Friday, May 4, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part One

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


  1. I'm excited to know more about all of these techniques. I find the information online and in book to be a little overwhelming, or time consuming. I appreciate the effort you're taking to explain it all to us!

  2. Thank you for stating the simple yet important idea that training is not about finding a new way to act, but about getting new tools to use if you choose. Pre-college I was a very instinctual actor and didn't put excessive thought into what I was doing. Once I started taking all the different method classes in school I got confused, and tried altering my approach to working. I lost sight of the fact that these methods were there to add on to what I was already doing, not replace it. It took me a long time to figure this out!

    1. I will try this again!!! Great point ariel! The tools you get from classes and these tools from these schools of thought are invaluable. And I am not talking just about was is intuitively obvious ie listening. responding truthfully , articulating clearly etc. but being able to take criticism constructively and bringing a creative spirit and ideas to the table so you and your teachers are collaborators rather then adversaries. And this maybe innate to some but we all learn things,learn how to do tasks, and acquire tasks differently.I found your mentioning michael redgrave fascinating. You always hear that the brits were not exposed to this but you debunked that because the redgraves certainly made their mark on british film and television.I come from a meisner background but my teacher studied mr stausbergs method as well as ms adlers classes. Do you think one should not limit themselves to only one school of thought ? And become(pardon the pun) a decatlete of the other schools of the thought of the group theater? Does strethching one self in that regard make one more accesable as an actor or an artist? Or are the similarities so great and the diferences so minute that it would be merely repetion ie. just a diferent way of saying the same thing.In a related matter i recently re-read sanford meisner on acting. The intoduction by one of my favorite film directors sydney pollack was fascinating, All my life I had understood the method as mr strausbergs school but read the following:"Harold Clurman,Lee Strausburg,Stella Adler,Bobby lewis and Sanford Meisner emerged from the group theater as the preeminent teachers of what has become known as the method" , he goes on to elaborate that this was a lazy label and that each one had their own method but I think this is an enlightening answer to how close and related this all is.

    2. Great questions! Thank you.

      It's always been my understanding that studying with two teachers (even if they are teaching the same thing) can only serve to lengthen the term of learning for an individual - provided it doesn't confuse them entirely to have two people working them through various personal and professional habits.

      So, I suppose that it's no real problem to study with two teachers or under two realms of study if you were to commit to one and then to another; however, when the aim of any craft is self-discovery within the craft, then why would you want to jump ship and take the time to learn a whole new set of skills, just to arrive at the same result?...

      ...unless you're avoiding something. And that's the common reason that people jump from class to class. More in a blog to come.


    3. HI, Ariel. Your comment that you started out as an instinctual actor and then realized that the proper tools whether they be Method (specifically Strasberg), Meisner, Adler, or Hagen, or whoever else professes to teach it, are there to help you achieve your objective and stimulate your creative imagination. Uta Hagen said to one student, "your instinct was right, but your intelligence was wrong." She didn't explain her statement but I take it to mean, you never leave out the structure of the character and the story your character lives in. Good instinct is a valuable tool and not to be short-changed and combined with strong tools you have honed and trust will strengthen your craft. -M. Anisi

  3. Thanks for this, Brandon - it's good to have the basic "family tree" of acting teachers explained in one place!


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