Three Great Acting Lessons from Sanford Meisner




Sanford Meisner wrote a book published in 1987 about his techniques for actors called Sanford Meisner on Acting. It follows an acting class consisting of eight men and eight women for a year and a half. Meisner begins with the fundamentals of the repetition exercise and ends the book with scene work from contemporary American plays. For many this publication is the penultimate actors bible. There is a section on improvisation and plenty of dialogue between Sandy and his students.

To truly receive the nectar of his teachings you must do it! The application of his lessons to crafting your character will only deepen your emotional sensibility as an actor. These three lessons are one of many that Meisner offers to his acting students. Time and time again when an actor gets stuck they are exceptional to remember. Remind yourself of these three great acting lessons from Sanford Meisner and hopefully, you are practicing them regularly.

Text is your greatest enemy.

“That’s what you prepare for. I can’t think of episodes or incidents for you which arouse in you terror, horror, shame—call it what you like. You have to do it by yourself. But if it’s just words, it’s not good enough. That’s the point.” – Sanford Meisner

If you are called upon to play a character that you cannot relate to, for instance, a eunuch then imagine a time in your life when you had to withhold something to maintain your integrity. Since the text is “cold,” try variations on the form using ‘as if‘ preparations.  If you rely on just the text to guide your character, the fullness of emotion will lack in the scene.’ The ‘as if‘ preparation may be required in the dozens to bring life to your character.

The mindless repetition exercise of basic Meisner technique has tremendous value as it eliminates your restrictive thought process. The “absurd” nature of repeating the same words back and forth to your scene partner opens you up to the automatic shifts in your instinctual behavior during the exchange. The repetition exercise of basic Meisner technique ultimately leads to real emotion as it get’s you out of your head!

Daydreaming helps to formulate real emotional essence for your character.

“What if you were a kid and you came home from school much earlier than usual, and you told your mother that the school was closed because there was a big fire and you almost got burned? Now, that’s a lie! What makes your mother believe it? What makes her believe that you’re telling the truth?

“Specifics?” Bette asks.

“You tell her specific things that happened.” Meisner says, “The playwright would give you that. What would make you a convincing liar?”

“Your behavior,” says Joseph.

“What part of your behavior?” “If you believe it—” “Your emotional behavior. If you go like this,” and he puffs lightly on his fingers, “that’s not going to do it.”

“If you walk in sobbing it might,” Bette says.

“It’s the reality of the emotion which makes the lie convincing,” says Meisner.

Daydreaming helps to lose consciousness of yourself so you can transform into real emotional essences for your character. If you are too self-conscious and uptight with rigid thinking, it will be difficult to open up to the possibilities of crafting genuine emotion. To portray a character honestly in a fictitious circumstance, it requires a range of imagination. Your homework and due diligence for character work is to daydream every angle you can muster, loosen your judgments and flow.  The reality of the emotion will evolve toward you.

You don’t need three tons of emotion to color your behavior accurately.

“My point is that his acting was emotionally clear. But had this been a play and not an exercise, on some nights during its run it could be fuller, and on some nights, it could be emptier. But if he attempted a herculean preparation to work himself up into the lowest depths of misery, the audience would all be as old as I am by the time he finally made his entrance. Do you understand?” – Sanford Meisner

There is a nuance required for the final product of your character’s emotional drive in a scene. To maintain pure emotional response don’t overdo it! Unless the scene requires an extreme range of emotions, then be careful to dictate your choices with a natural progression. Being depressed doesn’t always mean suicidal and happiness doesn’t always mean Tom Cruise jumping on a couch.

Quotes Source: Sanford Meisner on Acting

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