This is a question that forever haunts the hallways of every drama school in America and possibly around the globe. Which acting method is right for me?
The answer is, no matter what a marketing brochure tells you, there is no “one” technique. Being a comedian is different from being a Shakespearean performer, and therefore they require different experiences.
The question becomes, “What is your goal?” What kind of actor do you want to be? Again, there is no right answer here, and what you want today may be different five years from now; however, if you start with where you would like to be as a performer in four or five years then you will have a better idea of what kind of training you should pursue.
A few notes before we begin. First, these are brief summaries of some of the most popular acting methods. They are not the be all and end all. Furthermore, ask any working actor about “their method” and you will get a unique response. There is no one size fits all approach, although at times teachers certainly attempted to corner that market.
Second, don’t be fooled by schools, universities, or programs “claiming” that the success of an actor was directly dependent on their teachings. Careers are a strange mix of moxy, talent, grit, opportunity, luck, training, and a myriad of other circumstances no one can predict. Therefore, go into every training with a mind that you will always be creating a technique that works for you.
- The Method
“Love the art in yourself and not yourself in the art.” – Konstantin Stanislavsky
If you have ever seen a comedian mock an actor by asking, “What’s my motivation?” then you have been touched by “The Method.”
Possibly the most famous acting technique for the number of actors attached to it, Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Acting Method, commonly referred to as “The Method,” although he himself referred to it as “The System,” has spawned a million spin-offs and rewrites. Although commonly misinterpreted and manipulated, the method is, perhaps, the most widely used acting method today.
In a completely over-simplified explanation, Stanislavsky’s method is based around “the art of experiencing,” as opposed to the former classical method of, as Stanislavsky put it, “the art of representing.” In essence, the actor’s goal is to feel what the character feels and to experience what the character is experiencing. Born as a revolt against the traditional form of acting that preceded it, Stanislavsky’s method is based around “truth” and the idea that the actor should embody all the behaviors, thoughts, and actions their role requires with the goal being the actor brings a completely realized, fully present “person” on stage or on film.
One of the essential components of Stanislavsky’s method is the idea of “The Magic If.” First, what are the given circumstances of the play or script? If you were a journalist this would be the who, what, where, when, and why of the story. Then, the idea is to imagine that “if” the incidenting incident, or the moment the conflict arises, what would you do if this happened to you? Forget the audience. Forget the stage, the camera, the playwright, and focus on reacting honestly and truthfully in the moment.
We all have inner desires that push the choices we make in life, our inner objectives and it results in either getting someone to do something for you or doing something yourself. Therefore, what would your character’s inner drive be? What makes them do what they do, and since you are playing the character, why would YOU do it?
This is the cornerstone of The Method in that it asks you to bring yourself into the character, or rather, use your “affective memory.” It seems commonplace today to use your own experiences to help create character, but this was The Method’s breakthrough.
The goal of this method is to produce genuine emotions and subconscious reactions. In rehearsal the actor should always be asking why a character acts, what they do, what motivates them, what sparks them to action?
Along with the plays of Anton Chekhov, Stanislavsky and The Moscow Art Theatre changed the course of drama and ushered in a new era of theatre and acting. His book “An Actor Prepares” is quintessential reading for all creators, although he later revised and reinterpreted his ideas. His theories and methods would trickle down and influence every teacher and student for generations to come and is the cornerstone for many educational programs.
It would be a disservice to not mention one of Stanislavsky’s quintessential students Michael Chekhov. Chekhov would refine Stanislavsky’s teachings and make them more physical. In Chekhov’s terminology the “psycho-physical” is meant to connect an actor/character’s physical body with their inner life. If you’ve ever heard the term “psychological gesture” then you have dealt with the work of Chekhov. Using impulse, imagination, and inner and outer movements, Chekhov’s technique physicalizes Stanislanki’s mental work and creates a physical memory with a gesture to move into the subconscious level.
Among those teachers who reshaped both Stanislavsky’s approach and the shape of acting in the modern era are Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. Still, there are very few artists who move into mythological status and can be recognized by a single name such as Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw, Stanislavsky.
The Method’s impact is significant and long felt.
- Classical Actor Training
“Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.” – William Shakespeare
You would think I would lead with classical training, but the truth is that “classical” training has very little to do with the origins of acting. Are masks involved? Yes. Is there pantomime and dead languages or techniques that bear no value in the modern world? Absolutely. Do actors love it? Damn right.
Just as contemporary music is a reaction to the sound that came before it, classical acting was a reaction to “The Method.” More specifically, after Stanislavki and his disciples spread the gospel of The Method, classical training sought to encompass the full range of techniques available new and old.
Classical actor training emphasizes physical acting, imagination, objectives, subtext, personalization of characters, voice, and using all the elements available to the actor. What we consider “classical” training today emerged shortly after Stanislavksi, and, in fact, merged the preceding elements of theatre with the new ideas of Stanislavsky.
Oddly enough, Stanislavsky is also a part of this mode of actor training. Later in his life, all the talk of “psychological gesture” and “motivation” wore down the teacher and he wanted to return to an umbrella way of using all options available from circus to comedy.
The goal is to assist the audience with identifying with the actor and to do that the actor must identify with the character. In today’s world where film actors often are a version of the characters portray this does not seem out of the ordinary, however, this is a relatively new approach to casting.
A hallmark of the approach is combining voice and body training by using various schools of thought such as period dance and stage combat.
Julliard, The Old Vic, and Yale emphasize this method of training, as it focuses on classical theatre from commedia to Shakespeare and using the whole body and developing the voice. Rather than delve into the depths of the psyche, classical training seeks to develop skills as well as the understanding of text.
The goal is of classical training is to prepare the actor fo an audience of various sizes. The actor can perform for the camera, a black box, or a sold out proscenium, as well as a range of scripts, projects, and roles from cinema to Shakespeare.
- Meisner Technique
“Your acting will not be good until it is only yours. That’s true of music, acting, anything creative. You work until finally nobody is acting like you.” – Sanford Meisner
There may not be a more influential acting teacher, today, in America than Sanford Meisner and his repetition exercises. A disciple of Stanislavki’s method, along with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at The Groupe Theatre, Meisner sought to push his teacher’s findings further, however, what Meisner focused in on was the psychological aspects of the character and the actor.
In fact, Mesiner says, “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.”
His approach was perfected with the now infamous Group Theatre and centered on “the act of doing.” The goal of the technique is to get actors to live “truthfully in imaginary circumstances,” by using improvisational techniques to produce emotional responses with a given text.
The goal is to remove the thought process from the actor and instead have them live truthfully and in the moment. A controversial point of Meisner’s method is that he emphasizes and character’s emotional arc over the playwright’s words and intent. While this is to serve the playwright and is a tool meant to create a more believable character, it often does not sit well with writers.
Often, the process is about better understanding oneself throughout the training process so that you have a better grasp of your strengths and weaknesses. Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, and Grace Kelly are all descendants of Meisner’s teachings. In fact, what we consider “Method Acting,” that is the idea of embodying a character beyond the confines of stage of set, is more akin to Strasberg’s school of thought than Meisner or Stanislavsky.
While Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg both developed their own methods of acting, they are not as widely taught as Meisner Technique. This is not to say that Meisner’s method is better, as Strasberg considered the “father of American method acting,” but that his exercises are more widely used. In fact, if we were to go solely on success there was, perhaps, no more successful teacher than Stella Adler as she trained the likes of Marlon Brando, Harvey Keitel, and Robert DeNiro.
A shorthand to separate these methods from one another is Stanislavksi’s Method is about emotional recall and self-analysis, Strasberg is about blending the character and the actor’s lives, and Stella Adler’s asks you to go beyond your own experiences.
“Invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school.” – David Mamet
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The impact of actor training post-Stanislavsky from Straberg to Meisner was tremendous; however, like all art forms there is a reaction.
Developed by playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy, this technique builds on teachings of Stanislavsky and Meisner but adds in a heavy dose of pragmatism. It is a much more pragmatic approach to acing focusing on what does the script ask for and applying what the character wants and separating it from what the actor wants.
This approach is based on the actor and not the character. What does the actor want to accomplish in the scene given what the playwright has written and what would they do if they were in this situation? The goal is to help the actor escape from the fiction they are playing, discover the truth of the scene, and apply it across the board.
If we look at Practical Aesthetics as the ultimate response to the self aggrandizing actor, then it makes much more sense. The basic tenant is to serve the play. Why do you exit? Because that’s what the script says. What’s your backstory? It doesn’t matter, make on up that serves the scene.
Mamet and Macy wanted to create a training that brought actors back to basics. At this point, Stanislavky is so ingrained in us that we don’t need to try and use “sense memory” or “psychological gesture.” We get it. Be in the moment. Focus on the action at hand.
“To create this illusion [of a character] the actor has to undergo nothing whatever. He or she is as free of the necessity of “feeling” as the magician is free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers,” says Mamet.
The technique is not the point. Acting is not the point. We are here to do a job, to tell a story.
In his Masterclass on writing, Mamet tells a simple joke that sums up Practical Aesthetics pretty well. Why do actors love to talk about backstory? Because it keeps them from memorizing their lines.
- Laban, Alexander, and Viewpoints
“You cannot hide; your growth as an artist is not separate from your growth as a human being: it is all visible.” – Anne Bogart
Much like how Practical Aesthetics was a reaction to the overdrenched Method acting world that existed, these physical approaches to acting were a reaction to the mental load.
Beginning in the dance world, this technique is a language for describing and visualizing movement developed by Rudolf Laban. It focuses on the Body, the Effort, the Shape, and the Space and was emphasized at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre to give actors a way of playing characters physically different from themselves.
Likewise, Alexander Technique is a physical approach to releasing tension and harnessing the bodies full potential in performance. It is a way to use stress in the body and move without damaging or breathing incorrectly. Although not strictly an acting Method, Alexander technique has been adopted by many schools to assist actors in controlling their body and breath.
Another contemporary look at acting is Viewpoints. The Viewpoints was adapted for stage by Anne Bogart and is an improvisational system of training that emphasizes time, space, and the actors body to create meaning. The actor has points of awareness for the actor to emphasize and use and creates a vocabulary for directors and actors to use to talk about movement and gesture.
While not strictly acting schools, these three methodologies have been incorporated into many schools and offer a physical approach to acting.
There are numerous methods out there, and just about any technique can lead you to water. The goal is not to create an acting method, but rather to create a system that works for the actor time and time again. Rather than wait for luck, casting, or divine inspiration, actor training is meant to give the performer a system to create again and again.
Ultimately, the actor must learn through doing. An actor acts. Each of these training methods take out the waiting and put the performer to work. If there is one truth all acting methods possess it is that in order to improve the actor needs more reps.
Just as a baseball player must throw more pitches or take more swings, an actor needs to say more lines and get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Each of these method attempt to put actors in uneasy situations so that auditions, performances, and rehearsals become more common place.
Furthermore, nothing replaces the rehearsal room. Unfortunately, the reality of the acting business is that actors are not working all the time, and therefore, they are not at play constantly. Training schools fill the gap between the time between performances and allow the artist to experiment and play.
Before we wrap up here I’d like to deposit a few final thoughts. One, all actors are responsible for their own work. There is no one method or technique that will make you a great actor. An actor is a collector. We collect good stories, good ideas, good methods, good techniques, and we remix them into what we need. We must understand that using a classical approach on camera may not work anymore than a method approach will stand up to seven weeks of rehearsal at a Shakespeare festival.
The goal is to develop a sense of what good work is. A good review, a cover story, or a standing ovation does not make someone a good actor, nor does the lack thereof make someone a bad actor. Only the artist can determine whether their work is up to their standard.
If we are to consider ourselves artists then we must accept the responsibility for taking control of our art. That means we are not a product of one school or the other, but a product of our choices, both onstage and off.
Check your method at the door. Be someone people want to work with. The art of theatre and the art of film is the magic in the room. So don’t be the diva. Be the professional in the room. People work with people they want to work with.
Actors love to talk shop, methods and motivations, but the goal is to tell a story. Never get in the way of the story.
“Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.” – Konstantin Stanislavsky