The Definitive Guide to Method Acting

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Method acting—or the Method—is considered one of the most iconic and mysterious acting techniques in the world. It is also one of the most controversial.

Contention over the technique stems from the influence of one man, the architect of the style, Lee Strasberg. His vision, confidence, and assertions about the art of acting have created a legend around the oft-debated acting style, which can romanticize his teachings as much as befuddle them. Some would say that by even treating Strasberg with the attention of an in-depth look, we’re feeding a reputation that has already been sufficiently overblown.

However, one cannot determine a reaction or opinion on the Method until one knows the history, context, and nature of its creator and purveyor. What you’ll find is that the Method is a lot more complicated and contradictory than one might anticipate—and it’s filled with long-running false assumptions that are tantamount to rumors masquerading as truths.

Perhaps we can dispel some of the confusion by shining a bright light on the nature of the Method—and we’ll let you judge Strasberg for yourself.


What is Method acting? Who created it?

At its most simple, the Method is an internal, psychological technique that asserts an actor can train themselves, under regimented practice, to behave realistically under imaginary circumstances. It was created by the Polish-born actor and director Lee Strasberg, who co-founded the iconic Group Theatre and was the first artistic director of the Actors Studio in New York City (which was founded not by Strasberg but by Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis, and Elia Kazan).

When Strasberg was young, he stumbled across a book by Gordon Craig, a British actor, director, designer, and philosopher who had a proficiency for theoretical writing. Craig posited that actors should be replaced by large, realistic puppets that could be manipulated by the director to ensure a performance’s consistency, night after night. Craig captured the frustration and confusion of actors and directors of a certain generation—how can one ensure the persistence of quality when the common variables inevitably change with every single performance? To this day, young actors often express this same frustration prior to significant training. The notion haunted Strasberg: Might theater be more effective, more deliberate and purposeful if the actor were removed from the process altogether?

But then Strasberg attended Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre’s 1920s tour to the United States and witnessed something the country had not quite seen before: representational, authentic acting being replicated nightly by a company of artists. Stanislavsky was a Russian amateur actor who also taught and directed at the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky, who was fascinated with the nuances and patterns of human nature, had created an acting style that encouraged actors to utilize their artistry and technique to create an intellectual craft for bringing a character to life.

Prior to Stanislavsky, most acting (particularly in the United States) was considered presentational. That is, it was superficial. Actors relied on broad and big gestures that were codified for large-scale, easy interpretation with little emotional depth. Actors were engaging in linguistic and physical tropes that clearly belonged to the theater and were not closely related to the realm of natural human behavior.

The work of the Russians incited an intellectual and artistic revolution stateside, with curious actors wanting to learn more about Stanislavsky’s new, more authentic technique known as the System. Strasberg was one of those curious artists who was compelled to this new school of thought. Perhaps, Strasberg asserted, the System was the answer to his existential dissatisfaction with the role of an actor on the live stage. If an actor had a technique to replicate his or her work nightly, the work of acting would become more of an art form and less of a nightly stab in the dark at representing the depth of human truth. No puppet actors necessary!

Strasberg enrolled with Stanislavsky’s students-turned-teachers Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslawski. It was under their instruction that Strasberg was formally introduced to the Stanislavskyan notion of “affective memory,” which encourages actors to analyze remembered emotions to connect with the circumstances of a character in the interest of theatrical truth. It was Strasberg’s obsession with and emphasis on this notion that made him distinctive and controversial in the landscape of gurus who were training actors in the System.


Who is Lee Strasberg?

Though Stanislavsky quickly rejected and discounted his own theory on affective memory—or at least significantly minimized it—the concept had already taken hold in the United States. That’s right; Stanislavsky ended up somewhat abandoning his own theory and embraced a more physical approach to acting later in his life.

However, because of unorganized and nonchronological timelines of his translated books and the immediate enthusiasm of Americans, his early techniques were being circulated throughout the United States without a qualification or disclaimer of their outdated nature.

Once Strasberg learned the System, he quickly began teaching and modifying it.

Strasberg sought to create an Americanized response to the outdated first wave of Stanislavsky’s System. Strasberg, an immigrant who grew up in the Yiddish theater, was fascinated with the role the American spirit played in the world. The United States had been searching for a definitive fingerprint for its national acting style, and Strasberg felt he had found it. Thus, the Method was born as a response to the System of Russia.

With the theoretical answers he had been searching for, Strasberg asserted himself into the training of the American actor with a great deal of braggadocio and bravado, distinguishing himself as quite the character.

Strasberg was well-liked by some of his students within the walls of the Actors Studio, but it seems his detractors outnumbered his fans. There are many articles, interviews, and lectures to document the vast distaste for Strasberg—even posthumously. Fellow members of the Group criticized his teachings, critics and scholars deconstructed his style, and rival teachers called his interpretations of Stanislavsky not only misguided but fraudulently reckless.  

It didn’t help that Strasberg conducted himself as an enigma with a habit of self-praise and inflation. He was known to have seizures of anger and would often appear closed off and mysterious. (Ironic for a teacher who encouraged his actors to reveal their personal nature onstage.) He was often seen as aloof, confusing, and unclear. Reading transcripts of his lectures and classes is an exercise in interpreting rambling confusion. And his confidence and proclamations of excellence were often met with outrage, especially from those who considered themselves more qualified to teach the System than him.

However, the behavior of Strasberg should not eclipse or confuse the intention of his teachings. Strasberg—who died in 1982—has unfairly been used as a punching bag and scapegoat by many for the woes of American theater. This popular blame dilutes his contributions to the craft and imbalances credit for what we know of the American acting style.


How did the Method evolve from the System?

Like Stanislavsky, Strasberg had a skill for being able to identify and articulate the frustration of actors with the illusory nature of their artistic work. By latching onto the notion of affective memory, Strasberg offered a tool that could help actors do their job. Whereas Stanislavsky is often compared to Freud for opening up a deconstruction of the psyche as it relates to human expression via the theater, Strasberg’s work is more compatible with that of Pavlov, the psychologist who conditioned dogs to salivate with the ringing of a bell.

And here is perhaps one of the most misunderstood distinctions about Strasberg’s Method: It does not encourage the crude reliving of experienced emotional events onstage. What is does promote is training to identify and consistently replicate the stimuli that could induce a similar rush and thrill to that of a lived moment. Strasberg understood the role of an actor to necessitate two types of awareness: that of the character and that of the actor as an artist. Both needed to be expressed concurrently.

It’s this emphasis on the identification and replication of detailed stimuli that encourages some Method actors to immerse themselves in the environment of their character, hence Robert DeNiro working as a cabbie in preparation for his iconic role in “Taxi Driver.” It’s this ability to control and contribute the stimulus that induces or provokes an authentic response that gave the actor an artistic autonomy in the creative process, Strasberg suggested. Rather than be a puppet, the actor would influence the very nature of the work in a way as specific and personal as that of the playwright or director.

What are the key elements of the Method?

To balance a double awareness of the character’s demands and the actor’s expression, Strasberg taught mechanisms to remove unconscious physical habits from the actor, increase awareness of the world, and practice the realistic replication of the actor’s awareness.

The removal of stress was a critical first step for Strasberg’s actors. If they were to embody and express the life of another person, they would need to be a tabula rasa, a blank slate. However, it was also crucial for actors to understand where they stored tension in their bodies and what that indicated about their own life and habits. For example, if an actor carried a lot of stress in their lips or jaw, what was the cause? Was it a specific expression the actor used a lot? Why?

Another exercise Strasberg would do was to have his students move and behave like animals or speak in gibberish to shake societal patterns and habits out of their system.

Focus and deliberateness is the crucial next component in Strasberg’s Method; once the tension is removed, actors are encouraged to absorb the world in different ways that are not too dissimilar to meditation practices, like honing in on certain sounds or canceling others out. A hyperattention to the senses is necessary for actors to replicate believable stimuli in their work, so the same sorts of exercises are done with vision, touch, and even taste.

Once the senses are attuned, actors move into sense memory, the Method’s manifestation of Stanislavsky’s affective memory. This is the most controversial component of the Method.

Sense memory exercises encourage actors to replicate mundane but intimate moments (like shaving, cooking, or waking up) with attention to realistic detail. Strasberg would push further by encouraging students to enact more vulnerable and private moments onstage by focusing on the sensory stimulus of those moments. He would encourage actors to identify the sensations and textures of important personal objects to see how they handled and treated them.

The whole notion of sense memory is to get the actor to behave in a way that feels intimate and nonpresentational, and for the audience to feel voyeurism in the viewing of the performance. This dynamic, Strasberg contended, not only made the performances more authentic but also gave the actor a distinct personal grip on the expression of their role.


How do I know if it’s right for me?

If you have difficulty connecting in the moment to a character’s actions, or are fearful that your choices are clichèd and generalized, the Method will be helpful. The technique will encourage you to think in a detailed way and will also trick your brain into interpreting actions and objectives onstage with a texture of personal care instead of public performance. For younger or new actors, understanding the Method is an essential rite of passage to push through the mystery of performance and how one can acquire a craft which is repeatable and not merely left to the whims of inspiration.


How does it compare to other well-known acting techniques?

In the United States, perhaps because of its emphasis on the individual, Stanislavsky’s System is one of the most popular and pervasive techniques. There are, of course, distinct exceptions, like highly physical and external training programs. But, at large, the United States is Stanislavsky country. What varies, though, are the different denominations and interpretations of the System.

The variations will always be malleable based on an innumerable quantity of variables, because the System is not a science. However, there were some distinct differences in how the System manifested in U.S. drama schools. These differences mainly revolve around the concept of an actor’s freedom and flexibility in contributing to the creation of the role.

In Stella Adler’s training, for example, she emphasized the use of the imagination to allow the actor individual freedom and distinction in a creative process. The sensations the actor would draw upon would be constructed in the actor’s imagination. Sanford Meisner emphasized the dynamic of relationships—the way an actor engages with their scene partner—as the flexible source of freedom for the actor’s distinct artistic fingerprint in a play or film.

Where can I learn it?

The Actors Studio, which is now conjoined with Pace University in New York, is the formalized home of the Method. But be they university programs or conservatory studios, most techniques taught in the United States are internal styles that stem from the System, including the Method. Although Strasberg is a popular scapegoat, most acting teachers probably utilize and agree with his assertions more than they realize (or care to admit). Strasberg is everywhere.

Are there any pitfalls to learning the Method?

The following points are not pitfalls, per se; they’re more warnings—traps you don’t want to get ensnared in. The first is that the technique assumes a depth in the role that’s written; if you’re performing in a play with a particularly underdeveloped character or if the stakes and circumstances aren’t clear, the assertions you make about the character’s choices might be more from your own wheelhouse than that of the world of the play.

By having a distinct focus on the inner life of the character while also balancing the mechanized creation of stimuli for emotional recall, Method actors can sometimes gain reputations in rehearsal rooms for being demanding, aloof, or challenging to work with. You always want to make sure you keep a balance of awareness to the work environment and needs of other collaborators—especially your scene partners! You don’t want to become, as director and professor Melia Bensussen phrases it, “a Stanislavskyan bobblehead.”

Because the Method encourages a reflective inner relationship between the character and your own life, line deliveries can be more gruff or guttural and delivered at a slower, more contemplative pace. This can become discontent with classical or heightened language, like a Shakespeare play, that has a more elevated and vibrant oral style.

Finally, in a highly competitive field that commodifies talent with awards and judges success with celebrity, it can be hard to commit to expressing your true self instead of expressing the person you think audiences, critics, and future employers want to see. In this sense, the latitude that the Method allows for your distinct self-expression can become distorted.

Is the Method better for film and television or theater?

Generally, the Method is a helpful tool for film and television because of the intimacy and detail of a camera’s lens. With directors and cinematographers being able to guide the audience’s eye into the nuances of an actor’s performance, the effects of emotional recall can be registered more clearly. Strasberg himself recognized the power his technique had on camera.

How long does it take to learn?

Method acting, as with most acting techniques, requires a lot of scaffolded discipline, awareness, and control. To responsibly and consistently create stimuli that evoke sense memories is an emotional and physical process that takes years to utilize and practice effectively while also juggling the many other responsibilities and logistics of being an actor.

How can I expect my acting to evolve?

Audiences will see you think. Utilizing the Method opens up the internal processes and cerebral inner workings of a character’s choices, allowing an audience to witness a character’s decisions and realizations moment to moment.

You will gain habits of precision and focus in your scenes. Every line will be deliberate with subtext that responds to your character’s given circumstances and stakes (what your character has to gain or lose).

Your character work will not only be defined by the mandates of the play’s context—setting, time, plot—it will also integrate your own life experiences, perceptions, affinities, inclinations, instincts, and fears. Your performance will be a hybridized expression of your character and yourself as the person playing the role.

What are some acting techniques that complement the Method?

Perhaps the most complementary techniques would be the ones that counteract the Method. Let me explain. One of the most significant risks the Method can present is the obsessive internalization in an actor’s psyche—without balance, the work has the potential to trigger trauma and recklessness.

To counterbalance the mental work of the Method, do some physical training in the Brechtian style, the Viewpoints technique, the Suzuki method, Grotowski training, or commedia dell’arte workshops. These are sweaty, athletic actor training protocols that will be just as valuable to you as the Method and exercise different parts of your instrument.

Who are some actors who trained with Strasberg or at the Actors Studio?

  • Marlon Brando
  • James Dean
  • Jane Fonda
  • Dustin Hoffman
  • Elia Kazan
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Al Pacino
  • Tennessee Williams

Who are some actors who use the Method?

  • Christian Bale
  • Daniel Day-Lewis
  • Robert De Niro
  • Julie Harris
  • Anne Hathaway
  • Dustin Hoffman
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Heath Ledger
  • Sean Penn
  • Natalie Portman
  • Meryl Streep
  • Forest Whitaker
  • Kate Winslet
  • Robin Williams

The Method embodies some of the most controversial concepts of the art of acting. However, most of the outrage stems from a hyperbolized and exaggerated stigma of the style and its founder. Now that you understand the essence of the technique, you should draw your own conclusions about this distinctly American acting style.

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