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In the dramatic arts, method acting refers to a constellation of techniques used to train and assist actors in creating characterizations, tracing their origins to Constantin Stanislavski's teachings. Stanislavski's ideas, formulated in the early 20th century, were cited as the inspiration for American teachers such as Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg. Their teachings are called "The Method", and adherents of these techniques are commonly referred to as "method actors".
"The Method" traces its origins to "system", as formulated by Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski's philosophy was 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).
Strasberg used the term “Method” to describe his philosophy of acting and his techniques of training actors, which built upon (or according to some corrupted) Stanislavski's ideas. The term "Method" is commonly used to describe the training methodologies of other acting teachers using Stanislavski's system, such as Adler and Meisner, though this use is controversial as both vehemently denied any commonalities between their approach to training and that of Strasberg’s. One major distinction between "the System" and most schools of "The Method" is that while both encourage actors to use their personal experiences to empathize with their roles, Method goes to the additional length of encouraging actors to actually experience circumstances of their role first hand — ie, if they are to play a paraplegic, a method actor might sit idly for several weeks, or if they are to play someone exhausted, they might stay awake for several days.
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, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke, and many others.
The word "Method Actor", though perhaps most accurately used only to describe students of Strasberg's method, is used to refer to students of other American acting teachers who claimed inspiration from Stanislavski.
Generally, method acting encourages actors to use their own experiences to personally identify with their characters in order to develop an emotional and cognitive understanding of their roles, this often involves a reproduction of 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.
Sanford Meisner, another Group Theatre pioneer, championed a closely related version of the method, which came to be called the Meisner technique. Meisner broke from Strasberg on sense memory and affective memory—basic techniques espoused by Strasberg through which actors access their own personal experiences to identify with and portray the emotional lives of their characters. Meisner believed this approach made actors focus on themselves and not fully tell the story. 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 (as did Strasberg). 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 disagreed with the idea that vocal training should be separated from pure emotional training. Lewis felt that more emphasis should be placed on formal voice and body training, such as teaching actors how to speak verse and enunciate clearly, rather than on pure raw emotion, which he felt was the focus of method training.
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.
Method actors often replicate external conditions of a role to create a better internal characterization. This practice can become so extreme as to be potentially dangerous, and it is not unheard of actors abstaining from food, sleep, or social interaction in an effort to better their performance. Contemporary method actors sometimes seek help from psychologists.
Constantin Stanislavski described his acting system in a trilogy of books set in a fictional acting school: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life in Art. Acting teachers inspired by Stanislavski include:
- Lee Strasberg, a director, actor, and producer whose teachings are most closely associated with the term Method acting.
- Richard Boleslawski, actor, film director, and founder of the American Laboratory Theatre in New York.
- Michael Chekhov, an actor, director, and author (and nephew of Anton Chekhov) whose technique enhanced and complimented Stanislavski's over the course of his career at the Moscow Art Theater and later his film work in Hollywood.
- Maria Ouspenskaya, an actress who taught at the American Laboratory Theatre. Her students included John Garfield, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg.
- Stella Adler, an actress and founder of the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York City.
- Andrey Vasilyev, an actor and founder of the Stanislavski Studio in Los Angeles.
- Herbert Berghof, founder of HB Studio in New York City.
- Uta Hagen, an actress and the author of Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor, who emphasized the techniques of identity and substitution.
- Robert Lewis, an actor, director, co-founder of the Actors Studio, and author of Method—or Madness?
- Peggy Feury, an actress, member of the Actors Studio, and teacher
The following actors have been noted as practitioners of Method acting.
- Carroll Baker
- Christian Bale
- Anne Bancroft
- Warren Beatty
- Marlon Brando
- Adrien Brody
- Ellen Burstyn
- Nicolas Cage
- Michael Caine
- Jill Clayburgh
- Montgomery Clift
- Daniel Day-Lewis
- Robert De Niro
- James Dean
- Sandy Dennis
- Johnny Depp
- Aaron Eckhart 
- Sally Field
- James Franco
- Jane Fonda
- John Garfield
- Ben Gazzara
- Walton Goggins
- Lee Grant
- Anne Hathaway
- Gene Hackman
- Julie Harris
- Dustin Hoffman
- Philip Seymour Hoffman
- Shirley Knight
- Dilip Kumar
- Heath Ledger
- Shia LaBeouf 
- Jared Leto
- Marilyn Monroe
- Steve McQueen
- Judd Nelson 
- Paul Newman
- Jack Nicholson
- Edward Norton
- Al Pacino
- Geraldine Page
- Estelle Parsons
- River Phoenix
- Suzanne Pleshette
- Lady Gaga
- Kim Stanley
- Rod Steiger
- Marisa Tomei 
- Eli Wallach
- Shelley Winters
- Reese Witherspoon
- Joanne Woodward
Method acting has detractors, both in and out of the profession. 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. Hitchcock's film Spellbound derides method acting by comparing it negatively to psychosis. Among actors with contempt for the method are Lillian Gish, who quipped "It's ridiculous. How can you portray death if you have to experience it first?", Charles Laughton, "Method actors give you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting.”, and Tallulah Bankhead, "If you act on emotion you do it beautifully one night and the next night, it just doesn't come."
A different criticism of method acting altogether is the charge that it distorted Stanislavski's system. This charge 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.
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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
- The Technique of Acting by Stella Adler
- Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky
- To the Actor by Michael Chekhov
- A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg
- Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner
- Method—or Madness? by Robert Lewis
- Advice to the Players by Robert Lewis
- Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen
- No Acting Please by Eric Morris and Joan Hotchkis
- Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor by Jack Garfein
- O poetică a artei actorului (Poetics of the Actor's Art) by Ion Cojar