Meisner For Improvisers

Meisner for Improvisers

I was running a “It’s Real It’s Real” workshop on Monday, about how to improvise real natural scenes with a genuine connection between the performers. I thought I was going to use a little bit of The Meisner Technique in the workshop, but I ended up running the whole session on it as it seemed so effective.

People spend years studying The Meisner Technique, so this was more a brief introduction in a couple of hours but I was still really surprised how effective it was.

The Meisner technique was developed by Sanford Meisner in New York. For the purpose of this workshop I introduced the following concepts from his book:

  • Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances
  • Repetition
  • Calling emotions
  • Specific Activity
  • Emotional Preparations

Exercises:

Mirroring

Actors in pairs. They stand opposite each other. One mirrors the other one. They mirror movements, face, emotion, stance, everything. Remind them to also mirror feet and legs, so they become aware of the whole body. Ask them to mirror as accurately and precisely as possible. Also ask them to mirror the things the person does accidentally, not just deliberately.
I’ve found it’s really important in impro to treat everything as an offer, there is no difference between what the person does deliberately and what they do accidentally. It’s all there present on stage so we work with all of it, all of the person.

Repetition – 1 Physical Thing On The Person

Two actors stood opposite each other. One says something that is undeniably true and real about the other one. They repeat it back. They say one thing undeniably true about the other one, they repeat it. Repeat it again and again back and forward, with only one physical thing per person.

At first pick up on physical things on the person, objects, like items of clothing, jewelry, etc, as it’s less personal and easier to start with. For instance:

A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt  
A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt  
A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt  
A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
B: You’re wearing a watch
A: I’m wearing a watch 
B: You’re wearing a watch
A: I’m wearing a watch  
B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt
A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt
A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
B: You’re wearing a watch
A: I’m wearing a watch 

They change between ‘you’re’ and ‘I’m’.

Some important points:

  • Don’t think it up or plan what to say, just repeat.
  • Don’t act. Just repeat.
  • Don’t have an opinion, just facts. eg instead of “it’s a nice t-shirt”, “it’s a black t-shirt”, nice is your opinion.
  • Given the choice go for the complimentary, but actually this shouldn’t make any difference due to facts above.
  • You might feel emotions generated in the exercises, let them happen and be mildly interested in them. Don’t feel the need to act them.
  • Don’t act.
  • Don’t act.
  • If in doubt, repeat repeat repeat and keep repeating.

As the repetitions go backwards and forwards a connection develops between the two actors where they feel aware of each other. Their dialogue is taken up with repetition of something that is undeniably true about the other person, leaving them to focus fully and connect with someone. It’s actually quite rare these days for people to fully focused on someone and making eye contact and connection, and even in this first exercise the effect is quite powerful.

My partner and I in this exercise found ourselves going through various stages of giggling, smiling, trance like staring, seriousness and melancholy. Overall we were left with the impression that we liked each other and were connected to someone good in life.

Repetition – Multiple Physical Things On The Person

Next step was the same as above but with multiple physical things, so we could pick up on different physical things on the person. At this stage it is still physical things on the person, rather than the actual person.

Again, if in doubt repeat repeat repeat. We shouldn’t be looking for things to notice or make up about the other person, just repeating. We’re aiming for a state where as we notice something about the person we immediately say it without judgement or hesitation. It brings us into the present moment where we are fully aware and connected.

For instance:

Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt
Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: You’re wearing adidas trainers

Actor A: I’m wearing adidas trainers
Actor B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt
Actor A: I’m wearing adidas trainers
Actor B: You’re wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: I’m wearing a blue shirt
Actor B: You’re wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt

Again, don’t act. Just repeat. Don’t think. Just repeat. Let any connections or emotions you feel pop up and pay mild attention to them, don’t fake it.

Repetition – Physical Things About the Other Person

The same as above but this time we can also pick up on physical things the person is actually doing as well as what they are wearing. For instance smiling, laughing, frowning, scratching, shaking, standing, bobbing.

It’s not what they just did, or what they are about to do, it’s what they are doing right now. If they smiled, but as we talk they are not smiling, then they are not smiling. We don’t say ‘you were smiling’, we say ‘you are smiling’.

Again if in doubt repeat repeat repeat, and you can still repeat the physical clothing and other things that are undeniably true. By returning to repetitions of truthful things grounds the entire connection in reality.

For instance:

Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt

Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: You’re pointing at me

Actor A: I’m pointing at you
Actor B: You’re pointing at me

Actor A: I’m pointing at you
Actor B: You’re pointing at me
Actor A: You’re frowning
Actor B: I’m frowning
Actor A: You’re frowning
Actor B: You’re wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: I’m wearing a blue shirt
Actor B: You’re wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: You’re smiling
Actor B: I’m smiling

Even though this exercise seems abstract it’s already really helpful for impro. Just picking up on what the other person is physically doing has number of benefits:

  • It brings the caller into the present moment.
  • It brings the other actor into the present moment.
  • It brings the audience into the present moment.
  • It gives a strong offer like “you’re smiling”.
  • It’s impossible to block.
  • It makes something of anything.
  • It brings the scene into a more truthful reality, as the physical thing is true we start to believe the imaginary.

This kind of improvising is really moment by moment. An improviser can go to hug another improviser in a scene, and even if the other improviser tries to block them by turning around and walking away all the attempted hugger as to do is say “you’re turning around and walking away from me” and they have brought their partner back into the scene, back into the moment, and made it look deliberate.

Meisner improvisers aren’t planning, they are seeing in the moment.

Repetition – Emotional Calls and Repetitions on the other Person

Same as before but this time you can also make emotional calls on the other person. For instance “you are sad”, “you are happy”, “you feel awkward” .

It’s not you might be, you seem, you look….it’s YOU ARE, YOU FEEL. This is a major step for a lot of people. We’re now looking at someone and making an instantaneous observation about how they are feeling.

Don’t worry about getting it wrong. If you call them the wrong emotion they’ll probably react anyway, and then you’ll get them with something else.

Don’t act. Don’t act. Don’t act. Just observe and repeat. You might find you’re own mood and emotion and connection to the other person changing, then let it but don’t force it or act. Just stay focussed on the other person and repeat repeat repeat.

Don’t think, just go back to repetitions. You can go back to clothing, physical things etc whenever.

Keep it present. Not you were happy, it’s what they are right now. Eventually this leads to incredible connections where people are completely aware of how the other person.

For example:

Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I’m wearing a black t-shirt

Actor A: You’re wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: You’re bored
Actor A: I’m bored
Actor B: You’re bored

Actor A: I’m bored
Actor B: You’re bored
Actor A: You’re cheeky
Actor B: I’m cheeky

Actor A: You’re laughing
Actor B: I’m laughing
Actor A: You’re laughing
Actor B: You’re smiling

Actor A: I’m smiling
Actor B: You’re happy
Actor A: I’m happy
Actor B: You’re happy

Actor A: You’re pissed off
Actor B: I’m pissed off
Actor A: You’re scratching you’re head
Actor B: I’m scratching my head

It’s not a call on that person in general in their whole life. We aren’t saying they are bored all the time. We are saying that in that moment they are bored/sad/happy.

This is incredibly helpful for impro. By picking up on genuine emotions in scenes, how people are actually feeling, we are bring impro into reality and grounding it in something believable.

We can have real feelings on stage and act on them. There doesn’t have to be a difference between how we feel and how our character feels, we can bring all of ourselves into it.

For instance I look at another improviser on stage and feel like I really want to kiss them, as in I want to kiss the actual improviser. This doesn’t mean there’s something going on in the rest of our lives, it’s just that moment. In that moment we feel something, and we can bring that directly into the scene. Interestingly enough any scene.  We could be two crew members on the Star Ship Enterprise, and if we’re honest and true any dialogue resulting from the emotional call will work:

Actor A: I want to kiss you.
Actor B: You want to kiss me.
Actor A: You’re embarressed.
Actor B: You’re embarressed.
Actor A: I’m embarressed.
Actor B: You shouldn’t have said that.
Actor A: I shouldn’t have said that.
Actor B: Go back to the radar.
Actor A: I’m monitoring the radar.
Actor B: You’re still looking at me.
Actor A: I’m still looking at you.
Actor A: You love me.
Actor B: I love you.

In this situation an imaginary circumstance has popped up. We have put in the imaginary circumstance that they are two crew members on the star ship Enterprise, expressed by the lines mentioning the radar. There is no actual radar in the room, but all the other lines are picking up real emotions and physical movements, so the scene is based in so much truth that even the star ship enterprise becomes believable, and we have a love story in space.

Emotional Repetitions with an Imaginary Circumstance

Two improvisers started the repetition exercise as above, but after a few lines I threw them an imaginary circumstance (suggestion/situation/location). They then continued with the repetitions with the awareness of the imaginary circumstance. They didn’t have to mention the imaginary circumstance much, just treat it like it’s real and ground as much as possible into reality of emotions and physicality.

Again, don’t act, just repeat.

For instance there was a lovely scene with a couple bumping into each other behind the church just before their wedding:

Groom: You’re wearing a white dress (imaginary circumstance)
Bride: I’m wearing a white dress
Groom: You’re wearing a white dress
Bride: I’m wearing a white dress
Groom: You’re wearing a white dress
Bride: You’re wearing a space invaders t-shirt

Groom: I’m wearing a space invaders t-shirt
Bride: You’re laughing

Groom: I’m laughing
Bride: You’ve mucked this up

Groom: I’ve mucked this up
Bride: You’ve mucked this up

Groom: I feel awful
Bride: You feel awful

Groom: I feel awful
Bride: You don’t want to get married

Groom: I want to get married
Bride: You don’t want to get married

Groom: I want to get married
Bride: You’re determined
Groom: I’m determined to get married
Bride: You love me
Groom: I love you
Bride: You love me
Groom: I love you
Bride: I love you
Groom: I love you

It’s hard to put into words how real this scene looked. By the end of the scene they were believably totally in love with each other, and a hush of complete attention had descended over the audience. I’m writing in the ‘I love you’ lines after the workshop, as actually the ‘I want to get married’ lines were repeated more but as they were repeated the feeling of LOVE was increased between the two characters and appeared to glow from the stage. Pure love in the moment seems almost so strong that I think if they had said it people would have started crying.

Specific Activity

We then continued with the exercise with one actor starting with a specific activity and the other joining them, and then going into repetition.

A specific activity helps ground the improviser into the present moment and also create the imaginary circumstance.

It helps that the improviser knows why they are doing the specific activity, why it is important to them, and why it is time critical. These circumstances might change following offers from their scene partner, but it puts some life into it at the start.

For instance an improviser first ‘made sandwiches’ in a kind of doing an impression way. We then asked him to repeat but this time knowing why he was doing it and why it was important. He was transformed, and the action became believable and captivating. When asked it turned out that his preparation for why he was making sandwiches was simply “I want to eat them”, but that was enough. The difference between an improviser just making sandwiches and making sandwiches they actually want to eat is vast.

Emotional Preparation

When the improviser approaching the person doing the specific activity builds up an emotion inside before they enter the stage and do the repetition exercise. It doesn’t what emotion, and they can use anything from their life or imagination to generate the emotion. The don’t have to act the emotion, just feel it. It brings life into the start of the scene.

Music Box

I then had a Music Box show the following night, so decided to go into it with objective – Meisner it. I found it amazingly helpful and it seemed to go down well. Interestingly enough the audience don’t seem to notice the Meisner lines. They just pop up and ground it in reality, and can be very subtle, but they helped me stay in the moment throughout the show and stay connected to the other actors. Meisner lines from the show I remember, although they don’t make sense out of context:

“You’re really cheerful”
“You look like a zombie”
“Your hands are stiff”
“I love you, I miss you”
“I’m a bean”
“I can see myself reflecting in your eyes”

I don’t usually think impro is that helpful in real life, but I think Meisner is. Looking at someone you like or love and telling them honestly in the moment how you feel about them, that is something there could be more of in the world.

Lots of love,

Hoopla Steve


Steve Roe uses the Meisner Technique lots in Hoopla’s Level 3 Scenes Course.
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