Method Acting - A Step too far? Part One
Method Acting has often been confused with Stanislavski’s System. However Method Acting was formed later in the 1940s , advanced by Lee Strasberg at The Actor’s Studio in America. Stanislavski was teaching his ‘system’ through The Moscow Art Theatre School. In 1923, a graduate of the Moscow Art theatre school by the name of Richard Boleslavsky moved to New York and formed The Laboratory Theatre.
This was the American’s first introduction to Stanislavski’s teachings, albeit second hand. Lee Strausberg and Stella Adler went to this school and learned Stanislavski’s system. Adler and Strausberg later formed the Group Theatre, which took Stanislavski’s ideals of ensemble work and became the first American ensemble theatre group.
Stanislavski’s System was concerned with the actor’s studying the character’s motivations and emotions in order to create a believable performance. The Method took Stanislavski’s ideals of finding the truth in a performance and pushed it forward, which was new to America. Stanislavski favored a less individual approach, which up to that point American acting had been, but a more ensemble approach.
'the teaching of acting was still in its infancy, and still a highly individualized process. Moreover, the concept of ensemble acting that Stanislavski aspired to- the complete interdependence of actors in a company – was alien to the American acting world. For Americans, acting meant climbing toward stardom. The locus of professional theatre in this country was the completely commercial, star-topped hierarchy forged by the iron claw of the Theatrical Syndicate, which managed almost all the professional houses across the nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth’
Vineberg, Steve. Method Actors Three Generations of an American Acting Style. Schimer Books, p5
Strasberg took Stanislavski’s concept of 'Emotional memory’ in acting and changed it to 'Affective memory’ and taught it as a stand alone acting method. Actors using the Method use their own emotions and memories to put into the character to create a truly psychologically and emotionally believable performance. Students taught by Strasberg included Paul Newman, Robert DiNiro, Al Pacino, James Dean, Jack Nicholson and many more.
The Method’s primary objective is to have the actor reproduce reality on stage or screen, based on observations on the world, and real life situations and experiences. Affective memory is the foundation of Method Acting, which calls on the actor to express genuine emotion by working internally and re-calling emotions and memories from his or her own personal life. The Method aims to have every movement and behavior on stage or screen be psychologically sound. Actors look at their character’s purpose and objectives and how they influence a character’s actions. The actor’s personality is another important element of working with The Method and is drawn upon to help actors create the character.
One of the most interesting exercises used by actors studying or using The Method I found are 'Sense memory’ exercises which are reliant on the thought that memories are closely linked with our senses. When we think about an event, we may re-call the smell or noise from that event. Actors begin by remembering what they drank first thing in the morning in as much detail as possible. They keep their eyes closed, and re- call the room they had the drink in, and really smell and feel it. They then focus on the drink and slowly start to drink it. This is done for at least fifteen minutes, before they start reciting a monologue. They focus on the drink and ask; is it hot or cold? What does it taste like?, and various other questions.
This will help the lines come out as believable, as the experience of drinking the drink is real, and it seeps into the lines. This notion I find to be very insightful. It is true that often when we think of a memory it is linked to our senses, we’ll often remember if it was say a cold day when the event occurred, so this line of thinking is very important, and can help an actor create a believable performance.
During my research on Method Acting the exercise I found particularly interesting was that of the animal exercise. This is where the actor humanizes the actions of an animal to create a physicality for a character. This involves the actor picking an animal they think would suit the character, going and studying this animal; how they eat, how they walk or move or how they sleep. Then copying these movements, and humanizing them by thinking how would the character move around if they stood up like humans.
A good example of this is Marlon Brando’s character in 'The Godfather’ where he clearly plays a bulldog. Method acting, which derived from Stanislavski’s system is considered by many great actors and directors as the bible for creating believable performances, with some of the greatest actors such as Marlon Brando, Robert DiNiro and Dustin Hoffman using the method. It is beyond dispute that these actors are some of the best actors there are, however many actors will not go near method acting, and prefer other methods. Many actors are not even aware of Method Acting. Robert Lewis, an American actor has some very interesting and valid points when it comes to method acting.
'For example, I’ve been hearing, “the method is the only answer to truthful acting.” Yet I know of great actors who are completely unaware of it. Yet I know of great actors who are aware of it and violently opposed to it. Then again I hear “The Method is a curse, it is ruining the theatre.
Lewis, Robert. Method or Madness? Samuel French, NY, 1958, p4
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