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The Complete Guide to Classical Acting

The Complete Guide to Classical Acting
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

There’s no single handbook, and there’s no single actor who will have the exact same sense of what classical acting actually is. It’s a tradition or school of acting in much the same way as rock is a tradition of music with all the complex variations and fluidity of that comparison.

In fact, using music as an analogy is useful. Just as rock music is a reaction against the perceived rigidity of musical predecessors, classical acting became a reaction against what actors and directors saw as the melodramatic and “untruthful” acting of the 19th century.

If you had to characterize rock music, you’d say it was band music driven by rhythm and percussion often featuring distorted guitar and lyrics that deal with anger, sadness, and frustration. Of course, anyone can immediately think of rock musicians who don’t conform to this description.

Once you’ve learned how to characterize classical acting, it’s just as useful to think of actors who break classical acting rules. If you recognize how someone is differing from the classical-acting tradition, you’ll have a solid understanding of the tradition itself.

Thoroughly confused? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

What is “classical acting”?

Classical acting is an umbrella term for different acting techniques used together. It encompasses the use of the whole body, the full range and quality of the voice, the actor’s imagination, the actor’s ability to personalize, improvise, use external stimuli, and analyze scripts.

Two practitioners who helped develop and codify using these techniques together are Constantin Stanislavski and Michel Saint-Denis. Both Stanislavski and Saint-Denis were actors, directors, and theorists. Stanislavski lived until 1938, long enough to see his book, “An Actor Prepares,” translated into English and published. Saint-Denis moved to London in 1935 and set up a drama school where he taught Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier. Saint-Denis was also, at one time, co-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Partly because of the wholehearted acceptance of Stanislavski’s and Saint-Denis’ methods, classical acting is also confusingly sometimes referred to as British, English, or Shakespearean acting.

At the very core of classical acting is Stanislavski’s concept that, for the audience to identify with the actor, the actor must identify with the character. He or she can do this in any number of ways by using his or her own memory and experience, utilizing research or analysis of the play, breaking the play into units, and focusing on the objective of the character, or even by relying on what Stanislavski referred to as the “Creative If”—the idea that an actor can transport him- or herself from the real world into an imaginary one.

What does it meant to be a classically trained actor?

Body + Voice:

The focus of most physical training at drama school is to harness and control the body in order to use it for expression. This means exercises and stretches that result in an increased awareness and ability. Classical acting teaches that the body can be used to express character and action. There are no better examples of this than in dance and combat. This is why dance, especially period dance, is often taught alongside stage combat, two practices that require heightened awareness and control to achieve storytelling without words.

In the same way, the understanding of vocal ability, quality, and expressiveness is key to drama schools. Voice teachers use exercises to strengthen and increase the range of voice for clarity and to give actors a full range to draw upon for an engaging vocal performance. They also focus on how to use the voice to express emotion clearly and truthfully rather than to “signal” as in the case of melodrama and pantomime.

Today, Laurence Olivier’s Othello looks and is both vulgar and racist. It is, however, still a performance we can learn from and a useful reference point for how a classical actor changes every aspect of his or her body and voice in performance, informed by and successfully communicating the character. Skip through a version of it and note how Olivier walks with stillness in his upper body through the first acts. Later in the bedchamber, he moves with his shoulders rolling and flings his arms. His voice alters from a commanding shout to a beast-like roar. It’s a great example of how the voice and body are powerful storytelling devices.

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Script:

Stanislavski and his followers have influenced drama theory so much that their terms have ended up as part of the acting vocabulary. Words like “unit,” “objective,” and “motivation” hadn’t been used by British or American directors before the 20th century. Now, they’re part of most rehearsal-room discussion.

Classical acting reveres the script by locating and playing a character’s objective. There’s no right answer to what this is, so it’s often decided by the actor and director together. An objective might stretch over the length of the play, or it may only exist for a moment. Shorter objectives might serve one super objective.

The unit describes a period of action within a script. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, and so this is always open to debate in rehearsals. A writer won’t necessarily compose a scene in units; Shakespeare certainly didn’t. It’s up to the actor and director to chop the scene into smaller segments, which are often then named and rehearsed individually. Whatever you think of this process, it allows for closer examination and easier management of a character as he or she moves through the play’s action.

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Personalization + Identification:

Though there are some schools of acting that take this practice and put it at the center of actor training, most classical actors advocate drawing on memory and personal experience with care and precision. Identifying with a character is an important part of comprehending the range of experience within a story. Searching for how events might be similar to those in your own life means you can identify with their response to or understanding of an action.

Personalization is the process by which an actor might find shared feelings or sensations with a character and draw on them in the acting process. This should mean that the actor is drawing on real experience to create the reality onstage or on set, however, it’s a very individual form of acting that, if not used well, alienates other actors and can “unbalance” a scene.

Improvisation + External Stimuli:

There’s no room for improvisation during a performance of a classical play. Improvisation is, however, a key technique for testing the preparedness of your character and your understanding of his or her behavior. Exercises might involve games in which you must play “in character” as well as putting characters under more extreme versions of events in the play.

External stimuli reference the way in which characters can be influenced by external objects as well as their own internal world of emotional and intellectual response. Stanislavski was interested in “external” and “internal” attention—how characters flit between navigating the world around them and their own inner struggles.

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Shakespeare, et al.:

Drama schools use Shakespeare and a strict system of approaching dialogue in his plays to teach the awareness of language that classical acting demands. Actors learn to understand the structure of verse and prose in Early Modern plays, and generally, the iambic pattern of Shakespearean lines reinforces the need for exactness in memorizing and performing text.

This process carries into modern classical plays where lines are treated with the same reference as if they were poetry. Plays from the modern classical repertoire tend to include late-19th and early 20th-century European naturalism like Ibsen and Chekhov.

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What’s the difference between method and classical?

Remember when I said that once you have a solid understanding of the classical acting tradition you’d be able to see how other actors differ? Well, we’ve arrived at the point where we can now compare the theories and practices of classical acting with method. Here are some main points:

  • Method is often said to be self-indulgent, whereas classical acting can be criticized for not going deep enough when it comes to heightened situations. Generally, it might be said that method acting suits the flavors of the American theater and film from the 1930s to the ‘50s when the fashion in writing was extreme characters in extreme circumstances.
  • Classical actors focus on precision and action, whereas method actors focus on emotional response and verisimilitude or realism. (Classical acting is often referred to as being “too respectful.”) Method acting was once characterized by the veteran actor Christopher Plummer as “Italian street acting,” partly because adherents included Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.
  • Classical actors bring a character to life through analysis of the writer’s words, never deviating from the script in performance. Method actors are much more likely to bring a character to life through improvisation or “living” the character.
  • If you want an even more extreme comparison to classical acting, read a play by Bertolt Brecht. His style of theater defies much of the classical tradition and his plays require a completely different skill set than what’s required in naturalistic drama.

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What are the advantages?

The strength and variety of skill sets in classical training mean that actors can make an impression on an audience no matter the size of their role. It also means they’ll likely have the ability to perform in a wide range of projects and play roles well beyond their traditional casting.

Is classical acting specific to a certain medium?

Classical actors tend to work mostly onstage with much longer rehearsal times and with extensive discussion about their part and the circumstances of the play. It might seem that classical actors are limited to Shakespeare, “the classics,” and “the ancients,” like Roman or Greek plays, but this isn’t true. James Graham’s marvelous play “This House,” and even the verbatim musical “London Road,” featured many classically trained actors. These actors likely have the training to perform well under any circumstances—in a new play just as well as an old one.

When it comes to film and TV, scripts are often edited on the fly if an actor is having trouble with a line or phrase. Classical actors, on the other hand, will just make the line work, however complex, because that’s what they have been trained to do.

Who are some famous classical actors?

We’ve already seen Laurence Olivier, so here’s a clip of his lifelong competitor John Gielgud.

Here’s Patrick Stewart in “Macbeth” showing wonderful voice control.

For two superb classical actors performing together, take a look at this “Macbeth” with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

For an example of broad, expressive voice, listen to Kenneth Branagh as Henry. Then compare how Mark Rylance interprets the speech differently.

Here’s the always-superb Cate Blanchett in “Carol,” “Blue Jasmine,” and “Elizabeth.”

For the master of voice and body, look to Orson Welles in “The Third Man.”

What kind of training do I need?

As with any acting technique, you will likely need professional training to truly master classical. Whether it’s short-term classes, long-term drama programs, private training, or another route, consider your educational plan. Below are some of the best-known, long-term options for classical training if you really want to sink your teeth into the endeavor:

  • Drama Centre in London focuses on the work of Michael Saint-Denis and also works with Russian drama schools, including a term abroad.
  • The Bristol Old Vic drama school in Bristol was established by Laurence Olivier and is founded on the principles of classical acting.
  • The CNSAD (Conservatoire national supérieur d'art dramatique) in Paris is one of the most selective schools in the world and is also regarded as one of the best.
  • The Juilliard School in New York has two programs designed to reflect the teachings of classical practitioners.
  • The National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal was, in part, created to teach the work of Saint-Denis but also includes elements of mask.
  • Yale School of Drama in Connecticut has an MFA focusing on classical acting techniques.

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