The 10 Most Influential Acting Teachers in History

Article Image
Photo Source: 360b/

Sense memory, objectives, given circumstances—the more techniques you have at your disposal, the more successful you’re likely to be in your performance career. But it’s also handy to know the history of the iconic acting teachers who built these foundations. Here’s our guide to the 10 most influential masters of the craft.

1. Konstantin Stanislavsky

The granddaddy of acting teachers, Russian theater multihyphenate Stanislavsky pioneered the idea that inhabiting a character onstage takes discipline. Seeking to teach budding thespians and directors how to harness emotion, he developed his famous “system.” Its central conceit involves placing an actor inside the “magic if”—establishing a character’s motivation and identifying the obstacles standing in the way of achieving their objective. Most of the teachers on this list draw from Stanislavsky’s influence, so it’s a good idea to start here.

2. Michael Chekhov

Stanislavsky had an impact on plenty of accomplished theater practitioners—none more than Michael Chekhov, the nephew of legendary Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. His technique focuses on using dynamic physical movements—such as “molding,” “floating,” and “radiating”—to convey a character’s complex inner life. Chekhov also brought Stanislavsky’s system to America, and his own principles inspired the likes of Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, and Marilyn Monroe.

3. Jacques Copeau

First as a theater critic and then as the founder of Paris’ Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier and its school, Copeau helped elevate stagecraft from entertainment to art. In the early 20th century, he produced shows in Paris and New York City performed on a bare stage, rejecting the tenets of commercial theater in favor of putting the focus entirely on the actors’ work.

4. Bertolt Brecht

Germany’s most game-changing dramatist gave rise to “epic theater,” which aims to use the art form as a tool for political change. His followers reject the idea of catharsis in favor of rationality, intentionally alienating playgoers by using a highly stylized version of reality that forces them to critically examine society and their role in it. The influence of this radical director, poet, and philosopher stretches all the way to the likes of British playwright Caryl Churchill and glam-rock legend David Bowie.

5. Antonin Artaud

The work of this influential avant-garde artist took Europe by storm in the first half of the 20th century; his work also inspired absurdist dramatists ranging from Samuel Beckett to Sam Shepard. Artaud pioneered the Theater of Cruelty, which assaults audiences with sounds and images in order to make them tap into unexpressed emotions in their subconscious. In the French theatermaker’s world, language is insufficient and trauma can be a gateway to joy.

6. Lee Strasberg

This giant isn’t only the creator of Method acting—he also co-founded the groundbreaking Group Theatre, served as director of the Actors Studio, and established the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Inspired by but diverging from Stanislavsky’s technique, Strasberg encouraged performers to access psychological truths through “affective memory”—using personal recollections and replicating sensations to connect with a character’s emotions. Disciples include Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Elia Kazan, and many other acting greats.

7. Stella Adler

A prolific actor herself since she got her start on the Yiddish stage at the age of 4, Adler disagreed with Strasberg’s technique; she favored harnessing the power of imagination rather than personal emotions. Alums of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting include Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch, and, most famously, Marlon Brando. Adler championed strong choices, establishing a simple principle every actor should bear in mind: “Don’t be boring.”

8. Sanford Meisner

By emphasizing instinct over affective memory, reacting to a scene partner over inner turmoil, and “the reality of doing,” Meisner shook up the craft more than any other American acting teacher. If you’re not sure how repetition and “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” can help grow your work, look him up. Students of the Meisner/Carville School of Acting, which he founded alongside his collaborator and life partner James Carville, is the alma mater of A-listers like Diane Keaton, Sandra Bullock, and Christoph Waltz. NYC’s William Esper Studio, established by Meisner’s protégé, boasts Tracee Ellis Ross and Kathy Bates as alums.

9. Uta Hagen

This German theater practitioner is best known for originating the role of Martha in the 1962 Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Hagen also taught at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio and authored several books that many famous actors swear by. Her approach emphasizes “transference”—the notion that actors can contextualize a character’s actions by approximating their own experiences. And hey, it worked for her students Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, and Whoopi Goldberg.

10. Viola Spolin

If you prefer to make your performance choices off the cuff, look to the mother of improvisational theater. An acting teacher and academic, Spolin pioneered the idea of focusing on a performer’s present moment through “Theater Games”: spontaneous, playful exercises geared toward reducing anxiety and overcoming creative blocks. Her son, Paul Sills, was the original director of legendary Chicago improv theater the Second City, which has launched the careers of comedy legends like Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Chris Farley, to name just a few.

Check out Backstage’s theater audition listings!

More From Actors + Performers


Now Trending