If you haven’t already, at some point in your acting career you will hear someone say the phrase, “acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” This phrase was actually coined by acting guru Sanford Meisner. Essentially, Meisner preached that an actor use instinctive emotions while acting instead of thinking too much into the character itself. Typically, people will teach three components of the technique: repetition, emotional preparation, and improvisation. Let’s talk about that.
Repetition is just about what you think it is. This exercise is an extremely common practice among beginning actors. It’s simple yet effective; two actors face each other and repeat the same phrase back-and-forth in different ways (tone, volume, inflection, etc.). This exercise brings out genuine emotion from the actor the longer the repetition goes on. The whole point of acting is to not look like your acting, and this is an exercise that can essentially aid in an actor becoming “real.”
Emotional preparation, I think, is a key component that an actor should grasp if wanting to take acting seriously as a career. In this case, “acting is doing,” in a sense that if you are portraying a character experiencing something that you personally haven’t, you, as the actor, must find another way to draw genuine emotion instead of just “pretending.” If you are cast as a pregnant woman, for example, but have never given birth before, you may want to talk to women who have given birth, watch a live birth, etc., in order to pull emotion You hear stories of some actors completely losing their sense of self after filming because they essentially become the character they have portrayed and emotional preparation is the reason why. For example, the late Heath Ledger in his role as The Joker in The Dark Night. It’s an extremely effective technique if used wisely.
All in all, the Meisner technique is highly acclaimed and used by numerous A-list actors including Allison Janney, Jeff Goldblum, and Jack Nicholson. Much like Stanislavski, Meisner preaches authenticity and ingenuity of acting so both techniques are often used intertwined. Different characters and circumstances may call for different techniques!