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!
Backstage, as always, is here to assist. 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.
There are hundreds—probably thousands—of acting techniques that exist around the world, but at the top tier of the art form are eight established techniques utilized most frequently.
Below, find a (very) brief breakdown of each.
- Stanislavsky: Considered by many to be the father of what’s known today as “method acting,” the Stanislavsky system was founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky and 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.
- Strasberg: Lee Strasberg extrapolated upon Stanislavsky’s technique to create “The Method” but focused on the psychological aspects. The approach is for actors to evoke their own applicable experiences in order to bring them closer to those of their character, which Strasberg called “emotion memory.”
- Stella Adler: Stella Adler also worked with and expanded upon Stanislavsky’s method, though she stringently opposed the idea of drudging up past experiences for the sake of acting, deeming it unhealthy. Rather, she created a system that revolves around the development of independent actors, the power of the imagination, the importance of action, script interpretation, and the cultivation of a rich humanity.
- Meisner: Developed by Sanford Meisner, the Meisner technique, too, builds on Stanislavsky. Its primary goal is for the actor to “get out of his or her head” to enable him or her to act in response to a given circumstance based on instinct, thus creating a natural performance.
- Chekhov: Michael Chekhov’s acting technique was founded on the notion that actors should not imitate life but, rather, interpret it in order to uncover its hidden meaning for an audience. This is achieved through an actor’s physical manifestation of a character’s needs or desires, which is then suppressed and interpreted in a way that creates a physical memory, informing the performance on a subconscious level.
- Practical aesthetics: Conceived by playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy, practical aesthetics revolve around a four-step approach to any scene: the literal, the want, the essential action, and the “as if” (relating the essential action to the actor’s own life: “It’s as if my father…”).
- Uta Hagen: Uta 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.
- Viola Spolin: Viola Spolin actually helped develop a technique for directors to impart upon actors with the intent to help them become entirely present and spontaneous during a performance, thus making choices in real-time as they would in reality. She created many acting exercises, known as “theater games,” to achieve the feat.
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:
- Lord Laurence Olivier, four-time Oscar winner
- Sir John Gielgud, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner
- Marlon Brando, Oscar and Emmy winner
- 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
- Robert De Niro, two-time Oscar winner
- Benicio del Toro, Oscar winner
- Mark Ruffalo, Oscar, Emmy, and Tony nominee
- Melanie Griffith, Oscar nominee
- 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
- Jack Nicholson, three-time Oscar winner
- Clint Eastwood, Oscar nominee (and Oscar-winning director)
- Marilyn Monroe, Golden Globe winner
- Yul Brynner, Tony and Oscar winner
- Anthony Hopkins, Emmy and Oscar winner
- Felicity Huffman, Emmy winner
- Rose Byrne, Emmy nominee
- Jessica Alba, Golden Globe nominee
- Camryn Manheim, Emmy winner
- Matthew Broderick, two-time Tony winner
- Jack Lemmon, two-time Oscar winner
- Whoopi Goldberg, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner
- Christine Lahti, Oscar nominee
- Alan Arkin, Oscar winner
- Fred Willard, Emmy nominee
- Dan Aykroyd, Oscar nominee
- Gilda Radner, Emmy winner
Choosing the right acting class is a daunting endeavor as is. (In fact, we have an entire Backstage Guide on the subject that you can—and should—check out here). Factor in the acting-technique variable, and it can feel downright confusing. It’s important to remember when reconciling your acting class with your acting method that teachers very often have stakes in the method they teach; they may, in turn, use only this technique to teach, when, in reality, it might not be what’s best for you.
“Acting teachers are often guilty of desperately clinging to the validity of the technique they teach,” say Backstage Experts and acting teachers Risa Bramon Garcia and Steve Braun. “When you stake your honor and your mortgage payments on one technique, you’re probably not going to be super objective about it. You may even talk smack about another technique in order to build yours up. But make no mistake. There is no one correct way to act. 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.”
The two also insist that actors should play the field when it comes to finding the perfect technique-class balance. “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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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 eight 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” movement as a whole has 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.
Look, 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 (and likely why you find yourself reading this guide).
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!