People ask us all the time to recommend classes and approaches to acting and explain the differences between techniques. It seems to me that this information is difficult to find in one central place. Even as I was doing my research, I had to look at at least 200 pages across a whole bunch of difference sources. So, we've created this two-part series to demystify some of the major approaches to the training of an actor.
Please take a moment to notice the wording of the sentence I just wrote. These are not different approaches to acting. They are approaches to training the actor. The school of thought belonging to Sandy Meisner and his disciples seems to suggest that his perspective on training especially highlights "Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances." And it does...just as much as the work of Strasberg, Adler, Hagen, Stanislavski, Lewis, and everyone else does. Even Shakespeare offered the same concepts in his advice to the players (more on that in a future post). These are not new ideas. We can all agree that the theatre is best when the stage is alive, right? Even if it's coming from a more external approach, there are still the nights when the imagination is alive and everything feels inspired. Even the most external of actors covet those evenings. Therefore, these are not different approaches to acting. What IS the difference, then?
The manner in which the actor is trained.
Let me start with a simple piece of history that should boil this down easily. Constantin Stanislavski is wildly considered to be the Father of Modern Acting. In the late 1800s, he interviewed all sorts of great, yet inconsistent, actors to try to understand what people did on the nights things came easily alive for them as opposed to the nights when things fell flat. Inspired by the behaviorists (Sigmund Freud, et al) and a great number of artists at that time coming together to understand psychology and physiology (Martha Graham, Pablo Picasso, and a bunch of others), he went about discovering how actors could create more consistency in their onstage work. One of the largest defining factors that he noted in great actors was that they seemed to all be relaxed during times of inspiration. He created a school, then the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1923, the Moscow Art Theatre sent out a bunch of different troupes of actors to share their work with the world. Michael Redgrave studied with the English troupe and began to teach there. Richard Boleslawski and Maria Uspenskaya (from the US extension) stayed behind in New York to teach. Lee Strasberg studied with them and then began to build on the ideas he'd learned from them while he taught the things he had learned to The Group Theatre. Lee Strasberg is referred to as the Father of Method Acting in America.
The first major distinction between Lee Strasberg and all of the other American teachers that came out of The Group Theatre is: he was their teacher. So, Lee taught Sandford Meisner, Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, and Elia Kazan. That group of teachers taught Herbert Berghoff, Uta Hagen, Larry Moss, Eric Morris, Margie Haber, David Mamet, Larry Silverberg, Susan Batson, Milton Katselas, Terry Schreiber, Michael Howard, William Esper, Howard Fine, Wynn Handman, Austin Pendleton, Maggie Flanigan, Ron Burrus, Harold Guskin, Susan Grace Cohen, David Gideon, and a whole slew of others.
There are a few other current master teachers that didn't study with this group (Ivana Chubbuck, Ron Van Lieu, etc), but they can mostly be traced back to Stanislavski by way of Michael Chekhov, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. And no, they were not all teaching the same thing or the same way of going about reality, but they were all still looking for the same end result.
The major notable exceptions to this group of teachers are Tadashi Suzuki, Jerzy Grotowski, and Anne Bogart (Viewpoints). Peter Brook comes out of Grotowski's work. In a nutshell, these are all movement-based methods of understanding the actor's instrument. A lot of this work has been used in less realistic approaches to theatre, but the goal of training remains the same: for the actor to understand himself so that he may use himself in his art.
There are also a whole bunch of theorists, who talk about a craft of acting, but they aren't really teachers in the traditional sense. Those include(ed) George Bernard Shaw, Anton Artaud, Declan Donnellan, William Ball, Bertolt Brecht, etc. Most of them are theater-makers, who talk about how theater should be done, and how scripts should be analyzed. They touch on the actor dealing with his or her own instrument, and they still agree on the simple fact that a good acting stems from human beings with an understanding of themselves.
That's a basic lineage to the craft of acting. Stay tuned. In the next part, we'll break down some of the larger American approaches, including the work of Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler, and Anne Bogart/Tadashi Suzuki. We'll also include Michael Chekhov and Constantin Stanislavski because their work is taught heavily in the US as well.
Let us know if there's anyone else you'd like us to discuss by leaving a comment below.
To read other parts of this series, click here: Part Two | Part Three