How to build skills for acting

 31 July 2013

How do you use the Meisner Technique in acting? Head Tutor at The Actors' Temple, Tom Radcliffe, introduces the key teachings to help actors enhance their creativity.

"The job of an actor is to accept their demons and overcome self-centredness to find truthful acting.” Image: Tom Radcliffe.

The Meisner Technique defines acting in simple terms: "the ability to live truthfully under the given set of imaginary circumstances".

The Meisner Technique

Sanford Meisner was an American actor and acting teacher, who developed a systematic way of acting following his time with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre in New York.

Meisner says, "there is no such thing as a character".

My encounter with Sanford Meisner changed my life. The technique teaches principles and tools to practically construct your acting, without losing spontaneity and expression.

The job of an actor is to accept their demons and overcome self-centredness to find truthful acting.

Learning to act spontaneously

Living in the moment is taught through the famous repetition exercise – actors are taught to listen to each other and act spontaneously, without thought.

This is incredibly difficult to do at first, because of the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Actors usually resist, try to control the situation or change the situation in some way.

When they do this, they are not fully experiencing the moment. The truth is that the moment cannot be right or wrong. We have no choice over our feelings or impulses – these are the results from our imagination.

Anything other than this moment is an ‘idea’. It’s ideas that divide people – conflict is created when the ideas don't match up, which is near impossible.

The moment should be considered above the ideas as it's here and real. The actor must understand that any division between the two concepts is a metally self-imposed barrier.

Using your emotions in acting

If concious thoughts are the source of conflict that limit emotions – which are created without your control – then the actor must learn to act unconsciously.

The job of an actor is to accept their demons and overcome self-centredness to find truthful acting.

Then, the power of the performance arrives from the emotions, which occur in the moment from various stimuli. Actors can then remove conflicting ideas and act in a unified way.

When initially unsuccessful, some actors may develop fears of poor perfomance and be tempted to 'act' a character out – in essence, fake act. As Meisner says, "you can’t create a character on top of a character".

Using imagination to build character

After this exercise frees up the actor to express unconscious emotion, improvisations then teach the actor how to use their imagination better.

At this point in the technique, the actors are given scenes and monologues to work on. By teaching the actors how to use their voice, body and behaviour simultaneously, they can create the illusion of character.

Meisner says, “there is no such thing as a character.” By this, he means we cannot become Hamlet or Ophelia, but we can do what they do by creating the illusion of character in the mind of the audience.

Why should I use the Meisner Technique?

The actors do not have to pretend to feel, which is untruthful acting. Also, they don't have to resort to using their memories, which is mentally unhealthy.

It is also not responsive to the changing direction that a scene can take, since we cannot change our feelings about the past.

The truth is that the moment cannot be right or wrong.

The Meisner Technique returns the actor to the original source of their creativity and liberates them from fear. The phrase I like to use to describe this is, 'create like a child from the experience of an adult, with the discipline of an artist'.


What do you think of the Meisner Technique? Which other techniques have you used?

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