Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Seven

This post is about the evolution of the craft of acting from the beginning until now.  It'll sorta breeze through some of the previously explained points (Stanislavski and The Group Theatre) and spend a little time connecting the dots.

First of all, the idea of craft is not totally new - even to Stanislavski.  Journal writing about what actors were doing to prepare themselves dates back to The Greeks. 

David Garrick came close to understanding the craft when he wrote that one day, while playing Othello, he thought of his daughter and everything came alive for him; he did the same thing the next day and nothing happened.  He almost understood it.  What did he almost understand?  The distinction between intellectual memory and sensory memory.  The first time, his imagination and whole body engaged.  The second time, he was just onstage, thinking.

Eleanora Duse used to talk about her need to sit in the wings and feel the show with the other actors every night before she could make her entrance onto the stage.  There was a community interest in the Great German actor, Fleck*, who was famous for being a wildly inconsistent actor - to the point where people would say, "I went to the theatre last night and saw Fleck!", and others would respond, "Der gro├če Fleck oder der kleine Fleck (The Big Spot or The Little Spot)?"  *His name means "Spot" in English.

Fast forward to Stanislavski.  We've talked all about him.  The Russian Movement (and response to Stanislavski's Naturalism) that followed Stanislavski involved three major people: Yevgeny Vakhtangov  (Stanislavski's main protege, who inherited The Moscow Art Theatre), Vsevolod Meyerhold (Stanislavski's first major pupil, who left The Moscow Art Theatre to create a new school), and Michael Chekhov (Stanislavski's "most brilliant pupil", who also left The Moscow Art Theatre to create a larger style of acting).

**Note that Stanislavski, himself, did not believe in Naturalism, but taught many actors, who were highly developed in larger-than-life performance, so he was working to create an inner-reality with them. 

Vakhtangov is the main bridge between Stanislavski and Strasberg (who built upon both Stanislavski's and Vakhtangov's work in his teachings).  He took over The Moscow Art Theatre and picked up where Stanislavski had left off in the training of an actor.  His major contribution to theatre involved developing the concept of Fantastic Realism, which rested on the belief that theatre must not simply recreate reality, but deepen our understanding of it - so that actors needed to be outwardly highly stylized, yet internally realistic.  Therefore, Fantastic Realism is a combination of the reality of life and the "fantastical" nature of theatre. 

He believed that characters needed to be dramatic in nature - and that actors should not only live through the character's feelings, but "perform the character".  This changed the game with regard to acting, so that actors were no longer at the mercy of their character's feelings, but were in charge of their characters - and able to express a larger humanity through them.  Vakhtangov insisted that actors should not actually become the character, but only play at being a character.  This allowed them much greater freedom. 

Vakhtangov's legacy was built upon by The Group Theatre teachers and has greatly influenced many American acting teachers.

Meyerhold broke away from The Moscow Art Theatre and rejected many of his studies with Stanislavski.  He was a driving force in the Russian Symbolist Movement, and was interested in theatre that could reveal inner dialogue by means of the music of plastic movement.   He saw movement, gesture, space, rhythm, and music as the true “language of the theater,” focusing his energies on a relentless search for “form” onstage.  He rejected the idea of 'art for art's sake' and endorsed the popular constructivist view that art should always serve a political and social function.  He believed in Theatre of the Grotesque - the idea that life and art are fundamentally different and should not imitate one another.

His main contribution to the theatre was Biomechanics, which blended ideas from Stanislavski's System and the larger-than-life stylings of Commedia dell'Arte. Biomechanics is based on the idea that psychological and physiological processes are inextricably linked.  Meyerhold argued that actors could call up emotions in performance through the use of movement and gesture.  He created sequences of choreography, called "etudes", which were used to express specific emotional and physical scenarios.  Biomechanics develops balance, strength, coordination, agility, and flexibility through rigorous, athletic training in skill-areas such as tumbling, acrobatics, partner-work, and work with objects. 

Meyerhold's teachings, though very helpful to actors in "teaching the body to think", do not stand on their own.  They are mostly physical in nature and a great supplement to the training of an actor.  His theories on movement greatly influenced Grotowski's work and Viewpoints.

Michael Chekhov was probably the most talented and sensitive actor ever - to the point where if he were to read the morning paper, it would send him into a tailspin of depression for weeks.  In order for him to function, his family would cut out the sections of the paper that would upset him before he read it.  That's important to know.  Why?

Because his teachings assume that kind of sensitivity - and thus, his work is highly individualized.  For the common actor (who has not yet developed that kind of sensitivity), it's not quite effective.  Several people teaching his work admit that it works best with "talented actors".  I don't mean to say that his work is not great.  It is.  But it relies on the actor to bring good sensitivity and self-expression to the table, so the actor needs to be partially developed before studying this work. 

We reached out to Ben Leasure (a friend of the company, who was last seen as Sebastian in The Seeing Place Theater's production Twelfth Night).  He currently studies Michael Chekhov's work here in New York with Lenard Petit, and has grown immensely with his techniques.  Here is some of what he had to say about this work:

The Chekhov technique is an all encompassing approach, grounded in holistic healing, energy and body dynamics, and the composition rules associated with Music. The technique strives to take the theories associated with the creative process and inspiration, along with the discipline and concise nature of a musicians instrument, and place them in the body, so your voice, soul, and physical body tie together in a harmonious and expressive tool.  The technique is based in exercise work designed to create a responsive instrument, open and ready to go at any moment.  Chekhov works with qualities of movement. (i.e. I grab my pen quickly, slowly, fearfully, arrogantly etc.) to find emotion or moods through moving.

Essentially, Michael Chekhov developed an approach to acting that affords the actor access to resources within himself - feelings, will impulses, character choices - that are based not merely in personal experience, but on the actor's imagination and physical life. 

Michael Chekhov's major contribution to the theatre was Psychological Gesture, which is basically the idea that we exhibit certain universal behaviors that can be used to express moods within the theatre.  He drew greatly from the teachings of Carl Jung's theories on psychological archetypes, as well as from Stanislavski's psycho-physical methods.  Ben Leasure also added:

Psychological Gesture is a whole body movement that carries the essence of either your character, objective or action. Through repetition the gesture is developed, specified and held, then incorporated. At that point it becomes an impulse center fueling you with creative energy.

Michael Chekhov's work rests on Psychological Gesture.  He taught actors how to break down scripts and find archetypes that would bring them, individually, to life.  An archetype is discovered by making a list of actions a character does throughout the course of a play, and then finding the thread that ties them all together.  That is the dominant quality.  Once you have figured out the dominant quality, you can select an archetype that will bring you to life.  One example, through action, is that Romeo is impetuous.  He can be said to be a Fool.  That is an archetype, but far too general.  Personally, when I played Romeo, he seemed more a Rebel to me than anything else.  I can build upon that association as the basis for my imagination within a role.  That is how I might use a Psychological Gesture.

I'll leave you with a section from The Michael Chekhov Acting Studio, New York:

When looking at Michael Chekhov's system one is struck by its simplicity, its lack of intellectual or analytical substance. We see a few simple multifunctional tools supported by clear principles. This is so because he teaches us to use larger trans-personal ideas as source material to build our work upon. When we address the archetypes, they lead us to what is called the Psychological Gesture.

The technique is not a linear A to B process. We do not have to start at the beginning because the beginning and the end are the same, namely, inspired acting. This is what he was seeking in developing it. Everything in it adds up to One, each piece of it stands alone, and at that same time touches all the other pieces. When it is taken up by a talented actor, one particular tool begins to make connections with other tools that have been engaged during rehearsals. It's a matter of applied energy traveling on different circuits, each vibrating in sympathy with one source. Using archetypes as dynamic vibrating energies, our task is to set up a condition within ourselves so that we can have sympathetic vibrations to them. These are honestly felt things by the actor, real food for artistic self expression.

In Chekhov's own words: "All you experience in the course of your life, all you observe and think, all that makes you happy or unhappy, all your regrets or satisfactions, all your love or hate, all you long for or avoid, all your achievements and failures, all you brought with you into this life at birth, your temperament, abilities, inclinations etc., all are part of the region of your so called subconscious depths. There being forgotten by you, or never known to you they undergo the process of being purified of all egotism. They become feelings per se. Thus purged and transformed, they become part of the material from which your Individuality creates the psychology, the illusory "soul" of the character."
(from To The Actor)

Thanks so much for reading. We'll be closing up this series with an overview of the newest teachers and techniques out there, so stay tuned...

Please comment and share your thoughts with us! We'd love to read about your individual experiences!

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


  1. I don't remember them teaching ANY of this in college in my BA/Theater program. In fact, they barely taught the craft at all. I know I had to purchase Uta Hagen's "Respect for Acting" but I don't remember reading it. Thank you for providing this master class in theatre history.

    And thanks to Ben for his support as well...

  2. This is all beautiful, I'm really only familiar with Vakhtanov through Chekhov's memoirs of their times as actor/director and roommates, and then also of Meyerhold only through accounts of his few times working with him. Meyerhold's work and Vakhtanov's both play into Chekhov so strongly, and as they were mentors to him, I see why. It works the same way Seeing Place's process and need and demand for truth played a huge part in my professional growth. Those we work with teach us through their own talents. I've always been struck with something Brandon said to me at rehearsal, that to me tied all techniques together, which was "Talent is sensitivity to your surroundings" - Strasberg. I recommend Energize by F. Emmanuelle Chalet, she's trained in Michael Chekhov, Lecoq, with Lee Strasberg, and Meisner. Her book leaves some things to be desired in terms of tying it all together, but the exercises combing chekhov's movement work, also using meyerholds etudes, with Strasberg's work are very interesting way to combine the thinking with the body to support the incredible truth and concentration of a disciplined Stanislavski based anything. It was very effective for me. And lastly she offers a cleansing method to repair your nervous system from the shock of acting. At the end Chekhov and I'm sure the others support, said "if I had to name the most important aspect of my technique it would be your sense of truth." I really love what you guys are doing with this blog, keeps me challenging myself to look at other viewpoints.


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