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Editorial

The Baby and the Bathwater: Stanislavsky Teaching Today

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Over the years, a myth about Lee Strasberg has become accepted reality. It is rumored that he drove his students and those at the Actors Studio to breakdowns because of his obsessive insistence on emotion memory as the most effective trigger.

And yet in all the years I have interviewed people who studied with him or were Studio members at the time, I have never once heard of any such breakdown occurring in his presence. If anything, Lee was enormously solicitous of his best actors' mental fragility. (When you were in the company of actors like Kim Stanley, you had to be.)

In my opinion, this unmerited reputation can be traced back 50 years to a group of ill-informed teachers—some with us today, all of whom had studied with someone who studied with someone who had studied with Lee or heard about the Method or might even have met Strasberg in person. These self-appointed experts grabbed onto private emotion memory as the magic pill, calling it without authorization "The Method." ("Dig deep into your buried past, uncover what you're ashamed about, become highly emotional, and—voilà!—you're an actor.") This oversimplification trickled down all over the United States, even to the community theater and high school drama club level, causing many gifted young people so much unnecessary pain and trauma that many stopped acting altogether.

When I first started teaching acting many years ago, the first question I was asked by prospective students was invariably, "Do you teach the Method?" It didn't take me long to realize that what the auditor was really asking was, "Will I have to do a painful emotional memory? If so, I don't want to study with you."

That's how distorted Strasberg's basic training techniques—most of them drawn directly from the Moscow Art Theater First Studio work he had done with Mme. Ouspenskaya in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, plus those of his own invention—had become in time, and through no fault of his, as far as I can ascertain.

Today, we live in a world of instant gratification, and consequently there are other over-the-counter magic pills out there to replace yesterday's. One enormously popular bestseller is now called "Meisner," although it often bears little resemblance to what the man who bears its name taught.

The other is called "physical action." Those who teach it very often have turned 180 degrees away from the very Stanislavsky fundamentals that were taught so successfully by the first expat teachers of the system in the United States. As so often happens when we swing from one extreme to the other, the baby has been tossed away with the bathwater.

It is inevitable that one generation will reject the ideals of another in an attempt to clear the air, find new methods, but the fact still remains that a full study of what Stanislavsky explored in 35 years of work as an actor, director, and teacher demonstrates that at the end of his life, contrary to what has been published, he never rejected any one technique. If anything, he asked us to embrace them all.

Those who denigrate physical action as a means of discovery are as much to blame as those who consider the Strasberg Method the one and only holy cross. It's a shame, of course, that this well-intended zealotry from one extreme to the other has caused many young actors to totally misunderstand what the essential system is all about and why.

It is neither all physical nor all inward. It is the delicate balance between the two that makes the actor.

After a 40-year career in motion pictures in Rome and Hollywood—the first ADR editor and director ever admitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—Norman B. Schwartz studied acting with Sanford Meisner in California and became the artistic director of two nonprofit theaters in central California. He has taught acting at the NYU Tisch graduate film school, at the Actors Center, and for the last six years for the New York Film Academy in Manhattan, Spain, Italy, France, Hungary, and currently Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He is the author of "Act Now: A New Approach to the Old Techniques of Acting." His email address is ilprofessore@verizon.net.

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