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In the dramatic arts, method acting refers to a range of techniques for training actors to achieve better characterizations of the characters they play, as formulated by Lee Strasberg. These techniques can be traced to Constantin Stanislavski's ideas, formulated in the early 20th century. A practitioner of method acting is called a method actor.
"The Method" traces its origins to the "system", as formulated by Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski's philosophy was a part of the theatrical realist movement and based on the idea that great acting is a reflection of "truth" conveyed both internally and externally through the actor. Stanislavski set out to convey "truth" through a more human system of acting, which would encourage an actor to build a cognitive and emotional understanding of their role. He developed his system of acting through his friendships with Russia's leading actors, his collaborations with playwright Anton Chekhov, and his own teaching, writing, and acting at the Moscow Art Theatre (founded in 1897).
His system is often erroneously identified with Lee Strasberg's Method approach, which claimed inspiration from Stanislavski's approach. However, Strasberg's adaptation relied exclusively on psychological techniques and contrasted sharply with Stanislavski's multivariate, holistic and psychophysical approach, which explores character and action both from the "inside out" and the "outside in." In this respect his system is far more similar to other classical acting techniques than to method acting.
Strasberg used the term “Method” to describe his philosophy of acting and his techniques of training actors, which built upon some of Stanislavski's early ideas. Strasberg's method is based upon the idea that in order to develop an emotional and cognitive understanding of their roles, actors should use their own experiences to identify personally with their characters. The method uses techniques to reproduce the character's emotional state by recalling emotions or sensations from the actor's own life. Among the concepts and techniques of method acting are substitution, "as if," sense memory, affective memory, animal work, and archetype work. Strasberg uses the question, "What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?" Strasberg asks the actor to replace the play's circumstances with his or her own, the substitution.
Stanislavski found faults with an experienced-based approach early on, noticing that users and abusers of techniques such as affective memory were prone to hysterics. For this and other reasons he shifted the focus of his system to rely upon imagination, which the actor can use to portray things they haven't even experienced. This remains a fundamental distinction between the System and Strasberg's method, and other American acting philosophies, such as that of Stella Adler and Meisner, would be much truer to Stanislavski's system in this respect.
Given method acting's reliance on the personal experiences of the actor, method actors often replicate external conditions of a role to create experiences they can call upon when acting. This practice can become so extreme as to be potentially dangerous, and it is not unheard of for actors to abstain from food, sleep, or social interaction in an effort to better their performance. Contemporary method actors sometimes seek help from psychologists.
Strasberg's students included many prominent American actors of the latter half of the 20th century, including Paul Newman, Al Pacino, George Peppard, Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke, and many others.
The following actors have been noted as practitioners of Strasberg's method.
- Carroll Baker
- Christian Bale
- Anne Bancroft
- Marlon Brando
- Sorrell Booke
- Adrien Brody
- Ellen Burstyn
- Nicolas Cage
- Michael Caine
- Jill Clayburgh
- Montgomery Clift
- Daniel Day-Lewis
- James Dean
- Robert De Niro
- Sandy Dennis
- Johnny Depp
- Sally Field
- Jane Fonda
- Lady Gaga
- John Garfield
- Ben Gazzara
- Walton Goggins
- Anne Hathaway
- Gene Hackman
- Julie Harris
- Dustin Hoffman
- Philip Seymour Hoffman
- Samuel L. Jackson
- Harvey Keitel
- Shirley Knight
- Dilip Kumar
- Heath Ledger
- Shia LaBeouf 
- Jennifer Jason Leigh
- Jared Leto
- Marilyn Monroe
- Steve McQueen
- Tomas Milian
- Judd Nelson
- Paul Newman
- Jack Nicholson
- Edward Norton
- Gary Oldman
- Al Pacino
- Geraldine Page
- Estelle Parsons
- River Phoenix
- Suzanne Pleshette
- Lee Remick
- Peter Sellers
- Tupac Shakur
- Sissy Spacek
- Kim Stanley
- Rod Steiger
- Marisa Tomei 
- Denzel Washington
- Shelley Winters
- Reese Witherspoon
- Joanne Woodward
Criticism of Strasberg's method
Many American acting teachers inspired by Stanislavski broke off with Strasberg, believing his method was not an authentic adaptation of Stanislavski's system.
Sanford Meisner, another Group Theatre pioneer, believed the method was far too focused on the internal workings of the actor, and that acting should be "outside in" rather than "inside out." His ideas came to be called the Meisner technique, and he advocated actors fully immersing themselves "in the moment" and concentrating on their partner. Meisner taught actors to achieve spontaneity by understanding the given circumstances of the scene. He designed interpersonal exercises to help actors invest emotionally in the scene, freeing them to react "honestly" as the character. Meisner described acting as "...living truthfully under imaginary circumstances."
Robert Lewis also broke with Strasberg. In his books Method—or Madness? and the more autobiographical Slings and Arrows", Lewis described his thoughts that method acting was too focused on pure emotional training and neglected elocution and body training, fundamental to classical acting training and thus included in Stanislavski's system. In the method's reliance on emotion it could too easily encourage overacting.
Stella Adler, an actress and acting teacher whose students include Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro, also broke with Strasberg after she studied with Stanislavski himself, by which time he had modified many of his early ideas. Her version of the method is based on the idea that actors should conjure up emotion not by using their own personal memories, but by using the scene's given circumstances. Like Strasberg's, Adler's technique relies on carrying through tasks, wants, needs, and objectives. It also seeks to stimulate the actor's imagination through the use of "as ifs." Adler often taught that "drawing on personal experience alone was too limited." Therefore, she urged performers to draw on their imaginations and utilize "emotional memory" to the fullest.
The charge that Strasberg's method distorted Stanislavski's system has been responsible for a considerable revivalist interest in Stanislavski's "pure" teachings. As the use of the Method has declined considerably from its peak in the mid-20th century, acting teachers claiming to teach Stanislavski's unadulterated system are becoming more numerous.
Method acting also has detractors from within the profession itself. Many prominent actors and directors cite method practitioners as difficult to work with, requiring long preparation and becoming so self-absorbed in their role as to ignore staging directions and chew the scenery. Alfred Hitchcock disdained method acting, describing his work with Montgomery Clift in I Confess as difficult "because you know, he was a method actor." He recalled similar problems with Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. Among actors with contempt for the method are Lillian Gish, who quipped "It's ridiculous. How would you portray death if you had to experience it first?" and Charles Laughton "Method actors give you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting.”
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|Library resources about
- Gussow, Mel (April 14, 1987). "The Method, Still Disputed But Now Ubiquitous". The New York Times.
- Acting Coach Scotland: 10 Reasons I HATE Method Acting (but NOT Method Actors)
Major books on Method acting
- A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg