What is the “Repetition Exercise”?

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  • What is the “Repetition Exercise”?

    There are several objectives that the Repetition Exercise seeks to achieve. Chief among these is to increase the actor’s reliance on their instincts.

    (by Tonya Tannenbaum)

    The “Repetition Exercise” or the “Repetition Word Game” is an exercise that was taught by Sanford Meisner. Its purpose is to emphasize spontaneity and greater listening between actors, and to shift the actor’s attention away from their own self-consciousness and onto the other actor in the exercise.

    Some background…

    Sanford Meisner worked and trained with Lee Strasberg at Group Theatre in the 1930’s. Strasberg’s vision of the craft of acting was internally focused. Strasberg emphasized the technique known as “Affective Memory”, whereby, the actor draws from the feelings they felt from past personal experiences. The actor, then, injects those feelings and emotions into their characters as needed.

    In time, actors like Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler grew weary of these techniques. Their resistance was only strengthened when Stella Adler traveled to France to meet with the technique’s creator, Konstantin Stanislavski. To her surprise, Stanislavski had all but abandoned the technique, favoring a focus on physical action, instead.

  • The Repetition Exercise

    Sanford Meisner’s shift away from Strasberg’s techniques led him to seek and develop new ways of training and performing; techniques that emphasized instincts and spontaneity, rather than past memories. His collection of interdependent training exercises became known as the Meisner Technique.

    One such technique is the Repetition Exercise. As the name implies, actors engage in an exercise of simple, but increasingly more complex, repetition. Often sitting across from one another, one actor makes a statement and the other actor repeats the statement.

    For instance, one actor might begin by saying, “Your shirt is blue”. The other actor repeats this phrase, replying, “Your shirt is blue”.

  • Back and forth they go, repeating this phrase over and over again for a time:

    Actor 1: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 2: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 1: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 2: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 1: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 2: “Your shirt is blue”

    Then, a slight variation:

    Actor 1: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 2: “My shirt is blue”
    Actor 1: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 2: “My shirt is blue”
    Actor 1: “Your shirt is blue”
    Actor 2: “My shirt is blue”

    And on and on, they go, until the instructor stops them.

  • Increasing complexity

    In time, this exercise becomes more and more complex. Statements about mood and behavior can come into play. For example, one actor might begin with a phrase like, “You look happy today” or “You seem sad today”. Questions are introduced and words are allowed to be changed, based on the instinctive reactions by the actors to the behavior of their partner.

    During the back and forth, as the actors focus on one another, interesting changes begin to take place. The actors might begin to smile, even giggle, while listening to and observing their partner. Tensions might arise as the words are said (or interpreted) with sarcasm or judgment. In some cases, anger can occur, sparking rage or even crying among the actors; all thanks to the subtle changes in vocal inflection, meaning, interpretation, mood and the energy shifts that naturally happen during the back and forth.

  • Purpose of the Repetition Exercise

    There are several objectives that the Repetition Exercise seeks to achieve. Chief among these is to increase the actor’s reliance on their instincts, or to get actors “out of their heads”, as Meisner would say.


    “To be an interesting actor – hell, to be an interesting human being – you must be authentic and for you to be authentic you must embrace who you really are, warts and all. Do you have any idea how liberating it is to not care what people think about you? Well, that’s what we’re here to do.”

    (Sanford Meisner)


    Secondly, the exercise shifts the actor’s focus onto the actor with whom they are working. The actor, then, doesn’t have the ability to dwell on their own self-consciousness, because they are busy focusing on the other actor.

    Lastly, the Repetition Exercise reduces the importance of the words that will, eventually, come from a script. The back and forth repetition of the words trains the actor to make words less relevant. The focus, instead, shifts to acting and reacting spontaneously to what the actor’s scene partner is doing in-the-moment.


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