the trouble with Meisner

UPDATE: See also this recent post, which extends the discussion presented here.

A while back I received an inquiry about my classes which contained the following:

I’m a Meisner-trained actor looking for
a scene study class with a minimal focus on technique. Coming
from a Meisner background, I want the class to be more about the
interaction between the actors, and staying truthful
moment-to-moment and less about script analysis.

This person’s Meisner teacher had instilled in him a suspicion, a fear, a paranoia even, of “technique” and “text analysis.” The first thing to say about this is Meisner is itself a technique. Techniques are nothing more than ways of approaching things, and they are nothing to be afraid of.

But beyond that, this teacher had imprinted upon him a prejudice about text analysis that is more disturbing. I once spoke to one of my mentors at Yale, Evan Yionooulis, about Meisner. Evan chaired the acting program at Yale for five years, and she still teaches the last year and a half of the acting curriculum there. What she said is that Meisner is great for learning to “take it off of the other person”, but not so great for learning organizing principles of working on a scene or a role. “Organizing principles” has an abstract sound to it, but what she meant by that term was this: a set of priorities, when approaching a scene or a role. Or, a set of questions which point you toward the significant and urgent elements of the character’s situation, elements that will unquestionably impact how you play the scene, such as: what do I most need? What do I expect to happen next, best-case and worst-case? What are my strengths? What are my vulnerabilities? What are the greatest losses or failures I have suffered? Who is the person I am interacting with to me? etc. As we address ourselves to these questions in scene work, being able to frame things like who you are in a scene, what you expect, and what happened in the past in a compelling way are critical in rising to the challenge presented by any scene.

The phobia about “text analysis” bespeaks the actor’s perennial fear of being “in her head”. And certainly, text analysis undertaken wrongly, as, for example, an exercise in literary criticism, will land an actor in her head. But that is exactly why it is appropriate for an actor’s training to include a procedure for how to approach the text involved in a scene and a role, and how to work towards identifying what is essential to it.

I have had students in my class who are either taking Meisner classes concurrently or have taken them in the past. They sometimes complain about the way in which certain words are used in Meisner classes almost talismanically, without explanation, like “listening” or “doing”. The idea is that a good actor “really listens” and “really does”, but to say more about what is meant by this is to betray or profane a sacred mystery. Some students are fine with refusal to explicate, and can learn what is meant by these terms by following the way an instructor praises or doesn’t praise students’ work in the repetition exercises. And to be fair, the teaching of acting is always going to be in part an experiential affair: no one is going to be able to explain everything about it. All acting classes rely to some extent on what is seen and experienced rather than on what is explained. However, there is more to be said about listening that simply that you should do it. You need to know what you are listening for, and for that, you need text analysis.

Another quagmire that can develop in Meisner classes is that as the repetition exercises unfold, INITIALLY the emphasis is on receiving from the partner and answering him or her, but then, as the weeks go by, a premium starts to be placed on repetition exercises where an emotional escalation takes place. Students then begin to work for this type of display, and the focus becomes totally wrong. Any acting teacher worth his salt, Meisner or not, will tell you that the emotion in an actor’s work is a by-product of engagement with others. When the emotion experienced by the actor becomes the focus of the actor’s attention, she is experiencing HERSELF having the emotion, rather than experiencing the partner and the scene. The histrionic displays can be impressive, but they are a colossal red herring. That is just not what it’s about.

Meisner is a great approach to study, no two ways about it. Properly taught, it is a great way to learn to put your attention on your partner. However, it has limitations and dangers, like any technique, and in the hands of an untalented teacher, it can be worse than no technique at all.

I met a Los Angeles talent agent not long ago who said that he didn’t need his people to be good, he just needed them to be able to “carry on a conversation in front of the camera”. That was what it took to get work in the acting chops department. And Meisner can be a great way for people to learn to talk and listen naturally. But there is a lot more to acting than talking and listening naturally. You don’t get memorable and inspiring performances without a solid measure of boldness, insight and imagination as well. What is needed is a technique that helps orient the actor toward the secrets of the scene carefully planted by the writer in plain sight, and invites the actor to use these secrets to enliven his imagination, helps her become not just a credible presence in front of the camera or on stage, but a luminous one.

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7 thoughts on “the trouble with Meisner

  1. I don’t usually comment on pieces I read but I really did want to join you in your thoughts. As a Hollywood acting coach for over 20 years as well as Hong Kong, I have always tried to stay away from explaining other training unless of course a client is being physically or emotionally hurt by what a teacher is doing and unfortunately that happens.
    I appreciate your detailed explanation of the pluses and minuses in Meisner training. I do question the teachers that say there is only one way to do and it is his or her way!!
    I really think actors can learn from any class even it is only what NOT to do or that what is being taught DOESN’T work for that particular actor.
    Thanks for your piece.
    Jeanne Hartman

  2. couldn’t agree more. i get tired of indulgent acting that doesn’t know how to focus. emotions are for the audience to have. i could care less what the actor FEELS. i care how i feel as i watch.

  3. The fascination with all things Meisner in Los Angeles IS the current flavor of the last few years. (This is from a friend who studied with Meisner in NY–Meisner actually threw a full cup of tea at him when a scene wasn’t taking off.) Meisner most probably had far more breadth as a teacher than the very methodology that he’s ancestered.
    Actors come in a myriad of shapes and sizes and strengths and innate faculties. They’re UNIQUE, and naturally call for different approaches from a teacher. Sometimes a repetition exercise will work in a given moment, sometimes focus on physical activity will free an actor. A new actor MAY need to blow out colossal emotions in a scene, however inappropriate. Preanalysis can get heady, but it may be just the ticket on occasion, whereas discoveries through doing may work best for a particular actor. Mostly, and especially in this town, VOICE, the core instrument itself, is sadly unattended to. (Why do these Brits and Aussies and Canadians get 1000 times more work per capita than American trained actors? Go figure. Actually, call me aqnd I’ll tell you why : ) So I’m with you. Walking and talking “naturally” does not make an actor. It goes much deeper than that, but a singular methodology is no answer. In the end, a strong, experienced and caring teacher, who avoids making a guru of himself, is what any aspiring actor wants. Ironically, it takes a strong and experienced actor to recognize a good teacher. (Sigh…)
    Here’s the punchline: I teach voice at the Sanford Meisner Center in Hollywood, and am honored to be there.
    Jeff Cohen
    Acting and Voice teacher
    To espouse one technique

  4. Nicely said. I have to agree with most of the posters here in the fact that you should gather all sorts of techniques and use what works. Im an actor and I have been beaten up mentally and physically by casting directors, directors, fellow actors, and it always amuses me when you can see the “technique” as opposed to actual acting. Recently, I was critiqued in a way that made me realize I had grown a bit rusty in certain styles and appreciated the insight. However, different strokes for different folks. I heard Dustin Hoffman speak once about yelling in his green room to achieve a tired raspy voice for Death of a Salesman, and his discussion with Olivier is legendary. A little much for me. But, you know his name much more than mine…so maybe I am wrong…lol. I always liked Micheal J. Fox’s answer of. “I lie. I lie for a living, its all B.S.” So. What can one do? I’m a working actor…granted less and less lately.. lol.. but I pull the technique I need from bits and pieces of several schools… including.. say your line and dont bump into the furniture. Many actors have bigger paying careers doing far less.

  5. Hi. I am a Meisner-based acting teacher in Washington DC. I studied Meisner for eight years in New York, and taught in New York for 15 years before relocating, so I have been teaching for 25 years. The idea that Meisner is only about talking and listening and does not include textual analysis is a myth that has been perpetuated for many years. Unfortunately there are Meisner teachers out there who have adopted this philosophy and only teach the basic work, thinking that it is the whole technique. Meisner's program had two phases – Basic or First-Year work, and the Advanced or Second-Year work. Guess what the second year work was called? Interpretation or the Interpretive work. The problem is that the second year work was done by selection and most of the first year students didn't get in, and they went on to say they knew Meisner Technique, while only knowing the basics. This is true of some Meisner teachers as well. The repetition work is a training regimen that allows you to respond truthfully to what is happening in the moment. In the second year work, that ability is put in the service of scene interpretation, with a number of phases, including a breakdown of what the scene is about, including its background,what you are "going after" in the scene [overall Objective in other schools,] paraphrasing to create an active subtext, and dividing the scene into "Beats" or sections, with a breakdown of what you are doing in each of these "Beats." In other words, a full interpretive technique that is well beyond "talking and listening." In addition, advanced students in Meisner learn one of the most effective character techniques that exists, finding both the emotional life and specific physical expression of the character. Meisner trained emotional work through Eugene O'Neill plays and trained physical character work through Restoration Comedy scenes which have a broad physical life to work with. As you can see from the above, Meisner involves a complete and comprehensive approach to acting for those who complete and understand the full program. Those who say it is all about behaving truthfully are stuck in the ABCs and haven't experienced the complete program. In my own studio I have expanded the character technique as well as adding programs on Film & TV acting, Audition technique and an in-depth Classical technique, so the potential of Meisner is quite broad.

    Robert Epstein,
    Acting Instructor,
    Film & Theatre Director
    Complete Meisner Training
    in Washington, D.C.

  6. I was wondering if the students mentioned in the article were the basis of the problem or was the problem attributable to the poor teaching of teachers who never were students of nor were trained by Meisner.
    The basis of my comments comes from my personal history of having very little training, but the good fortune of achieving a forty year career that included roles in 18 feature silms and nearly 300 television roles.

    I was fortunate to become a professional actor in the late 1950’s when many film actors would not do Television because the money was not comparable or they considered it to be “unworthy.”

    As a result of this, a number of us, along with such names as Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin etc. had the food fortune to work with some of the talented new writers and directors in TV.

    The teacher was a former contract player at Paramount and had been drafted during WWII. Upon his discharge, his former fiance, Lorain Day had married Leo Durocher so he went after a career in teaching. He became a very strong influence on me and urged me to consider an acting career, but “not in film” he said, he did not feel that I was a “leading Man” type for film.

    Ironically, being brought to Fox for a screen test after getting great reviews for a small role in the play “Career” at the La Jolla PLayhouse, where I served as an apprentice in 1957, I was put under contract and given the part of Pvt Abbott in “The Young Lions” with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.

    During my time at Fox, Meisner was brought to Hollywood by the studio to work with contract players. I had a chance to attend his class and work with him. I also acted in two television roles directed by one of his exceptionally talented students, Sydney Pollack, who, when working as a director gave wonderful advice as a teacher. His acting “chops” are very apparent in such roles as Hoffman’s agent in “Tootsie”

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