3 Untaught Lessons from Meisner

Last week marked my year anniversary studying the acting theories of Sanford Meisner at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre. As someone who has been performing for about 15  years, you can imagine my surprise at believing that it’s only in this past year that I’ve really begun Acting. I think interesting evidence of this can be found in my latest acting reel. This video serves as a firm juxtaposition of my life before and after Meisner. Have a watch, if you’ve got the time, and pay attention to my portrayal of Allen Hobbes in Dana (there’s a clip at the beginning and end of the reel, be sure to watch both). This role is the only one on the reel that is grounded in Meisner’s Method. Watching this, compared to everything else on the reel is (at best), laughable to me.

Meisner has taught me more lessons in the past 365 days than I can possibly fit in this article (and I’ve actually begun working on a longer piece ((potentially a book)) that is filled with those lessons). So, I thought to mark this important date in my life I’d throw a few of the highlights your way. This list is by no means comprehensive or chronologically aligned with how Meisner himself preferred to teach his method. Consider it instead a random smattering of my favorite lesser-taught lessons that have come my way as the result of an incredible guide and wonderful classmates. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to let me know and I’ll respond asap.

  1. Nerves Are Your Worst Enemy

Meisner is all about listening and focus. But not just your every day, run of the mill listening and focus – really listening and really focusing in a way that most people (I’d guess) haven’t done since childhood. And if anything is keeping you from accessing that part of yourself, you’re in trouble. In my experience, the prime suspect in this constant battle is Nervousness. This doesn’t as much manifest itself in classes as it does in auditions and performances. In truth, one of the great flaws of Meisner is that he offers no mechanism (that I’m aware of) for combating these nerves before the performance begins or in an audition environment. Once you’re actually performing, squashing the bugs in your gut is as deceptively simple as putting all your attention on the people performing with you. But what about before the show begins? What about when you walk into an audition and have to keep your attention focused on an invisible dot on the wall?

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I’ve found my answer for this problem in the past year, but take it with a huge grain of salt (I actually think results may vary for pretty much every piece of acting advice). As with most things Meisner, Imagination will set you free. If you’ve got a dot on the wall, you can’t let it be just a dot on the wall. You have to really dive into your imagination and let it become something else. You have to forget you’re auditioning and allow yourself to play in an imagined space for 1-2 minutes. The times I’ve really done that, I’ve always gotten the part.

As for nerves before a performance, there are tons of breathing and relaxation exercises online for you to try and I recommend changing up exercises frequently. My recent favorite actually comes from a random snippet of Alexandra Kleeman‘s novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine and it’s to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and think about the edges of your body. Try to feel your edges mentally starting from the tip of your head all the way down to the soles of your feet. I’ve been employing this method for the past few weeks and have found it very useful.

2.  Perform for SatisfACTion

This again isn’t something Meisner talked a whole lot about, but it is sort of implied in his work. The Meisner Method disallows selfishness in an odd way. On the one hand, you must be selfish enough to know and trust your feelings. On the other, you must be selfless enough to accept the feelings and positions of others. It’s a constant tug of war and one that I and my classmates struggle with regularly.

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But this battle has bigger implications for the actor’s personal life and gets to the core of why we bother performing at all. In my opinion, the best thing you can do when starting with Meisner is to take a long, hard look at why you’re an actor. In my class, we had to write an entire monologue about it and our prime weakness associated with it. Really try to ask yourself the question and don’t be satisfied until you get an honest answer. It wasn’t until I realized that I would be happy giving an incredible performance to an audience of one that I allowed myself to really expand as an actor.

3.  You Are Your Greatest Ally

So here’s an off-the-beaten-path acting journey that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as I think it should. When you finally make the move out to LA or NYC, you’re going to be confronted with really, really stiff competition. And, if you’re anything like me, that competition is going to look way better than you and be in much, much better shape.

The natural response to this is to beat yourself up trying to become a generic impression of your competition. And, in some ways, this is healthy (I’m not saying you shouldn’t diet and exercise – both are actually incredibly beneficial to your craft). But this path can lead to a very high cliff and I’ve come dangerously close to the edge. In the quest for acting acceptance and professional satisfaction you can, if you’re not careful, destroy or dampen your greatest asset.

Meisner’s theories work because they reveal that the universality of the human experience is inextricably woven with the incalculable complexity of the individual. We are, each of us, very different people and that makes us all essentially the same. As my acting instructor Jill frequently states, “There are no new emotions.” Meisner forces us to confront that reality and ultimately realize that we are no different from anyone else.

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Except that we are. You couldn’t be more different from every single person who has ever and will ever live. The influences are too complex, the universe too random. Sure, every single person who has ever lived has felt some form of sadness. But no one has ever felt it the way you feel it (see what I mean about difference leading to sameness). Meisner encourages – no – Meisner requires that the actor not just feel longing, but feel longing in their own unique way. The only rule is that it must be true to you. But that’s not to say that that’s a simple rule. Many actors study their entire lives and never understand their truth. For that matter, many non-actors do the same.

It’s not easy, but it is simple. And the extension of this simple process is that you can’t express your real feelings unless you’re living your real life. And that means you’ve got to be yourself. Now Jill has stated many, many times in the past year that she’s not there to tell anyone how to live their lives. But, as someone who is about to forsake a solid job with reasonable pay and decent benefits for a shot at real satisfACTion (one week left until my last day), I obviously disagree. My experience has led me to believe that unless and until the actor surrenders to their passions definitively and with some measure of abandon, the universe will remain closed.

I’ll let you all know how this pans out in the end. And please do check back to on this blog regularly. Now that the site is up and running, I plan on posting quite frequently.


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