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Thanks for asking this great question! I wrote my thesis on this and it's great to think about it again!
It's easiest to see the the distinction between Strasberg and Adler. Their disagreement over the interpretation of Stanislavki's system was one of the main causes of the Group's closing. Strasberg focused more on the first theory of Stanislavski -- dealing with the recreation of believable emotion through the use of emotional recall. Actors use personal memories to dredge up emotions that their character needs to feel.
Adler was unhappy with this technique, feeling it was personally invasive, so she went to see Stanislavski, who told her he had changed his mind about the use of emotional recall and had switched to the Method of Physical Actions. The U.S. was slow to receive the new information because of the lag of news out of Russia because of the two Russian Revolutions. Adler's technique focused on what a person DOES when they feel an emotion; through the repeating of that action, believable emotion will be portrayed.
Meisner focused more on the physical aspects of acting as well, dealing a great deal with the ideas of sense memory. Through the use of sense memory, an actor may be able to find that most elusive concept of "being in the moment". If you take a Meisner class, one of your first exercises will be the Cup of Coffee exercise, in which you endow a cup of water with the qualities of hot coffee.
Hey there. I can speak to this although as a teacher at the Strasberg school, I will freely admit my bias upfront.
The Sense Memory exercises are distinctly Strasberg as an outgrowth of Stanislavski's "Objects in air" (imaginary objects the he used in rehearsal). Coffee Cup is indeed the first Strasberg exercise, although we do not actually use warm water (or a cup for that matter). It is entirely imaginary.
Meisner uses the Repitition exercise extensively as a way to train more spontaneous reaction.
Adler is generally regarded as focussing most on imagination as opposed to personal memory. I would debate the fine points of that disinction, but it is nevertheless the most popular and easily codified way to explain the difference.
All teachers drawing from The Group Theater and Stanislavsky seek the same goal - actually creating human experiencing something rather than the appearance of that experience. The question is what approach do you use to achieve that end? At Strasberg we use physcal sensation and the creation of imaginary reality. That is where we plant our feet.
Happy to chat more if you are curious for more detail.
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