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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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A Look at Stanislavski's System Part Two
While many actors, directors and acting teachers to this day find great worth in Stanislavski’s System, there are many critics of his techniques. Of the critics I have looked at I found David Mamet’s ideas on acting of the most interest. David Mamet is an American film maker, playwright and screenwriter, who criticizes much of what Stanislavski taught. Mamet goes so far to insult Stanislavski’s system and call it a ‘cult’.
‘The Stanislavski “Method” and the techniques of the schools derived from it, is nonsense. It is not a technique out of the practice of which one develops a skill – it is a cult.’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p6
David Mamet argues against everything Stanislavski taught. He thinks it was rubbish, and there was nothing to gain from it, and there were no worthwhile skills actors could learn from it. Mamet is extremely negative towards Stanislavski’ system, and the further techniques it influenced, like method acting. He goes so far as to describe emotional memory, which is the main component of Stanislavski’s system as ‘hogwash’.
'Emotional memory,” “sense memory,” and the tenets of the Method back to and including Stanislavski’s trilogy are a lot of hogwash. This “method” does not work; it cannot be practiced; it is, in theory, design, and supposed to execution supererogatory – it is as useless as teaching pilots to flap their arms while in the cockpit in order to increase the the lift of the plane…It is the job of the actor to show up, and use the lines and his or her will and common sense, to attempt to achieve a goal similar to that of the protagonist. And that is the end of the actor’s job.’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p12
Mamet’s book ‘True and False, Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor’ completely refutes Stanislavski’s teachings in his three books: “Building a Character,” “Creating a Role,” and “An Actor Prepares.” Mamet argues against emotional memory, as he believed that Stanislavski’s system was useless as it could not be practiced. Mamet favored a more practical approach, which is to be admired, and criticizes Stanislavski’s more theoretical approach to acting. He favours an approach of doing, not theorizing, and of practice not talk. Mamet compliments Stanislavski with weak praise, although it is clear he had no time for the man or his teachings.
'Stanislavski was certainly a master administrator, may have been a brilliant director and/or actor, and was widely heralded as a theoretician. But I say that his contribution as a theoretician was that of a dilettante, and has, since his day, been a lodestone for the theoretical, I will say the anti-practical, soul. For amateurs. For his theories cannot be put into practice.’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p15
Mamet argues Stanislavski was known for his theory on acting, which was flawed in Mamet’s opinion, and not to be followed. Mamet claimed it was for amateurs, and no professional actor would find any worth in it. Mamet preferred a more heroic outward facing just do it approach to acting. He did not think actors should display their own thoughts or emotions, and it is disrespectful to expect the actors to do so.
'The professional performs for pay. Her job is to play the piece such that the audience may understand it – the self-respecting person keeps her thoughts and emotions to herself.’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p15
Mamet’s arguments that it is disrespectful to expect an actor to put his or her own emotions and memories into a performance are the polar opposite to that of Stanislavski’s teachings. Stanislavski believed an actor should ask themselves ‘what would I do?’ and to put their own emotions and memories into the character and performance. I would tend not agree with Mamet on this point. I believe some of the best performances are because an actor can identify with the character, and puts some of themselves into the performance. In my opinion, this more personal approach makes it become more real to the actor and therefore the audience. If an actor relates to a role because there are elements of the character or the character’s situation that is relevant to the actor, they can give a more truthful performance as they can relate to the material and put themselves into the performance. ‘Most actor training is directed at recapitulating the script. Actors are told to learn how to “be happy,” “be sad,” “be distracted,” at those points in the script or performance where it would seem the “character” would be so. Such behavior is not only unnecessary, it is harmful to both the actor and the audience’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p10
Mamet then goes on to argue that the mere act of trying to create an emotion on demand is not possible, and is damaging to the actor and the audience
'The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness in the service of an ideal, it is no less boring for that. The actor on stage, looking for or striving to create a “state” in himself can think only one of two things: (a) I have not reached the required state yet; I am deficient and must try harder; or (b) I have reached the required state, how proficient am I!… Both (a) and (b) take the actor right out of the play…Our emotional-psychological makeup is such that our only response to an order to think or feel anything is rebellion.’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p11
This is a fair point by Mamet. Yes, the actor is taken momentarily out of the moment, and out of the play, but as actors, I would argue, this is something they must overcome. These thoughts will always be in an actor’s head although, I would argue, it is the actor’s job to ignore them and get on with the performance. It is hard for actors to produce a desired emotion to order, however, if they are able to recall emotions from their past, they can do so. And this is what Stanislavski’s system and the schools derived from it taught and practiced.
'The Method got it wrong. Yes, the actor is undergoing something on stage, but it is beside the point to have him or her “undergo” the supposed trials of the character upon the stage. The actor has his own trials to undergo, and they are right in front of him…His challenge is not to recapitulate, to pretend to the difficulties of the written character; it is to open the mouth, stand straight, and say the words bravely – adding nothing, denying nothing, and without the intent to manipulate anyone himself, his fellows, the audience. To learn to do that is to learn to act.’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p22
This, I feel, is a very clinical approach to acting. Acting requires emotion, and time investment into creating a character that is believable. It should come from the heart, not the head. Stanislavski’s ideas of finding truth in a performance is a way of creating believable performances. It is a way of working which, although being difficult, produces good results. An actor might not want to re-visit emotions or emotions from his or her past, and put them into their performance, as its highly personal. Mamet doesn’t believe this is necessary, he believes the job of the actor is to merely deliver the lines to the audience. I couldn’t disagree more with this. While Mamet has some good points on acting, I would tend to agree with the ideals of Stanislavski’s system. By putting their own memories into a performance actors connect to the role and character in a highly personal way, and it becomes more believable and complex.
'The actor does not need to “become” the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page. They are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character upon the stage. To create this illusion the actor has to undergo nothing whatever. He or she is as free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers. The magician creates an illusion in the mind of the audience. So does an actor’ Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p9
I would agree with this notion by Mamet. It is true an actor creates the illusion of a character to the audience, he cannot become that person, therein lies madness. The actor will always be just portraying another person, and not actually be that person. It is not possible to become another person, and that is not what the actor’s job is. However I disagree with Mamet’s notion that an actor does not need to put anything into it, and not undergo anything. For me, I believe the more an actor connects emotionally with a character and the more they put of themselves into the performance, the more deep and layered and believable a performance becomes.
Many actors follow the Stanislavski approach to acting, including some of the finest living actors such as Robert DiNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis. All these actors have put in some stunning performances and are some of the best actors in the world. So I would argue against Mamet’s views that this system is to be discouraged, and is useless. Although many actors choose not to use these methods, there is still much actors can learn from Stanislavski’s system and his ideals of truth in a performance.
While Stanislavski’s system is not seen as the bible of acting, it is still to this day studied in acting colleges, and actors, directors and teachers still find great worth in his exercises. While many, like David Mamet, disagree with this method of creating believable performances, it has helped many actors achieve truly stunning performances. While many actors will not use Stanislavski’s system, it is clear many find it the only way to work in acting. Its ideals of finding truth in a performance was taken and then Method Acting was formed.
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A Look at Stanislavki's System Part One
Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian theatre director and also an accomplished actor, who took a very serious line when it came to the profession of Acting. Although Stanislavski was born in 1863, and died in 1938; his teachings are still practiced to this day by many actors and directors and taught on acting courses around the world.
Constantin Stanislavski considered acting a serious profession that required high levels of dedication, and had great respect for actors. He formed the ‘system’ based on his observations of the best acting he had seen on the stage around Europe. Stanislavski’s System is a collection of techniques and exercises designed to help the actor to create atruthful performance and believable character on stage. Stanislavski at the time considered this 'system’ as merely experimental. He believed if an actor follows his system the emotion the actor is aiming for would be achieved. Stanislavski believed the search for truth in theatre is the foundation of good acting.
“Truth on the stage…is whatever we can believe in with sincerity, whether in ourselves or in our colleagues”
Stanislavski, Constantin. Building A Character, Reed International Books Ltd, UK, 1988, Introduction
And that, in a sentence, is the centre of Stanislavskian actingtechnique. Stanislavski didn’t initiate this quest for truth in the theatre, but he was the first to identify it as the aim of all good acting by codifying it into a system. Stanislavski developed the method of 'Emotional Memory’ in which the actor triggers their character’s emotions internally. This is when the actor would re-call a similar experience or emotion from their past to put into their character. Stanislavski believedthat an actor must take his or her own experiences and personality to the stage in order to create a believable character. Stanislavski thought that techniques were needed for an actor to produce realisticemotions in a performance. Stanislavski observed that actors would not combine their physical and mental preparations for a role, and believed their characters were not emotionally and physically realistic.
To overcome this problem Stanislavski came up with 'The method of physical action’ which required actors to do an action or many to produce the desired emotion. Stanislavski considered emotions to come from the subconscious, so through thismethod actors were able to control their subconscious emotions through actions. An example of this would be if a character is going to cry they would put their head in their hands, an action many would do automatically if they were about to cry. Stanislavskibelieved that if an actor only does physical actions or only experience internal feelings then the performance will not be good. Stanislavski believed the two must go hand in hand, and without both the performance will suffer and not be believable.
Some other sections of the System I found particularly interesting include the 'Magic If’. Stanislavski believed in the truth of a performance. He believed a performance shouldbe so believable that it becomes truth to an audience watching. He gets the actors to ask themselves 'what would I do in if I were in the same situation as my character’ or 'what if I were in the same situation as my character’.
Actors were required to ask manyquestions of their characters and themselves. By answering these questions as the character, Stanislavski believed the actions of the actor would be believable and therefore truthful. This also allows the actor to think more about his character, and discover more about them, in order to create a more complex and accurate performance.
This then led on to 'Motivation.’ The actors explore their character’s motivations.Stanislavski believed that an actor was influenced by their emotions to create their actions and the actor’s motivation comes from their subconscious will to perform thoseactions.Stanislavski has described motivation as looking to the past actions of the characters as to why they completed physical actions in a script. Stanislavski believed that by exploring the character’s motivations - why they are doing what they are, a greater understanding of the character will be achieved. This led to the the study of acharacter’s objectives. All characters are motivated by their objectives. Actors would study their character’s objectives. As in 'what does my character want’. His system involves many exercises including ‘an around the table analysis’ where the Director andactors sit around a table and put forward their ideas and thoughts on the script and characters to form a clear understanding. His homework for actors would be to breakdown scripts into sections or different objectives. He believed that when this is done, the desired emotion would be created. The actor must figure out their character’s objectives in every scene in the script.
Objectives are always dictated from the script and may besimple as 'I want to make a cup of tea’ or much more deeper and complex 'I want to be accepted for who I am’.
Stanislavski believed that if an actor and a role connected there was no need for a system or techniques. This success, however, he believed would only happen once or twice in an actor’s life, or not at all. So the remainder of actor’s performances must rely on techniques. Stanislavski never lost sight of his ideals; truth in performance and lovefor his art.
We look at some of Stanislaski’s system at Film Classes Dublin. For more information on our courses check out:
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