Monday, May 14, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Two

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


  1. I really love this. I get actors & students asking me, all the time, to describe the difference between some of the most popular acting techniques. It's nice to know that I can direct them to one places that describes them succinctly. I'm excited to see future posts!

    1. Thanks so much. I'll keep 'em coming.

    2. I love it as well.Being a meisner student - as I mentioned earlier in response to your first blog -I think you clearly and succinctly described the meisner method. But a clear misconception that most people have including myself in an earlier program is to put emphasis on the repeat exercise. I dont believe this is the corner stone of the program. And this may run contrary to what other meisner students may believe. The cornerstone to me was the activity. The activity had several different steps to it but the concept was in its simplest form was to have a person come in maybe to borrow sugar and she may have a crush on me and is looking to set up a date meanwhile I maybe having my daughter come any moment with her social worker so I have to clean up the room and I just got the call 5 minutes ago and if I leave a bad impression I may not get custody. This is improv with rules and it must pass certain criteria a time criteria , are the stakes high enough,a difficulty criteria and a logical criteria and this would be talked about after but sometimes during. But this also sets up a conflict because I am not going to obviously care about the hot girl at the door but she still has her agenda and there is bound to be conflict and there is going to be instinctive responses which can at times can be humorous , interesting but also angry and frustrating!! And these responses have to be organic or you will be called on it.The danger is you have to let go of your preparation once you enter the door or you can go into what I call idea madness you are so wrapped up in your preparation or your idea of how things should unfold that you forget to respond truthfully to what is going on so you respond to what you see ie you are ignoring me and i think you are rude and that is pissing me off!! And that would come from a truthful place after maybe trying to speak to the guy and being constantly rebuffedConversely , the guy(me) doing the activity has to keep doing his activity or he may lose his daughter but he cant just fustratingly speak to her I cant tell you how many times I heard"really talk to her" And if she starts to cry I dont continue cleaning up but I respond to her feelings truthfully so I dont get too locked in to my circumstances . So these exercises test your creativity and your logic skills or lack thereof LOL but also tests your techniques listening,responding and comitment. This always makes me think of my days doing meisner but your synopsis was great with somethings I had fogotten personalizations etc. But what do you think the major differences are between ms adlers and the other schools of thought? Because we learned about actions, verbs etc. as well.

    3. As far as the differences go between Stella's work and others from The Group, they're all after the same result. But Stella more than the others stressed the importance of building a creative spirit and a full life to bring to onstage work.

      Certainly, Strasberg used to say things like "I wish you would stop trying to be an actor and be an artist instead." But he didn't spend so much time detailing how to do that. He rather suggested that people extend what they were learning in class into their lives, so that relaxation became a constant, rather than something you do 15 minutes a day.

      Really, I think that the differences lie in the responses individual students had to those teachers and their methods...

      Different strokes for different folks.


  2. Thanks for being so clear, and putting it in one place! Which of these teachers/techniques would be better for film, in your opinion?

    1. Ariel:

      First of all, it's a great question, and thank you so much for asking it. Many people seem to want to know which is the best technique for this or for that. And it would be great if I could tell you, but the fact of the matter is this:

      There are no universals. What's good for me may not be so good for you. For that, please check out this blogpost I wrote last month:

      But to answer more specifically, you want to know which technique translates best to film, right? Well, this brings up a whole other set of questions.

      Is there a difference between film acting and stage acting? Not really. It's a different manner in which you play your instrument, but only by size of the house you're playing to. Some stages have 1000 people. Some have 65 people. Film has one: the camera. But the demands on your instrument are the same. Theoretically, if you learn to play the instrument, then you are only making adjustments to the size of your audience.

      Also, please note that no great actor has ever learned their craft through a "Film Acting" class. Most of our greats learned on the job. Certainly, you can learn some things that will help your understanding of the filmmaker's process in one of these classes, but it's not a place to learn how to operate your own actors' instrument.

      To learn yourself is a life's study. And all of these approaches to learning a craft of acting are certainly wonderful. So, to answer your question...

      Investigate the actors whose work speaks to you, specifically, and find out how they studied. And then look into that technique and see if the teachings ring true for you. If they do, then try to find a teacher that represents that truth well - which is, unfortunately, not always the easiest thing to find. And once you find that, you'll know with whom you should study. Then it's a matter of applying what you learn to all of your work.

    2. Excellent advice! My newest fave actress is Toni Collette, and she dropped out of high school to go to film school, then dropped out of film school to star in a movie. Sounds like she got more out of just doing it!

    3. That is great advice. I remember this british film director gabriel range for the discovery channel screaming" cut!" after I said my line. He walked over to me wrapped his arm around me and privately said:Ned just say the line as if you are in real life this is not broadway"

    4. Always good advice - especially on Broadway. :O)

  3. Excellent comments on this and Part One. Rather than respond here, I have some thoughts that I'll put into a blog of its own. Stay tuned.

  4. Did the actors you listed as students of particular teachers also study with any of the other teachers?

    Are there any accomplished actors who have taken a "buffet" approach, as we are often advised to do?

    1. Such great questions.

      Some of them did study with other teachers, yes. Off the top of my head, both Marlon Brando and Bob DeNiro studied with Lee Strasberg as well as Stella. But they both liked Stella better.

      Really, the big problem people had with Lee had to do with his personality and indefatigable drive for artistic clarity and excellence. His actual teachings are very sound. But most actors don't want to work that hard.

      And sure, LOTS of accomplished actors have taken a "buffet" approach. But art and accomplishment are rarely intertwined.

      So, really ask yourself: What kind of actor do you want to be?

      Do you want to make an impact? Do you just want to make a living in entertainment? And I assure you, it's possible to do both.


  5. A question brandon: Did robert duval study with Lee? He was sandys student initially but I couldnt figure out if he was just a member of the studio or if he studied with lee? I know this was controversial with sandy! LOL

    1. I don't know. He always credits Sandy with his work - and I really do think THAT is what matters. Robert Duval feels that his work is representative of Sandy Meisner.

      Even my teacher, David Gideon, took the famous Script Analysis class with Stella. But much as he might have gotten out of it, he doesn't personally associate his work with Stella.

      Lots of people have taught me here and there. But my work is best represented by the teachings of Lee Strasberg.

      And as far as The Actors Studio goes, anyone that says they studied there is full of it. It's never been a school. Some people like the klout it gives them, but Lee always taught privately and at his institute.

      Even so, many people do say they studied with Lee, because they worked in front of him at the Studio. But this is the kind of misinformation that impresses people who don't know what they're talking about and sells tickets.


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