Sanford Meisner’s technique is based on the “reality of doing”. Rather than focus on emotions, he focused on truthful behavior that was the product of “doing” not “thinking”. To provide actors with a way of achieving truthful behavior he created what he called the “repetition” exercises. First and foremost these exercises teach actors to really listen to one another. The earliest stage of his exercises is referred to as the “first thing”. By “working off” one another and listening without adding anything artificial onto the exercise actors begin to understand what it means to respond from their truthful selves. In order to illuminate the value of listening as it relates to the instincts, Meisner provided his students with 3 rules:
Rule 1. “Don’t do anything until something happens to make you do it”. By learning the value of “leaving yourself alone” the actor begins to understand that there is no meaning in fabricated responses. To achieve the sense of truth that we strive for in our work the actor must learn to put all of their attention on an “object” outside of themselves. In doing so the actor is no longer watching himself/herself. This is the foundation of listening to the other person.
Rule 2. “What you do doesn’t depend on you, it depends on the other person”. This is more easily understood in stage 3 of the “repetition”, commonly known as the “point of view” exercise. In this stage students are introduced to what Meisner called the “pinch” for the “ouch”. The actors engaged in the “point of view” exercise are now moving forward in the “repetition. They are now required to respond to the other person from their own truthful “point of view”. The actors are not allowed to “think” up a response or pause to consider the effect their partner’s “pinch” has had on them. They must now respond spontaneously from their truthful “point of view”. If your partner says something to anger you, you must stay in the “repetition” and respond from your gut. This is the stage in which the actor begins to understand what it mean to remove the “filter” and take the “nice routine” out of their work. Thinking blocks the instincts so the actors work tirelessly to get our of their “heads” and find meaningful behavior via the “pinch”. Ergo Meisner stated, “If I “pinch” you, you will say “ouch”.
Rule 3. “The quality of your work depends upon how fully you do what you do”. This is one of the most difficult things for an actor to master. Working full refers to your ability to react to the “pinch” from a personal place. This is essential for script work as there are no casual moments in drama. By definition, “No conflict = no drama”. The actor’s work must be infused with meaning from start to finish. Marlon Brando talks briefly in the latest Brando documentary, “Listen To Me Marlon”, about the importance and difficulty of finding the “truth of the moment”.
Meisner went on to provide his students with the “independent physical activity” to provide the actor with a means of developing focus and concentration. The actor is now at a place where he/she must bring in an activity that is purely physical and extremely difficult. Once again the importance of placing all of your attention on the “object of your behavior” is reinforced.
As the actors progress from one stage of the “repetition” to the next the stakes are raised thereby providing the means by which we create urgency.
In all there are approximately 12-13 stages of the “repetition” exercises. In every stage the actor must continue to learn to “listen” via the “knock at the door”, independent physical activity, and finally the “in relationship” stage of the exercises.
As a young actor I was always in my head and had no clue as to how to get out. There were times when my instincts came to the surface but much more often than not I was thinking rather than reacting to the “pinch. Fortunately I found the Meisner Technique early in my training. As an actor, teacher, and director I would be lost without it.