Sanford Meisner

Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances

                                            – Sanford Meisner

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Sanford Meisner and John Ruskin, 1986

Sanford Meisner was a master teacher of acting who trained some of the most famous actors of the stage and screen. Meisner was a founding member of the Group Theatre which began in 1931. The Group Theatre became a leading force in of the American theater world of the 1930’s. Meisner performed in many of the group’s most memorable productions, including The House of Connelly, Men in White, Awake and Sing, Paradise Lost and Golden Boy. While still a member of the group, Meisner became the head of the acting department of New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. After the Group Theatre dissolved in 1941, Meisner devoted himself to teaching appearing only occasionally on Broadway and in films such as Clifford Odets’ The Story on Page One (1959), Mikey and Nick with John Cassavetes and
Peter Falk, and Tender is the Night with Jason Robards.

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Over the course of forty-eight years at the Neighborhood Playhouse, Meisner honed his skills as an acting teacher. Growing out of the days with the Group Theatre and the Russian theater theorist Constantin Stanislavsky, Meisner created a series of exercises for actors. For Meisner, acting was about reproducing honest emotional human reactions. He felt the actor’s job was simply to prepare for an experiment that would take place on stage. The best acting he believed, was made up of spontaneous responses to the actor’s immediate surroundings. Meisner explained that his approach was designed ” to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

Meisner’s role within the theater community remained important throughout his long career. Among his famous students were actors Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Diane Keaton, Steve McQueen, James Caan, Joanne Woodward, Lee Grant, Dylan McDermott, Sydney Pollack and Peter Falk. Gregory Peck said of Meisner, “What he wanted from you was truthful acting and he was able to communicate that. The proof of it is in the number of people that have come out of the Neighborhood Playhouse over a forty-year period. These people have gone on to become artists who set standards of acting.” Though troubled with a number of physical problems, including losing his larynx, Meisner continued to be an active part of the theater community for his entire life. During his final years, he split his time between the Caribbean island Bequia and New York. He died at age 91, leaving behind a legacy of commitment and enthusiasm rarely seen in any art.

 

Act Before You Think

                                         – Sanford Meisner