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Friday, January 11, 2013

What is "Method" acting?

"Any good actor uses the principles of Stanislavski, no matter what they do...they may do it unwittingly, but they do it. You can call that 'method,' I don't care what you call it, but it's about being truthful. Every time you find a truthful actor, you find someone who bears out some of the realism that Stanislavski bothered to put on paper."

  Montgomery Clift

Recently I worked with a fine young actor, a graduate from a undergraduate theater program. He told me that his teachers proclaimed they ..."did NOT teach 'Method' acting in their program. 

What the hell is "Method" acting?? What are they NOT teaching? This term, "Method" has become a catch phrase for... anything that could involve the inner work; anything that involves organic research and practice in order to create the character. I started training at the age of 13 with teachers from the Actors Studio and was accepted as a member of the Studio at 20, I have seen exercises that were once considered tools for the actor come under great suspicion and even revulsion, sometimes for good reason. First of all...inform yourself. 

The term "Method" was referred to by members of the Group Theater in referring to the Stanislavski System, which they had seen for themselves in the 1923 visit by the Moscow Art Theater and which they studied beginning in 1924 with M.A.T. actors Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theater. 

The term "Method" can be found in Harold Clurman's "Fervent Years," in Burgess Meredith's "So Far, So Good," and in the words of Clifford Odets as found in "Clifford Odets: American Playwright" by Margaret Brenamn-Gibson." According to Lee Strasberg in "Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio" edited by Robert Hethmon, the "Method" is a term which began to be overused by the press in the 1950s when Marilyn Monroe began working at the Actors Studio. 

After studying the System, students Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner each formed their own techniques by taking what they had learned in their own unique directions.  The term "method" was rejected by Stella Adler and was reserved for the work of Lee Strasberg.  

The Group Theater was a formative theater group in America that set out to become the American version of what the M.A.T. exemplified-organic work, fully alive, fully serving the play and its message. The Group Theater was also where the major teachers of American acting learned to avoid one another at all costs. The major technical difference was that in the 1930s, the use of the affective memory by Strasberg fractured the group of actors who were members of the Group Theater. 

Strasberg directed and prepared the actors. Stella Adler refused to do the Affective Memory exercise. Harold Clurman brought her to Paris in 1934, where she met with and worked with Constantin Stanislavsky in person for six weeks, which Strasberg had never done. She wrote about this encounter in her books. Stella Adler complained to Stanislavski about the affective memory exercise and Stanislavski said he had stopped using the affective memory years earlier, because he believed it had negative long term effects on the actor. This is a powerful exercise when taught properly and a potentially harmful exercise if abused, over-used or not taught in a healthy and supportive way by an authentic teacher who comes from this lineage.

Method refers primarily to Lee Strasberg. His reliance on affective memory, or emotional memory, had the unintended effect of an over-reliance on emotion being experienced by the actor. This became a form of indulgence in the 1970s and created a stereotype of American acting as emotionally indulgent. But by the 1980s there was a natural curve which began to address this issue in American actors. The fix was to re-emphasize the objective, or intention. This change became less about 'what are you feeling?' and more about 'what are you doing?'

Stanisalvski's work had always included the objective. The work became misunderstood in the 70's as deifying authentic feelings being experienced by the actor on stage and on film. The essence of Stanislavski's work became essentially lost for a time and reduced to a lowest common denominator--feeling only. If you look at the movies of the 1970s you can see Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, who were trained by Strasberg, each giving balanced, technically masterful performances. But those who lacked the sense that these actors contained often became victim of their own attempt to be good actors or actresses. Strasberg was deified at the time and his words were sacrosanct to many in his circle. 

Uta Hagen who worked with Harold Clurman much earlier had written a book in 1973 called "Respect for Acting," and this book is her own approach to some of the work discussed here. The book was very successful, but twenty years later she released another book, "A Challenge for the Actor."  During an interview in 1995, Uta Hagen summarized the difference between the two books: The earlier book asked, "What are you feeling?"  The second book asked, "What are you doing?"

Link to .pdf of latter half of 1995 Uta Hagen interview about these books:

Today, the term "Method" is sometimes used in a pejorative way, a strong attempt to minimize an entire approach that incorporates technique, professionalism, commitment, creativity and passion. But actors know that every character is unique and the process to telling their story and becoming their voice is by nature a creative one that encourages curiosity and supports whatever the actors deems he or she needs in order to take what is on the page and bring it to life. 

This is a MUST READ for anyone who wants to get clear what the hell happened that led to the various opinions regarding "The Method."  Decide for yourself. This book is a rare look at a world that most people who use the term "Method" know little or nothing about.

50 minute German documentary on Lee Strasberg (English spoken)

Watch out for people who throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Actor's instrument involves the senses, memory, experience, imagination, dreams... Follow your journey in discovering what all the possibilities are for you. The term"Method" is almost meaningless at this point. Create your own definitions, ones that are open and creative and experiential. The actors who choose to avoid "method"acting tend to have avoided their own emotional lives, their own instincts in viscerally connecting to a role, in a way that goes beyond mere memorization, recitation and indication of lines. Method is the use of imagination, of the senses, of experience, of need, of desire, of longing, or pursuit, of dreaming--all are available to the actor. But there is no longer a need to label it. Each actor can choose how to grow and work.

Each actor is unique and complex. There is more to acting than learning lines and hitting marks, reciting lines in the mirror and altering intonation. More than makeup and posture. Whatever is inside the actor that makes him or her want to act can guide the actor on what next step to take in training, and in how well informed that actor is about the rich history of American acting, actors, teachers, and influences from the past.

  Learn and decide. And when you hear anyone use the term 'Method" in a pejorative way, ask the question: Do they even know what they are talking about? What are they referring to? A generalized misconception about the use of the actors instrument, a desire to control and limit the actor? Much of your inner work can remain a secret, no one knows what choices you are using or how your process works. When you find someone who truly knows process work, that could hold potential for creative work in rehearsal. When you find someone who castigates the "Method," remain wary. They probably don't want to see your process, and they may have issues about their own feelings about dealing with other people's feelings. It may be about ignorance or control. It may be that they don't want an actor who thinks emotion itself is acting, and they don't want an actor who indulges in emotion at the expense of the character, of the scene, of the production. The sense of craft includes connection to given circumstances, to character's through-line (objective, to the character's pursuit or need) because these are doable, actable choices that serve the piece and liberate the actor from indulging emotion. You are in power as an actor, you are in control...with your choices. Your choices. 

[When a director tells you a note, you can translate that note so you both attend to the note professionally and you get there through the sense of process that involves your talent and your creativity. Notes like "funnier," "happier," slower," more serious," can be translated creatively instead of followed in a result-oriented approach which is similar in approach and result to being a trained animal. The result is there, but it is empty, there is no life behind it. The actor needs to be professional, but that can be done without giving away all your power. How do we find the moment to moment life, how do we keep living moment to moment? Method acting is not only comprised of many tools that enable the actor to work on this, but it is the pursuit itself. The term "Method" has baggage, but take away the terminology and look at the work itself. Study with the best teachers and the many techniques it has to offer. Then decide what works for you and you are carefully assembling Your own personal technique, and this was Stanislavski's goal in the beginning. To serve the needs of the actor. ]

at the Actors Studio

Elia Kazan on The Actors Studio and The Method.

Paul Newman on Method Acting

Another book on the subject:

From Backstage magazine
(by Robert Walden)

 "Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, artistic director of the Actors Studio: 'I think Elia Kazan said it best: 'There's no such thing as Method acting, only Method rehearsals.' You bring yourself and plumb the depths.'

But did Kazan really believe there was no such thing as Method acting? Not according to director Sandra Seacat, also a well-known acting coach and teacher: "I think what Kazan is saying is that the Method isn't a thing. It's an action, a process, a skillful or effective way of achieving a specific artistic task. It's not a pair of shoes. It's discovering how to walk." She illustrates with a story: "I did an affective memory at the Actors Studio years ago, after which Lee Strasberg said, 'Now that's an affective memory. Darling, tell them how you did it.' When I explained my process, Strasberg replied, 'That's not how you do an affective memory! But that's what the Method is all about. It's a way of work!' You find your own way of carrying out your own and your character's internal truth—within your body, mind, and soul."

Stella Vs. Strasberg

Link to PDF of 1958 NY Times article on Stanislavski

1 comment:

  1. You make some great points, especially that the term"Method" is almost meaningless now. To me, all modern acting represents some form of Method acting because it's a decided departure from the old days when performers merely imitated and indicated. All modern actors use themselves (or should) to connect to their work. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful post.


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