Method acting refers to systems of dramatic training that stem from the work of Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski (1863 -1968). While these systems can differ significantly from one another—containing varied philosophies, exercises and techniques of training—they are unified by their singular point of origin and their general goal of training actors to deliver emotionally expressive, nuanced, and naturalistic performances. However, despite the vast and positive influence method acting has had on acting in contemporary film and theatre, the term itself has something of a troubled reputation. It often conjures up the image of an actor lost in their role—staying in character between takes, or jogging on the spot to appear exhausted for even the shortest scene. Indeed, a Googling of the phrase “method acting is” elicits the following auto-completes: “not acting”, “dangerous”, “pretentious”, “bad” and “overrated”.
As you might imagine, much of the panic surrounding method acting is completely unfounded. And while some aspects of its craft do remain controversial, method acting training and technique continues to be utilised by successful performers. Its techniques are taught, in some form, by many of the world’s greatest acting teachers. So if this is the case: why the bad rep? What is it about method acting that renders it so divisive?
Method acting’s roots can be traced back to the work done by Stanislavski in developing his own acting ‘system’—a process that began in the early 1900s and continued until his death in 1938. The Stanislavski Method puts emphasis on the “art of experiencing”: to experience the emotional and psychological processes of the character, rather than simply representing them on stage. He placed great onus on close textual analysis—imploring actors to break down the script into ‘bits’ so that they could identify the “tasks” (or “objectives”) that dictated the path of their character’s “through-line”.
One of the more controversial aspects of Stanislavski’s methodology is “affective memory”. Also known as “emotional recall”, it is a process in which actors are encouraged to recall a personal memory similar to their character to build empathy and an understanding of their (analogous) emotional states. It is easy to understand how groundbreaking this process must have felt at the start of the 20th century—with the exciting new field of psychoanalysis in vogue. However, the risk of having people recall potentially traumatic memories for the sake of an acting exercise did not go unnoticed; some of Stanislavski’s successors wholly rejected the process—as did the man himself in his later years.
With affective memory, method acting’s troubles begin. This admittedly divisive exercise is often touted as the linchpin of method-informed training: cruel and triggering, forcing actors to confront painful memories with the goal of bettering their craft. However, such thinking is woefully reductive; it fails to consider how Stanislavski’s continued study allowed his methodologies to evolve and diversify. For example: in the 1930s, his work with Vsevolod Meyerhold (the father of biomechanics) allowed him to develop an ‘outside-in’ approach to character—the “Method Of Physical Action” that contrasts with and compliments his more cerebral techniques. But by this time, his early work had already been distributed and absorbed for over a decade in the United States—in truncated form and ripe for further study, and revision, and even total reinvention.
Coming to America
Stanislavski’s earlier teachings made their way to the United States in the 1920s, introduced by his former students during a tour of the Moscow Arts Theatre (MAT). Try to consider how radical the MAT’s productions must have seemed to audiences abroad: natural, dramaturgically rigorous, so tied to real emotion and devoid of awkward posturing and flowery recitation. Actors actually spoke to one another, not out to the audience. Situations, complications, emotions felt real … it is no wonder that the actors witnessing this theatrical revolution did their utmost to absorb all of the Russian master that they could. MAT toured the United States in the 1920s. Two of its members founded the American Laboratory Theatre in 1923. By the time ‘The Lab’ was in its final throes, the famed Group Theatre took up its mantle; its founding members remain some of method acting’s greatest influences.
Strasberg, Adler, and Meisner
At this point in the history, things begin to complicate; method acting’s greatest disciples in the 1940s and 50s, unable to agree on certain aspects of Stanislavski’s teachings, began to factionalise. Three of the Group Theatre’s most famous alumni would go on to set the standard for method-based training in the 20th century, despite stark variations in their teaching styles and underlying philosophies. Lee Strasberg is generally regarded as the ‘father of method acting’ in America. He followed Stanislavski’s early psychological approach to acting closely, advocating affective memory even when it was rejected by its original creator. Strasberg also developed an influential technique called “sense memory”: an actor is tasked with recalling the sensorial experience of a memory rather than revisiting the related emotions directly (click through to our article Emotional Recall vs. Sense Memory for a more thorough comparison of these two concepts). Strasberg took control of the newly-founded Actors Studio in 1951, where he taught some of theatre and film’s most formidable up-and-coming talent.
Unlike Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner rejected affective memory. Stella Adler was the only member of the Group Theatre to have studied with Stanislavski in person; her approach to acting carries many similarities to his work on imagination, as well as his later study of physicality as a key to unlocking character and interrogating the ‘given circumstances’ of the text. “Sandy” Meisner’s techniques are regarded by some as idiosyncratic; that said, his use of improvisation and repetitious interrogation of character and text to elicit the ‘given circumstances’ of a scene can be traced back to Stanislavski as neatly as either of his contemporaries.
Between the three of them (and aided by countless other teachers and artists influenced by the method), they trained some of history’s greatest actors: James Dean, Marlon Brando, Marylin Monroe, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman to name just a few. Method actors were fresh, exciting, fiercely committed to their work and defensive of their process. They brought new life to theatre and flourished in the medium of cinema that perfectly captured their intimate, nuanced performances.
A Dangerous Method
So what is it about method acting that earns it this air of notoriety? Can we really blame it all on affective memory? Its fractured history? As you form your own opinion (and you certainly should), consider the following factors that may play into its contentious nature:
Method Actors Are Seen as Fanatical.
Well, perhaps “rigorous” is a better word. Method acting demands significant investments in time and effort by those who wish to study it (or use it in their practice). It requires a breaking-down and building-up of one’s relationship to their very craft—the learning of new ways of understanding human impulse and emotion. Perhaps, to the outsider looking in, it does seem like an insane way to work.
Method Acting Is Political.
Socialist and Communist activity in the Group Theatre (and related collectives) was well-documented, and well-publicised during suppression efforts of these political ideologies in the Cold War era. While not every participant was politically active, some view method acting to radical political viewpoints: rooted in Russian theory, seeking to bring about a revolution in the status quo. This is arguably true … from a theatre standpoint.
Method Acting is Old.
Despite the impact it had on contemporary acting theory in the first half of the 20th century, some regard method acting, and many of its techniques, as archaic. What’s more, the perception of method acting as radical and revolutionary has shifted to that of the status quo: its teachers are no longer outsiders and mystics, but revered. Its output of rebellious, risk-taking actors have been firmly accepted by the creative industry–ratified by critical and financial success, and long, celebrated careers. When so much of the general public’s understanding of method acting is based on it being iconoclastic, what remains when it becomes that which it first sought to challenge?
Method Acting is New.
Method acting was at the forefront of theatre’s seismic shift towards naturalism in the early 20th century; it also reached peak popularity at a time when cinema was being used to tell increasingly grounded, nuanced stories. Method actors arrived in Hollywood in time for post-WWII disillusionment, the paranoia of the Cold War, economic struggle and the birth of the ‘teenager’. These new, raw, emotionally-charged young performers were the perfect vessels for exploring angst on screen. They must have seemed like a terrible threat to the actors and creatives of the ‘old world’ of filmmaking and theatre: a plague of industry-invading radicals. Consider how many quotations disparaging the method can be traced back to older artists, perhaps feeling their relevance slip: Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Laughton, Lawrence Olivier…
Method Acting Makes You Lose Control.
Given the amount of study and control required to practice method acting (let alone learn its techniques in an institution), this concept is one of the most laughable And yet the idea endures. It is anybody’s guess as to where this notion originated, but it may have something to do with the concept of ‘losing oneself’ in a role. Daniel Day-Lewis making his own canoe. Nicholas Cage having teeth pulled without anaesthetic. Nicholas Cage eating live cockroaches. Nicholas Cage … doing almost anything. Method actors’ commitment to their craft is often pointed to as a sign that their work has overtaken them. While some actors do immerse themselves with great extremity in the exploration of a character, they are always guided through their work by a process. That’s the “method” that method acting is all about.
It is unfortunate that we should have to work so hard to dispel the negative connotations of method acting. Beyond the hype, rumour and gossip, there is much to be gained by exploring and employing its various techniques in your craft. Some of these techniques are difficult, others can be painful or even traumatic. But method acting, at large, is about approaching craft in a regimented, structured way–not a definitive system that declares all others inferior and less committed. If you are interested in exploring method acting, read up on the history; take a class and see which aspects work best for you. The best method you can follow is one of your own creation: just like Strasberg, Adler, Meisner and Stanislavski themselves. Just don’t do the cockroach-eating bit. We’ll tell you that one for free.