Category Archives: 1 – Realisms Long Reach

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Sanford Meisner

Post by Elizabeth Gruber

Sanford Meisner is most famously known for establishing the Meisner Technique and is considered one of the most legendary New York acting teachers. He was born August 31, 1905 to Jewish immigrants from Hungary and grew up in Brooklyn. Meisner graduated from Eramus Hall in 1923 and then attended The Damrosch Institute of Music which is now known as Julliard where he was studying to become a concert pianist. It wasn’t until he took a job in a Theatre Guild Production of Sidney Howards They Knew What They Wanted, where his passion for acting began. 

Meisner joined the infamous Group Theatre in 1931 along with many other well known actors such as Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Harold Clurman. The Group Theatre was considered to be the first permanent theatre company that brought ‘method’ acting which was methods created from Stanislavsky in America. Meisner appeared in twelve Group productions  such as The House of Connelly and Clifford Odets plays but in 1933 he began to become aware of the flaws within pure method acting. He specifically had an issue with Stanislavki’s emotional memory approach. Stanislavski’s emotional memory technique allowed actors to remember past events in order to conjure specific emotions within the present. Mesiner viewed this technique as inorganic and harmful. Meisner began to create a technique that focused on creating truthful performances through external factors which allowed actors to get out of their own heads and into the moment. Meisner became a director at the New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse school and taught actors from 1936 to 1959 and then again from 1964 until 1990. This is where he began to experiment and develop what is known as the Meisner Technique.

The Meisner Technique included three main components including emotional preparation, repetition, and improvisation. Through emotional preparation which is the prep work, the actor is creating the world of the character’s life. A full emotional landscape of a character must be developed in order to create a multi dimensional and interesting character. The actor must learn and decide what factors make them happy, what arouses conflict for the character, and discover the other complexities. This technique gives an actor a better understanding of the character’s emotional life and allows them to empathize with the character’s personal experiences. It moves the actor away from acting and closer to reacting genuinely within different characters. For instance some of the steps consist of researching the role such as discovering the character’s background and how it influences their life, interviewing people who have shared the same/similar experiences as the character if the actor has not gone through it themselves, and allowing a singular emotion of a character to transform into different feelings. The Repetition Exercise assists in training an actor’s response. This exercise consists of two actors practicing repetition where they will face each other and repeat the same phrase while building off of each other’s depiction of the phrase. The dialogue will remain the same but the actors’ delivery of the phrase will vary differently within their intensity, tone, and emotion while saying it. Within the exercise, the actor is allowed to focus on their own emotion instead of the dialogue which builds authenticity. An extraordinary example of this exercise is with Angelina Jolie, who practices it alone without a partner;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUs5GKGQy7k)

Meisner’s last component in his technique was improvisation. The opportunity to improvise allows the actor to act before thinking plays a significant role within his technique. His form of improvisation consists of actors embodying the character and reacting as them based on instinct and emotional connection. It provides the actor the freedom to bring spontaneity within a scene and react as the character without worrying about the dialogue.

Mesiner’s technique grew in notoriety as he taught it to several generations of actors. Many well known actors still continuously use his technique including Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock, Christopher Waltz, Connie Britton, James Caan, and many more. In March of 1995, The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts was opened. This was the first and only location that Meisner allowed his name to be attached with. His last appearance as an actor was in 1995 when he appeared as a guest star on an episode of ER in 1995. Throughout his life he received recognition from Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Reagan. Arthur Miller even commented on Meisner by stating “He has been the most principled teacher of acting in this country for decades now, and every time I am reading actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don’t lay on complications that aren’t necessary.”. Meisner passed away on February 2nd, 1997 but his legacy lives on within American acting and has laid the foundations for modern acting within this country.

Sources

“5 Basic Facts about Sanford Meisner.” Acting Magazine, 28 Aug. 2020, https://actingmagazine.com/2019/11/5-basic-facts-about-sanford-meisner/. 

“Inside Out.” Dramatics Magazine Online, 12 Nov. 2019, https://dramatics.org/inside-out/. 

“Meisner Technique: Everything You Need to Know.” NFI, 29 June 2021, https://www.nfi.edu/meisner-technique/. 

The Sanford Meisner Center. “History.” The Sanford Meisner Center, 4 July 2020, https://www.themeisnercenter.com/history.html. 

Tennessee Williams

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Mississippi, Tennessee Williams likely drew from his own upbringing in his depictions of dysfunctional families. Like his contemporaries, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil, familial drama is at the heart of his most well-known plays. His father was an alcoholic and in many of his plays liquor further exacerbates the on-stage action. Williams grew up primarily in St. Louis, Missouri, though many of his plays are set or feature Southern characters. In fact, he supposedly detested the city but was buried there in 1983. St. Louis hosts an annual Tennessee Williams Festival.

Williams wrote for the WPA Project starting in 1939. The Glass Menagerie was his first major play and was based on a short story he wrote in 1943. This play is considered a ‘memory play’ in that the play is narrated by the character of Tom who is consciously reflecting on his memories of his overly dramatic Southern mother and his sister Laura. This is one of the likely autobiographical plays.

He was one of the most well-known playwrights of the late 40s and 50s, with seven Broadway plays (including Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, and Sweet Bird of Youth.) In this period films were made of both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. The latter also brought fame to young Marlon Brando whose appeal also encouraged American trends toward method acting.

Williams and Arthur Miller both experimented within a framework of domestic realism. Both questioned the draw of post-War Capitalism and American identity. They explored social problems.

The female characters in Williams’ early plays represent a way of life that has disappeared, due in part to the rise of greater industrialization between the two wars. Amanda (The Glass Menagerie) and Blanche (A Streetcar…) are adrift and lost in a changing world. At the same time, Williams is questioning the same superficiality of the culture that has developed in its place.

Williams and Miller, and playwrights such as Lorraine Hansbury were beginning to poke at the idea of “The American Dream.” Asking questions about its value, who it applied to (as in Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun), and what one has to vie up in order to achieve it.

Method Acting

Method acting is a technique that asks the actor to not only identify and understand a role but to experience it. It builds on the techniques of Konstantin Stanislavski, but as developed within U.S.-based acting schools who were working with only his early writing. Among those students who taught their versions of Stanislavski’s method were Lee Strasbourg, Sanford Meisner, and especially Stella Adler (the daughter of the great Yiddish actor, Jacob Adler), one of Brando’s teachers. Often misunderstood, the goal is to deeply connect with the emotion of the character being played.

Williams explored the hypocracies of involved in the promise of individual freedom and the celebration of difference, as the American culture of ‘success’ simultaneously insisted upon allegiance and conformity.

Annette Saddik, Martin Halliwell, and Andy Mousley Contemporary American Drama, pg. 60.

In the 60s and 70s, Williams experimented more with his writing, moving toward fragmentation and postmodernism. During this period he produced many one-act plays. He never achieved the same level of commercial success his earlier more realistic plays did. Critics and audiences did not respond well. However, his work was some of the first produced in a developing Off-Broadway environment, with one-acts premiering at Ellen Stewart’s LaMama and at Cafe Cino.

His late plays revolve around issues of identity and fragmentation. Williams suffered from severe bouts of depression and substance abuse. His sister was schizophrenic.

Changing times and social mores also allowed Williams to finally live openly as a gay man. Williams’ work has frequently been looked at in terms of underlying themes regarding homosexuality, particularly in how his work questions the need to suppress aspects of the self. Williams wrote one overtly queer play, “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”, which was not produced until twenty years after his death in 2004. Here, a video from actor Evan Spigelman and director Ricky Graham discuss the play in 2018.

For Further Reading:

The Tennessee Williams Annual Review. Murfreesboro, Middle Tennessee State University, 1998-.

Roudane, Matthew C. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Saddik, Annette J. Tennessee Williams and the Theatre of Excess : the Strange, the Crazed, the Queer Cambridge ;: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Saddik, Annette J. Contemporary American Drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.