The Power of Relationship: Sanford Meisner and Psychotherapy

The Power of Relationship: Sanford Meisner and Psychotherapy

The Power of Relationship: Sanford Meisner and Psychotherapy
Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.

“The greatest piece of acting or music or sculpture or what-have-you always has its roots in the truth of human emotion.”

– Sanford Meisner, Sanford Meisner on Acting

There are many ways to train as an actor, just as there are various ways to practice psychotherapy. I had some early training based upon Konstantin Stanislavski’s method. Later in life I was fortunate to have been taught by masterful teachers steeped in the tradition created by Sanford Meisner. Not only was Meisner’s work valuable as acting training, but it also helped me narrow the focus of my current work as a therapist. The main reason for this is that Meisner’s work uses the real-time relationships between actors as the basis for his training. The kind of therapy I practice similarly puts the emphasis on human relationships, both inside and outside the therapy office.

Meisner invented a training exercise called ‘the repetition’, in which two actors improvise a scene solely based upon each individual’s response to the other person’s in-the-moment behavior. One actor initiates the scene by making an observation about the other actor. The second actor has to listen carefully to both the words and the emotional tone of the comment, because her task is to use the same words, now with her emotional response to the first comment. Then it’s the first actor’s turn to give a spontaneous response, again using the same words. And so on… The words change only when something in the behavior of one person makes the other say something different. How do the actors know when to change the phrase to be repeated? Trained instinct, or, as one of my teachers used to say, “the words change when the acting gods come along, bop you on the head, and insist that you say something else.”

If you’ve never experienced Meisner’s repetition exercise, I imagine that it might sound kind of kooky. What’s the purpose? One of the central goals of the repetition is for the actors to become more comfortable with their discomfort. The elevated anxiety caused by so many variables you can’t control short-circuits your prefrontal cortex, causing (or, more purposefully, allowing) your emotions to motivate your behavior. To do the repetition properly you have to put your full attention on the other actor, which doesn’t leave you any mental bandwidth left to think rationally or to be self-conscious. As a result, you will see increases in your spontaneity, emotional honesty, freedom of expression in your body and voice, and your confidence. All of these benefits occur in the context of and as a response to the interactions you have onstage with your acting partner. In other words, it is the relationship between you and the other actor that produces both the anxiety and the benefits.

What on earth does any of this have to do with psychotherapy? Contemporary therapists approach their work from a variety of theoretical frameworks. There’s a veritable alphabet soup of options: CBT, DBT, SFBT, IPT, REBT, IFS and… I think you get the picture. There are other therapeutic models that are known as ‘depth therapies’, which focus less on behavioral (symptom) change and more on insight and personality issues. These less-susceptible-to-acronymization theories include psychoanalysis, self-psychology, object relations, psychodynamic, existential etc. Each of these theoretical orientations has its merits.

Research done over the last several decades has shown that, regardless of one’s framework, the most powerful healing factor in therapy is the quality of the relationship formed between therapist and patient. This relationship is often called the ‘therapeutic alliance’ and it is the most essential common factor found in all valid psychological models. Here we are again – the relationship is the central means by which progress can be made.

I use some of the strategies found in the behaviorally oriented frameworks cited above, integrating those interventions into a framework called ‘relational psychodynamic’ therapy. The work I do with my patients makes deliberate use of the relationship I form with each person. Why? Because all of the issues people bring to therapy are the result of nature and nurture. We can do very little about nature, as it is predetermined by one’s DNA. However, nurture (the process of caring for and encouraging the development of a person) happens between people, i.e., in relationships. Nurture is susceptible to ongoing growth and change, primarily in the context of present-tense relationships.

Relational psychotherapy aims to achieve many of the same results as Meisner’s repetition exercise, only now in the context of ‘real’ as opposed to ‘onstage’ life. What distinguishes acting training from therapy is the question why, which we don’t ask in acting class but which is crucial to the process of therapy. Acting training is exactly that – a way to prepare a person to express themselves through the medium of the theatrical arts. In acting class, it is irrelevant to know why an actor might respond in certain ways to the behavior of the other actor. All we look for is the free, authentic expression of whatever the person might be feeling in the moment. In other words, we care about the what and the how, but not the why. By contrast, in therapy we want to thoroughly explore the why, because all of our present tense feelings, thoughts and behaviors are connected to and influenced by our previous history (i.e., nurture). As diarist Anais Nin is purported to have written, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” (emphasis added). How we are is the result of all the environmental and relational factors that have led up to this very moment.

People who do well in therapy report that they feel more powerful, independent, active and emotionally balanced. They also experience greater self-awareness and have, not surprisingly, deeper and more rewarding relationships with others. For actors, having insight into all aspects of your personality (and your unique emotional landscape) is an extremely useful tool, since you are in the business of using your full self to bring the text alive. If you haven’t engaged in the process of psychotherapy, you might want to consider doing so – and not just because it will make you a better actor!

Bill Harrison is a contributing writer for PerformInk who’s past INNER MISSION articles can be found by clicking here.

About author

Bill Harrison MA, LCPC

Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at