THE CONTRIBUTION OF SANDFORD MEISNER
“If I have any technique as a film director . . . it’s all based on what I learned from Sandy Meisner.” Sydney Pollack
“Take it from a Director: if you get an actor that Sandy Meisner has trained, you’ve been blessed.” Elia Kazan
“It’s much easier to work with people from (Meisner’s) Playhouse, because they’ve been trained to concentrate on something other than themselves” David Mamet
Sanford Meisner was an actor, teacher, and one of the founder members of The Group Theatre in New York in 1930. The Group Theatre espoused the ideas of the great Russian teacher Constantin Stanislavsky, and interpreted these into a set of techniques which came to be known as “Method Acting” – largely promulgated by another member, Lee Strasberg.
However, Meisner later parted company with Strasberg and the Group Theatre, feeling that “The Method” -- while capable of creating realistic and intense performances -- was flawed. Because it was memory-based
he found it to be limited in scope, and potentially emotionally damaging to the actor. He formed his own
school of acting at The Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York, where he taught students to use their imagination and not their memory as a way of bringing truthful emotions to the scene.
Many of Meisner’s students went on to become the most charismatic and dynamic screen actors of their day (Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward, Jon Voigt, Leonardo diCaprio, Dianne Keaton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, to mention a few).
In the USA today the Method is all but dead, and Meisner’s techniques are the basis of current ‘best practice’.
“Acting is doing. Meaningful acting is what you do under emotional circumstances.” Sanford Meisner
The greatest challenge for a director is to elicit a ‘truthful’ performance from his/her actor. Meisner attempted to impart to his students an organised approach to achieving this. He devised methods to “eliminate all intellectuality” and strip away the theatrical conventions which actors may have learned at stage school and elsewhere, in order to get to the essential emotional truth of the performance. He taught actors how to “live in the moment”, and how not to “indicate” their performance.
One of the basic elements of Meisner is “sharing” – actors must “connect” with each other, and engage with each other on an emotional level. This involves the actor listening, losing his/her self-awareness, and living in the moment. It is the job of the director to create conditions for this to occur.