August 31, 1905
|Died||February 2, 1997 (aged 91)|
|Occupation||Actor, acting teacher|
|Peggy Meredith nee Meyer (1948-1950; divorced)|
Betty Gooch (19-19; divorced)
Sanford Meisner (August 31, 1905 - February 2, 1997), also known as Sandy, was an American actor and acting teacher who developed an approach to acting instruction that is now known as the Meisner technique. While Meisner was exposed to method acting at the Group Theatre, his approach differed markedly in that he completely abandoned the use of affective memory, a distinct characteristic of method acting. Meisner maintained an emphasis on "the reality of doing", which was the foundation of his approach.
Born in Brooklyn, Meisner was the oldest child of Hermann Meisner, a furrier, and Bertha Knoepfler, both Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Hungary. His younger siblings were Jacob, Ruth, and Robert. To improve Sanford's health during his youth, his family took a trip to the Catskills. However, while there his brother Jacob contracted bovine tuberculosis from drinking unpasteurized milk and died shortly thereafter. In an interview many years later, Meisner later identified this event as "the dominant emotional influence in my life from which I have never, after all these years, escaped." Blamed by his parents for Jacob's death, the young Meisner became isolated and withdrawn, unable to cope with feelings of guilt for his brother's death.
He found release in playing the family piano and eventually attended the Damrosch Institute of Music (now the Juilliard School) where he studied to become a concert pianist. When the Great Depression hit, Meisner's father pulled him out of music school to help in the family business in New York City's Garment District. Meisner later recalled that the only way he could endure days spent lugging bolts of fabric was to entertain himself by replaying, in his mind, all the classical piano pieces he had studied in music school. Meisner believed this experience helped him develop an acute sense of sound, akin to perfect pitch. Later, as an acting teacher, he often evaluated his students' scene work with his eyes closed (and his head dramatically buried in his hands). This trick was only partly for effect; the habit, he explained, actually helped him to listen more closely to his students' work and to pinpoint the true and false moments in their acting.
After graduation from high school, Meisner pursued acting professionally, which had interested him since his youth. He had acted at the Lower East Side's Chrystie Street Settlement House under the direction of Lee Strasberg, who was to play an important role in his development. At 19, Meisner heard that the Theatre Guild was hiring teenagers. After a brief interview, he was hired as an extra for They Knew What They Wanted. The experience deeply affected him and he realized that acting was what he had been looking for in life. He and Strasberg both appeared in the original Theatre Guild production of the Rodgers and Hart review The Garrick Gaieties, from which the song "Manhattan" came.
Despite his parents' misgivings, Meisner continued to pursue a career in acting, receiving a scholarship to study at the Theatre Guild of Acting. Here he encountered once again Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. Strasberg was to become another of the century's most influential acting theorists and the father of method acting, an acting technique derived, like Meisner's own, from the system of Konstantin Stanislavski. The three became friends. In 1931, Clurman, Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford (another Theatre Guild member) selected 28 actors (one of whom was Meisner) to form the Group Theatre. This company exerted an influence on the entire art of acting in the United States. Meisner summered with the Group Theatre at their 1936 rehearsal headquarters at Pine Brook Country Club in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut.
Meisner, along with a number of other actors in the company, eventually resisted Strasberg's preoccupation with affective memory exercises. In 1934, fellow company member Stella Adler returned from private study with Stanislavski in Paris and announced that Stanislavski had come to believe that, as part of a rehearsal process, delving into one's past memories as a source of emotion was only a last resort and that the actor should seek rather to develop the character's thoughts and feelings through physical action, a concentrated use of the imagination, and a belief in the "given circumstances" of the text. As a result, Meisner began to focus on a new approach to the art of acting.
When the Group Theatre disbanded in 1940, Meisner continued as head of the acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, at which he had taught since 1935. In teaching he found a level of fulfillment similar to that which he had found in playing the piano as a child. At the Playhouse he developed his own form of method acting that was based on Stanislavski's system, Meisner's training with Lee Strasberg, and on Stella Adler's revelations about the uses of the imagination. Today that approach is called the Meisner technique. It was during these early years at The Neighborhood Playhouse that Meisner was briefly married to the young actress Peggy Meredith, who appeared in several Broadway productions.
The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by two ex-Group Theatre actors Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford. Strasberg initially had not been asked to join the group, while Meisner was among the first instructors to teach at the studio. However, by 1951, after Kazan moved to Hollywood to focus on his directorial career, Strasberg became the group's artistic director. In the following years, many students of the Actors Studio became well known in the film industry. Strasberg's later insistence that he had trained them distressed Meisner enormously, creating an animosity with his ex-mentor that continued until Strasberg's death.
In 1935, Meisner joined the faculty of The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and continued as the Director of the Acting Department until his retirement in 1990, and served as Director Emeritus until his death in 1997. In 1928, The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre opened its doors. The first class of only nine students had the privilege of being taught by theatre luminaries Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Laura Elliott, and Agnes de Mille. Over his years or teaching at the Playhouse, this founding member of The Group Theatre developed and refined what is now known as the Meisner Technique: "To live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances." The Meisner Technique is a step-by-step procedure of self-investigation for the actor now widely recognized as one of the foremost acting techniques taught today.
Notable students and alumni of The Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner's instruction include: Dylan McDermott, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Diane Keaton, Jeff Goldblum, Tony Randall, Sydney Pollack, David Mamet, Connie Britton, Brian Geraghty, Leslie Moonves, Sherie Rene Scott, Chris Noth, Tucker Smallwood, Mary Steenburgen, Betsy von Furstenberg, Allison Janney, Jennifer Grey, Ashlie Atkinson, Christopher Meloni, Alex Cole Taylor, and many more.
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In 1983, Meisner and his life partner James Carville founded the Meisner/Carville School of Acting on the Caribbean island of Bequia. Students from all around the world came every summer to participate in a summer intensive with Meisner. The Meisner/Carville School of Acting operated on the island and, beginning in 1985, also in North Hollywood. Meisner split his time between the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and the two school locations. In spring of 1995, The Meisner/Carville School of acting was then succeeded by The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts, a theater company and school in North Hollywood established by Meisner, James Carville, Martin Barter and Jill Gatsby. Graduates from Meisner's 2-year program could audition for the company. The company became a fixture on the Los Angeles theater scene for several years after Meisner's death. Meisner attended every rehearsal and every performance until the very end.
Throughout his career, Meisner worked with, and taught, students who became well known. Sydney Pollack and Charles E. Conrad served as Meisner's senior assistants. The technique is helpful not just for actors, but also for directors, writers, and teachers. A number of directors also studied with him, among them Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, and writers such as Arthur Miller and David Mamet.
Though he rarely appeared on film, he performed in Tender Is the Night, The Story on Page One, and Mikey and Nicky. His last acting role was in the season one episode of the television medical drama ER, "Sleepless in Chicago". Actor Noah Wyle worked with him and referred to the experience as the highlight of his career.
In 1970 Meisner was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent a laryngectomy. After that operation he lived for nearly three more decades, until February 1997, when he died in his sleep at the age of 91 at his home in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles.
Meisner's unusual techniques were considered both unorthodox and effective. Actor Dennis Longwell wrote of sitting in on one of Meisner's classes one day, when Meisner brought two students forward for an acting exercise. They were given a single line of dialogue, told to turn away, and instructed not to do or say anything until something happened to make them say the words (one of the fundamental principles of the Meisner technique). The first student's line came when Meisner approached him from behind and gave him a strong pinch on the back, inspiring him to jump away and yelp his line in pain. The other student's line came when Meisner reached around and slipped his hand into her blouse. Her line came out as a giggle as she moved away from his touch.
The goal of the Meisner technique has often been described as getting actors to "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances."