Meisner is theater’s best-kept secret
≪From the comment of the photograph.≫
Sanford Meisner, 85, has trained some of the most skilled and famous performers of stage and screen, including Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Joanne Woodward.
His body is crippled and his voice a whisper, but Sanford Meisner goes on.
Meisner just turned 85, less than a week after public television’s American Masters profiled the man regarded as one of the country’s best acting teachers.
“The only time I’m enjoying myself is when I’m teaching,” he says. And that enjoyment has lasted more than 50 years.
For some five decades, Meisner has taught acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York . Not as well known as Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen or Stella Adler, he has been called “the theater’s best-kept secret.”
But not to his pupils. The list of devoted Meisner disciples is impressive:Joanne Woodward, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Peter Falk, Gwen Verdon and more.
“What he wanted from you was truthful acting,” Peck recalls in the television tribute. “And the proof of that is the number of people that have come out of there…who set standards of acting themselves and changed a great deal about American acting.”
Today, physical ailments have slowed but not stopped Meisner. An auto accident in 1984 smashed his left leg and hip. Cancer of the larynx robbed him of his voice more than 10 years ago, but he leaned to speak again by inhaling air into his esophagus and forcing out sounds.
Still, Meisner loves to talk about acting, dissecting what it is and isn’t. “I have a definition which I use,” Meisner said the other day during an interview. “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
The ability to learn lines is not enough, he said. “Actors have to make the text come to life.”
“Only the actor knows how to find the truth inside himself and out of which comes the reality of the text. My job is to help with exercises which permit what’s going on inside to come to the surface.”
Meisner teaches in New York , Los Angeles and on the Caribbean island of Bequia where he has a home. Each summer he holds two, four-week sessions in Bequia for 25 older, more professional students. If they make it through these workshops, the students go to California for a two-year course that begins in November and ends in May.
He has little use for rules about acting and scoffs at intellectual theorizing about the craft.
“Acting is doing, and meaningful acting is doing under emotional circumstances,” he says.
In New York , Meisner heads the acting department at the Neighborhood Playhouse. He gets all the new students, usually between 75 and 100, in September. Each day, these green recruits have to go through a series of exercises, mostly dealing with the development of spontaneity and concentration. Later, there are classes on character development. In November, he turns them over to teachers he has trained himself.
When Meisner teaches, he uses a microphone to amplify his raspy, often indistinct voice. But his opinions are as clear and sharp as ever.
“Today’s students are somewhat vulgar,” he said. “Maybe it’s television. They don’t have much grounding in the theater, and what they do know is superficial. Everyone just wants to make money and that’s in television.”
Meisner was born in Brooklyn . The son of Hungarian immigrants, he was groomed to become a furrier like his father. But he discovered the theater at age 19 and didn’t look back. Instead, he become an actor.
Meisner was one of the founding members of the influential Group Theater led by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford and which was a major force on Broadway in the 1930s. He appeared in some of the company’s biggest hits including Men in White, Awake and Sing and Golden Boy.
Meisner began teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse while a member of the Group Theater. The company folded in 1941 but Meisner kept teaching at the playhouse, and only occasionally made appearances on stage. His screen appearances are also rare. He’s best known for his work in the films “The story on page one and Tender is the night”.
But he urges his pupils to do all kinds of work, especially plays if they want to improve at their craft.
“Acting is fun,” he says on the television show. “Don’t let that get around.”(Joke)