meisner started acting under the direction of Lee Strasberg at the Settlement House on the Lower East Side. (Strasberg would go on to become a giant in the development of what we now call “Method Acting”.) After acting for a bit at The Settlement House, Meisner received a scholarship to continue training at the Theatre Guild of Acting.

In 1931, major theater-makers Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford formed The Group Theatre, which Meisner joined along with 27 other actors, directors, playwrights, and producers. The ensemble aimed to push the boundaries of acting training and build upon the methodology of Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski. During the group’s ten years together, Meisner formed strong views of developing character that went against Strasberg’s teaching of affective memory. An affective memory approach calls for an actor to retrieve past memories from their own lives that relate to those of their character and import those feelings into their acting. It was during this time that Meisner began to formulate his own method of acting, deriving components from both Stanislavski and Strasberg.

In 1940, soon after the disbanding of The Group Theatre, Meisner devoted himself fully to teaching at The Neighborhood Playhouse, another acting school in New York City. This is where Meisner truly finetuned his methodology–what is now referred to as the Meisner Technique.

The Key Elements of the Meisner Technique

Stemming from Stanislavski’s technique, the Meisner technique focuses specifically on the behavior of an actor. Method acting aims to make use of previously experienced events to fuel an actor’s performance. Meisner took this idea and expanded upon it in his own teachings. His technique incorporates three main components:

Imagination and improvisation is where the technique differs from Strasberg–rather than use real events from one’s life, the actor may use real people from their life but put them into imaginary circumstances. And–for a large part of the First Year curriculum, the actor isn’t using a script, but rather behaving as him or herself, speaking their own improvised words under imaginary circumstances.

Emotional availability prepares actors to mine authentic emotional truth, revealed through action, that can be attached to the character’s circumstance. These exercises work to evoke behavior that is authentic and in the moment from the actor, rather than behavior that is predetermined and rehearsed.

Repetition is considered a key pillar of the Meisner technique. Through a structured sequence of exercises, actors learn to not deliver line readings and become more authentic in their performances. The goal is to stop the actor from thinking and allow them to respond with spontaneity, free from self-censorship.

Listening helps actors take their focus off the self, and put it onto their scene partner. Meisner says actors should actively listen and respond to their partner in the present moment, unaffected by predetermined expectations, thus emulating the way we behave in real life.

Benefits to the Technique

There are many acting techniques out there. Modern acting in itself consists of three differing ideas. Meisner touted the imaginative elements, Strasberg formulated the psychological aspects, and Stella Adler championed the sociological perspective. However, today many lauded actors and companies are turning to Meisner coaches and conservatories.

While the Meisner technique has been criticized for being best suited for television and film acting because of its emphasis on naturalism, the reality is that this training can help any actor in any project improve their performance–all that changes is the frame. Don’t forget, Meisner himself was a product of the theater. By helping actors get out of their own way, the Meisner technique challenges individuals to leave their rehearsed ideas at the door, and act with truthful, organic, spontaneous behavior.

Through this philosophy and practice, the actor gives a performance that is sourced in spontaneity and truth.

Supplemental Training

Movement

As evidenced by the core tenets of the Meisner Technique, actors need to become comfortable in their bodies. Much the same way that repetition allows an actor to become independent and spontaneous, movement training allows an actor to freely interact with their environment and other actors with their bodies and their senses. Through the foundational teachings of the Williamson Technique, actors are released of habitual tensions that inhibit their connection to their true emotions and allows them to connect more deeply to their environment, circumstances, and other actors. Meisner training gets actors out of their heads and into their hearts, and movement training gets the work into their bodies.

Voice & Speech

No solid actor training of any kind is complete without Voice & Speech training. The Meisner training at Terry Knickerbocker Studio is no exception. Actors need to learn how to experience their voice authentically on impulse. Our training in voice and speech is taught by certified master instructors of the Linklater Technique. Understanding relaxation techniques and the fundamentals of breath allows the actor to be open and express themselves more directly and with authenticity. Once actors experience the foundation of Voice and Speech training, actors must then explore their own voice, dialects, and accents, and styles of communication to become truly aware of their own instrument in order to deepen their abilities and heighten their performances.

How Long Does it Take to Learn the Meisner Technique?

The Meisner technique isn’t something that can be learned over the course of a few blog posts and YouTube videos or even an intensive month-long course. Any good Meisner foundation requires at least two years of expert instruction and practice. Meisner taught his technique in two-year conservatories. As he liked to say: “The first year is about putting money in the bank. The second-year is about learning to spend it wisely.”

At Terry Knickerbocker Studio, we wholeheartedly believe in Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting. Our Two-Year Acting Conservatory centers around his teaching and ideology. Through our program, actors of all levels walk away with the ability to act in a way that creates meaningful, interesting, authentic behavior that is simultaneously true to the script and the actor performing it.

Famous TK Alumni

Meisner taught his technique for over 50 years before his death in 1997. During that time, he worked with countless lauded actors and actresses that today grace the biggest stages and brightest screens. Terry Knickerbocker and other acting leaders continue to carry his torch on — and with great success.

Terry has been able to work hand-in-hand with several award-winning actors throughout his years of teaching. What is important to note, though, is the Meisner technique isn’t a one-off lesson. It requires continued study — as it is a fluid skillset. Terry has revisited the Meisner technique with these actors at various times in their careers: