When you see great actors being interviewed, they're often asked, "How did you do that?" Their answers are usually vague: "I just work off the other actors." "It was all there in the script." "The director was a big help." You seldom get useful responses, because by the time an actor is giving great performances, the acting is often instinctive.
So what do you do when you're still developing your craft? One school of acting says, "Our way." Another says,
"No, our way." Each technique has enough successful practitioners to suggest they may all be right. Is that possible?
Of the giants of American acting training, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner are the most famous, but Michael Chekhov, Bobby Lewis, and others have also had a great impact. Each saw an acting problem and tried to solve it. Strasberg took what he learned about Stanislavsky, added his strong psychological insights, and came up with a solution that involved the actor looking into his or her own life for the truth of the moment. Adler took what she learned from Stanislavsky, added her experiences as a celebrated actor, and came up with a solution that involved the actor researching the character's life and circumstances. Meisner listened to both of them and decided that the real truth is what happens between actors in the moment. Chekhov, Stanislavsky's star pupil, focused on the connection between the psychological and the physical to come up with a very different approach. Lewis decided that each script creates its own universe, which the actor needs to inhabit by living according to its rules of behavior.
The answer to the question "Which acting technique should I use?" is "All of them." But how do you know which is best for a particular role, scene, or moment? Eventually your instincts will take over and lead you to the appropriate method. But until then, here's a guide.
First, remember that each of these approaches begins with Stanislavsky's fundamental idea that all acting must be motivated. No one today disagrees with that. That's why these different techniques have many similarities. Today we're just dealing with the key differences.
Let's start with Strasberg's Method. Recalling the circumstances of a significant past experience of yours can certainly bring up real emotions. The criticism of this approach is that you're focusing on yourself instead of the character, which can take you out of the scene. So use it when you just need an emotion. For instance, it's a close-up on you and the director says, "Cry." Recall the day your dog died or whatever brings on those tears. It's just you and your feelings -- and it works. Another excellent use of this technique is as homework. When your character has an experience you can't immediately relate to, find an emotionally similar experience in your own life and meditate on it. When those feelings come back, go to the script and work the moment that's been troubling you, fusing the feelings of your own experience to the ones in the script. Those feelings should come back every time you get to that moment; now they're the character's feelings.
This is where the Adler technique is very useful. Research how people in that time dressed, ate, loved, and so on. When you discover, for instance, that women wore very large skirts and corsets, you understand that slouching was uncomfortable, and the formality of their behavior becomes natural. This also works if you're playing a character whose values differ from yours. Say your character is very religious and you're not. Imagine her times in church and the spirituality she felt there. As you create the images in your mind, you begin to sense how she felt. Develop the character experience by experience so you can respond the way she would. When you look carefully at Heath Ledger's bold performance in The Dark Knight, you discover that he grounds his choices in the reality of his character's history.
Moving on to Meisner, we find that the focus is not on character or emotion but on the connection between actors. How do you respond when you really take in what the other actor is doing? Sounds like a soap opera, with its fixation on relationships, doesn't it? Developing your character isn't as significant because you're cast to type.
If the important acting challenge is to develop a relationship, the Meisner approach is the way to go. It also helps with spontaneity, because it forces you to focus on the here and now.
Not everything an actor does is naturalistic. If you use the same approach on a sitcom that you use on a soap opera, you're going to have problems. With a soap opera, the basic unit is the emotional response: You need to convey strong feelings and thoughts. The basic unit of the sitcom is the joke: You have to get the laugh, whether from a line or a physical bit. That's your job. On a sitcom, people say and do the most outrageous things, and the other characters ignore them or respond in kind. The banter and outrageousness are part of the fun. The trick is to make it look as natural as realistic drama while still getting your laughs.
This is a good time to look at Lewis' contribution to the craft. He gave us the idea that a script creates its own world with its own specific rules of behavior. For example, in a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, the female lead doesn't like one of the guys constantly hitting on her. She tells him, "You're just pathetic and creepy." Naturally (and naturalistically) he's hurt and reacts that way. Then he reverts to type and assumes she's flirting back: "So what are you saying?" he asks suggestively. On the page this isn't very funny, but seeing the character react as we expect (hurt), then recover and get back to his silly seduction makes the scene funny. The rule the actor followed demands that his character take every insult as a tease. A sitcom's pace and rhythms are also part of the rules of its world. If you look at it mechanically, the speaking style is louder and faster. But if you motivate that style, you discover that these characters value wit and competition.
Chekhov's most influential technique is called the psychological gesture. The actor looks for the essence of a moment, then finds a movement that expresses that essence. The gesture then becomes a part of the character. Often you will need only the impulse for the gesture; the audience will understand the intention. A hidden gesture can be as evocative as one that's performed. You can tell the entire story through a series of sounds and movements. Watch how Clint Eastwood's snarl becomes a smile as his character grows in Gran Torino.
Definitely. Just be careful to work on one at a time. If you try to use conflicting techniques simultaneously, they tend to cancel each other out. Take the time to master each one, integrate them, and then just let it happen.
Joel Asher teaches acting in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He can be reached at (818) 785-1551 or through his website, Joel Asher.