Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Four

This chapter addresses three of the newer American approaches to the training of an actor.  Obviously, there are a bunch more, but these ones made the popularity contest.

Uta Hagen's work revolves largely around scene study, so most of her teachings have more immediate and obvious application to acting.  As with many great teachers, she adapted over the years.  Her book, A Challenge for the Actor, is probably the most comprehensive self-written book on acting available.  Many of the great teachers were never quite as able as she was to express themselves on paper.  In the book, she details "Transference", rather than what she had originally referred to as "Substitutions" (which suggest replacing your scene partner) - the basic difference being that you're transferring the relationship you have with someone from your life onto the other actor, and then responding to the other person.

I can't remember where I read this, but I seem to remember Uta as having studied with Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Herbert Berghof.  As with many master teachers, she didn't make her studies well known.  She let her extensive theatrical resume as an actor and director speak for her.  And much of what she did was to direct actors to better work.

As her training is based in scene-work, she spent much of her time defining practical tools for actors.  Her Private Moment Exercise (one of her early exercises) differs from Strasberg's in that she asks for two mundane minutes from everyday private life, rather than an activity you'd never share with your closest friend.  Its purpose is to help actors develop concentration in their work.

Other exercises include:
Developing the actor's physical destination in a role.
Making changes in the self, serviceable in the creation of a character.
Recreating physical sensations.
Bringing the outdoors on stage.
Finding occupation while waiting.
Talking to oneself and the audience.
Employing historical imagination.

She begins her film, Uta Hagen's Acting Class, by saying, "When I go to the theatre, if I can see any of the acting, I already don't like it.  But if the actors make me believe what they're saying and doing as really happening in front of me, I'm spellbound."  She believed in Presentational Acting (actually living through something onstage) as opposed to Representational Acting (showing a reality for the audience).

Students include:  Geraldine Page, Jason Robards, Matthew Broderick, Austin Pendleton, and Amanda Peet.

Larry Moss is a big proponent for the 'whatever works' school of acting.  He spent several years studying with Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, and Warren Robertson.  As he details in his book, The Intent to Live (also a nicely written book, describing his work), he developed a real understanding of himself and his instrument during his time studying, and he found that taking some from this person worked better for him and some from that person worked better for him.

In the years since his book was released, a great deal of actors have mistaken this to mean that they should learn the basics from each technique of acting, rather than to pick one and immerse themselves in it - which is what he did until he moved over to a new person. 

Much of his work is also focused on scene-study, and he spends much of his time coaching actors.  He mostly teaches professional intensives (where he directs scene-work) to give people tools of the trade to employ immediately into their onstage and onscreen work.  He derives many of the major exercises from Strasberg, Meisner, Adler, Clurman, Hagen, etc, and he places a great deal of importance on the size of an actor and Realistic Expression (as opposed to casual expression).  He also spends a lot of time with script analysis and interpretation.

Students include:  Helen Hunt, Hilary Swank, Michael Clark Duncan, Hank Azaria, Jim Carrey, Toby Maguire, and Leonardo Di Caprio.

David Mamet and William H. Macy created a system of training called Practical Aesthetics, based on the teachings of Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. 

From Wikipedia:
Practical Aesthetics is based on the practice of breaking down a scene using a four-step analysis that entails the following:
1) The "Literal": The essential and most basic description of what is taking place.
2) The "Want": What does one character ultimately want the other character to say or do?
3) The "Essential Action": An evocative and relevant description of what the actor wants within the scene. It is essential to understand that what the character is doing and what the actor is doing are separate.
4) The "As If": This relates the "essential action" to the actor's own life.  This step is a memory device, a spark to involve the actor in the scene. It helps the actor escape the fiction, find the truth, and apply it elsewhere.

This technique is aimed at making the experience of acting entirely based on the will of the actor.  The Practical Aesthetic asks an actor only to commit his will to the pursuit of an action based on the other actor.

Famous practitioners of Practical Aesthetics include: William H Macy, Felicity Huffman, Scott Parker, Christopher Carley, Rose Byrne, Jessica Alba, Camryn Manheim, Clark Gregg, and Eddie Cahill.

**I think it's important to keep in mind that David Mamet studied with Sandy Meisner for eight years, when reading his thoughts on acting that he details in True or False and A Practical Handbook for the Actor.  So, although he suggests simply reading a scene, breaking it down, getting out of the way, and saying the lines, that is not really how he, himself, studied. 

And that's the subject of a whole new blog that will be out soon, so stay tuned for that and the conclusion to these conversations on the different approaches to the training of an actor.

Please comment.  Right here.  Right now.  :O)

To read other parts of this series, click here:  
Part One | Part Two | Part Three


  1. Lovely info Brandon, will get you some Chekhov soon. Dead on about Mamet, after years of honing his instrument, he was able to use his technique. The inexperienced and inflexible actor cannot begin with his technique. We must train our bodies and voices and the way a musician plays his scales. And in the same way a pianist must join left and right hand in harmony, so must we with body and voice.

    1. I like your analogies, Ben. We appreciate your contribution, and thanks for reading!

    2. Thanks, Ben. I look forward to your blurb on Michael Chekhov. If you send it to me by tomorrow night, I can post it on Friday. :O)

  2. I always find it interesting to find out who the current teachers used to study with, and how they use that learning in their teachings. Thanks for breaking these down for us.

    1. Thanks! I think it's important to know. It always drives me nuts when people don't cite their teachers.

    2. Yeah I agree, Erin. The network of relationships between them all is really fascinating.

  3. Thanks again for all this great information! I've never heard of Larry Moss, but from what you've written here I think I'd get a lot out of his book.

    1. Sure! It's certainly a great read. I'd also suggest STRASBERG AT THE ACTORS STUDIO. That's a wonderful book.

    2. Ariel I have read larrys book twice and I loved it.Besides his technique which brandon articulated wonderfully he also describes his life as an actor and director
      and his work with coaching actors specifically michael clarke duncan for his movie with tom hanks the green mile. It is fascinating you will love it.

  4. I used to love how uta
    hagen ran her classes. I used to see them on pbs late at night and I found alot of similarities of the activity and meisner and how she set up alot of her scene work. I am defintely going to buy her book this week. I agree with bens take that you probably should study somewhere else first before you study mamets way. I do have to say I have enjoyed reading a practical handbook for the actor because it does simplify approaches to the work especially when you come from a meisner background as I did.

    1. Yeah, I really enjoy that video, too. For those of you, who don't know, we're talking about UTA HAGEN'S ACTING CLASS.

      SANDY MEISNER: THE AMERICAN THEATRE'S BEST KEPT SECRET is a great one, too. And Mamet gives all sorts of interviews on it!



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