The Definitive Guide to Method Acting

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

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

The origins of the Method connect a lot of important names from theater history, like Stanislavsky, Strasberg, and Adler. In the United States, however, most sources trace Method acting to Lee Strasberg. The fact that the Lee Strasberg Institute trademarked the phrase The Method™ could be one reason. But there’s more to know about Method acting than who owns the trademark.

Let's dispel some of the confusion by taking a deeper look at the Method, the teachers who developed it, and the actors who rely on it today.

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Who was Lee Strasberg?

Lee Strasberg was a Polish-American actor, director, and acting teacher who is best known for developing Method acting. Strasberg was born in Poland in 1901 and emigrated to the U.S. when he was seven years old. He grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, where his first theatrical experiences were acting in Yiddish plays as a child. 

As a young man, Strasberg studied acting at the Christie Street Settlement House and later with the Theatre Guild. In 1931, Strasberg co-founded the iconic Group Theatre with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford. The Group Theatre quickly gained recognition for its natural acting style and the experimental plays it produced. Strasberg left the Group in 1937 and spent the late ’30s and 1940s in various roles across the industry, from acting instructor at the New School to Broadway director. He also briefly lived in Hollywood, where he taught acting and directed short films. 

In 1948, Strasberg’s old friend Cheryl Crawford invited him to join the Actor’s Studio, which she had co-founded alongside Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. Strasberg joined as a teacher and ultimately became the director in 1951. At the Actor’s Studio, Strasberg taught a generation of actors that later became American film icons. This role as director of The Actor’s Studio began to cement Strasberg’s legacy as the father of Method acting.

In 1969, he founded the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, which currently has studios in Los Angeles and New York City. Later in life, Strasberg appeared in a few films, including 1974’s “The Godfather, Part II.” Strasberg died in 1982. Five years later, his autobiographical book about the development of Method acting, “A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method,” was published.

What is Method acting?

At its simplest, Method acting is defined as a regimented technique that enables actors to behave realistically under imaginary circumstances. Some key elements of Method acting include: 

  • Removing tension: Strasberg believed that actors need to be a blank slate before they could embody the life of another person. To do this, actors must understand where they store tension in their bodies and release it before creating a character. 
  • Focus and deliberateness: Once they release tension, actors are encouraged to absorb the world differently—honing in on specific sounds, for example, or filtering others out. A hyper-attention to the senses is necessary for actors to replicate believable stimuli in their work. The same sorts of exercises are done with vision, touch, and even taste.
  • Using sense memory: Once the senses are attuned, actors move into sense memory, the Method’s version of Stanislavsky’s affective memory. This is the most controversial component of the Method.
  • Identification and replication: The ability to identify sensations and replicate them prompts an authentic response that gives the actor artistic autonomy. Rather than be a puppet, Strasberg believed, the skilled Method actor influences the work’s very nature as much as the writer or director.

The emphasis on identifying and replicating detailed stimuli is one part of Method acting that sometimes gets out of hand. In the pursuit of detailed stimuli, some Method actors choose to immerse themselves in their character’s environment, like Robert DeNiro working as a cabbie in preparation for his iconic role in “Taxi Driver.” 

How did Stanislavsky’s System influence the Method?

Before he co-founded the Group Theatre, Strasberg studied Stanislavsky’s System with two former Stanislavksy students, Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslawski. Once Strasberg learned the System, he quickly began teaching and modifying it to create his Method. 

Strasberg’s Method developed primarily around Stanislavsky’s idea of “affective memory.” Affective memory encourages actors to use their remembered emotions to connect with the circumstances of a character. Later in his career, Stanislavsky abandoned affective memory, feeling it produced inconsistent results. But by the time his books were published in English, American acting teachers had enthusiastically spread his early techniques across the U.S. But even among American acting teachers who embraced early Stanislavsky, Strasberg’s obsession with affective memory made him—and his Method—controversial. 

What are some famous examples of Method acting?

One of the most frequently cited examples of Method acting is Marlon Brando’s performance in 1954’s “On the Waterfront”—in particular, the scene where he retrieves Eva Marie Saint’s dropped glove and tries it on his own rough hand as they stroll through a park. 

Other famous Method acting performances include: 

Today, when most American actors think about Method acting examples, they think about the immersive techniques that actors like Daniel-Day Lewis and Jared Leto use to prepare for roles. Some acting scholars argue that this immersive strategy is not truly Method. Leto himself isn’t sure the term Method acting applies to his work, either. What’s important to remember is this: mailing your co-stars a dead pig is not an example of Method acting.

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What are some Method acting exercises?

Method acting exercises fall into three major categories: relaxation, sensory, and emotional exercises. Releasing tension was one of Strasberg’s primary goals. Relaxation was so crucial to Strasberg that he devoted the first two hours of his four-hour classes to relaxation and sense memory exercises. 

Some typical Method acting exercises include:

  • Relaxation: The typical relaxation exercise asks actors to move every body part from their fingers to their facial muscles in small circles. With each movement, actors identify tension and release it. Actors are encouraged to make “ahh” sounds when necessary to release emotional tension that may arise. 
  • Sense memory: Sense memory exercises encourage actors to use all five senses to recall physical sensations from their memory. Sense memory exercises are designed to train actors’ focus on stimulating feelings to create rich responses on a stage or set. Actors may be asked to recall their childhood bedroom or the sensation of a specific, sharp pain. 
  • A Private Moment: In this exercise, actors perform an activity on stage that they typically do in private. The chosen activity should be so private that they would stop if another person walked into the room—for instance, examining your pores in a magnifying mirror or doing an embarrassing dance. Strasberg also encouraged actors to identify the sensations and textures of important personal objects to see how they handled and treated them.
  • Animal Exercise: 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.
  • The Song and Dance: The song and dance exercise tries to get actors out of their habitual patterns and into a state of genuine, unpredictable expression. Actors are asked to sing a familiar song one syllable at a time, accompanying each syllable with unique, unpredictable, and unprepared movements.

What are the pros and cons of Method acting?

As with any acting technique, the Method has pros and cons. One upside of Method techniques is the way they allow actors to disappear into their roles. Method acting also helps actors create nuanced, unexpected performances that can be exhilarating to watch—something that is particularly important for film and television, due to the intimacy and detail offered by camera close-ups. With directors and cinematographers guiding the audience’s eye toward the nuances of an actor’s performance, the effects of emotional recall register more clearly. Strasberg himself recognized the power his technique had on camera.

But there are also downsides to using the Method. For one, great Method performances require well-written roles. If your character is underdeveloped with little pathos to unpack, Method techniques can leave you essentially playing yourself. Because Strasberg’s techniques encourage lots of inner reflection, Method actors can sometimes gain a reputation for being demanding, aloof, or difficult. Many directors also dislike the Method, feeling that it undermines their control of a play or film. 

Where can I study Method acting?

The formal home of Method acting is The Actors Studio, which is now part of Pace University in New York. The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute also holds Method acting classes in New York and Los Angeles. If you want to get a head start on Strasberg’s teachings, you can prepare by reading his book, “A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method.” 

These books written by former students are also a great place to start: 

How can I expect my acting to evolve using the Method?

When actors incorporate Method acting techniques into their work, they often notice their performances becoming more internalized and surprising. You may see your acting evolve in other ways, including:

  • Audiences will see you think. Utilizing the Method strengthens your ability to internalize a character’s thought processes. This allows an audience to witness a character’s decisions and realizations from moment to moment.
  • Your performances will gain focus. When you have refined your ability to make deliberate choices, you can find meaning in every word your character speaks. 
  • Your character work will be more imaginative. Using your sense memories expands your choices beyond the confines of the script. Integrating your own life experiences, perceptions, affinities, inclinations, instincts, and fears brings fresh layers to your character’s inner life.

How does the Method compare to other famous acting techniques?

Most contemporary acting techniques share the same influences as the Method. Stella Adler’s imagined circumstances and Sanford Meisner’s repetition exercises developed from Stanislvaky’s system, just like the Method did. More recently, David Mamet and William H. Macy’s Practical Aesthetics technique also found inspiration in Stanislavsky’s System. 

However, the acting techniques that best complement the Method are probably the ones that counteract it. One of the most significant risks the Method can present is obsessive internalization. Without balance, Method performances can become self-absorbed and indulgent.

To counterbalance the Method’s mental work, do some physical training in the Brechtian style. Explore 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. They’ll complement your Method training by exercising different parts of your instrument and give you new experiences to use in future work.

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