Have you ever thought about the fact that there is no qualification exam to be an actor like there is a lawyer, a doctor, or a contractor? How could there be? While folks often use terms like “good” or “bad” to describe acting, there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to get there. Every play, film, or television show has its own needs, challenges, and nuances for an actor to confront.
Every gig is like a puzzle you have to put together and figure out piece by piece. However, it’s a lot tougher because there is no image to work from! Every actor has the ability and responsibility to build a character with the tools they’re given (the script, the director, their scene partners, props, costumes, etc.), and with those tools, the actor is expected to create something new. If this all sounds pretty abstract, that’s because it is. The work of an actor is ambiguous and intangible.
So how do actors learn to be their best artist self? If musicians learn to sustain specific notes and visual artists learn to mix color, how do actors discover the nature of their craft?
Over the years, actors and directors have developed techniques for approaching roles. These techniques provide two functions: They introduce language to articulate the ever-changing–ness of acting, and serve as toolboxes—a set of tricks and shortcuts an actor can apply to perform a role.
In training programs, professors and mentors teach students to apply these techniques to help them develop their craft. Rarely, though, does an actor use only one technique. Often, actors employ techniques in the same way one would choose food at a buffet: a mix of what best fulfills your needs at the time.
In the U.S., the most famous acting techniques are those developed by gurus whose strong personalities have not only earned them prestige within the industry but have also captured the imaginations of a curious public. Method, for example, is an acting technique which, while often misunderstood, has captivated onlookers for some time. (Universities and training programs can sometimes become known for a particular style, too.)
It is important to emphasize that there is no right or wrong way. These different methods can be adjusted based on whether the performance is for the screen or stage. Techniques function both as protocols for how actors approach a role in preparation or rehearsal, and as styles in which they play that role in performance.
It should also be emphasized that acting attitudes in Western cultures can be very different from those in Eastern cultures. Acting can even vary based on the country; the American acting tradition is often known for being more psychologically based than its older European cousins.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s uncover a few of the most prominent acting techniques stateside:
- Konstantin Stanislavky
- Lee Strasberg
- Stella Adler
- Sanford Meisner
- Uta Hagen
- Michael Chekhov
- Kristin Linklater
- Jerzy Grotowski
- Anne Bogart and Tina Landau
- Augusto Boal
- Viola Spolin
- William H. Macy and David Mamet
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.
Strasberg was one of those 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.
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.
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.
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.
Chekhov, the nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov, advocated for the utilization of archetypes. In a similar camp to 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.
Linklater believes 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.
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.
Bogart and Landau’s viewpoints training 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.
A relative to Viewpoints (both techniques’ American training centers are housed at the SITI Company in New York City) Tadashi Suzuki’s physically militaristic acting training is a collaborative, physical technique. Combining the sharpness of martial arts with the bluntness of ancient theater traditions, Suzuki’s actor training aims to activate one’s creative endorphins with a warrior-like intensity and discipline.
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.
Similar to Boal, Spolin believed in the power of play. In her mammoth canon of improvisational games, Spolin encourages actors to develop certain key artistic characteristics through improvisation within strict imaginary circumstances or frameworks. Within the actors’ instinctive creations, there will be discoveries made and essential habits formed, her method predicts.
Macy and 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.”
Ultimately, there are as many techniques as there are actors, and various acting philosophies are merely tools for articulation in the creative process. Every actor applies different tools and techniques depending on what the part or project may demand. When actors are aware of, and proficient in, many techniques, they become more creatively flexible and capable.
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