Sanford Meisner’s Skill with STORY!!

For 25 years I have conducted an acting exercise adapted from Sanford Meisner’s famous ‘repetition exercise’.  But despite that fact, I have always thought the acting process Meisner pursued was largely a waste of time. So, I set out to re-read his book ,“Sanford Meisner on Acting” with very low expectations.

To my SURPRISE at the end of the first 30 pages I was cheering, “Go SANDY!!!”

MeisnerBookCoverThe essential principles he espouses at first are BRILLIANT. His basic approach is essentially very simple …

…             art expresses human experience;
…             acting is a process of doing, (its not about pretending … it is about the reality of listening and doing as yourself);
…             YOU are the character;
…             don’t do anything until something happens to make you do it
…             and … acting is … responding truthfully to the other person.

These are wonderful, simple and common sense concepts. But is Sanford Meisner going to provide an answer to the question that interests me? Does he have a plan of attack for a scene? Will he have the key to understanding the character’s role in a scene and the scene’s place in the story?

He does have a number of valuable exercises.

An Independent Activity
One of his signature acting exercises centres around the ‘independent activity’. Essentially this is about being busy doing something physical while speaking the dialogue.   It is a technique that has a great practicality. I believe this acting exercise can achieve even more productive outcomes than he outlines in his book. An independent activity Sandy says “has to be urgent, truthful and difficult to do.” In essence, these are fundamental ingredients.

The independent activity exercise is one of a number of techniques he applies to train actors to use their instincts. His work is solely focused on getting actors to simplify their processes and trust the impulses that their instincts generate. And this is the start of the ‘Meisner problem’.

In life, some instincts are entirely intuitively based on our primitive animal survival skills, BUT other instincts are acquired through training.  In life, that training emerges largely from experience. The experience of picking up a hot saucepan from the stove creates instincts that suspect another pot on the stove might be hot. Our training about social etiquette develops instincts about ways to behave. All those instincts have logical origins. Instincts relating to a conversation and its objective have also been learnt and have a significant amount of logic attached to them. Yet Sandy never deals with those logical influences – in fact, he actively avoids them.   So, he doesn’t train actors to use the whole range of impulses that are generated by daily life.

MeisnerBookOne natural outcome of this is that he doesn’t train actors to logically find their reason for the conversation (that occurs in a scene). And he doesn’t train actors to find the scene’s logical place in the story.

His concern is about actors failing to trust their impulses and not following their instincts. He is right. Trusting an impulse is an essential skill for an actor. But, in trying to resolve one issue he creates another problem of equal magnitude. When an actor asks him, “How do I know I have made the right choice?”
Sandy replies simply, “Instinct.”

So, in Meisner’s process, there is no way an actor can measure the validity of a choice, other than “instinctively”.

We all know our instincts can sometimes be horribly wrong!!
How does Sanford Meisner suggest you identify and rectify that problem?
Unfortunately he doesn’t have an answer to that very common acting issue. In his view, all the actor can do is wait for a director to correct them.

In his classes, according to the descriptions in this book, Sandy was the arbiter of choice. He is the director who corrects the problems. He tells the actor what would be a better choice than the one they made. But he never explains that there are alternative choices that will be equally valid. And in the vast majority of cases the choices Sandy suggests solely drive emotional preparation. They NEVER directly address the purpose of the conversation.

SanfordMeisnerIn the final chapter of this book he announces a new emphasis. “Now we are beginning to edge up on the problem of playing a part,” he announces.
Are we going to learn how to find our place in the play, I wonder?
But my hopes are never fulfilled. He NEVER provides an answer to that question. Sanford Meisner merely, sticks to his pattern of dictating the appropriate emotional preparation or the choice of direction a scene should be taking. And that choice is always his personal one. Mind you, his choices are not unplayable. But there is never any explanation of why the choice he is making would be better than another alternative.

The closest, Sanford Meisner comes to explaining the story element of a scene is by the use of an evocative but very vague metaphor. He suggests that “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.” And then later to clarify he adds, “The text is the canoe, but you must begin by putting the emphasis on the stormy river. I can’t be any clearer than that,” he says. THAT is the greatest clarity he achieves in the book!!! I would definitely need a life jacket and weather forecast before I got into that canoe.

Based on the explanations in this book, Sanford Meisner joins the growing list of acting teachers who supply little (or no) assistance to an actor around the crucial issue of finding their place in the overall play. If an actor can’t understand the role of their character in the overall play, I don’t understand how it is possible to determine a productive approach to playing a scene.

Read his book. See what you think.
But I’ll stick to my original assessment … when it comes to finding your place in the story, it’s largely a waste of time.


MeisnerBookSolo“SANFORD MEISNER ON ACTING” by Sanford Meisner & Dennis Longwell. Published by Vintage Books (A Division of Random House, New York)

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One Response to Sanford Meisner’s Skill with STORY!!

  1. Ben Steel says:

    Hi Richard,

    I’m about 16 years into my Meisner journey, perhaps this might offer some clarity from my perspective on your direct questions of A) ‘The character’s role in the scene and the scene’s role in the story’, and B) ‘the actor understanding their role in the play/film and approach to the scene.’

    Firstly, there is no character or scene – there is only me in the given circumstances I find myself. So I don’t need to find how I relate to the ‘scene’ or story. If on the other hand you are talking about how I relate to a specific imaginary circumstance, then what that requires will be unique to me (and every actor alike) so there’s no point in discovering what works for me, because it won’t work for you.

    Secondly, do we in ‘real’ life understand our role and what our journey will be? No. Or how to approach a circumstance?No. We don’t have it perfectly planned out, we just know (or think we know) who we are in this moment, what we want this moment, who you are to me in this moment, and what circumstances I am in – how it turns out is not in my control. I think as actors we sometimes like to plan everything out, like to know everything that’s going on, put things into neat boxes, but in real life we don’t have that control or knowledge.

    And finally, what I understand to be one of the benefits and unique qualities of the Meisner approach is a gentle-peeling-back-the-onion method to developing yourself & your craft of acting. It’s not a ‘follow step a, b, and c’ approach. It’s very much a glacier approach to finding your own way with the technique. The metaphor of the canoe & river is the perfect example of this where Meisner lets us ponder the meaning either side for ourselves, find our own way with it, and fill in the blanks of the lesson ourselves. I’ve caught myself numerous times now where wisdom of my Meisner teachers has landed on me years later (sometimes decades) and suddenly a piece of the puzzle dawns on me. Yes! To me, this is the beauty of what we do as constantly evolving artists – we grown & change, and I love that about what we do.

    Hope this shines some light on the topic.


    Ben Steel – actor, director, producer, writer.

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