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Meisner developed this technique after working with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre and as head of the acting program at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse and continued its refinement for fifty years.
Meisner Training is an inter-dependent 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 improvise, to access an emotional life, and finally to bring the spontaneity of improvisation and the richness of personal response to textual work. The technique develops the behavioral strand of Stanislavski's 'system' (specifically developing his concepts of communication and adaptation). The technique emphasizes "moment-to-moment" spontaneity through communication with other actors in order to generate behavior that is truthful within imagined, fictional circumstances.
Early training is heavily based on actions, in line with Meisner's emphasis on "doing." The questions "what are you playing?" and "what are you doing?" are asked frequently, in order to remind actors to commit themselves to playing what Stanislavski called a "task" or "objective," rather than focusing on the words of a play's dialogue. Silence, dialogue, and activity all require the actor to find a purpose for performing the action involved. By combining the two main tasks of focusing attention on a partner and committing to an action, the technique aims to force an actor into "the moment" (a common Meisner phrase), while simultaneously propelling the actor forward with concentrated purpose. The more an actor can take-in about the partner and the surroundings while performing in character, the more Meisner believed they can "leave themselves alone" and "live truthfully." One of Meisner's famous quotations that illustrates the emphasis on "doing" was "An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words."
The most fundamental exercise in Meisner training is the Repetition exercise. Two actors face each other and repeat their observations about one another, back and forth. An example of such an exchange might be: "You're smiling." "I'm smiling." "You're smiling!" "Yes, I'm smiling." Actors observe and respond to the other's behavior and the subtext therein. If they can "pick up the impulse"—or work spontaneously from how their partner's behavior affects them—their own behavior will arise directly from the stimulus of the other.
Later, as the exercise evolves in complexity to include "given circumstances," "relationships," actions and obstacles, this skill remains critical. From start to finish—from repetition to rehearsing a lead role—the principles of "listen and respond" and "stay in the moment" are fundamental to the work.
As in all Stanislavskian-derived approaches, for a Meisner actor traditional line-memorization methods that include vocal inflections or gestures are avoided. These traditional approaches merely increase the chance the actor will miss a "real moment" in service of a rehearsed habit or line reading, the technique assumes. Meisner actors learn lines dry, "by rote," without inflection, so as not to memorize a line-reading. When the line is finally to be delivered, its quality and inflection is derived from the moment of articulation.
The improvisatory thrust of the technique does not give permission to an actor "to wing it" or to fail to prepare. Meisner training includes extensive work on crafting or preparing a role. As students mature in the work, they get to know themselves and can make use of this self-knowledge by choosing actions that are compelling to their particular "instrument." They "come to life" through informed, provocative choices. Actors prepare emotional responses by "personalizing" and "paraphrasing" material and by using their imagination and "daydreaming" around a play's events in highly specific ways that they've learnt are particularly evocative for them personally. Solid preparation supports the spontaneity, in line with Martha Graham's observation that "I work eight hours a day, every day, so that in the evenings I can improvise."
Despite some misconceptions, Meisner work also addresses characterization, though in an indirect way. Characteristics, such as "mousy," "vindictive," or "noble," result from actors' choices about what they do. Rather than attempting to play "mousy," a Meisner actor might seek to appease another character, in order to manifest the characteristic.
Prominent actors who trained at The Neighborhood Playhouse or elsewhere in the Meisner technique include: