Remembrance of Sanford Meisner

Remembrance of Sanford Meisner
by William Esper

Written for The Soul of the American Actor

ALTHOUGH IT WAS OVER 45 YEARS AGO, I still have a vivid memory of my first acting class with SANFORD MEISNER.

I was a young man just out of the army and I sat with my fellow students in a classroom on the third floor of the Neighborhood Playhouse. The room was charged with excitement and expectation. After a few minutes, Charles Conrad, who was Sandy’s senior assistant, entered and took his place at a long table at the side of the room. He took attendance and then fell silent. After another few minutes, Sidney Pollack (now the famous film director, then a young teacher assisting Sandy) came quietly into the room and sat silently at the table next to Conrad. Another few minutes passed and the junior assistant, Alan Mulligan, quietly took his place at the end of the table. Again we waited with mounting excitement and, at last, Sanford Meisner himself entered, walking slowly and elegantly to the remaining place at the head of the table. Seemingly lost in thought he produced a pack of cigarettes and with great deliberation selected one and lit it. Ignoring us and staring into space as if forming some important thought, he silently drew on his cigarette. Suddenly, he turned to a student in the front row and said, “What are you doing now?” the student replied, “Waiting.” “Waiting for what?” said Sandy. “For you to say something.” He replied. “Are you all waiting?” – “Yes.” We answered almost in unison. “Are you really waiting or are you just pretending to do so?” said Sandy. Suddenly we realized that we were embarked on our first lesson in acting. It was an introduction that stamped itself so indelibly on our minds that we never forgot it.

As a teacher, Sandy would go to any lengths to make a point. A number of years later, during the course of my apprenticeship as a teacher, I observed one of Sandy’s classes. A man and a woman in the class began an improvisational exercise. Unfortunately, they had not made the circumstances truly meaningful. They fell into endless petty bickering that was devoid of any genuine content. After about five minutes Mr. Meisner stopped watching them, took a piece of paper, and quietly began to write. The exercise continued for some fifteen minutes and finally ended. The actors stood facing Sandy. He seemed oblivious to them and to the fact that they had finished their exercise and were waiting for his criticism. Suddenly he stood up and left the room. A minute later he returned with an envelope. He folded the letter and put it in the envelope. By this time the two actors were quite upset (much more so than they had been in their exercise). “It’s over Mr. Meisner,” the actors almost shouted. “Oh, is it?” said Sandy. Then turning to the class he asked if anyone had a stamp. No one did, so he called on the next couple. The two angry and humiliated actors stewed quietly for the rest of the class. At the end of the class, he turned to them and asked if they knew why he had responded in the way that he had. In the end, he explained that the actor’s goal must never be to create petty and empty behavior. That, he said, is not worth our attention. “The purpose of art,” he said, “is to illuminate the human condition. You must strive always to create behavior that expresses life at its most meaningful. I cannot give my attention to something which cheapens our art.” I am certain that no one in that room forgot the lesson of that day.

Sandy was a demanding taskmaster. He ruled his classroom with the vigilance of an eagle. He sat bolt upright, ever on guard, so that nothing false or untruthful could escape his notice, or sometimes – his wrath. To the student, Sandy could be unnerving, because you soon discovered that you could not lie to him. He had a sense of truth that was as solid as granite and he brought it to bear on everything you did. His deepest scorn was reserved for anyone whom he deemed to be dishonest. When he was confronted with deception, that is if someone indicated or faked their emotion, he became a scourge. Like the Florentine monk Savonarola, who hated evil and sin, so Meisner hated fakery. He often referred contemptuously to artists who were, as he called them, hacks; those people who made their way by imitating truly creative artists. In this category he lumped most British actors, who rather than creating an authentic inner life, relied on empty indication. There were exceptions of course: he greatly admired Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, and Charles Laughton. One thing you could always count on with Sandy: he told you the truth. You might not like it, but at the same time you could absolutely trust whatever he said to you about your acting. He taught us all to honor truth and to seek it vigorously in ourselves, in our art, and in our lives, and to bear witness to that truth with passionate devotion. “The truth is very relaxing,” he said. “Embrace it, and it will set you free.”

As strenuous as Sandy was on the pursuit of truthful acting, so was he sympathetic to talent. He cherished talented people and treated them with the utmost respect. He responded to good work with quiet appreciation. “That was very good,” he would say, and your heart sang because you knew he meant it; you had met his standard and achieved something that was truly good. He loved the fact that talented people were unique and idiosyncratic. He once said to me when I was in despair over some student’s behavior, “Yes but he’s very talented, and the more talented they are, the crazier they are,” and he was smiling as he said it.

Part of his gift of course was the imparting of technical craft. He believed fervently in the artist’s imagination. His own imagination was so endlessly inventive that he pressed you to exalt in yours and push it to its limits.

But perhaps most importantly, he had the ability to set a demanding standard and at the same time to make you understand that in your pursuit of it you would fail many times. And when you did, he would acknowledge the failure, but also applaud the effort. “You can fall on your face as many times as you want, as long as you are falling in the right direction.”

Sandy Meisner’s theatrical interests were widely varied. His idols ranged from Eleonora Duse and Laurette Taylor to Bert Laht and Jack Benny. He believed that the best art had as its hallmark both a rich powerful inner content and a vivid and expressive external form. It was this vision that led him to experiment with Shakespeare, Commedia dell’Arte, and Restoration or Jacobean drama. He had the ability to take some actors and make a model for any period or style. He would point at it and say, “You see, that’s how you do Restoration,” or “that’s how you do Jacobean.” Whenever I would visit him in his last years, he was always full of questions about the work I was doing in language and style at Rutgers.

It’s difficult to capture in a short article the genius of a man like Sanford Meisner. He was a great teacher, and like all great teachers, his teaching went far beyond his subject. He taught us that what we were there to learn was of supreme importance. Art was important!

To be an artist was supremely important and involves the total commitment of our deepest selves.

I will leave off with one last memory of Sandy. When I was a student at the Neighborhood Playhouse Robert Duvall was in the class ahead of mine. For their final production his class did some one-act plays of Horton Foote. Bobby played the title role in The Midnight Caller. This was a sad story of small town Southern life, in which a young man lost in alcoholism regularly turns up at this ex-girlfriend’s rooming house every night at midnight. In his drunken agony over the loss of his lover, he cries out to her window for her to come out and ride with him in his car. Although it pains her deeply to refuse him, she knows that he will never reform, and that she has to leave him. Bobby Duvall played this scene with such heartbreaking agony that the audience was devastated. As a first year student, I was in the wings operating the light board. One night, just before Bobby’s entrance, Sandy Meisner tiptoed into the wings, and with rapt attention watched as Bobby Duvall played this scene. I can still see him: so moved, and so pleased. There was something very tender in his face, an exquisite sensitivity that one sometimes experiences in the presence of a work of art.

WILLIAM ESPER – has been the head of his own studio in NY for over 35 years. He was trained as a teacher with Sanford Meisner, with whom he worked in close association for 15 years. Presently a Professor of Acting at Rutgers University, Mr. Esper was the Director of the Professional Acting Training Program there for many years. He has also taught at Canada’s Banff Festival of the Arts, National Theatre School of Canada, The St. Nicholas Theatre Co. in Chicago, and Schauspiel Munchen in Munich. Mr. Esper has directed and acted regionally as well as Off-Broadway. The professional actors he has worked with include Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sorvino, Christine Lahti, John Malkovich, Mary Steenburgen, Kathy Bates and Calista Flockhart.

Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor”