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.
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.
[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. ]
Another book on the subject:
Link to PDF of 1958 NY Times article on Stanislavski