This chapter focuses on the main Group Theatre teachers. The aim is to offer simple explanations of the various methods of training for actors. It is intended to open a conversation about craft. Please pitch in some thoughts from your experience with this work. We will answer any questions that arise in future blog posts.
Stella Adler's work is primarily focused on script analysis. She instructed actors to use their imaginations and instincts to read into scripts to determine the author's intent. She especially stressed the importance of actions ("prying," "cajoling," "seducing," etc.), insisting that actors create a library of actions to use within their work, and then to specifically state those actions to execute in scenework.
She believed that the key to acting is in the choices an actor makes--and those choices are determined by the actions an actor creates. She especially emphasized the importance of the size of an actor and economy of movement in performance. She took exception to the trends toward naturalism in American acting. Many of her exercises stressed the necessity for an actor to create an artistic life and well of experience to bring to the theatre.
Students include: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Robert DeNiro, Candice Bergen, Mark Ruffalo, Benicio Del Toro, and Selma Hayek.
Sanford Meisner's work is based around an inter-dependent series of training exercises that build on one another. The famous Repetition Exercise serves to help actors strengthen their observations, engage their instincts, stay in the moment, and to simply listen and respond. Training is heavily based on actions and activities, and actors are encouraged to improvise heavily. He stressed the importance of learning lines by rote, without inflection, so as not to memorize lines in a "line-reading".
As students mature through his work, they get to know themselves and are urged to find actions that are compelling to their particular actors' instruments. Actors prepare an emotional life through personalizations, daydreaming around the circumstances of a play, and paraphrasing the authors words and intentions to excite their own imaginations. They are then urged to bring the spontaneity of their improvisational work to the author's text. This allows them to create the given circumstances and come onto the stage "full."
Meisner especially emphasized doing, and actors are constantly asked to commit to specific tasks and objectives. Actors learn to leave themselves alone and respond instinctively and truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
Students include: Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Grace Kelly, Naomi Watts, Gregory Peck, Sandra Bullock, and Jeff Bridges.
Lee Strasberg is the only teacher from the Group to focus on the process of the imagination - as in how to get the imagination out of the brain and into the body. His insistence on the use of Sense Memory, which is a term interchangeable with "imagination," arose out of a common difficulty he observed - that most actors don't know how to imagine. His classes are broken down into two parts: one to develop the actors' instrument, and the second to take that understanding into scenework. Lee believed that it was not only necessary to relax in preparation, but also during the course of an actor's work.
In Relaxation, students sit in hard chairs and are first taught how to relax their instruments, and then how to extend that relaxation into exercises and scenework. Through Sensory Memory Exercises (Overall Sensations, Places, People, and Personal Objects), students learn how to activate their own imaginations. Lee stressed the importance of Physical Activities in both exercises and scene-work, constantly asking actors to determine what they would be doing if the lines of a scene were not taking place. The Private Moment Exercise is specifically designed to help students develop their skills of concentration and will-power. The Song and Dance Exercise is specifically intended to simulate all aspects of performance other than imaginary circumstances, so that actors can learn how to develop expressive instruments.
More advanced exercises include Animal Work and Character Work to develop the actor's ability to create characters outside of himself. The infamous Affective Memory Exercise (which is the most talked about and least used of Strasberg's exercises) is the only piece of craft that is intended to create a specific emotional response. Scenework is less about good performance and more about developing the skills learned in training for practical use. Speaking out (or character improvisation) and Inner Monologue (the actor's thoughts) are used in scenework to help actors meld with their characters and keep their own instruments within their control. Lastly, Entrances and Exits (a silent, three-part improvisation) helps an actor create work in the wings, simplify onstage storytelling, and actively communicate forward-moving intentions and destinations.
Students include: Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn, Paul Newman, Kim Stanley, Gene Wilder, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino, and David Gideon.
Future blog posts in this series will cover other newer or lesser known techniques used in the United States.
Your thoughts or questions? Please leave a comment below, and we'll be sure to respond.
To read other parts of this series, click here: Part One | Part Three