How To Choose an Acting Technique

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Finding the right acting technique is about as personal a decision an actor can make. It can also be painstaking. As you’re well aware, there’s no direct path to success in this business—if there were, every single actor would be on it!

In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about choosing the acting technique that’s right for you—from the major methods and their origins to the actors who’ve used each discipline to find success, to finding an acting class that reinforces your chosen technique. From Stanislavsky to Spolin and everything in between, here’s how to choose an acting technique. 

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What are the most prominent acting techniques?

There are hundreds—probably thousands—of acting techniques that exist around the world, but for U.S. actors, the five most significant were created by Konstantin Stanislavsky, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Uta Hagen. Below, find a brief breakdown of each acting technique:

  • Konstantin Stanislavsky: Stanislavsky’s System is based on the idea of the “art of experiencing.” The intent is to ignite an actor’s conscious thought to affect their less conscious expression in their performance, as far as emotion and subconscious behaviors.
  • Lee Strasberg: A student of Stanislavsky, Strasberg reworked the System to create “The Method” by focusing on the psychological aspects of acting. Actors are expected to recall their own lived experiences in order to bring them closer to those of their character, which Strasberg called “emotion memory.”
  • Stella Adler: Adler also worked with and expanded upon Stanislavsky’s method, though she opposed the idea of dredging up past experiences for the sake of acting. Rather, she created a system that revolves around interpreting the script, the power of the imagination, and the importance of action.
  • Sanford Meisner: The Meisner technique, too, builds on Stanislavsky. Its primary goal is for the actor to “get out of their head” to enable them to act in response to a given circumstance based on instinct, thus creating a natural performance.
  • Uta Hagen: Hagen penned two books on the craft which are still highly regarded: “Respect for Acting” and “A Challenge for the Actor.” Hagen stressed realism above all else, achieved through what she initially called “substitution” before shifting to “transference”: actors putting their own experiences inside the circumstances of a scene.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. From Spolin to Chekhov, here are the 13 acting techniques that every actor should know.

Who are successful actors who have used each technique?

While you should never compare yourself to others, knowing which established actors have relied or rely on each respective technique can help you figure out which method to choose by pinpointing the career or work you’d most like to emulate. Check out some of the actors most closely associated with each technique:

Stanislavsky:

  • Laurence Olivier, four-time Oscar winner
  • John Gielgud, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner

Strasberg:

  • Al Pacino, Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winner
  • Alec Baldwin, two-time Emmy winner
  • Paul Newman, Oscar winner
  • Scarlett Johansson, Tony winner
  • Steve Buscemi, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe winner

Adler:

  • Robert De Niro, two-time Oscar winner
  • Benicio del Toro, Oscar winner
  • Mark Ruffalo, Oscar, Emmy, and Tony nominee
  • Melanie Griffith, Oscar nominee

Meisner:

  • Diane Keaton, Golden Globe and Oscar winner
  • Christoph Waltz, two-time Oscar winner
  • Griffin Dunne, Emmy Award winner
  • James Gandolfini, three-time Emmy Award winner
  • Grace Kelly, Oscar winner

Hagen:

  • Matthew Broderick, two-time Tony winner
  • Jack Lemmon, two-time Oscar winner
  • Whoopi Goldberg, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner
  • Christine Lahti, Oscar nominee

Which acting technique is best?

“There is no one correct way to act,” acting teachers Risa Bramon Garcia and Steve Braun say. “No technique can guarantee that you’ll book work or be a brilliant actor. If a teacher tells you that her or his way is the only way, walk away lickety-split.”

Actors should play the field when it comes to finding the best acting technique for them. “You should probably check out any and all methods and approaches and discover which one resonates with you,” they say. “More than likely, you’ll take little bits of goodness from a number of different techniques. Learn them all, take what you like, and leave the rest.”

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Do acting techniques become outdated?

Like everything, acting and its corresponding techniques have evolved over time. In fact, the entire reason Stanislavsky initially developed his technique was because, up to that point, acting had been focused only on the physical with little mind paid to the psychological.

The five techniques detailed earlier have, in many ways, withstood their respective tests of time, as they’re still regarded as the primary tenets of the craft today. But they, too, have their detractors. Most prominently, the Method been sharply criticized, particularly in the last decade, for creating a competition for actors to “outdo” one another with their commitment to roles under the guise that great acting and method acting are synonymous.

Can I use multiple acting techniques at once?

If there were a surefire answer to the “how-to-be-a-great-actor” equation, everyone would use it. But there’s not, which is why there’s so much discrepancy when it comes to the best acting techniques and methods in the first place.

Ultimately, selecting the acting technique that works for you is deeply personal, and if you find that you’re not clicking with a technique or what once worked for you no longer does, you should feel no guilt not sticking with a single discipline.

“I can find hundreds of actors who would swear by any and every technique,” says Dorian Santiago, an award-winning filmmaker, director, and acting coach. “But at the end of the day, the result is the same. They move you with their believability and character, not their technique. It’s because they do whatever they have to do (that works for them) to bring their character to life.”

Ultimately, Santiago insists, a successful career is the result of sheer grit, not the technique itself. “But acting techniques are like diets and methods to quit smoking,” he waxes. “If applied and practiced, you will reach your goal. But you’re reaching that goal because you want to reach it, not because any one technique is better or more effective than another.

“There isn’t a wrong way of how to be or become. Every way you are is right in that moment, in your craft, in life. How you get to any one place, thought, or emotion is insignificant; getting there is the goal. You are already great at being human. You are flawed but perfect, ignorant but learning, dying but living. You are all these things without thinking of how to be or become them, so the secret is to move subconsciously in your craft and characters.”

Technique ready? Apply to casting calls on Backstage!

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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