The Interwoven Characteristics of Emotional
Intelligence and Sanford Meisner Actor Training
Heather L. Corwin
The development of emotional intelligence (EI) is important for life success and happiness. This article
defines and demonstrates links between emotional intelligence (EI) and actor training. Until now, only
general associations have been made linking actor training and social abilities. In this quantitative design,
pretest and posttests scores on the dependent variable, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence
Test (MSCEIT), were compared after one semester to see if actor training had any impact on EI ability. The
three levels of the independent variable included a Sanford Meisner actor training group, a nonMeisner
actor training group, and a special interest actor training group. No significant difference in MSCEIT scores
were found in this pilot study based on the training approaches. Reasons for the findings may be that
significant EI development may take more than one semester and/or a different, mixed-methods model is
needed to conceptualize EI. Through this article I explore the notion that EI skills are very similar to those
taught in the arts and provide suggestions for further research to investigate this powerful relationship. The
human condition is elevated when individuals engage in processes that develop themselves in personally
meaningful, positive ways.
Emotional intelligence has been linked in the
development of social skills, both inside and
outside the realm of psychology. Predominant
skill s in ac tor tr ainin g, speci fic ally t hose
demonstrated in Sanford Meisner actor training,
parallel those of emotional intelligence including
empathy, t heor y of mi nd, ind ividual affe ct
regulation, and mutual affect regulation. The
benefits of having a high EI have been well
do cum ente d. Th ese in clud e o btain in g a nd
appreciating employment (Khalili, 2012) which
can lead to a happier and more fulfilled life,
sustained interpersonal relationships, (Schröder-
Abé & Sc hütz, 2011), a nd at ta inm en t o f
psychological well-being (Dutton & Heaphy,
2003). The purpose of this article is to summarize
and highlight areas where actor training and the
development of EI are complimentary, and by
offering additional depth about the connections,
establish a rationale and specific suggestions for
future research in this area.
DEFINITIONS OF EI AND ACTING
To insure we are working with the same
notions, let us name the definitions of EI and the
areas of EI skills and then explore acting. For the
purposes of this article, definitions of EI, EI skills
and ac ting will b e pr ovided. Emoti onal
intelligence is defined as “the subset of social
intelligences that involves the ability to monitor
one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to
dis cri min ate am ong th em an d to use t his
in fo rm ation to g ui de o ne ’s th in ki ng a nd
actions” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p. 187). This
article will expand on this definition (to include
skills of EI) as recognizing and naming emotions,
ho w e mot io ns d eve lo p, a nd s uc ces sf ull y
employing these skills (Rahgozar et al., 2011).
The areas of EI include empathy, Theory of Mind
(ToM), affect regulation, and the ability to regulate
emotions with others. Empathy is defined as the
ability to feel another person’s feelings (Eisenberg,
Spinrad, & Sadovsky, 2006). ToM is the skill of
inferring mental states in others (Carlson & Moses,
2001). ToM is separate from empathy due to
empathy requ iring a person to feel another
person’s emotion; ToM is solely a function of
co gni tio n ( Pre mac k & Wo odr uff , 19 78) .
Markedly, ToM and empathy have been defined
employing the same criteria (Brabec, Gfeller, &
Ross, 2012; Goldstein, 2010), in addition to being
identified as folk psychology (Gopnik & Wellman,
1994). “Emotion [or affect] regulation refers to the
processes by which individuals influence what
emotions they have, when they have them, how
they experience emotions, and how they express
these emotions” (Gross, 1998, p. 275). This
reg ulat ion is the pr oces s of distin guishin g
emotional cues informed by a person’s lived
experience (Gross & John, 2003).
The model used to operationalize and measure
EI in this study was the MSCEIT V2.0 (Mayer,
Salovey, & Caruso, 2003). The MSCEIT measures
what is frequently defined in the literature as an
ability-based model of emotional intelligence. The
MSCEIT is a valid and reliable measure of EI, and
there are other ways to conceptualize what EI is
(Emmerling, 2008). Nelson and Low (2004)
believe EI is the confluence of learned abilities and
skills and they emphasize the transformative
properties of a skills-based approach. Adding a
skills-based approach to operationalize EI would
be one way to expand the research reported here
for future studies.
Whether looking at acting generally or as it
pertains to Sanford Meisner actor training, acting
is “living truthfully under imaginary circum-
stances” (Bruder et al., 1986, p. 8). A great
performance demands an actor suspend present
reali ty (h is or he r l ife ) t o i nve st in th e
circumstances outlined in the play as those
requirements pertain to the character; the actor
must then justify with imagination and self-
knowledge how to portray the events in the story.
When an actor studies how to be an actor, the core
of this education is listening and responding
honestly (Adler, 2000; Bogart, 2007; Boleslavsky,
1933; Bruder et al., 1986; Chaikin, 1935; Esper &
DiMar co, 20 08; Ha gen, 19 73; Meis ner &
Longwell, 1986). Vocal diction, strength and
agility, imagination, and clearly conveying the
story are elements of actor training (Mamet, 1997).
Objectives of each ensemble member need to be
supported and fueled by action, these actions
should be clear through execution and emotions
(Chekhov, 1985). “Once you have established…
contact between your life and your part…you will
see how easy it will be for you sincerely to believe
in the possibility of what you are called upon to do
on the stage” (Stanislavski, 1963, p. 127). To sum
up, actors must have consciousness of living (in
the present moment, in the past, and on stage) and
have the determination to study life in its minutia
in tandem with the ability to recapture and repeat
exact behavior at will (Boleslavsky, 1933; Chaikin,
1935; Stanislavski, 1963).
EI AND ACTOR SKILLS
Elements of EI are often present in performing
arts, specifically skills of cognition and perception
which also inform skills in performing arts
(Winner, 2007). Winner (2007) named a few of
these skills: acute observation, conceptualizing
images, ability to engage in reflection, and the
development through learning a craft. Since skills
of EI can be learned (Alegre, 2012; Bechera, 2007;
Bradberry & Greaves, 2009; Cherniss & Goleman,
2001; Feild & Kolbert, 2006; Goleman, 1995;
Lynn, 2007; Petrides, 2011), and EI skills have
been connected to actor training (Baker, 2009;
Blair, 2006; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Goldstein,
2011; Goldstein, 2012; Goldstein & Bloom, 2011;
Goldstein, Wu, & Winner, 2009-2010; Kemp,
2012; Konijn, 2000; Winner, 2007; Verducci,
2006), using actor training to identify and hone
skills of EI seems a natural progression. Winner
conducted a meta-analyses on ten studies looking
at how education in the arts might apply to non-
arts education, focusing specifically at art and
scholarly success. A correlation did occur between
students who studied arts and high academic
achievements (Winner, 2007). Worth noting,
students involved in theatre performance improved
verbal skills. Perhaps, as Winner points out,
educators may approach teaching in an inexact
manner when addressing creative arts, which may
give the students room to foster a personal process
when being creative.
Interpersonal skills aid an actor in successfully
pursuing a career, which are also skills involved in
high EI. Many elements are at play in regards to
how these skills are formed in acting, specifically,
trials of being a professional actor (Kogan, 2002;
Nettl e, 2006), s ocieta l end orseme nt (Kogan,
2002), scholastic ability (Winner, 2007; Winner &
Hetland, 2008), steps when attempting acting
(Goldstein &Winner, 2009), and how a person is
raised and attachment within family (Thomson &
Jaque, 2012c). These elements all inform the way
a person navigates a career as an actor. In
addition, a person must have the skill of creativity
to succeed as an actor. However, internal criticism
can limit creativity (Kashdan, Rose, & Fincham,
2004) being sought in rehearsal and performance.
Equally, control over adaptable cognition may
have posit ive im pacts on original creativity
(Zabelina & Robinson, 2010).
To be clear, secure attachment exists “when a
child thrives in her environment as a direct result
of her caregiver’s efforts” (Corwin, 2012, p. 39).
The attachment theory gives context to the
building of high EI, and can further demonstrate
how these skills apply to acting. Bowlby (1998),
who is the originator of attachment theory, posits
that caregivers and/or parents shape how a child
attaches. “Attachment theory focuses on the
lasting influence of early childhood experiences
[on] the development of EI” (Corwin, 2015, p.35).
This theory is vital to EI in that children learn a
secure attachment when an adult is able to respond
to the child’s social cues in a simultaneous and
appropriate fashion (Bergman, 1999). As a result,
adults who are attuned can foster repair to ruptures
resulting from early attachment neglect (Bowlby,
1988; Goleman, 2006; McCarty, 2004). Adult
attachment figures include spouses and friends
(Hazan & Shaver, 1994). The Adult Attachment
Interview defines a securely attached adult when
“the presentation and evaluation of experiences is
internally consistent, and responses are clear,
relevant, and reasonably succinct” (Main, 1996, p.
240). Consequently, foundational features of
secure attachment alongside attunement can set the
stage to foster skills involved in high EI (Mayer &
In a comparative study, adult participants were
identified by their adult attachment classification
and levels of dissociation (Thomson and Jaque,
2012c). Additionally, this study examined trauma
an d l oss o f 4 1 p rof es si ona l a ct ors wit h
con ser vat ory actor tr ain ing wh o h ad bee n
employed as an actor for a minimum of six
months, and a non-actor control group of 41
healthy adults without actor training (who may
have been dancers or opera singers at one time).
Thomson and Jaque (2012c) found that actors’
abilities are greater when fan tasizing, have
additional psychological attentional methods, and
establish a wider distribution of secure attachment.
In contrast, actors demonstrated increased amounts
of unresolved mourning and dissociation. Plus, the
volatile nature of pursuing a professional acting
career opens an artist to enduring profound
negative impacts (Kogan, 2002; Nettle, 2006;
Thomson and Jaque, 2012c). Interesting to note in
Thomson and Jaque’s (2012b) study looking at
di ss oc ia tion in b ot h p re -p ro fession al a nd
professional dancers, the “artistic medium may
provide integrating experiences that are often
asso ciat ed w ith positive emo tion s” ( p.485).
Though dissociation is common in artists, this skill
may aid artists (Thomson and Jaque, 2012c) when
port raying an emotion ally intense scene or
Imagination is another factor necessary to
create rich and layered characters in performance.
Goldstein and Winner (2009) conducted a study to
identify early predictors of acting talent. The
groups were asked a bout their c hildhoods,
families, imagination and playful tendencies,
perception of emotions, and ability to name
emotions of others. The group of professional
actors reported having a propensity for creating a
variety of rich inner imaginative worlds as well as
being aware of this inner life more than the control
group of scientists-turned-lawyers. As Winner and
Hetland (2008) also found, imagination and
absorption enhance the ability of memory recall,
which then increases the skill of fantasizing.
Conve rse ly, ac tor s f elt m ore isol ate d a nd
misunderstood in school than the control group
(Goldstein and Winner, 2009).
A pilot study conducted by the author (Corwin,
2014) looked at adults who participated in actor
training over a span of a semester, measuring EI
before and after to determine if Meisner actor
training might have a different impact than other
actor training methods as well as determining if
gender held any implications. This study did not
produce significant results for impacts on EI or
gender in under sixteen weeks. In contrast,
Goldstein and Winner (2012) conducted a yearlong
study with high school students who studied three
areas: acting, music, and visual art. In this study,
significant increase in empathy was found in
students who studied acting alone. Those who
studied music training and visual arts increased
empathy, but not significantly. Remarkably,
Goldstein and Winner found participants in actor
training advanced in empathy more quickly than
those who did not participate. In this same study,
ToM did increase in actor training adolescent
students above those in other arts. Goldstein, Wu,
and Winner (2009-2010) study looked at ToM,
academic achievement, and empathy. They found
adolescents who studied actor training could
articulate another person’s point of view (a ToM
ability), though this study did not reveal a change
in empathy for this group. Hence, ToM can be
eng age d witho ut emp ath y levels c han ging.
Crucial to ToM is an actor’s ability to have
empathy with the characters they are creating.
What’s interesting is Goldstein et al. (2009-2010)
found actors may show empathy when on stage or
in performance, however lack practicing empathy
daily in real-life. These examples support further
research on Meisner actor training impacts on EI;
these longitudinal studies did find impacts in
younger populations. Discovering if adults have
similar or significant EI impacts after Meisner
actor training would address this gap in the
ACTING: BODY AND EMOTIONS
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Through the body, we feel sensations that we
in ter pr et a s e mot ion s b oth p ub lic ly a nd
psychosomatically (Damasio & Immordino-Yang,
2009). Konstantin Stanislavski based his method
of realistic acting on psychological publications
(on which all modern actor training methods are
based including Meisner), rooting modern actor
training in psychology. Acting theorists agree that
actor training is a process for actors to access and
evolve a relationship with empathy (Hagen, 1973;
Shurtleff, 1980; Stanislavski, 1963). The pursuit
of creating a character forces an actor to imagine
what being that person would feel like, as well as
making sure the person being created is fighting
for a goal to which the actor can relate. “A
primary goal for actors in conventional Western
theatre is to make strong, emotionally charged, and
specific choices through the process of embracing
langu age a nd action, lead ing to compelling
characterizations” (Blair, 2006, p. 167). An actor
can only accomplish this goal through listening.
Listening is utilized when engaged in empathy,
ToM, and emotional regulation with self and
others, all skills of EI. This very process makes
clear how a person understands emotions (Blair,
2006). What’s more, an actor refines the ability to
record and recall feelings and experiences in the
body, also known as muscle memory (Kemp,
2012). It is in this intersection of past experience
and imagination that the actor is able to explore
how emotions have occurred similarly in real life
to the necessary creation of moments on stage.
Actors spend hours rehearsing, or preparing to
perform, exploring the variety of choices and
behavior characters will make individually as well
as through the cast of characters (Adler, 2000;
Bruder et al., 1986; Goldstein, 2011; Hagen, 1973;
Mamet, 1997; Stanislavski, 1963). Because actor
training and rehearsal requires people to work on
exercises that investigate a personal connection
with the creation of characters, actors are given the
opportunity to practice big emotional events.
“What I’m saying is that the truth of ourselves is
the root of our acting” (Meisner & Longwell,
1987, p. 45). For example, if the scene being
worked on has two people in it and one is
confronting the other about being raped by that
person, the emotional charge of this scene could be
such that an actor could shut down. However, if
the circumstances of the scene demand the actor
who was raped gets the other to apologize, the
confronter cannot back down. Emotionally, this
type of scene would require a personal and deep
investment for an audience to believe such a
barbaric betrayal had occurred between these two
people. Such deep personal involvement in a
scene can be physically exhausting (Artaud,
1938/1994). If such an investment is made,
though neither actor may have been violated in this
way, there is a possibility of healing other similar
life events through working on this scene (Dayton,
2005). Specifically applying attachment theory, in
the actor’s past he or she may not have been heard
by the caregiver when fighting for a need, which is
a rupture. In this scene, there may be a way for the
actor to feel heard, which then provides the
opportunity for healing, or repair, and further
allows the (child’s) needs to be met (Seigel &
Hartzell, 2003). Hence, the skills used when
acting are applicable to the actor’s personal life,
making actor training a vehicle to investigate and
refine skills of EI.
Acti ng requires th e full em bodiment of
engaging messy emotions, points of view, and
ways of being (Goldstein, 2011). The body and
mind are one. Bodily functions including
respiration, blood flow, physical plasticity, and an
aligned form, increase an actor’s ability to receive
sensory information from their surroundings and
pe op le a ro und them ( Willia ms on , 2 002 ).
Intelligence is not distinct or separate from our
senses (Artaud, 1938/1994; Damasio, 2010; Pert,
1997; Siegel, 1999). Combining bodily sensations
into applicable information leads to emotions
being a somatic event (Bechara & Damasio, 2004;
Bechara, Damasio, & Bar-On, 2007; Damasio,
1999, 2010; LeDoux, 1996; Pert, 1997; Reimann
et al., 2012; Rothschild, 2000).
An interesting point to make about recalling
emotions is that when a person is in the same
mood state, recalling experiences that share the
same mood is easier (LeDoux, 1996). One
possible implication from the psychology theorist
LeDoux’s (1996) observation is that actor training
requires a variety of emotional recall through
engaging imagination, which may offer actors a
way to ad dres s a nd re fra me pa st ev en ts.
“Thoughts powerfully affect our bodies right down
to a cellular level…The destructive thoughts need
to be addressed and reworked” (Aposhyan, 1999,
p. 172). To be clear, perhaps this time to reflect
gives an opportunity to adjust an emotional
response. This would impact EI through a deeper
understanding of another’s emotional response
speaking to the EI skill of emotional regulation
with self and others. Specifically, working on
emo tiona l scenes a s a n a cto r to di scover
motivation for a character as well as practicing the
pursuit of that need with other actors in scene
work/rehearsal will allow communication to occur
about the choices made and justification of those
actions. In addition, when a person is able to
understand the motivation of another person and
the emotions invested in that motivation, an
individual’s affect regulation can sometimes be
more manageable. Another way this might be
understood is when honesty and integrity or trust
are present, a person may evolve the way he or she
behaves (Gordon, 2005).
Emotions influence decisions. Events when
people cite a gut feeling, occasionally identified as
an instinct, inspires action in an individual
(Damasio, 1999). That action could also be
described as an impulse. Identifying and honoring
visceral responses as they occur is the basis of
Meisner actor training, on which the exercise of
Repetition “plays on the source of all organic
activity, which is the inner impulses” (Meisner &
Longwell, 1987, p. 37). A result of this type of
consistent work on impulse identification refines
an actor’s connection to self-awareness. “This
exploration of self-truth is crucial in repetition
because honestly naming the impulses around
oneself, in oneself and the other, is the only way to
succeed in repetition” (Corwin, 2014, p.76).
The idea of repeated practice for developing
emotional intelligence is found elsewhere in the
literature. In their skills-based approach and
definition of transformative emotional intelligence,
Nelso n, Lo w, Nelson, and Ham mett (201 5)
presented their Emotional Learning System as a
systematic process for developing one’s emotional
intelligence skills in personally meaningful ways.
They grounded the ELS in important theories for
healthy mental development including cognitive
neuroscience and Zull’s four pillar model for
learning, Kolb’s learning cycle, and Bloom’s
taxonomy for learning. Integrating the ELS
process with the Sanford Meisner actor training
method, while adding a conceptualization of EI as
learned skills and abilities rather than abilities
only, may foster deeper repetition and more
personally meaningful change in people.
Expanding on skills of EI, self-regulation can
be fostered by utilizing compassion, understanding
the motivations of another, being supported by
your peer group, and having mentoring skills
(Caruso, Mayer, & Salovey, 2003; Nadler, 2007).
Damasio’s (1999) definition of consciousness is to
be wholly cognizant of the environment externally
and internally, tracking how both affect each other,
which supports mental and phy sical health.
Engaging relati onal ly w ith ano ther th roug h
awareness a llows affect regulation to occur
individually and mutually. Being in relationship
with an other person con sciously ope ns t he
possibility for ways we relate to each other to
grow, specifically through expanding relational
understanding (Tronick, 2007).
CONCLUSION: A CALL FOR RESEARCH
Though we no longer believe we are wired to
value emotions over cognition (Bradberry &
Greaves, 2009), discovering how to evolve and
increase EI can substantially impact the quality of
a person’s life as well as the quality of lives
connected to this person. When engaged in actor
training, an actor is required to examine how he or
she operates in the world. Biases, interests,
passions, disgust, and any other myriad of points
of view on experiences inform this world view
through investigation of character as well as
Meisner acting exercises (i.e. Repetition). This
awareness of self allows a person to make choices
around his or her life that best align with this
world view. As a result, this person will be
happier because s/he is operating from an aware
and active personal manner inspired by actor
training. Adding Nelson and Low’s transformative
conceptualization of emotional intelligence with
the ability model used in this study, may prove
helpful to understand how EI can be developed. In
addition, combining the ELS (Nelson et al., 2015)
with Meisner acting exercises may further leverage
rep eti tio n for d eep er a nd more p ers ona lly
meaningful development. Hence, we can further
investigate benefits of actor training on EI.
Research is required to offer a more thorough
understanding of the skills involved in EI and actor
tr ai ni ng . M any st udi es hav e i nv es ti ga te d
relationships in children and adolescent and skills
of EI (Goldstein & Winner, 2009; Goldstein, Wu &
Winner, 2009-2010; Goldstein, 2010; Goldstein,
2011; Goldstein & Winner, 2012; Goldstein &
Bloom, 2011) but these same skills have yet to be
explored in adults thoroughly. Other than Corwin’s
(2014) study looking and how Meisner training
impacts EI and gender in under a sixteen week
span, studies with adult participants have yet to
look at long term impacts over time. Furthermore,
Ghorbanshiroudi et al. (2001) found additional
research looking at how psychological health and
EI are impacted by communication. The very
foundation of actor training requires participants
examine how and why people communicate. As a
result, ownership of emotions through articulation
and understanding allows a person the opportunity
to enjoy life more and own his or her experience
(Pascual-Leone, Paivio, & Harrington, in press).
Since inv estiga ting innov ative tech niques to
incr ease EI skil ls is needed ( Cherniss and
Goleman, 2001), longitudinal research examining
actor training and its impacts on EI is a gap in the
literature. In summation, more research is
necessary to identify if adults who participate in
Meisner actor training impact skills of EI.
Heather L. Corwin holds a PhD in clinical psychology with a somatic concentration from The Chicago
School of Professional Psychology and an MFA in Acting from Florida State University/Asolo
Conservatory. Currently, she is the Head of Movement for actor training at Northern Illinois University
working with graduates and undergraduates. As an actor for over 20 years and theatre arts professor,
she examines behavior through the lens of psychology, allowing the flaws of being human to unite us
through creative expression. Corwin is a Rolfer®, a belly laugher, married to the love of her life, a
mother to an energetic five-year-old, and a fan of historical romance. To read more publications and
learn more about Corwin, please visit BodybyHeather.com or HeatherC.com.
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