Sanford Meisner: “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

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  • Acting is Behaving Truthfully

    How would you define acting?

    (by Carmichael Phillips)

    (Sanford Meisner)

    How would you define the term “acting”?

    We, as actors, all do it. But how would you put it into words? How would you define the craft to a total stranger who might ask about the particulars of your profession?

    The right answer is that there is no right answer, per se. We all know what it is when we see it and when we do it. But there are many different definitions to actually explain it.

    Some dictionaries define it this way:

    Dictionary: “Acting is the art or occupation of performing in plays, movies, or television productions.”

    But this definition leaves a lot of detail out.

  • Wikipedia defines it this way: “Acting is an activity in which a story is told by means of its enactment by an actor or actress who adopts a character—in theatre, television, film, radio, or any other medium that makes use of the mimetic mode.”

    This definition is a little more thorough than the dictionary version. But it still feels generic, at best.

    You get the idea. No matter how long you’ve been an actor, no matter how long you’ve been performing, no matter how long you’ve been studying the craft, you’re likely to have a hard time describing it in simple terms.

    But there is one definition that codifies the craft in a way that most others do not. It comes from a man nicknamed Sandy.

    Sanford Meisner (August 31, 1905 – February 2, 1997) was a legendary acting teacher. He was one of the original actors who formed the famous Group Theatre, perhaps the most influential theatre company in the nation’s history.

    Meisner defines acting this way:


    Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.

    (Sanford Meisner)


    This simple definition became one of his signature statements on the subject. It more fully captures the feeling of inhabiting the body of a fictional character in a make-believe world. It is succinct and can be universally applied to all forms of acting, be it theatre, film or even voice-overs.

    It also acts as a simple guideline – a north star – for how an actor should approach the craft of acting. An actor should approach the craft with a recognition that the circumstances are imaginary, yet with research and preparation, behave within those circumstances in such a way that the audience believes them to be true.

    That is the great gift that we actors give to the world. We allow audiences to escape their own reality and live in fantasy, by making the fantasy feel real.


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