Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!
I created it so that I could share acting tips with you; things I've learned over the years, working on set, teaching classes, coaching actors, auditioning actors, etc.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Method vs Meisner, Part 1: The Meisner Technique

As an acting coach for movies and TV shows, I work with actors that are trained in different methodologies. So I see how different training affects different actors. I never advocate one technique over the others simply because I have seen brilliant performances from actors trained by Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen and Harold Clurman and Sonia Moore, and many others. 

This does not mean, however, that all these techniques are the same. They most decidedly are not.  Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.  But rather than argue about which technique is best, I prefer to examine how they can work together to provide an actor with a complete "toolkit". 

Lee Strasberg
For the purposes of this blog I am going to discuss only two techniques: Method and Meisner.  I use these two, not because they are better than everything else, but simply because they seem to be completely opposite from one another (at least on the surface) and therefore, complement each other.  Also, they are the two techniques that I see the most actors trained in, in movies and TV today.  Lee Strasberg created The Method and Sanford Meisner created The Meisner Technique.
Sanford Meisner

First up - The Meisner Technique...

Meisner trained actors excel at working off other actors. Nobody listens and reacts as truthfully as a Meisner actor. Nobody. With Meisner, it’s always real. It may not always be brilliant but it’s always real. Meisner training helps you enter a scene “emotionally full” and it helps anchor you in the imaginary circumstances, which trigger more real emotions throughout the scene.  Where the Meisner technique is weaker is when the other actor is not very good (or not there at all!). Meisner actors tend to have trouble with that because they have less to work off of.

Meisner's "Repetition" exercises are the Sit-Ups of the Meisner Technique. If you do them once or twice, or even every day for a week, you will not get much of a result. But, if you do them for weeks and months and eventually years, the results will be considerable. Stick with it and it will pay off. The only difficulty is that (unlike Method) you can't practice the exercises by yourself.  You need another actor to work with. After you get a handle on Repetition you'll add in "Independent Activities" and then "Emotional Preparation".  These are what I call the three pillars of the Meisner Technique.  For more on how the Meisner Technique works, either read up on it or get into CLASS!  In the meantime, here's an example of the Meisner Technique being used in the workplace...

Flashback: Ten years ago.  I’m coaching a celebrity actress in a national TV show. I say “celebrity” because she really hadn’t trained as an actress. She was hired because she was an internationally known model and I was asked to focus on her during the course of the season. I had introduced her to some of the concepts of the Meisner Technique and we had done some exercises, but that’s as far as we had gotten. 

I was working with her in her trailer,
(No, it wasn't THIS trailer!)
  on a scene in which she was supposed to slap another actor and she was stressing about it. I pointed out that the director had told me that she wasn’t going to really slap him because it wasn’t necessary from the angle they were shooting it from. This relaxed her a bit but when we ran through the scene she had trouble with her reaction to having slapped him (which, in the story, should have been a complex emotional response to having hit him). 

When we got to set and shot the Master shot I realized she wasn’t cutting it. Her reaction after the slap was flat. When it was time to shoot her close-up, the director told her some of the emotions he thought she should be feeling (and even described what he thought her face should look like!) but to no avail. She was becoming more and more self-conscious and less believable with every take.

Well, we were losing light as they say, the crew was losing patience, and the director was giving me a look like “can’t you do something? What are we paying you for?” I resisted the urge to say "she would have been fine if you hadn't told her what faces you wanted her to make!" And instead I smiled confidently and started to walk toward the actress when I had an idea.  I stopped and turned to the other actor in the scene.  I took him aside, the one that was getting slapped, and I asked him if he would mind “taking one for the team”. He was a pro who understood immediately what I was getting at and agreed. In other words, he would step in a little when she slapped him so that he would actually get hit! The only thing I said to the actress was to “remember your training, live in the imaginary circumstances and stay in the scene no matter what”.

All I can say is, you can’t believe the complexity of her reaction when she slapped him. She was shocked that she had hit him and a little scared. She still had the residue anger from the scene and all the emotions were real and evident in her eyes. After she slapped him she stared at him for about ten seconds, eyes full of emotion, until the director said "Cut, print, BEAUTIFUL, moving on!” And the director was so pleased he actually gave me a cigar! Later, when I watched the dailies, I couldn’t believe how well she had done. There is no substitute for real emotion. And all because she reacted truthfully (a la Meisner) to what actually happened in the scene. But the best part is that it was a damn good (Cuban) cigar! 

So this was an example of the Meisner Technique helping an actor on set. But this doesn’t mean I think a Meisner trained actor is complete – I don’t. I am brought back again to two master teachers, Meisner and Strasberg. I depend heavily on both of these teachers when I teach my own classes. They complement each perfectly. They both have weaknesses, and they both compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Next blog: Method vs Meisner, Part 2: Method Acting.


  1. Great stuff! Love the insider info in the blog! we didn't always get (have time) for the on-set anecdotal or technique comparisons in class, great idea / embracing of new means of sharing your guru genius with the world :) Keep it coming!

  2. I am very new to acting, but I feel that because I am such a "people person" (I was a tour guide here on Oahu for 10 years, and a limousine driver for the Mirage Resorts in Las Vegas for 10 years) and because I was in that business, I would at times have 20 passengers of which there were many different personalized that I had to "please". You really are an "actor" when you are dealing with so many different people. So for that reason, I feel pretty comfortable at my new found career. I really think that you have to put yourself into each and every personality. Not sure that came out the way I meant it to sound, but all I can say is that every situation with every single person will be perceived differently. I get so excited just being around everyone in this fantastic business. I guess what I am saying is that if you are really passionate about something, it just has to come out right. (well most of the time) I am not in it for the money, but just because I love movies and and everything that goes into making them. Again guys, I tend to write novals and not just quotes, sorry this turned out to be so long. I just get so excited about this whole business. I love it! I have to say, that we really have some really great coaches and workshops here in Hawaii, that Hollywood should be so lucky as us living and working here in paradise..Okay, I done! LOL

  3. The Meisner technique is helpful only to a point. Things can get out of hand real fast. I've seen students break down and never return or others use it as a way to "gang up" or torment someone in class they do not like.

    Unfortunately, Meisner teachers are so fixated in getting a reaction they do not see when harm might be done. Meisner teachers need to be more sensitive to their students and not push them simply because they want to see two people get into an intense situation and scream at each other. In other words, teachers should not take advantage of the technique for their own gain.

    1. I've NEVER seen this happen and I studied intensively for a year in an internship program 5-6 days a week and have since taught many classes and used Meisner when I direct. Maybe you've just seen some bad teachers, but that's not to fault Meisner, which is far safer and more companionable a technique than any I've ever been taught. I have screamed at scene partners, but I have also had partners hold me to comfort me or laugh our heads off together or any number of other actions, and NEVER at the behest of an instructor. One of my best Meisner teachers, after I thought I had killed it in a scene where I broke a vacuum a nice guy was working on who had been given an entirely different intention than mine, said, "OK, I think we've all seen enough of your rage. Next preparation, I want to see you sexy and joyful." I thought, "Phssh, that'll be a cinch." But it was not. I had to work to get where he wanted me to go, but I got there. I also revere Meisner Technique for how applicable it is in all creative endeavors and in LIFE. I'm a far more present, observant and, yes, responsive person for having studied Meisner.

    2. I completely agree that Meisner is not for everyone. Or rather, Meisner teachers are not for everyone. In the past year at the Berkeley Waterfront Playhouse, there have been a number of students that were broken down and ultimately left the workshop. These students were subjected to a systematic process of being emotionally deconstructed, psychologically abused and publicly shamed all for the sake of delivering the scene. While the Meisner technique may offer one interesting path towards the craft of acting, please consider what qualities you are seeking in an acting teacher/coach/mentor. In this case, this teacher created an totally toxic, unhealthy environment for acting students. The fact that Berkeley Waterfront Playhouse offers a list of therapists for their students is enough of a statement. If you are able to recognize manipulation, can effectively deal with your questions being dismissed instead of answered, and do not mind having your emotions exposed to the root of their existence---please, pay your tuition and step right up. If acting students continue to wise up and walk out of the relatively new Berkeley Waterfront Playhouse, this will resolve the unsupervised teaching methods that exist there soon enough.

  4. How about study all of the methods... meet other actors or teachers... but at the end of the day follow your own instincts. Whatever it is about you that makes you YOU... whatever and whoever you are. Whatever makes you unique, bring that to the front. Also you can't audition or live day to day life thinking about getting discovered or making the A list. You have to love acting for the art of acting. Then you can become famous or A list. Everyone is different. Be your own advocate. Be safe and talk to natural psychotherapists that want you to eat right, exercise but also monitor your internal life. If you are any good at acting you are emotionally vulnerable and extremely sensitive in certain situations. Be yourself... learn from others and be friends with others.. but be true to yourself.

  5. I attended the first Meisner class a couple of days ago. While I think it could be potentially a very good technique to enhance my acting skills, I found the communication with the coach difficult, to say the least. I felt attacked and un-motived by the coach and I sincerely could not understand why. Me and my partner were used as an example of not what to do/ (that we were not true to ourselves, etc), for other students that were in the room. I found it hard, as I felt sometimes we were being blamed for not being able to create a "storm in a tea cup" and when we tried to do our best, we were told we were pushing it and acting, instead of being truthful. While I give the benefit of the doubt to the coach about the technical skills (I can't really judge on them), I thought the didactic element of it, lacked completely the empathy with the new student and really completely demotivated me (and my partner, from what I could see). I think I would have enjoyed it with tactful teacher, who acknowledges that it was all new field for us and rather than putting us down, encourages us to express ourselves. Will I give Meisner another go? I would like to, I would be interested to have another go, but definitely would appreciate a teacher that will not let me feel so useless...

  6. I'm Not sure of who your teachers are but in the late 90s I studied at the Playhouse West in Los Angeles under the direction of Robert Carnegie. The teachers I had were the best as they were directly trained by Carnegie who was trained by Meisner himself and some of them had even gotten to witness Meisner in action before his death. At the Playhouse even though you were in a class with a group, everyone worked at their own level. Until you mastered the repetition exercise you did not move on to doing an activity. whether it took 6 weeks or 6 months you did not move up until your foundation was solid. So perhaps the teacher you had did not make sure you were working solidly at the basic levels before giving you scenes. At Playhouse West many people did not get to start working on scenes until a year of solid repetition and doors and activities.

    Anyone teaching this technique must be firm in order to push you out of your comfort zone and get you to be honest with yourself and to give up the comfort and safety of working in your head. I had many a day when I wanted to breakdown and give in but I pushed through it because they were right and I was just holding on to what I felt was safe and trying to give a performance. Its a process that can take some longer than others because the sooner you are willing to truly let go of your preconceived notions about acting the sooner you'll be able to work truthfully in this style. If you're coming in from other training that you are very attached to and are trying to hold onto or use in this class it will not work. Perhaps your teacher is not explaining the technique to you in a way you can understand. Or perhaps you are not ready for the level that you were working in. In the playhouse west some people had to stay at the repetition exercise stage for nearly a year before they got to do an activity or a door because they just couldn't consistenly get out of their head. This may have been due to either strong habit, resistance, or lack of outside rehearsal. But those dedicated would stick it out while others who may have started at the same time were moving along and doing scenes by year's end. In any case scenes are brutal and the professional world is even more brutal so if you haven't got the stomach to hear that what you are doing wrong and you cant see how serious it is that you function truthfully under the imaginary circumstances than acting is not for you. You can be a performer or one who imitates reality in a play but that's not striving for greatness. I often see meisner training sold as a two year program but it is not intended to be learned like that. Its up to the individual and how much outside rehearsal and exercises are put in. We were expected to rehearse with eachother daily outside of class. And the ones who rehearsed more got it and moved along faster than the others.