What do Robert Duvall, John Voight, Sydney Pollack, Tony Randall, Gregory Peck, Jeff Goldblum, James Caan, and Tom Cruise have in common? They all trained under the master acting coach Sanford Meisner. Famous playwrights like Arthur Miller and David Mamet were also his students. His teaching technique, known as the Meisner Technique, is regarded as one of the most effective tool to master the art of acting. The goal of the Meisner technique has often been described as getting actors to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” The technique emphasizes carrying out an action truthfully on stage and letting emotion and subtext build based on the truth of the action and on the other characters around them, rather than simply playing an action or emotion.
In 1931, a fervent group of young actors, including Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman, among others, joined together in New York to establish the Group Theatre. It was the first permanent theatre company that brought “Method” acting, rooted in the methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, to practice and prominence in America.
In 1933 Meisner became disenchanted with pure “Method” acting. He wrote, “Actors are not guinea pigs to be manipulated, dissected, let alone in a purely negative way. Our approach was not organic, that is to say not healthy.” Meisner had ongoing discussions about technique with Adler, who worked with Stanislavsky in Paris, and Clurman, who took a deep interest in the American character. Eventually Meisner realized that if American actors were ever going to achieve the goal of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” an American approach was needed. The Neighborhood Playhouse provided him with a venue to develop that approach on his own.
Meisner has been regarded as one of the most important acting theorists of the 20th Century. Arthur Miller once said of Meisner, “He has been the most principled teacher of acting in this country for decades now, and every time I am reading actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don’t lay on complications that aren’t necessary.”
The attached seven part Video (A PBS production now available on YouTube) gives us a glimpse of his genius. Some of his students have also recorded his acting classes that is now available as an eight hour DVD pack ( Sanford Meisner Master Class ) and is regarded as a must have for any aspiring actor. Several books on his acting technique are also available. They include Sanford Meisner on Acting, The Sanford Meisner Approach: An Actors Workbook (A Career Development Book) ,The Sanford Meisner Approach: Workbook IV Playing the Part (The Sanford Meisner Approach) and others.
The Sanford Meisner center in Los Angeles is the only acting school founded (1995) by the master himself that specializes in his technique.