Sanford Meisner - Biography
Sanford Meisner (August 31, 1905 – February 2, 1997), also known as Sandy, was an American actor and acting teacher who developed a form of Method acting (based on the 'system' of Constantin Stanislavski) that is now known as the Meisner technique.
Born in Brooklyn, Meisner was the oldest of four children. Sanford, Jacob, Ruth, and Robert were the children of Hermann Meisner, a furrier, and Bertha Knoepfler, both Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Hungary. In an attempt to improve Sanford's health, the family took a trip to the Catskills, where Jacob was fed unpasteurized milk. As a result, Jacob contracted bovine tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter. In an interview many years later, Meisner later identified this event as "the dominant emotional influence in my life from which I have never, after all these years, escaped." Blamed by his parents for his brother's death, the young Meisner become isolated and withdrawn, unable to cope with feelings of guilt for his brother’s death.
He found release in playing the family piano and eventually attended the Damrosch Institute of Music (now the Juilliard School) where he studied to become a concert pianist. When the Great Depression hit, Meisner's father pulled him out of music school to help in the family business in New York City's Garment District. Meisner later recalled that the only way he could endure days spent lugging bolts of fabric was to entertain himself by replaying, in his mind, all the classical piano pieces he had studied in music school. Meisner believed this experience helped him develop an acute sense of sound, akin to perfect pitch. Later, as an acting teacher, he often evaluated his students' scene work with his eyes closed (and his head dramatically buried in his hands). This trick was only partly for effect; the habit, he explained, actually helped him to listen more closely to his students' work and to pinpoint the true and false moments in their acting.
After graduation from high school, Meisner pursued acting professionally, which had interested him since his youth. He had acted at the Lower East Side's Chrystie Street Settlement House under the direction of Lee Strasberg, who was to play an important role in his development. At 19, Meisner heard that the Theatre Guild was hiring teenagers. After a brief interview, he was hired as an extra for They Knew What They Wanted. The experience deeply affected him and he realized that acting was what he had been looking for in life. He and Strasberg both appeared in the original Theatre Guild production of the Rodgers and Hart review The Garrick Gaieties, from which the song "Manhattan" came.
The Group Theatre
Despite his parents' misgivings, Meisner continued to pursue a career in acting, receiving a scholarship to study at the Theatre Guild of Acting. Here he encountered once again Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. Strasberg was to become another of the century’s most influential acting theorists and the father of Method acting, an acting technique derived, like Meisner's own, from the 'system' of Konstantin Stanislavski. The three became friends. In 1931, Clurman, Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford (another Theatre Guild member) selected 28 actors (one of whom was Meisner) to form the Group Theatre. This company exerted an influence on the entire art of acting in the United States. Meisner summered with the Group Theatre at their rehearsal headquarters at Pine Brook Country Club in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut. Meisner, along with a number of other actors in the company, eventually resisted Strasberg's preoccupation with Affective memory exercises. In 1934, fellow company member Stella Adler returned from private study with Stanislavski in Paris and announced that Stanislavski had come to believe that, as part of a rehearsal process, delving into one's past memories as a source of emotion was only a last resort and that the actor should seek rather to develop the character's thoughts and feelings through physical action, a concentrated use of the imagination, and a belief in the "given circumstances" of the text. As a result, Meisner began to focus on a new approach to the art of acting.
When the Group Theatre disbanded in 1940, Meisner continued as head of the acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, at which he had taught since 1935. In teaching he found a level of fulfillment similar to that which he had found in playing the piano as a child. At the Playhouse he developed his own form of Method acting that was based on Stanislavski's 'system,' Meisner's training with Lee Strasberg, and on Stella Adler's revelations about the uses of the imagination. Today that approach is called the Meisner technique.
The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by two ex-Group Theatre actors – the then successful directors, Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. Meisner was one of the first teachers to teach at the studio. Ironically, at first Strasberg was not asked, but by 1951 he had become its artistic director. Many students of the Actors Studio became well-known in the film industry. Strasberg's later insistence that he had trained them distressed Meisner enormously, creating an animosity with his ex-mentor that continued until Strasberg's death.
The Meisner technique
Meisner's unusual techniques were considered both unorthodox and effective. Actor Dennis Longwell wrote of sitting in on one of Meisner’s classes one day, when Meisner brought two students forward for an acting exercise. They were given a single line of dialogue, told to turn away, and instructed not to do or say anything until something happened to make them say the words (one of the fundamental principles of the Meisner technique). The first student’s line came when Meisner approached him from behind and gave him a strong pinch on the back, inspiring him to jump away and yelp his line in pain. The other student’s line came when Meisner reached around and slipped his hand into her blouse. Her line came out as a giggle as she moved away from his touch.
The goal of the Meisner technique has often been described as getting actors to "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." The technique emphasizes that in order to carry out an action truthfully on stage, it is necessary to let emotion and subtext build based on the truth of the action and on the other characters around them, rather than simply playing the action or playing the emotion. One of the best known exercises of the Meisner technique is called the Repetition exercise, where one person spontaneously makes a comment based on his or her partner, and the comment is repeated back and forth between the two actors in the same manner, until it changes on its own. The object is always to react truthfully, allowing the repetition to change naturally rather than by manipulation.
The Meisner/Carville School of Acting
In 1983, Sanford Meisner and his life partner James Carville founded the Meisner/Carville School of Acting on the Caribbean island of Bequia. Students from all around the world came every summer to participate in a summer intensive with Meisner. The Meisner/Carville School of Acting operated on the island and, beginning in 1985, also in North Hollywood, California. Meisner split his time between the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and the two school locations.
Throughout his career, Meisner worked with, and taught, students who became well known, such as Sandra Bullock, Dylan McDermott, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Jack Lord, Bob Fosse, Diane Keaton, Peter Falk, Jon Voight, Jeff Goldblum, Grace Kelly, James Doohan, Manu Tupou, Tony Randall and Sydney Pollack. Pollack together with Charles E. Conrad served as Meisner's senior assistants. The technique is helpful not just for actors, but also for directors, writers, and teachers. A number of directors also studied with him, among them Sidney Lumet, and writers such as Arthur Miller and David Mamet.
Though he rarely appeared on film, he performed in Tender Is the Night, The Story on Page One, and Mikey and Nicky. His last acting role was in the Season One episode of the television medical drama ER, "Sleepless In Chicago". Actor Noah Wyle worked with him and referred to the experience as the highlight of his career.
"Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances."
"The seed to the craft of acting is the reality of doing."
"You know it's all right to be wrong, but it's not all right not to try."
"There's no such thing as nothing."
"Less is more!"
"An ounce of behavior is worth more than a pound of words."
"Silence has a myriad of meanings. In the theater, silence is an absence of words, but never an absence of meaning."
"May I say as the world's oldest living teacher, 'Fuck Polite!'"
"Find in yourself those human things which are universal."
"Acting can be fun. Don't let it get around."
"Every little moment has a meaning all its own."
- Sanford Meisner: The American Theatre’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Sanford Meisner, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Sydney Pollack. 1985.
- Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 0521434378.
- Hodge, Alison, ed. 2000. Twentieth Century Actor Training. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415194520.
- Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. 2002. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Vol. 5. [S.l.]: Gale Group. ISBN 978-0684806631.
- Krasner, David. 2000. "Strasberg, Adler and Meisner: Method Acting." In Hodge (2000, 129-150).
- Longwell, Dennis, and Sanford Meisner. 1987. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0394750590.
- Postlewait, Thomas. 1998. "Meisner, Sanford." In Banham (1998, 719).
- Silverberg, Larry. 1994. The Sanford Meisner Approach: An Actor’s Workbook. Workbook One. New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus. ISBN 978-1880399774.