“It takes twenty years to be a master!”
That’s how Sanford Meisner felt about everything, and particularly acting. Perhaps that explains why the legendary New York acting teacher, and creator of the Meisner Technique, waited so long to found his first and only theater. When the doors opened to the Sanford Meisner Center in 1995, the theater Great had reached his eighth decade of life. As passionate as ever, Meisner was determined to turn the sixty seat theater into a lively venue in which Meisner graduates would interact with other artists, producing a unique exchange of artistic ideology and succession of outstanding performances.
Born August 31, 1905 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Sanford Meisner graduated from Erasmus Hall in 1923 and attended The Damrosch Institute of Music (now Juilliard), where he studied to become a concert pianist before talking his way into a job in a Theatre Guild production of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. He realized then that acting which really “dug at him” was what he was looking to find.
In 1931, a fervent group of young actors, including Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman, amongst others, joined together to establish the Group Theatre. It was the first permanent theater company that brought “method” acting, rooted in methods of Konstantin Stanislavsky, to practice and prominence in America. Meisner appeared in twelve Group productions, including the first, The House of Connelly, and all of Clifford Odets’ plays, including Waiting for Lefty which Meisner co-directed with Odets in 1935.
In 1933 Meisner became disenchanted with pure “method” acting. He wrote “actors are not guinea pigs to be manipulated, dissected, let alone in a purely negative way. Our approach was not organic, that is to say, not healthy.” Meisner has ongoing discussion about technique with Adler, who worked with Stanislavsky in Paris and Clurman, who took deep interest in the American character. Eventually Meisner realized that if American actors were ever going to achieve the goal of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” an American approach was needed. The Neighborhood Playhouse provided him with a venue to develop that approach on his own. In 1936, he headed the Drama Department at The Playhouse, while continuing to act and direct plays produced by The Group Theatre until its demise in 1941. He also appeared on Broadway in Embezzled (1944) and Crime and Punishment(1948). He directed The Time of Your Life (1955) and acted in The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958).
Meisner left The Playhouse in 1958 to become director of the New Talent Division of Twentieth Century Fox. He moved to Los Angeles, where he was also able to cultivate his career as a film actor.
He returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse as head of the Drama Department from 1964-1990. In 1985, Meisner and James Carville co-founded The Meisner/Carville School of Acting on the Island of Bequia in the West Indies. They later extended the school to North Hollywood, California, with Martin Barter. Meisner, Carville and Barter opened The Sanford Meisner Center for the Arts in March 1995, and later the school and theater were combined to form the Sanford Meisner Center. This was the first and last location that Sanford Meisner allowed his name to be graced with.
Meisner received commendations from Presidents Clinton, Bush and Reagan. He was honored by California Governor Pete Wilson and was named the “Humanitarian of the Year 1990” by The Washington Charity Awards. His final appearance as an actor was in a guest starring role on a special episode of ER in 1995. Backstage West dedicated an issue to Meisner and his world-renowned “Meisner Technique.”
Arthur Miller once said of Meisner, “He has been the most principled teacher of acting on this country for decades now, and every time I am reading actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don’t lay on complications that aren’t necessary.”
Sanford Meisner passed away on February 2nd, 1997. An all day, public memorial service was held at the Sanford Meisner Center on February 6th, 1997. But he didn’t leave without assurance of the future success of his creation. Long before the Meisner Center’s opening, longtime protégé Martin Barter had been groomed as Sandy’s successor at the Meisner/Carville school. When the time came, Barter was well-equipped and took the reigns as the Meisner Center’s Artistic Director and head teacher. He was one of the fifteen trained teachers of the Meisner Technique personally chosen by Mr. Meisner to carry his technique to the next generations, a position he holds to this day.
Originally located on Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood, California, The Sanford Meisner Center was the only school in Los Angeles created by Sanford Meisner himself. While the theater was closed in 2013, Martin Barter continues to carry on Sandy’s Technique to a new generation of actors.