Method acting refers to a range of training and rehearsal techniques that seek to encourage sincere and emotionally expressive performances, as formulated by a number of different practitioners, principally in the United States, where it is among the most popular—and controversial—approaches to acting. These techniques built on the 'system' of the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski. Though many have contributed to the development of the Method, three teachers are associated with "having set the standard of its success," though each emphasized different aspects of the approach: Lee Strasberg (the psychological aspects), Stella Adler (the sociological aspects), and Sanford Meisner (the behavioral aspects). The approach was first developed when they worked together at the Group Theatre in New York. All three subsequently claimed to be the rightful heirs of Stanislavski's approach. His three major books were An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.
From the 'system' to the Method
"The Method" is an elaboration of the 'system' of acting developed by the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski. In the first three decades of the 20th century, Stanislavski organized his training, preparation, and rehearsal techniques into a coherent, systematic methodology. The 'system' brought together and built on: (1) the director-centred, unified aesthetic and disciplined, ensemble approach of the Meiningen company; (2) the actor-centred realism of the Maly; (3) and the Naturalistic staging of Antoine and the independent theatre movement.
The 'system' cultivates what Stanislavski calls the "art of experiencing" (to which he contrasts the "art of representation"). It mobilises the actor's conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes—such as emotional experience and subconscious behaviour—sympathetically and indirectly. In rehearsal, the actor searches for inner motives to justify action and the definition of what the character seeks to achieve at any given moment (a "task"). Later, Stanislavski further elaborated the 'system' with a more physically grounded rehearsal process known as the "Method of Physical Action". Minimising at-the-table discussions, he now encouraged an "active analysis", in which the sequence of dramatic situations are improvised. "The best analysis of a play", Stanislavski argued, "is to take action in the given circumstances."
The transmission of the earliest phase of Stanislavski's work via the students of the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) revolutionized acting in the West. When the MAT toured the US in the early 1920s, the young Lee Strasberg saw all of their productions and was deeply impressed by their ensemble performances. At that time, Richard Boleslavsky, one of Stanislavski's students from the First Studio, presented a series of lectures on the 'system' that were eventually published as Acting: The First Six Lessons (1933). The interest generated led to a decision by Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya (another student at the First Studio) to emigrate to the US and to establish the American Laboratory Theatre. The version of Stanislavski's practice that travelled to the US with them was that developed in the 1910s, rather than the more fully elaborated version of the 'system' detailed in Stanislavski's acting manuals from the 1930s, An Actor's Work and An Actor's Work on a Role. The first half of An Actor's Work, which treated the psychological elements of training, was published in a heavily abridged and misleadingly translated version in the US as An Actor Prepares in 1936. English-language readers often confused the first volume on psychological processes with the 'system' as a whole.
Many of the American practitioners who came to be identified with the Method were taught by Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theatre. The approaches to acting subsequently developed by their students—including Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner—are often confused with Stanislavski's 'system.' 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."
As well as Stanislavski's early work, the ideas and techniques of his student Yevgeny Vakhtangov (who had died in 1922 at the age of 39) were also an important influence on the development of the Method. Vakhtangov's "object exercises" were developed further by Uta Hagen as a means for actor training and the maintenance of skills. Strasberg attributed to Vakhtangov the distinction between Stanislavski's process of "justifying" behaviour with the inner motive forces that prompt that behaviour in the character and "motivating" behaviour with imagined or recalled experiences relating to the actor and substituted for those relating to the character. Following this distinction, actors ask themselves "What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?" rather than the more Stanislavskian question "Given the particular circumstances of the play, how would I behave, what would I do, how would I feel, how would I react?"
Emotion and imagination
Among the concepts and techniques of method acting are substitution, "as if," sense memory, affective memory, and animal work (all of which were first developed by Stanislavski). Contemporary method actors sometimes seek help from psychologists in the development of their roles.
In Strasberg's approach, actors make use of experiences from their own lives to bring them to closer to the experience of their characters. This technique, which Stanislavski came to call emotion memory (Strasberg tends to use the alternative formulation, "affective memory"), involves the recall of sensations involved in experiences that made a significant emotional impact on the actor. Without faking or forcing, actors allow those sensations to stimulate a response and try not to inhibit themselves.
Every afternoon for five weeks during the summer of 1934 in Paris, Stanislavski worked with the American actress Stella Adler, who had sought his assistance with the blocks she had confronted in her performances. Given the emphasis that emotion memory had received in New York, Adler was surprised to find that Stanislavski rejected the technique except as a last resort. Under the influence of Richard Boleslavsky, emotion memory had become a central feature of Strasberg's training at the Group Theatre in New York. In contrast, Stanislavski recommended to Stella Adler an indirect pathway to emotional expression via physical action. In his biography of Stanislavski, Jean Benedetti writes: "It has been suggested that Stanislavski deliberately played down the emotional aspects of acting because the woman in front of him was already over-emotional. The evidence is against this. What Stanislavski told Stella Adler was exactly what he had been telling his actors at home, what indeed he had advocated in his notes for Leonidov in the production plan for Othello." Stanislavski confirmed this emphasis in his discussions with Harold Clurman in late 1935. The news that this was Stanislavski's approach would have significant repercussions in the US; Strasberg angrily rejected it and refused to modify his approach.
In training, as distinct from rehearsal process, the recall of sensations to provoke emotional experience and the development of a vividly imagined fictional experience remained a central part both of Stanislavski's and the various Method-based approaches that developed out of it.
A widespread misconception about Method acting—particularly in the popular media—equates Method actors with actors who choose to remain in character even offstage or off-camera for the duration of a project. In his book A Dream of Passion, Strasberg wrote that Stanislavski, early in his directing career, "require[d] his actors to live 'in character' off stage," but that "the results were never fully satisfactory." Stanislavski did experiment with this approach in his own acting before he became a professional actor and founded the Moscow Art Theatre, though he soon abandoned it. Some Method actors employ this technique, such as Daniel Day-Lewis, but Strasberg did not include it as part of his teachings and it "is not part of the Method approach."
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.
Criticism of Strasberg's approach
Some 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. He advocated actors fully immersing themselves "in the moment" and concentrating on their partner (what Stanislavski called "communication" and "adaptation"). 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 argued that method acting was too focused on pure emotional training and neglected vocal and physical training, which forms a fundamental part both of classical actor-training and of Stanislavski's system. The method's reliance on emotion, he felt, could too easily encourage overacting.
Stella Adler, an actress and acting teacher whose students included Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro, also broke with Strasberg after she studied with Stanislavski, by which time he had modified many of his earliest ideas. Her version of the method is based on the idea that actors should stimulate emotional experience by imagining the scene's "given circumstances," rather than recalling experiences from their own lives. Adler's approach also seeks to stimulate the actor's imagination through the use of "as ifs," which substitute more personally affecting imagined situations for the circumstances experienced by the character. Adler argued that "drawing on personal experience alone was too limited. Brando himself claimed he never studied with Strasberg and never liked him for being so selfish and ambitious. Brando was a Stella Adler's student and in his book, he claimed to have abhorred Lee Strasberg's teachings and praise Stella for her work.
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.
Alfred Hitchcock described 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. Lillian Gish quipped: "It's ridiculous. How would you portray death if you had to experience it first?" Charles Laughton, who worked closely for a time with Bertolt Brecht, argued that "Method actors give you a photograph", while "real actors give you an oil painting."
- Blum (1984, 63) and Hayward (1996, 216).
- Krasner (2000b, 129).
- Krasner (2000b, 130).
- Benedetti (1989, 5—11, 15, 18) and (1999b, 254), Braun (1982, 59), Carnicke (2000, 13, 16, 29), Counsell (1996, 24), Gordon (2006, 38, 40—41), and Innes (2000, 53—54).
- Benedetti (1999a, 201), Carnicke (2000, 17), and Stanislavski (1938, 16—36). Stanislavski's "art of representation" corresponds to Mikhail Shchepkin's "actor of reason" and his "art of experiencing" corresponds to Shchepkin's "actor of feeling"; see Benedetti (1999a, 202).
- Benedetti (1999a, 170).
- Benedetti (1999a, 182—183).
- Benedetti (1999a, 325, 360) and (2005, 121) and Roach (1985, 197—198, 205, 211—215). The term "Method of Physical Action" was applied to this rehearsal process after Stanislavski's death. Benedetti indicates that though Stanislavski had developed it since 1916, he first explored it practically in the early 1930s; see (1998, 104) and (1999a, 356, 358). Gordon argues the shift in working-method happened during the 1920s (2006, 49—55). Vasili Toporkov, an actor who trained under Stanislavski in this approach, provides in his Stanislavski in Rehearsal (2004) a detailed account of the Method of Physical Action at work in Stanislavski's rehearsals.
- Benedetti (1999a, 355—256), Carnicke (2000, 32—33), Leach (2004, 29), Magarshack (1950, 373—375), and Whyman (2008, 242).
- Quoted by Carnicke (1998, 156). Stanislavski continues: "For in the process of action the actor gradually obtains the mastery over the inner incentives of the actions of the character he is representing, evoking in himself the emotions and thoughts which resulted in those actions. In such a case, an actor not only understands his part, but also feels it, and that is the most important thing in creative work on the stage"; quoted by Magarshack (1950, 375).
- Carnicke (1998, 1, 167) and (2000, 14), Counsell (1996, 24—25), Golub (1998, 1032), Gordon (2006, 71—72), Leach (2004, 29), and Milling and Ley (2001, 1—2).
- Benedetti (1999a, 286) and Blum (1984, 22). Strasberg was 22 at the time.
- Boleslavsky had been able to extend his visa thanks to an invitation from Stanislavski to act as an assistant director to the company.
- Benedetti (1999a, 283, 286) and Gordon (2006, 71—72).
- Benedetti (1999a, 332).
- Krasner (2000b, 129—130).
- Benedetti (2005, 147—148) and Carnicke (1998, 1, 8). Not only actors are subject to this confusion; Lee Strasberg's obituary in The New York Times credited Stanislavski with the invention of the Method: "Mr. Strasberg adapted it to the American theatre, imposing his refinements, but always crediting Stanislavsky as his source" (Quoted by Carnicke 1998, 9); see Gussow (1982). Carnicke argues that this "robs Strasberg of the originality in his thinking, while simultaneously obscuring Stanislavsky's ideas" (1997, 9). In a note from 1913 Stanislavski wrote that a character "is sometimes formed psychologically, i.e. from the inner image of the role, but at other times it is discovered through purely external exploration"; quoted by Benedetti (1999a, 216). Neither the tradition that formed in the USSR nor the American Method, Carnicke argues, "integrated the mind and body of the actor, the corporal and the spiritual, the text and the performance as thoroughly or as insistently as did Stanislavsky himself" (1998, 2). For evidence of Strasberg's misunderstanding of this aspect of Stanislavski's work, see Strasberg (2010, 150—151).
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- Benedetti (1999a, 18—19) and Magarshack (1950, 25, 33—34). He would disguise himself as a tramp or drunk and visit the railway station, or as a fortune-telling gypsy. As Benedetti explains, however, Stanislavski soon abandoned the technique of maintaining a characterisation in real life; it does not form a part of his 'system'.
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