Meisner technique history

Sanford Meisner profile
Sanford Meisner

In 1931, a group of young actors joined together to establish The Group Theatre in NY after seeing the work of Konstantin Stanislavsky. Where early American theater favored a representational style of acting, the Russian theater was grounded in an internal and truthful approach and this group decided they would build a theater that would do the honest life-depicting story telling that he was doing, and in doing so they reshaped American theater. Mr. Sanford Meisner was a founding member of the Group Theater along with a who’s who of American theater; Lee Strasberg, Sella Adler, Cheryl Crawford, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Harold Clurman, Irwin Shaw, Francis Farmer, Lee J Cobb, John Garfield, Anna Sokolow and many others.

In 1933 Meisner broke with the Group’s methods of acting training, he found the method too negative and lacking in imagination. He decided that to achieve his goal of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” a new purely American approach was needed. In 1936, he was invited to run the drama dept at The Neighborhood Playhouse and he put his plan into play by developing his exercises that would accomplish this new approach. He did leave the Playhouse from 1958-1964 to run the talent department at 20th Century Fox but returned and taught full time from 1964-1988 then with age slowing him he would only teach there sporadically until 1990.

Meisner’s technique is not simply about learning your lines and running the scenes; it is about honest, moment to moment, truthful, authentic, communication. This is what makes technique different from scene study. All that any technique seeks to do is equip an actor with tools that allow them to be an authentic communicator, on demand, as many times as necessary. Making any scene look easy, like you’re dong it for the first time, every time you do it, takes technique.

The technique is taught in a First and Second year format. Each “year” takes 9 months to complete and consists of exercises that layer on the next so the process is cumulative, a person entering class midway through just wouldn’t understand it. This technique demands that it be taught in a set of specific steps. Each exercise is designed to create new habits and awareness of your sense of truth. So, one must learn by experiencing and practicing each exercise before the next exercise is added, not in an intellectual or symbolic way. Growing habits takes time and patience and perseverance.