YOU MAY HAVE USED one of Sanford Meisner’s repetition exercises in a theatre class or workshop, but how much do you know about the man and the acting techniques he pioneered?

Like other artists of his era, Meisner was inspired by the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski and the work of actors in the Group Theatre. Later, he built a name for himself as one of America’s top teachers. Today, Meisner’s take on naturalistic acting continues to influence American theatre and the artists who create it.


Sanford Meisner was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1905 to Jewish immigrant parents. Growing up, he studied concert piano and helped his father in the family garment business. Meisner made his Broadway debut at the age of 19, playing a farmhand in They Knew What They Wanted. That production, he later said, made him realize he wanted to be an actor.

As America fell into the Great Depression in 1931, Meisner joined the Group Theatre with well-known artists including Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, and Harold Clurman. The Group tackled tough political questions onstage, and they drew heavily from Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavski’s acting system.

Eventually, conflict over one of Stanislavski’s original concepts, emotional memory, drove the ensemble apart. Actors who use emotional memory allow events from their past to conjure emotions in the present. Strasberg believed that emotional memory was an important part of the system, while Meisner believed it was unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.

Meisner sought to create an acting technique that was distinctly American. He took over as director of New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse school and taught actors there from 1936 to 1959 and from 1964 until 1990. Between those tenures, Meisner moved to Hollywood to work for 20th Century Fox. When he decided to start his own theatre in 1995, he did so in Los Angeles — the Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts. He was 90 years old when it opened. He taught there until 1994 and passed away in 1997.

Sanford Meisner (center) and members of Group Theatre in 1938.
Sanford Meisner (center) and members of Group Theatre in 1938. Photo by Alfredo Valente.


The acting techniques Meisner and other teachers developed were based on Stanislavski’s methodical, naturalistic approach. While many of these techniques overlap, their priorities diverge. One of Meisner’s priorities was getting actors to focus more on their scene partners than on themselves.

“We tend to pull the other actor into the scene with us,” said Ranjiv Perera, teacher at the Los Angeles Sanford Meisner Center. Focusing on others in a scene allows actors to reduce self-consciousness and ward off awkward, insincere performances. But that doesn’t happen overnight.

Meisner actors spend two years training with the same primary teacher and group of students, repeating each exercise until they’ve mastered it. Every concept in the curriculum builds on the previous level, according to Perera.

“They’re developing acting muscles they didn’t even know they had, muscles they’ll need to go to the next step,” Perera said. “Classically trained dancers, especially ballet dancers, get it. They start to see results because of the repetitive training they’ve done.”

Meisner’s best-known technique is the repetition exercise, in which one actor makes an observation about their partner, such as “You look content,” then both repeat the phrase continually, adjusting to each other’s body language and tone. This helps actors learn to listen closely, but it also helps them stop worrying about their choices.
Meisner largely rejected the use of emotional recall, preferring to rely more on actors’ imaginations than their personal memories.

“That’s not to say that Lee’s work doesn’t include imagination,” Perera said. “And it doesn’t mean to say that in our work we don’t go to your past life and experiences. You have to know yourself to bring that deepest truth out.”

Meisner also urged students to build characters from the inside out by first getting to know themselves thoroughly and authentically. In fact, the Meisner curriculum is divided into two sections. In the first section, actors learn to be their authentic selves onstage through practicing repetition, exploring emotional depth, and adding context to relationships. Only in their second year of training do actors move on to study character work, or the process of playing a believable character.

While Meisner’s and other techniques differ in their philosophies and exercises, in the end their goal is the same. “Fundamentally, all techniques result in an emotionally open and truthful actor,” Perera said.

Two student actors rehearse a scene.
One of Meisner’s priorities was getting actors to focus more on their scene partners than on themselves. Photo from the 2018 International Thespian Festival by Susan Doremus.


During his tenure at the Sanford Meisner Center, Perera has worked with hundreds of aspiring actors. Here’s what he tells them about finding success and, more importantly, fulfillment as theatre artists.

Set goals
For Perera, setting concrete goals is the only way actors can turn their passion into their life’s work. “Knowing specifically what your goal is as an artist makes the path clear,” he said. “If it’s just a dream, that’s great. But you have to turn the dream into a goal.”

Study your art 
Dive into the entertainment industry and different types of performances, like film, television, and live theatre. Pay attention to the performances, genres, and roles that resonate with you, and ask yourself why. Then, use those answers to refine your goals.

“Ultimately, to work in this industry, you’ve got to be a participant in it,” Perera said. “Ask yourself, do I need to be a stage actor? Do I need to be in front of a live audience? Do I need to be in film? Television? Do I need to create my own stories?” By knowing yourself and your preferences, you can set a goal that will drive you during the ups and downs of your career.

Work from a place of gratitude
Each year, about 30 million people worldwide tune in to watch the Academy Awards. Perera tells his students to think about those viewers when they’re feeling discouraged — many people will never get the chance to pursue their acting dreams. The actors who remain thankful for the opportunity, he said, are the ones who excel.

“That level of passion, that level of drive, that level of need, is fundamental. Those people, they work. They don’t view this as a competition. It is their career. It is a fundamental part of life.”


Neighborhood Playhouse
Sanford Meisner Center
On Acting, by Sanford Meisner

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