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Course Review: Theatre's Best Kept Secret: An Introduction to The Meisner Technique

Friday 18th August 2023

Founder of The London Meisner Company Robyn Paterson delivered an insightful and interesting masterclass on the Meisner Technique, fusing entertaining anecdotes with foundational information and practical tips.

During the first half of the course, Robyn talked about her early education and her introduction to professional acting, going to drama school in New Zealand and how the notion of trying too hard and being ‘in her head’ led to a cast member recommending the Meisner Technique as a method of acting. She discussed studying under Sanford Meisner graduate Michael Saccente and how this made her acting feel more authentic, before telling the story of how she started teaching Meisner to small groups, then began teaching it full time in 2016. The London Meisner Company was founded in 2018.

Robyn asked participants “what is acting (in its most basic, stripped-back form)?” and it was defined as ‘listening and responding’. This led nicely on to explaining how the technique is about listening with full attention and responding ‘in the moment’ (impulsive, instinctive and uninhibited) as opposed to overthinking and being ‘in our heads’. She noted that character building in Meisner is like ‘building a chair from wood’ i.e. you are the wood and the character is formed entirely from you, your instincts, your impulses.

Robyn wove stories of her education with Michael Saccente (‘Mike’) into her discussion of the fundamental mantras of the Meisner Technique. She noted how we can move from ‘moment to (unanticipated) moment’ simply through listening and responding, using improvisation and spontaneity. If something is thought out for a while beforehand, it is too formulaic and can’t be honest or authentic. Plus, people get so locked into ‘doing the text’ that they can’t use their emotions to respond to anything that arises in the moment.

The structure of Meisner training was explored, with different Meisner techniques likened to ‘building blocks’ that are built up over time. The first weeks are solely focused on tone/sound/pitch, then this goes into words (single word repetition), then ‘calling on behaviour’, then independent activities, ‘knock at the door’ (trying an imaginary circumstance), emotional preparation, ‘Spoon River Anthology’ (students’ first introduction to text), ‘first year scenes’ (simple scenarios) and ‘second year scenes’ (more complex scenarios).

The second half of the course featured a single word repetition game involving two participants at any one time. The objective of the game was to prevent self-consciousness and overthinking and get people to act in the moment, and the end result was deemed not as important as the overall process.

Participants in the game were asked to close their eyes and pay full attention to the sounds around them, letting any thoughts or conversations in their head drift by. They were then asked to open their eyes and fully focus on their acting partner’s eyes and face. Robyn would prompt one of them with a question (e.g. “What colour are Melanie’s eyes?”), the answer to which was then repeated back and forth between the participants for a set period of time, with each person aiming to repeat exactly what the other had said using exactly the same pitch, tone, etc. The process was carried out very quickly to avoid any hesitation or overthinking.

This exercise was workshopped several times involving different sets of participants and different question examples, and reflections and tips were shared between each attempt at the game. For example, one participant noted that there is a compulsion to vary the speech (to avoid becoming ‘boring’), but this goes against Meisner’s ethos of staying in the moment and not being forced. The masterclass concluded with a Q&A session.

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