Classical acting is a technique that includes all of the skills required to perform in a classical play—whether that’s waltzing, wielding a dagger, speaking in verse, or moving naturally in period costumes. Shakespeare’s plays rely on these skills, so classical acting is often associated with “Shakespearean acting.” But any play from the Greek dramatists up to Diderot that features elegant language and heightened emotional situations can be considered classical drama.
Not all acting takes place on the stage, of course. Today we see classical acting techniques all over film and television. Take Claire Foy’s expertly refined performance as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, or Patrick Stewart’s commanding baritone voice as Star Trek’s Captain Picard. Both of those performances use classical acting skills to create compelling characters.
British accents are not required for classical acting—but what is? Let’s take a deeper look.
- What is classical acting?
- Who are some famous classical actors?
- What does it mean to be “classically trained”?
- Where can I study classical acting?
- What are classical acting techniques?
- What is the difference between method acting and classical acting?
- What is the relationship between Shakespeare and classical acting?
- Is classical acting specific to stage actors?
- What are some examples of classical monologues?
Classical acting is an umbrella term for several different acting techniques that originated on the European stage between the 5th and 16th centuries. Classical acting typically requires actors to use their whole body and the full range of their speaking and singing voice.
Classical acting also relies on an actor’s ability to:
- Imagine circumstances
- Personalize behavior
- Improvise behavior
- Respond to external stimuli
- Analyze scripts
Most actors will recognize the 16th century as the age of Shakespeare. So, if you need a shorthand to define classical acting, it can help to think about all the skills you would need to know to perform in a Shakespeare play. A clear voice, strong body, comfort with sword-fights, some light dancing, and a firm grip of the language are a good place to start.
Theater performed in English isn’t the only theater, of course. India and Japan also have well-established traditions of classical drama. Indian and Japanese classical acting is more easily defined than in English-speaking theatre because they codified their acting styles in acting textbooks (the Nātya-śāstra and Fūshi kaden).
Our European theater-making ancestors couldn’t seem to agree on anything acting-related, let alone write a single, shared text. Even today, the debate over what exactly defines classical acting continues. Many forward-thinking drama schools extend their definition of classical acting to include performances in any play that features heightened language and a mythic-scale story. By that definition, classical works include authors as varied as Euripides and Lorraine Hansbury.
Many famous actors used classical techniques, but Laurence Olivier is perhaps the most closely associated with this style of acting. Other famous classical actors include:
- Orson Welles: For the master of voice and bodywork, look to Orson Welles in “The Third Man.”
- Patrick Stewart: His voice control in everything from “Macbeth” to “Star Trek” provides an excellent classical example.
- Kenneth Branagh: For a sample of the broad, expressive voice that comes from voice training, listen to Kenneth Branagh as Prince Henry.
- Mark Rylance: For contrast, compare how Mark Rylance interprets Henry’s speech differently than Branagh.
- Ian Mckellan: McKellan’s unblinking performance of Macbeth is positively chilling.
- Judi Dench: Dench’s Lady Macbeth shows incredible vocal dexterity.
- Cate Blanchette: Blanchette’s performances in “Carol,” “Blue Jasmine,” and “Elizabeth” show how classical movement training helps ground characters in different periods.
- Jessica Chastain: Chastain’s classical foundations show up in the way she analyzes her scripts and her performance as Miss Julie.
- Benedict Cumberbatch: Cumberbatch’s voice and movement training were a secret weapon in his motion-capture performance of Smaug in “The Hobbit.”
Being a classically trained actor means you have taken classes to develop your movement, voice, and script analysis skills. To get classical training, actors may take a class or two at a local acting school or enroll in a multi-year program. However, when someone says they are “classically trained,” they usually mean that they’ve completed a comprehensive acting program at an accredited drama school.
In the United States, you can study classical acting at various graduate and undergraduate college programs. If you want to sink your teeth into your work, these are some of the best long-term classical acting programs:
- Drama Centre in London 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 considered 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 introduces students to various acting techniques, including classical.
- Yale School of Drama in Connecticut has an MFA focusing on classical acting.
- The Academy for Classical Acting in Washington, D.C., works with George Washington University and the Shakespeare Theatre company to provide a one-year classical acting MFA.
Classical acting techniques focus on body and voice control and text analysis. Exercises and processes that increase body awareness and flexibility are popular features of classical acting training. Because classical plays can require actors to sword fight or perform period dances, stage combat and dance classes are also popular in classical acting programs.
The understanding of vocal range, quality, and expressiveness is another cornerstone of classical training. Voice teachers use exercises to strengthen and increase an actor's vocal support, tonal range, resonance, spontaneity, and flexibility.
You might also see these techniques in a classical acting curriculum:
- Viewpoints: Developed in the 1970s by theater artist and educator Mary Overlie, the Six Viewpoints considers Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement, and Story to develop actors’ improvisational movement skills.
- Alexander Technique: Frederick Matthias Alexander created this movement method to retrain habitual patterns of movement and posture.
- Skinner Releasing Technique: Teachers of this movement training system employ voice and music to stimulate unstructured, improvised movements.
- Yoga: Many classically trained actors rely on yoga to increase breath and body awareness, and flexibility.
- The Skinner Method to Speech: Compiled in the textbook “Speak with Distinction,” this voice technique is the drama school standard.
- Phonetics: Studying how people make and perceive sounds helps classical actors learn dialects, accents and work on Shakespearean speech.
Any classical acting program will also feature lots of text analysis. Many classical plays are written in verse, so classical actors study meter and scansion. Scansion is the process of breaking lines of verse into its component parts so you can tell where to breathe and what words to emphasize. Classical text analysis also strives to unpack the character’s line of thinking and provide context so actors can discover the character’s thoughts and objectives, even in antiquated language.
Classical acting and Method acting share the same goal: creating performances based on natural human behavior and honesty. However, each technique builds off of a different foundation. Classical acting relies on an actor’s extensive training to create characters, while Method acting relies on an actor’s personal experience.
Classical actors focus on precision and control in action, where method actors emphasize emotional response and realism. You’ll also hear people say that classical acting develops characters from the outside in, while Method acting works from the inside out. Both techniques emphasize training and preparation. The most significant difference between them is that in Method acting, actors use experiences from their own lives to motivate a character’s behavior—whereas classical actors rely on their technique.
Method Acting vs. Classical Acting
When you compare two films from the time Method became popular—Laurence Olivier’s 1948 ‘Hamlet’ and Marlon Brando’s 1951 ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’— it’s easy to see the differences in the two acting styles. Olivier’s Hamlet gets a wider frame for his performance, which shows his posture and vocal changes as the Prince of Denmark's mental state deteriorates. Contrast that to Brando’s Method approach to Stanley, just a few years later. Brando’s Stanley is also physical, but the performance is built on the quicksilver emotional shifts in Brando’s eyes and face.
Shakespeare’s plays massively influenced the development of classical acting. They are such a huge part of English-language theater that the effect is unavoidable. Shakespeare’s complex dialogue is the foundation for drama schools’ intricate language analysis systems. Many Shakespearean roles include sword fights and period dances. You’ll also need breath control and vocal strength to make it through long monologues. The sheer length of the plays and their production run requires the stamina that only regular training provides.
Classical technique is not explicitly reserved for Shakespeare—but to perform Shakespeare well, you need all the skills classical acting can teach. And once you’ve taken the time to learn how to speak in iambic pentameter and dance a galliard, performing Shakespeare is an excellent way to show your stuff.
Classical acting is definitely not just for stage actors. However, classical acting techniques certainly come in handy for theater actors that must deliver the same performance up to eight times a week. Actors playing physically demanding theater roles like Elephant Man or Evan Hansen also benefit from developing classical body control and releasing techniques.
That said, classical acting’s focus on bodywork and flexibility is also useful for motion capture roles, like Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Smaug. Contemporary actors like Cate Blanchett and Mark Rylance are also excellent examples of film actors that rely on classical skills. And the entire cast of Netflix’s “The Crown” regularly provides a master class on applying classical acting skills to television work.
Drama schools and theater companies frequently ask to hear a classical monologue as part of the audition process. Most institutions define a classical monologue as a speech from a play written before 1900. Shakespeare is always a safe bet (some programs even require a Shakespearean monologue!), but if your brief allows you to step away from the Bard, there are many exciting possibilities.
Some alternative classical monologues for women are:
- Moll: The Roaring Girl, by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker
- Bel-Imperia: The Spanish Tragedy, by Thomas Kyd
- Dido: Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe
- Isabella: Women Beware Women, by Thomas Middleton
- Alice: Arden of Faversham, by Anonymous
Male actors should consider these options:
- Wendoll: A Woman Killed With Kindness by Thomas Heywood
- Ferdinand: The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
- Hippolito: The Honest Whore by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton
- Gaveston: Edward II by Christopher Marlowe
For even more classical monologues, check out The Monologuer, Backstage’s monologue database. We’ve compiled hundreds of classical monologues that you can filter by author, play, gender, and more.
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