At Colby KMM we know anyone who has looked into studying acting can recall hearing about an acting technique or “the method”. Sounds easy enough, right? Acting is a skill, therefore there must be some sort of method behind it- okay teach! Then, anyone who has studied acting learns that this “method” actually refers to about six different major acting techniques, and that actors are meant to figure out which works best for them. What sounded like an obvious and straight forward approach to the art of acting instantly turned into a daunting, confusing, and consuming task. However, speaking from a young actor’s point of view, it is not as bad as it may seem. The process to discovering which acting technique works best for you can be challenging; but it can also be an amazing opportunity for self-discovery which is extremely rewarding. It also helps to know a bit about each method before you begin to try them out, so here is a synopsis of each of the six major acting techniques, and a few other techniques that can be applied to any acting work!
The first thing at Colby KMM we tell anyone they need to know is that this “method” of which every acting teacher speaks, was originally developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Stanislavsky was a Russian actor, director, and mentor who lived from 1863-1938. He was the first man to propose the idea that there was a step by step, calculated process to the art of acting. When someone refers to “the method” this is what they are talking about; the process of living truthfully in an imaginary circumstance, as developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Through the years, however, this original method has been changed and adapted by practicing actors and teachers and from it has stemmed the six major techniques I mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, to understand any technique, you must understand where it originated, and that origin is Stanislavsky’s method.
1. The Stanislavsky System
Much of the Stanislavsky system revolved around the script itself. Stanislavsky believed that by breaking down the script you could further understand the character and the emotional qualities would evolve through this process. He said that the first thing needed to developing a character was to identify the characters super-objective. This is the over-all goal that the character wants to achieve. The next step would be to identify the obstacles, or the things that can prevent the character from achieving his/her goal. Next would be to identify the tools or methods used to overcome these obstacles. The script would then typically be broken down to units and bits. These are small objectives and methods used to reach the overall goal; bits make up the units, and the units make up the whole. Lastly, one would define actions for each line. These are identified through action verbs so there is a clear focus on what the goal is line by line. Stanislavsky believed that the best way to communicate these objectives truthfully was through emotional memory. He would ask his students to do this by recalling their own experiences in which they felt the emotion they were trying to portray in a scene and then try to recreate this emotional reaction. This was often successful; however, it also often proved to be ineffective. This was because some students would dig so deep into their emotional past that they would have mental break downs and no longer be in control of the emotion they were trying to portray. While this may have appeared to be very convincing, I don’t believe the actor must have felt too great afterwards!
2. The Chekhov Technique
Mikhail Chekhov worked very closely with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre. He is considered to be Stanislavsky’s greatest pupil; however his approach to acting is inherently different. I have recently spent a term devoted to the study of this technique and it is both extremely rewarding and extremely hard to explain, so bare with me!
The Chekhov Technique revolves around the use of the imagination and the actor’s physical connection to his imagination, his intuition, and mind as one whole, cooperative unit. Perhaps the most important detail in this technique is the use of the imagination. The actor must be able to imagine great images and sensations within himself and his surroundings and be able to immerse himself in these imaginings to perform any of this acting method.
Chekhov believed that all movement and motivation for movement should begin in one of the three centers, these are the will center (the pelvis), the heart center (the middle of the chest), and the knowledge center (the head). He believed that use of each center would produce a different quality and an entirely different take on a character. These centers could also be used to develop the same character at different emotional states. He would teach his students to associate certain images to certain centers, to help further express different emotion. Some images one might play with is the image of a sun, growing warmer and warmer within the will center, and then expanding as far as possible; this image may help to express a feeling of growing passion, for example. Another might be an ice box in your heart center; this image may be used to express someone who is hardened and cold toward a certain person or object. These images are totally up to the actor’s discretion. The goal is to choose an image that you can associate with the quality you are trying to portray and let it resonate within you until that quality becomes innate.
Chekhov also believed that qualities of movement must be applied to each and every movement made. The qualities of movement he worked with were molding, floating, flying, and radiating. He would teach students to apply these qualities, again, using imagery work. The quality of molding is often performed by moving as if you are surrounded by clay, floating can be accomplished by imagining you are a piece of seaweed under the water, flying is done by picturing you are a leaf on the wind, and radiating is performed by imaging you are a growing beam of light, expanding on all sides. (It is important to note that these specific images are not a requirement- just a suggestion that Chekhov found to be effective. Any actor can choose whatever imagery works best for him.)
Chekhov would also apply the role of the atmosphere into any scene. When he referred to the atmosphere he meant the overall mood or air of the scene- which could be different for everyone involved. This would affect any and every move made by someone within a scene- just as it would in everyday life.
Another part of the Chekov technique that makes it so appealing is its use of physiological gesture. This is a technique based on the idea that within every human is archetypical gestures that expresses these six statements: I want, I need, I feel, I yield, I stand my ground, and I reject. It is believed that these basic statements can be found within any action. The way physiological gesture works is the actor chooses his/her objective and simplifies it as much as possible (it does not necessarily have to be one of these statements) an example of this might be “I want to love” or “I want you to stop”. Then the actor has to allow his body to begin to react intuitively to this objective when spoken. After finding the slightest reaction within the body the actor is expected to drop the phrase and let his body take over. When done correctly the movement should provoke a deep and real physical emotional response to the desired objective. This makes it easy to conjure up difficult emotions at the drop of a dime, simply by doing the gesture that works best for you! I can speak from personal experience when I say that this truly works! It really is an amazing experience, although it takes a lot of getting used to. The whole prospect of the Chekov work needs to be done with as little sense of ego as possible. It is somewhat eccentric work but I believe it really makes the work about the actor as a person- strengthening the performance to a new level
3. Method Acting (The Lee Strasberg Method)
What most would refer to as “Method Acting” is the method that was adapted directly from the Stanislavsky System, developed by Lee Strasberg. This method was designed to help actors conjure up real thoughts and emotions in imaginary circumstances. Before you chose if this method is for you, I believe you should highly consider what it is like to have a real emotional release. This method of acting can result in outstanding performances- mainly because any emoting done by the actor is actually occurring rather than appearing to occur.
This result is achieved, for the most part, through sense memory and emotional memory training. The idea of sense memory is fairly easy to grasp. Here’s an example of how sense memory would work: The smell of my mother’s perfume is one I would recognize anywhere. If I smell it I am immediately overwhelmed with thoughts of mom, and associate these thoughts with warmth, love, and safety. If in a scene I ever needed to reproduce how this makes me feel, I would simply remember the scent of this perfume, and theoretically this should trigger such emotions. Students use sight, sound, touch, and smell to explore experiences in their own life and apply the reactions to these experiences within a scene.
After sense memory has been strengthened through various exercises, method actors then begin to use the sense memory to remember and recreate the strong emotions associated with a given sense memory. This is referred to as emotional memory. There are many exercises use to strengthen this skill- as the overall goal is to bring on the desired emotional response at the drop of a dime; this is a huge reason why this method is so popular amongst film actors!
As most of the acting techniques, the Strasberg Method relies heavily upon relaxation. Strasberg believed that in order to create the most open and responsive actor, their bodies must lack any tension whatsoever. A great deal of this method revolves around meditation and the release of tension throughout the body. As I said before, one must highly consider themselves before choosing to work on this method, as it can bring up enormous emotional release that not every person can handle. Some of the greatest method actors of our time have used this tool to live their career to the fullest such as Daniel Day Lewis, and Robert De Niro. On the other hand, Heath Ledger, another incredible method actor, is speculated to have been driven mad by his method work on the role of The Joker in The Dark Knight. This work is highly rewarding, however it is also highly taxing on the mind of the actor.
For many method actors, exploring a character often involves completely immersing themselves in the character and not coming out of it. They truly become the character in every sense. Daniel Day Lewis is notorious for this, and his fellow cast members can testify to that! Here’s a video if Joseph Gordon Levitt describing his interactions with Lewis on the set of Lincoln.
4. The Meisner Technique
Sanford Meisner, the founder of the technique, defines acting as “living (or doing) truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. A lot of people think of Meisner as ‘repetition technique’, but that is only its most basic form. What the technique really stresses is the reality of doing. Emotion, Meisner teachers believe, is brought to the surface through the action. Because acting is, essentially, performing a series of actions, the Meisner technique stresses the importance of putting your all into those actions. For instance, if you have to sew a piece of clothing perfectly, put 100% of your attention into making every detail perfect. You cannot divert your attention from this task even for a second because you’re focused on making sure you cry on cue or waiting for the next actor to enter the scene. If you don’t set up a reality where that article of clothing has to be sewn perfectly, what kind of world are you setting up for the audience? One that is not based in truth. It’s not interesting to just watch a person cry. It’s interesting to see what spontaneously comes out of the struggle of doing. Doing doesn’t always have to be a physical act (such as sewing, cleaning, cooking, etc.) Listening and responding truthfully to what your acting partner is saying fall under the category of active doing. A two year conservatory program in the Meisner Technique strips the daily niceties and airs of actors to get down to their guttural response (in the 1st year), and then gives the actor tools (i.e. point of view, impediments, fully realized objectives, etc.) to build characters from that place of truthful response.
5. The Stella Adler Technique
Stella Adler was an actress who studied under Stanislavsky. However, Adler did not believe, like Stanislavsky had, that an actor needed to relive past experiences to connect to the play. She developed her own method in which the major belief was that an actor had to rely on his/her imagination to fully believe in the circumstances of the play. Adler believed that acting is doing, and that you must constantly be performing an action and in doing so, find his conflict in this action. Every action done must have justification. She also believed that an actor must use his imagination to create the world around him, using every detail, down to the most miniscule. She believed that if the actor could truly see the world around him, the audience would see through his eyes. If you could not tell already, much of Adler’s technique pertains to thinking and analyzing. A deep analytical understanding of the script was a necessity to performing your role. She thought that you must know and understand the piece you were performing as much as humanly possible in order to perform it truthfully.
Another really important tool in Adler’s method is size. She pushed her actors to be bigger in everything they did. Their voices and bodies must be strong, and they must always be searching for the bigger meaning in the text.
6. The Uta Hagan Method
Uta Hagan was a well renowned German-American actress of the 1900’s. Much of Hagan’s approach revolves around specialized exercises used to hone in on the tools she felt every great actor must possess. These tools often pertained to behavior in a given circumstance. She believed that there was a given set of behavior that pertained to circumstances such as these and it should be recreated accurately to enhance the scene.
Another thing we focused on was “the moment before,” in which we would have to identify specifically what happened before the moment the scene began and consider how this would affect us at the start of the scene. An exercise used to explore this is one known as “Three Entrances” in which a student comes through a door three separate times, each time using a different moment before. After entering through the door the student would only react to that moment before- the moment unseen- and then the exercise would end.
Utah Hagan also used Stanislavsky’s approach to breaking down the script, and applied the “as if” technique as well. This meant that she would ask actors to perform a scene “as if” they were acting a circumstance they could relate to. My acting teacher at the time always found this particularly effective as opposed to imagination, and she would use an example from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to explain why she felt this way. She said, “A line in The Crucible is ‘I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine,’… how the hell are you supposed to imagine how you would feel if that happened!? You can’t possibly relate to seeing that because you never have-its bullshit,” she so eloquently put, “But you have experienced circumstances in which you felt scared and alone, use those!” What my teacher was saying was that someone playing this particular role should be acting “as if” they were in the circumstance that they have actually experienced when they felt scared and alone- and not the circumstance they are actually trying to portray at all, because they do not have that experience to draw on as an emotional trigger.
8. The Suzuki Method
Suzuki is a Japanese movement technique designed to help actors ground themselves within their bodies and characters. Most people tell stories with words and facial expressions, but in Suzuki both of those outlets are taken away from you. The face is in a constant state of relaxation “cool face”. Some teachers will allow expression through the eyes (crying, ‘smeyesing’, etc.) and others discourage it, this depends on the class. The form is rigid, and the actor’s knees are constantly slightly bent, rooting his body to the floor. The actor is forced to express himself fully within the constraints of the form. Suzuki is also endurance and strength training since most of the exercises are extremely taxing on the lower body.
9. The Alexander Technique
I had the privilege of studying the Alexander Technique with one of its nationally renowned trainers, Meade Andrews. Besides the fact that Meade is one of my favorite people on the planet, I have so many reasons to say that this class was my favorite and most beneficial class I have ever/ will ever take. I recommend the Alexander Technique to EVERYONE- actor, singer, dancer, teacher, banker, farmer, mother, you name it. This is because the Alexander Technique is focused on regaining our innate movement patterns that have been lost to years of tension built up within the body.
The body is built to be completely agile, flexible, and responsive to impulse. So why is it that so many people deal with musculature pain and limited mobility everyday of their lives? It is because over the years we lose this natural grace with which we are born. We lose this due to tension. Tension can be caused by numerous factors; stress, injury, a poor night’s sleep, and so much more. This tension can often lead to mobility habits, such as walking with a certain limp or swagger or having a slouch. The truth is that these habits only retain tension and it gets progressively worse. This tension stops us from responding truthfully to our minds intentions regarding movement. The Alexander Technique helps to relieve these tensions and break these habits, allowing us to return to our natural and healthy movement patterns. One example that was completely eye opening to me was this: Picture a baby, sitting upright on his bottom, for hours. Before a baby can walk all they do it sit up, and they have no problem doing so! An adult generally cannot sit upright without back support for more than a few minutes. I know I can’t! This is because this baby is free from habitual tension, and is able to float around his natural center of gravity- without effort. The truth is, it should take very little effort to move your body- it’s made for it! The Alexander Technique helps us to find the natural center of gravity and use it to motivate all movement. It is like learning to walk again. I experienced so many benefits from taking this class. I lost back pain and shoulder tension that had been with me for years. Most importantly, from an actor’s standpoint, it really helped me to be organically responsive to impulses. Once some excess tension was stripped away my body was significantly more in-tune with my mind and its innate intentions of movement. This technique can and should be paired with any other acting technique or any life-style.
Now that you have read this article everyone at Colby KMM sincerely hope you are excited to begin your work as an actor. While the process may be a long one, the entire journey is rewarding and beautiful if this is something you truly love. While acting is often taught using these already formulated techniques, remember that someone created these because they felt they had a better approach to an art and they wanted to share it with the world. Do not think that you have to choose one of these methods to find your way as an actor! No matter what you study it is imperative to understand that this art is developed within the artist, and your technique may be entirely different than any before. Being a good actor relies heavily on knowing yourself. Use these techniques as a guide line to find the actor you are, as no two are exactly the same.