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As opposed to "the method," which develops acting from an internal source, through emotional recall, sense memory, etc., the Meisner technique creates the actor externally. The focus is for the actor to "get out of his head," such that he or she is behaving instinctively. To this end, some exercises for the Meisner technique are rooted in repetition so that the words are deemed insignificant compared to the reactions. 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.
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.
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".
The basic exercise that Meisner invented to train actors' responses is called the Repetition Exercise. It is described thus:
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.
List of Meisner-trained actors
Throughout his career, Meisner worked with, and taught, students who became well known, such as Sandra Bullock, David Duchovny, James Franco, Michelle Pfeiffer, Naomi Watts, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Dylan McDermott, Eileen Fulton, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, Jack Lord, Bob Fosse, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Lee Grant, Peter Falk, Jeff Goldblum, Grace Kelly, James Doohan, Jason Boss, 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 John Frankenheimer, and writers such as Arthur Miller and David Mamet.
Prominent actors who trained at The Neighborhood Playhouse or elsewhere in the Meisner technique include:
- Aaron Eckhart
- Aaron Lind
- Alec Baldwin
- Alexandra Daddario
- Amanda Setton
- Amy Schumer
- Billy Sharpe
- Christoph Waltz
- Christopher Lloyd
- Christopher Meloni
- Connie Britton
- David Duchovny
- Diane Keaton
- Dylan McDermott
- Geraldine Page
- Grace Kelly
- Gregory Peck
- Hannah New
- Illeana Douglas
- James Caan
- James Franco
- James Gandolfini
- Jason Priestley
- Jeff Bridges
- Jeff Goldblum
- Jennifer Sky
- Jessica Walter
- John Turturro
- Jon Voight
- Karl Urban
- Krysten Ritter
- Louise Lasser
- Ian Thomas Malone
- Leslie Nielsen
- Mark Rydell
- Mary Steenburgen
- Moussa Tabcharani
- Michael K. Williams
- Michelle Pfeiffer
- Naomi Watts
- Nick Ferrucci
- Noah Emmerich
- Paul Sorvino
- Raymond Mamrak
- R.J. Adams
- Renee O'Connor
- Robert Duvall
- Roger Bart
- Sandra Bullock[not in citation given]
- Scott Caan
- Sean Astin
- Sherie Rene Scott
- Stephen Colbert
- Steve McQueen
- Sydney Pollack
- Tatiana Maslany
- Tina Fey
- Tom Cruise
- Ty Burrell
- Wil Wheaton
- Hirsch (2000, 498).
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