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The focus of the Meisner approach is for the actor to "get out of their head", such that the actor is behaving instinctively to the surrounding environment. To this end, some exercises for the Meisner technique are rooted in repetition so that the words are deemed insignificant compared to the underlying emotion. In the Meisner technique, there is a greater focus on the other actor as opposed to one's internal thoughts or feelings associated to the prescribed character. The Meisner technique is often confused with "method" acting taught by Lee Strasberg, since both developed from the early teachings of Constantin Stanislavski.
Meisner Training is an interdependent series of training exercises that build on one another. The more complex work supports a command of dramatic text. Students work on a series of progressively complex exercises to develop an ability to first improvise, then to access an emotional life, and finally to bring the spontaneity of improvisation and the richness of personal response to textual work. The techniques developed the behavioral strand of Stanislavski's. The technique is used to develop improvisation skills as well as "interpreting a script, and creating the specific physical characteristics of each character the actor played".
An example of a technique Meisner invented to train actors' responses is called the Repetition Exercise:
"In this exercise, two actors sit across from each other and respond to each other through a repeated phrase. The phrase is about each other's behavior, and reflects what is going on between them in the moment, such as "You look unhappy with me right now." The way this phrase is said as it is repeated changes in meaning, tone and intensity to correspond with the behavior that each actor produces towards the other. Through this device, the actor stops thinking of what to say and do, and responds more freely and spontaneously, both physically and vocally.The exercise also eliminates line readings, since the way the actor speaks becomes coordinated with his behavioral response."
"To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that's what we're here to do." — Sanford Meisner
Meisner developed this technique after working with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre and while working as head of the acting program at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse. He continued its refinement for fifty years.
"In 1935, Sanford Meisner, one of the founding members of The Group Theatre (along with Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg), joined the faculty of The Neighborhood Playhouse. Over the years, he developed and refined what is now known as the Meisner Technique, a step-by-step procedure of self-investigation for the actor now globally recognized and among the foremost of modern acting techniques."
"Meisner believed that the study of the actor's craft was rooted in acquiring a solid organic acting technique. It was a cornerstone of his teaching that this learning process occur not in a theoretical, abstract manner, but in the practical give and take of the classroom, where as he once said, "the students struggled to learn what I struggled to teach." Through that struggle the gifted student, over time gradually begins to emerge solidly in his or her work."
In 1980, a group of his alumni got together to preserve his teachings for future generations. Sydney Pollack directed a master class taught by Sanford Meisner. It was transferred to digital film in 2006. The Sanford Meisner Master Class is the only video record of Sanford himself teaching students.
Practitioners of Meisner
The William Esper Studio was founded in 1965 as a school for the performing arts in Manhattan, New York. The school is considered an internationally recognized authority on the acting technique of Sanford Meisner. Its founder, William "Bill" Esper (1932—), is often referred to as the best-known of Meisner's first generation teachers, and his most "authentic protege".
After 18 years as William Esper’s both at Rutgers’ MFA acting program and in his NYC classroom, Maggie Flanigan made the decision to open her own studio in NYC. Located in the heart of NYC, the Maggie Flanigan Studio was founded by Maggie in 2001 to fill what she saw as a substantial gap in American actor training. The studio is rooted in the belief that a rigorous and inspiring conservatory-based training program should remain small, intimate, and nurturing while challenging students to meet the highest professional expectations. MFS started with Maggie’s reputation as the clearest and most definitive teacher of the Meisner Technique.,.
From 1987 till his death, Robert Carnegie of the Famous Playhouse West in North Hollywood, who was trained by Meisner; continued to train and develop the future generations of Meisner actors at his studio.
Tania Badiyi, who introduced Meisner to Bob Carnegie in 1987, also trained under Meisner and is one of the few pure Meisner technique teachers working with students now in New York City at Studio 4 – James Franco's Film School.
Sebastián Ligarde has been teaching acting at Taller de Actuación Sebastián Ligarde since 2006 in Miami. He trains actors in film acting. After 35 years as an actor he now enjoys his own acting academy and has, for now, retired from acting.
Javier Galitó-Cava started his JGC's Meisner Technique Program in San Francisco, California after being trained by Rachael Adler, pupil of Sanford Meisner. In 2007 he stablished his Conservatory Program in Barcelona, Spain where he continues to train actors from all over the world. He continues to teach in New York, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, San Francisco, Los Angeles and occasionally in London, Berlin, Helsinki and Amsterdam. He recently started his new full immersion program in West Cornwell, CT.
Joanne Baron is known for her dedication to the work of Sanford Meisner and is a teacher of the Meisner Technique. She owns the Baron Brown Studio and trained with Neighborhood Playhouse alum and master Meisner teacher, William Esper, who founded the MFA and BFA Professional Actor Training Programs at Rutgers University.
The Taylor School of Acting (formerly called The Sanford Meisner Studio) in Burbank CA is the only school that still works with the Meisner Estate. Alex Taylor has won 4 years in a row, The Best Acting Coach in all of Los Angeles. Backstage magazine also named The Taylor School of Acting one of the top 5 acting schools to study at in Los Angeles.
The Sanford Meisner Center, headed by Martin Barter, was the last school that Sanford Meisner worked with until his death in 1997. Martin Barter oversees the teaching of the final version of Sandy's technique both in Seattle, WA and Burbank, CA.
List of Meisner-trained actors
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Actors who have trained in the Meisner technique include:
- Alexandra Daddario
- Amanda Setton
- Amy Schumer
- Christoph Waltz
- Diane Keaton
- Grace Kelly
- Griffin Dunne
- James Gandolfini
- Jeff Goldblum
- Joakim Nätterqvist 
- Jon Voight
- Karl Urban
- Keiko Agena
- Maria Pitillo
- Mark Rydell
- Mary Steenburgen
- Michael Paré
- Michelle Meyrink
- Nestor Carbonell
- Robert Duvall
- Sandra Peabody
- Stephen Colbert
- Sydney Pollack
- Tatiana Maslany
- Tom Cruise
- Wil Wheaton
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