Meisner Acting: The Art of Emotional Preparation
The Meisner acting technique is a many layered approach that relies heavily on a practice known as emotional preparation. Named after Sanford Meisner, the Meisner technique began as a systematic study of the art of acting for theatre. Based on work done by Russian actor Constantine Stanislovski, Meisner created a hybrid technique that he felt was better suited to the American actor and American theatre. The “system” taught in Meisner acting classes often begins with simple word repetition exercises. Actors repeat a phrase back and forth to each other in a ping pong style, with no apparent meaning at first. Eventually they begin to notice subtle changes in the emotions of the other actor and respond with their own interpretation and emotional impulses.
This practice has many objectives but the main goal is to eliminate the dialogue as a “crutch” and begin the process of being in tune with and relying on emotional undercurrents rather than the words. These exercises increase steadily in their complexity, as physical tasks are added, along with additional complexity in the relationships between the actors.
A key practice of the Meisner acting technique, emotional preparation is a theory/practice in which the actor deepens and strengthens their connections to emotions and impulses that have personal meaning for them that can be translated and developed to create a true “emotional life” for the character. Many untrained actors work with a mistaken belief that acting is only about pretending to experience certain emotions onstage. Nothing could be further from the truth and audiences instinctively know when this superficial approach is being used. It makes for a false performance.
This implies several things. First an actor must get in touch with actual emotions that exist within them that resonate in a very strong, vibrant way. They might use personal experiences or the natural emotional undercurrents they were born with. These are explored, analyzed, heightened, and harnessed all as a way of developing an emotional well that they will draw from as they perform. Sanford Meisner was known for coining the phrase “acting is doing.” By preparing emotionally the Meisner actor finds the freedom to walk into a role with no pre-conceived notions of how an individual performance should go. Instead they step onstage immersed in an emotional life appropriate to the character, and they “do” –they respond spontaneously to cast mates and can physically commit to moving and doing onstage freely.
Emotionally preparing means having a complete and thorough understanding and personal experience of what the character is experiencing in the story by acquiring it from outside sources. Everyone using the Meisner acting technique will approach this is a unique way. If their character is in prison they may visit one. A woman who plays someone pregnant might go and shop for baby clothes, or have conversations with random strangers, telling them about “the pregnancy” to see what if feels like to be congratulated, or excited, or scared about having a baby. They must fully imagine and fantasize in a vivid way until it becomes a reality they can rely on when onstage.
Actors using the Meisner acting technique have the ability to immerse themselves in an emotional “state” of the character before going onstage. Rather than pretending extreme frustration they must ARE extremely frustrated as they enter the scene. Furthermore, Meisner believed that any actor looking to exploit the Meisner acting technique does their homework by creating and developing a complete set of circumstances and a complete emotional landscape that is in tune with the deeper cravings, needs and emotions that have caused the character to be frustrated.
We are all emotional beings, and we “do” based largely on our strongest desires and impulses. A Meisner trained actor does extensive preparation by delving into these emotional undercurrents from personal experience and by experiencing and meditating on a set of created circumstances, feelings and impulses based on those feelings. These are constantly alive and at the ready during an entire performance without the actor even being fully aware of them. In any good production of course, the emotional prep is extensive from developing the emotional circumstances used to enter the scene, to the complicated feelings and relationships as the story evolves and the character faces grief, stress, joy, love, hatred, anger–and any combination of these–this can be costly emotionally but, any actor worth their salt will agree that it’s the best feeling in the world to master it.