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Sanford Meisner
Born August 31, 1905(1905-08-31)
New York City, New York
Died February 2, 1997 (aged 91)
Sherman Oaks, California
Spouse(s) Peggy Meredith (1948-1950)
Domestic partner(s) James Carville

Sandy Meisner (August 31, 1905 – February 2, 1997) was an American actor and acting teacher who developed an acting methodology, now known as the Meisner Technique.

Contents

Early life

Born Sanford Meisner in Brooklyn, he was the oldest of four children of Hermann Meisner, a furrier, and Bertha Knoepfler, Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Hungary.[1] Two years later, his younger brother Jacob, who would come to have a lasting effect on Meisner, was born. In an attempt to improve Sanford's health, one year later, the family took a trip to the Catskills, where Jacob was fed unpasteurized milk. As a result, the child contracted bovine tuberculosis and died shortly thereafter. In an interview many years later, Meisner would identify this event as “the dominant emotional influence in my life from which I have never, after all these years, escaped.”[2] Blamed by his parents for his brother's death, the young Meisner would soon become isolated and withdrawn, unable to cope with feelings of guilt for his brother’s death.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 would later recall 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 would often evaluate 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, a young man who was later to play an important part in his life. At 19, Meisner learned 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 began to realize that acting was what he had been looking for in life. He and Strasberg both appeared in the original Theater Guild production of the Rodgers and Hart review The Garrick Gaieties, from which came the song "Manhattan."

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 would meet up again with 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 from acting theory and techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski. The three became friends. In 1931, Clurman and Strasberg, joined by Cheryl Crawford (another Theatre Guild member) would select 28 actors, one of whom was Meisner, to form the Group Theatre. This theater group exerted an influence, not only on Meisner and the other members of the Group, but on the entire art of acting in the United States. Meisner, along with a number of other actors in the company including Robert Lewis and Stella Adler, eventually resisted Strasberg's preoccupation with Emotion Memory exercises when, in 1934, fellow company member, Stella Adler, returned from private study with Stanislavski in Paris. She announced that Stanislavski had come to believe that, rather than delving exclusively into one's past memories as a source of emotion, one could just as effectively summon up the character's thoughts and feelings through the concentrated use of the imagination and the belief in the given circumstances of the text. As a result, Meisner began focusing 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. In teaching he found a level of fulfillment similar to the fulfillment he had found in playing the piano as a child. It was at the Playhouse that he would develop his own acting technique, based on the work of Konstantin Stanislavski, his training with Lee Strasberg, and on Stella Adler's revelations about the uses of the imagination. Today that method is called the Meisner Technique.

The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by two ex-Group Theater actors – the then successful directors, Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. Meisner was one of the first teachers who taught at the Actor's Studio. Ironically, at first Strasberg was not asked. By 1951, Strasberg had become artistic director of the Studio. Many students of the Actor's studio would go on to become well-known in film. Strasberg's later insistence that he had trained them distressed Meisner enormously, creating an animosity with his ex-mentor that would continue 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.[3]

The goal of the Meisner technique has often been described as getting actors to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”[4] The technique emphasizes that 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 Repetition, where one person spontaneously makes a comment based on his or her partner, and the comment would be repeated back and forth between the two actors in the same manner, until it changed on its own. The object was 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.

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Notable students

Throughout his career, Meisner worked with, and taught, students who would later became well known, such as Sandra Bullock,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 would serve as Meisner's senior assistants. A number of directors also studied with him, among them Sidney Lumet, and writers such as Arthur Miller and David Mamet. The technique is helpful not just for actors, but also for directors, writers, and teachers.

Film appearances

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.

Meisner quotes

"Acting is the ability to live 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!'"

"Acting can be fun. Don't let it get around."

External links

Notes and references

  1. ^ The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Vol 5 (2002)
  2. ^ Longwell, Dennis and Sanford Meisner. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Random House, 1987, p. 5.
  3. ^ Longwell, Dennis and Sanford Meisner. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Random House, 1987, p. 34.
  4. ^ Silverberg, Larry. The Sanford Meisner Approach: An Actor’s Workbook. New Hampshire: Smith and Kraus, Inc., 1994, p. 9.

Other sources

  • Sanford Meisner: The American Theatre’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Sanford Meisner, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Sydney Pollack. 1985.

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