The work of an actor is often ambiguous and intangible—which is why, over the years, actors and directors have developed various techniques for approaching roles. These acting techniques provide two functions: They make it easier to articulate the mechanics of acting, while simultaneously offering a toolbox of tricks actors can use to tackle a given role.
Of course, approaches to acting vary across cultures, and even countries—the American acting tradition is often known for being more psychologically based than its older European cousins. The most famous acting techniques in the U.S. are the ones developed by gurus whose strong personalities not only earned them industry prestige, but captured the imaginations of a curious public, as well. (Think Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler.)
Below, we break down the 13 acting techniques that every actor should know. Feel free to mix and match—rarely does an actor use just one style of acting for a particular role. From Stanislavsky to Spolin, keep reading to discover the best acting technique for you.
Konstantin Stanislavky is a name every actor should know. As co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, he revolutionized the approach actors take to text. Stanislavsky (sometimes spelled “Stanislavski”) paid special attention to the human soul. His concern with the specifics of human behavior would revolutionize acting and impact the craft to this day. With an emphasis on the emotional life of the characters, Stanislavsky also added an extra seriousness to the work of an actor: The theater artist became an academic thinker and an emotional observer of the world. Stanislavsky developed what was known as “the System,” an articulated approach to acting that revolves around his concept of the “magic if.” He encouraged his actors to consider what they would do if they were in the circumstances of the characters they were playing. This approach would later evolve through Stanislavsky’s disciples.
Famous Practitioners: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud
Lee Strasberg was one of Stanislavsky’s disciples, and his approach was known, famously, as “the Method.” Taking inspiration from Stanislavsky, Strasberg encouraged actors to use their psyches. In his controversial approach, Strasberg trained actors to employ “emotional recall,” or distinctive moments an actor has had in her real life, and to repurpose those moments to convey a character convincingly onstage. The psychological nature of Method acting has made it the subject of scrutiny, especially in its extreme application by certain actors.
Prior to his death in 1982, Strasberg trained many of the 20th century’s and today’s most legendary actors: James Dean, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, and Dustin Hoffman were all his students.
Famous Practitioners: Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi
Stella Adler, another Stanislavsky disciple, rivaled Strasberg’s approach with vehement passion. Adler, a strong-willed, notoriously demanding teacher, pushed her students to create convincing moments imaginatively. The lessons from her New York City studio have been well chronicled, and her phrases are often quoted. Adler insisted that the imagination of the artist could be just as vivid as one’s natural experiences—and much safer, emotionally, to use. Adler’s technique encourages actors to develop deep visions and metaphors for the circumstances of their characters. These visions would be used as creative nourishment for making convincing artistic choices.
Though Marlon Brando’s lifelike acting style is often attributed to Strasberg’s Method, he was actually trained by Stella Adler; his devotion to Adler and her work was so strong that he wrote the preface to her manual “The Art of Acting.”
Famous Practitioners: Robert DeNiro, Benicio Del Toro, Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Griffith
Sanford Meisner encouraged actors not to be so intellectually or imaginatively obsessed; when actors were so focused, he contended, they got too internal. The risk thereof, of course, is that theater is the experience of sharing an actor’s work with an audience—something you can’t do well if you’re inside your own head! Meisner’s technique relies on sanding down the psychological mountain-making of an actor’s work and instead focusing on the simplicity of instincts. Through repetition, his students naturally, meditatively removed all of the psychological connotations from an action or line, revealing the character’s most humble form. This, Meisner believed, was the way to a character’s naturalness.
Famous Meisner students include Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, and Diane Keaton. As Elia Kazan once said, “Take it from a director: if you get an actor that Sandy Meisner has trained, you’ve been blessed.”
Uta Hagen, an actor of some note, continued to tease out Stanislavsky’s thinking by encouraging the concept of substitution to relate to a character. Similar to Strasberg, Hagen refined the notion of using an actor’s personal experiences to help draw a natural reaction to a character’s circumstance. If the actor had not lived through the experience of the character in the play, the actor would conjure the memory or experience of a similar event that had happened in his life and adjust the stakes appropriately.
As part of her long and legendary teaching career, Hagen developed the talents of Sigourney Weaver, Jack Lemmon, and many others, and was even a vocal (and accent) coach to Judy Garland.
Viola Spolin believed in the power of play. In her mammoth canon of “theater games,” Spolin encouraged actors to develop essential habits through improvisation within strict imaginary circumstances or frameworks. Her method allows actors to become entirely present and spontaneous during a performance, thus making choices in real-time as they would in reality.
Spolin’s son Paul Sills was at the forefront of Chicago’s Second City and taught his mother’s techniques to generations of illustrious comedy stars including Alan Arkin, Fred Willard, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner.
William H. Macy and David Mamet created the “Practical Aesthetics” approach, a technique that rejects the imposed complication of other approaches and instead focuses on the innate simplicity of theatricality and four fundamental pillars of an actor’s creative equation: the literal, a want, the action, and that famous “as if.”
Practical Aesthetics is most famously taught at New York’s Atlantic Acting School, which boasts famous alumni Felicity Huffman, Rose Byrne, Jessica Alba, and Camryn Manheim.
The acting technique established by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau revolves around the “Six Viewpoints” of time and space created by choreographer Mary Overlie. With physical improvisation at its core, Viewpoints trains actors to collaborate physically using the body’s instincts and the mind’s awareness.
Augusto Boal understood the work of the actor to be both a spectator and an artist, an educator and an activist. In Boal’s exercises, often modified from children’s games from around the globe, though mainly from his native Brazil, actors are encouraged to feel the sensation of their freedom through physical play. He also developed methods for actors to enliven and tap into social issues within their community.
Michael Chekhov, the nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov, advocated for the utilization of archetypes. Like Adler, Chekhov encouraged a cocktail of imagination for actors to create “psychological gestures.” These gestures, rooted in a more antiquated acting tradition of storytelling (and the easily relatable codes of gestures), become modernized by the power and consideration of the psyche.
Famous Practitioners: Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, and Jack Nicholson
Kristin Linklater believed that within our voice there is a human truth and texture, rooted in the act of meaningful breath and deep physical and imaginative connection. Her exercises aim to root the actor in the freedom of their true voice.
Jerzy Grotowski believed in the actor as a holy vessel capable of uncovering human truth by accessing the lived experience of their bodies. Grotowski, influenced by the scientific process of research and the contemplativeness of monasticism, aimed to create a highly physical actor rooted in the sweat of life.
Unlike the other entries in this list, classical acting is not so much a single technique as an umbrella term that encompasses several different approaches to acting that originated in Europe between the 5th and 16th centuries. Classical actors focus on voice and body control, as well as textual analysis. Some techniques you might find on a classical acting curriculum include Viewpoints, the Alexander Technique, Skinner Releasing Technique, and phonetics.