Method acting

Marlon Brando's performance in Elia Kazan's film of A Streetcar Named Desire exemplified the power of Stanislavski-based acting in cinema. [1]

Method acting is a range of training and rehearsal techniques that seek to encourage sincere and emotionally expressive performances, as formulated by a number of different theatre practitioners. These techniques are built on Stanislavski's system, developed by the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski and captured in his books An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.[2]

Among those who have contributed to the development of the Method, three teachers are associated with "having set the standard of its success", each emphasizing different aspects of the approach: Lee Strasberg (the psychological aspects), Stella Adler (the sociological aspects), and Sanford Meisner (the behavioral aspects).[3] The approach was first developed when they worked together at the Group Theatre in New York.[2]

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 "method" 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.[4]

A diagram of Stanislavski's "system", based on his "Plan of Experiencing" (1935)

The "system" cultivates what Stanislavski calls the "art of experiencing" (to which he contrasts the "art of representation").[5] It mobilises the actor's conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes like emotional experience and subconscious behaviour, sympathetically and indirectly.[6] 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").[7] Later, Stanislavski further elaborated the "system" with a more physically grounded rehearsal process known as the "Method of Physical Action".[8] Minimising at-the-table discussions, he now encouraged an "active analysis", in which the sequence of dramatic situations are improvised.[9] "The best analysis of a play", Stanislavski argued, "is to take action in the given circumstances."[10]

As well as Stanislavski's early work, the ideas and techniques of Yevgeny Vakhtangov (a Russian-Armenian student 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?"[11]

United States

In America, 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.[12] When the MAT toured the US in the early 1920s, Richard Boleslawski, 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 Boleslawski and Maria Ouspenskaya (another student at the First Studio) to emigrate to the US and to establish the American Laboratory Theatre.[13]

However, the version of Stanislavski's practice these students took 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.[14] Many of the American practitioners who came to be identified with the Method were taught by Boleslawski and Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theatre.[15] The approaches to acting subsequently developed by their students—including Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner—are often confused with Stanislavski's "system".

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.[16]

In Strasberg's approach, actors make use of experiences from their own lives to bring them 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.

Stanislavski's approach rejected emotion memory except as a last resort and prioritised physical action as an indirect pathway to emotional expression.[17] This can be seen in Stanislavki's notes for Leonidov in the production plan for Othello and in Benedetti's discussion of his training of actors at home and later abroad.[17] Stanislavski confirmed this emphasis in his discussions with Harold Clurman in late 1935.[17]

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.[citation needed] 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".[18] 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.[19] 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".[20]

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, among others.[21]

Modification of Strasberg's techniques

United States

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. 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.

Strasberg's Method & Criticism

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.[citation needed]

Critical reception of Stanislavski's method


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.[22] Lillian Gish quipped: "It's ridiculous. How would you portray death if you had to experience it first?"[23] 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."[24]

During the filming of Marathon Man (1976), Laurence Olivier, who had lost patience with method acting two decades earlier while filming The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), was said to have quipped to Dustin Hoffman, after Hoffman stayed up all night to match his character's situation, that Hoffman should "try acting... It's so much easier."[25]

Indian cinema

There are claims in Indian media that in Indian cinema, a form of method acting was developed independently from American cinema. Dilip Kumar, a Hindi cinema actor who debuted in the 1940s and eventually became one of the biggest Indian movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s, was a pioneer of method acting, predating Hollywood method actors such as Marlon Brando. Kumar inspired many future Indian actors, from Amitabh Bachchan to Naseeruddin Shah and Shah Rukh Khan to Nawazuddin Siddiqui.Mohanlal is also a method actor predominantly in Malayalam films.[26][27] Kumar, who pioneered his own form of method acting without any acting school experience,[28] was described as "the ultimate method actor" (natural actor) by the famous filmmaker Satyajit Ray.,[29] and in Telugu cinema senior actor S. V. Ranga Rao is also considered as one of the finest method actors ever the industry made, in tamicinema. Kamal Hassan is also a method actor.

Psychological effects

When the felt emotions of a played character are not compartmentalized, they can encroach on other facets of life, often seeming to disrupt the actor's psyche. This occurs as the actor delves into previous emotional experiences, be they joyful or traumatic.[30] The psychological effects, like emotional fatigue, come when suppressed or unresolved raw emotions are dredged up to add to the character,[31] not just from employing personal emotions in performance.

Fatigue, or emotional fatigue, comes mainly when actors "create dissonance between their actions and their actual feelings".[31] A mode of acting referred to as "surface acting" involves only changing one's actions without altering the deeper thought processes. Method acting, when employed correctly, is mainly deep acting, or changing thoughts as well as actions, proven to generally avoid excessive fatigue. Surface acting is statistically "positively associated with a negative mood and this explains some of the association of surface acting with increased emotional exhaustion".[32] This negative mood that is created leads to fear, anxiety, feelings of shame and sleep deprivation.

Raw emotion (unresolved emotions conjured up for acting) may result in a sleep deprivation and the cyclical nature of the ensuing side effects. Sleep deprivation alone can lead to impaired function, causing some individuals to have "acute episodes of psychosis". Sleep deprivation initiates chemical changes in the brain that can lead to behavior similar to psychotic individuals.[30] These episodes can lead to more lasting psychological damage. In cases where raw emotion that has not been resolved, or traumas have been evoked before closure has been reached by the individual, the emotion can result in greater emotional instability and increased sense of anxiety, fear or shame.[33]

List of method actors

See also