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Acting Lessons from Sanford Meisner

Victory Vision
07/06/2019 0 0

Sanford Meisner (August 31, 1905 – February 2, 1997), also known as Sandy, was an American actor and acting teacher who developed an approach to acting instruction that is now known as the Meisner technique. While Meisner was exposed to method acting at the Group Theatre, his approach differed markedly in that he completely abandoned the use of affective memory, a distinct characteristic of method acting. Meisner maintained an emphasis on “the reality of doing”, which was the foundation of his approach, below I have listed lessons that Great Actors have learned from him.

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 behaviour 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 spontaneitythat is what brings the scene to life.

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

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