Sanford Meisner


“I wish the stage were as narrow as the wire of a tightrope dancer, so that no incompetent would dare step upon it.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832): Wilhelm Meisters Lebrjahre; book 4, chapter 2 (this quotation was framed and hung on the wall in Sanford Meisner’s office).

Excerpts of Sanford Meisner On Acting.







For a writer, there’s a particularly challenging aspect in Chapter 4 of  Sanford Meisner On Acting. Without words, writing is impossible. As a consequence, there exists something which is the opposite of the dreaded and much-documented writer’s block:  writing for the sake of laying down words on the page to prove to yourself you’re not a lazy, self-indulgent pseudo-writer bum.  Not that a writer shouldn’t be moving the fingers on the keyboard or on the paper, but not at the cost of obscuring the real voices of the real fictional characters, buried under an avalanche of authorial yammering. In other words, writing also involves accepting the discomfort of silent waiting until the character is doing or saying something that is meaningful to the character, not to some idea you, the writer, wish to promote, defend or shoot down in flames. This means taking the time to discover who the character is, which may have nothing to do with the real or imaginary figures you had in mind when you wrote down the first lines spoken by that person. Sometimes, this may require you get the character horribly wrong in the first place – but that’s a different train of thought entirely.

Acting isn’t chatter,” one of Meisner’s students says on p.42. “It’s responding truthfully to the other person.” What I understand that to mean for  a writer is: 1) paying attention to the characters in the making and having them respond truthfully to their set of circumstances; 2) tearing out, deleting or modifying whatever doesn’t live up to that basic requirement.


“What does it mean that you can’t be an actor and a gentleman?”

Joseph says: “You’re allowed to do things onstage that you don’t do in life. You’re permitted to express yourself on stage and don’t need to hold yourself back as you must in life.”

p.162, Sanford Meisner On Acting

From a writer’s perspective, what I find most useful in the exercise described in Chapter 10 of Sanford Meisner On Acting is the notion that the character is always responding to a cue – whether it be a physical sensation,  an internal impulse, a moral injunction, an emotional quandary, or the external challenge triggering any of these. Meisner would have his students work with a poem out of the Spoon River Anthology, and identify the ’emotional essence’, in other words, the resident emotion giving the words their specific weight and resonance.  You can also access the Definitive Online Edition of the Anthology (if you can stand the scrolling ad in the sidebar about the woman busy losing 1kg of belly fat per week – miracle of miracles, the loss of belly fat also slims her thighs and the whole process stops before she becomes one of Spoon River’s wraiths).


An interesting blog with many references to Meisner: Acting Schmacting.

Now, think of this Meisner quote in relation to writing: “An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.”


“The text is like a canoe,” Meisner says, “and the river on which it sits is the emotion. The text floats on the river. If the water of the river is turbulent, the words will come out like a canoe on a rough river. It all depend on the flow of the river which is your emotion. The text takes on the character of your emotion. That’s what this exercise is for; how to let the river of your emotion flow untrammeled, with the words floating on top of it.”  (p.115,  Sanford Meisner On Acting)

If you’re writing the text, the question becomes: which of the characters can make the best use of this emotion (1); and (2) do I have the guts to let the character take the emotion where the character wants to take it?


Freud was wrong (chapters 6-8 – Preparation). If he were right how could we account for those instances when  people stick to a plan or a project when neither sexual/romantic gratification nor satisfaction of ambition have any measurable chances of providing The Prize to all the sweating and frustrations?

I think Camus was closer to the mark; both when he said suicide was the only philosophical question worth investigating; and when he said we should imagine Sisyphus as a happy man.

“Happy” has connotations of light-heartedness. Not always on hand when faced with the fucking boulder again. It’s not so much a question of light-heartedness (although some is always welcome). Has more to do with a personal response to the Universe. I’m here. I’m alive. I still want to do this.

Being. Doing.


Simple? Obvious? For an actor, there’s the stage or a set. The biggest challenge is being truthful in an imaginary setting, on cue at a given time of day or evening, no matter what else happens in the personal sphere. Easier said than done. “Acting is a scary, paradoxical business. One of its central paradoxes is that in order to succeed as an actor you have to lose consciousness of your own self in order to transform yourself into the character in the play.” (Chapter 7, Improvisation, p. 114).

The actor must do that, while using everything his or her personality and life experiences can provide as a source.

What about the writer? Moving back and forth between the conventional self (without which life as an active member of society is impossible) and the truthful self from which fictional characters can spring forth without mouthing pleasantries and platitudes,  or horrors, for the hell of sounding interesting and dramatic. “I’ve heard Maureen Stapleton at a party talk like a cultured woman,” one of the students says. “Who’s she kidding? That’s not what she lives by on the stage.” (p 162.)

Writing is work. So is acting. In both cases, the line of work calls for a huge draw on emotional reserves. The advantage for the actor: most audiences distinguish between the person on stage, and the person in “real life”. Both the writer (and some readers)   forget that difference, at times. Some readers disregard the basic difference between the person who writes, and that person’s characters. The confusion can prove destabilizing. Do the characters  represent the writer’s “real self” ?Do they exist for the sole purpose of masking the writer‘s inherent violence or nastiness or admirable fortitude in the face of adversity? If the answer is yes, they are no more interesting than a corps of press aids out to handle the writer’s self-promotion.

Losing self-consciousness while  using everything your personality and life experiences can provide as source material.

I’m not there yet.


The same holds true for writers.

Life beats down and crushes our souls and theatre reminds us that we have one. At least the type of theatre that I’m interested in; that is, theatre that moves an audience. You have the opportunity to literally impact the lives of people if they work on material that has integrity. But today, most actors simply want to be famous. Well, being an actor was never supposed to be about fame and money. Being an actor is a religious calling because you’ve been given the ability, the gift to inspire humanity. Think about that on the way to your soap opera audition.” – Sanford Meisner

… or to your first draft; or to your thirty-fifth revision that you hope to make read as if it had just occurred to you and lived a life of its own.


Seven years after setting up this page, my thoughts go to the actor kicked out of Meisner’s class ( reported in chapter 7). Why? Because I wonder what became of him. Did he give up on acting? Find another teacher? Decide to wing it on his own? Take up accounting? Hate Meisner for the rest of his life? Say: Screw Meisner, who the hell does he think he is, anyway? Say: Thanks for the kick in the pants, Meisner. I was ruining myself on lessons that made no sense to me.

What? What became of you, Vincent? To my knowledge, no one’s written a book about you.

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