Friday, March 28, 2008

Notes On Acting

I was trained in the Stanislavsky method. There is a lot of confusion about what "method acting" is, mostly due to the influence of Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio.

As I understand it, Strasberg emphasized emotion memory -- an actor "feeling it." This school of acting forgot that the purpose of acting is to communicate drama to an audience. In the '50s you might have seen two actors on the Actors Studio stage mumbling to themselves; their acting was "real" but it was not communicated to the audience. As a result, there have been actors who, when told by a director to do something, respond that they can't do it because they don't "feel it."

I can sympathize with these actors to a point. In my acting process I try to start slow in rehearsals and find a reality by pursuing objectives without worrying about results too early. Inevitably, by the third or fourth time I rehearse a scene, the director will become impatient and say something like, "You've got to be bigger" or "Pick up the pace." These results notes are annoying in the first few weeks because I KNOW I must be bigger, but I'm trying to get there from the inside out instead adopting superficial results.

One of the key epiphanies good actors make in their development is that acting is the imitation of what humans do, not what actors do. The beginner will approach a scene by trying to "act" -- that is, aping the results of other actors instead of finding the human reality.

This does not mean that one cannot learn excellent tips by watching master actors. I have learned much about enunciation, emphasizing words and elongating consonants by watching Alan Howard in the scene from Coriolanus on You Tube. But I can integrate these techniques into my acting because I have the foundation of my Stanislavsky training.

I'm not big on exercises. I get impatient with them because their purpose is not immediately tied to the purpose of theatre, communicating to an audience. I think it's better to learn by being in plays and solving problems, always with an eye to the ultimate purpose of performance.

I have learned through rehearsals that the quickest way to find the reality of the scene is to listen to the other actors and react to their words and actions. Just listen and react. Your reactions will take you to unexpected places and give you instant insight into what you are doing.

The biggest mistake actors make in this regard is that, until they are off book, they keep their nose in their book. Wrong! You must get your nose out of the book, look at the actor who is speaking and react. Even in audition, in a cold reading in which you have no idea what's going on, you should try to lift your nose from the page and look at the other actors. When you do this, your acting improves instantly. If you keep your nose in the book, you're not acting, you're reading along while other people act.

Another big problem beginning actors make: they do not stylize their acting. They make unnecessary movements, gestures, grimaces and vocalizations that clutter up their acting. I saw a rehearsal in the last year in which a young actress shifted her weight back and forth and fidgeted throughout like a restless child -- and she was playing the wise Portia in The Merchant of Venice! It did not occur to her that her every movement should be selected for the purpose of characterization.

Art is the selective recreation of reality. Actors must select their movements and eliminate the clutter. The Coriolanus scene I linked to above is highly stylized. Gestures are kept to a minimum and every movement is carefully chosen. The stillness of the actors is striking and powerful, but never alienating or unreal.

Once you are on firm ground in the rehearsal process, then you turn your focus to communicating to the audience. This is where technique comes in. This is where "feeling it" is not enough. The purpose of a play is to make the audience feel it, and here whatever works is good.

I was in a play recently in which I said, "I have been betrayed before by those I have known and loved." Now, I did not feel any great emotion inside myself when I said this. But I communicated emotion by choosing a brief pause before the words "and loved." That pause told the audience that the words did not come easily. That pause was the residue of being hurt in the past. The audience felt the emotion; all I did was coldly apply technique.

UPDATE: Other acting posts:

The Art of Acting

Rules For Actors



Anonymous said...

I believe that the controversial part of Strasberg's version of Stanislavsky's method was in his emphasis on the "memory" portion of emotion memory. That is, he felt that if an actor could not feel the expected emotion in a scene based solely on character and the play's circumstances, then he should try to recall an event in his own past which elicited that emotion. Those who disagreed with this felt the actor should be responding to the circumstances within the play only.


More and more I feel some method should either replace the Stanislavsky method or complement it. By itself it doesn't suffice on a stage when the audience is a significant distance away. Perhaps there is such a method and I simply don't know much about it. But it's understandable that as audiences have shifted through the years from the stage to the screen that many actors are often taught only the Stanislavsky method. I imagine that, at least at this point, this method should be at the heart of screen acting. Especially when you consider close ups.
I agree that if an actor relies on feeling before giving a decent performance that actor will not succeed long. A very good actor should have more tools from which to choose. But often Stanislavsky inspired techniques treat this aspect of his philosophy as a religion. I say learn it but learn stylized techniques also, as you mentioned. The latter is especially critical when doing Shakespeare, farces, and stereotypical/caricature type characters. Learn it all if you can. Stanislavsky was not god.


Myrhaf said...

No, Stan the Man was not God. I don't think the great acting theorist has come along yet. Until he does, Stan is indispensible.

[IMH] said...

Humphrey Bogart was quoted as saying, in regards to The Harder They Fall in which he co-starred with Rod Steiger: "This scratch-your-ass-and-mumble school of acting doesn't please me. Words are important." I've more or less been of that mind, too. I usually quite prefer the older, pre-Method performances in Hollywood films of the '30s through the early to mid-'50s.

Another thing the Method has going against it is the presumption of its name --- The Method (there can be, by implication, no other). That sort of linguistic chicanery always gets my back up. It's the same sort of nonsense that caused racial quotas to be named "affirmative action". You can't argue against it, the name itself precludes argument.

That said, certain method actors are damned good. I'll watch Vincent d'Onofrio in just about anything, for example.

On the other hand, your approach to it seems eminently rational, and in fact reminds me of another method actor who has a seemingly non-method approach. Ben Kingsley was once asked if he ever changed dialogue because what was written didn't work for him. He replied that the words were everything, that he had to find a way to make the words work for his character, not change them.

Anyway, some random, not necessarily connected (or coherent) reactions to your thoughts. :)

Anonymous said...

Also, there is a difference between the Stanislavsky system and "Method Acting". From what I've read the latter was derived in America from the former. Most likely by Strasberg. I don't think the whole mumbling thing was Stanislavsky's idea. Maybe it came from Brando who seemed to have some kind of speech problem. The one positive that may have come from this is that it forces the audience to listen more carefully, thereby making them more invested and focused on the actor. They may follow him and do part of his work for him that way.


Jennifer Snow said...

I don't know much about schools of acting, but I do find this subject interesting because of my experience with role-playing. I've found that I do two things when I'm trying to RP a consistent character (which is acting of a sort, I suppose).

Firstly, I develop a mental image of the character. Instead of a list of attributes, I can look at this mental image and know instantly even the smallest details like how they would sit, hold their wine-glass, and what tone of voice they would use.

Secondly, I concentrate on reacting to the events in the game, which is where this meets with your method. Role-playing is kind of like trying to simultaneously write the script and act it all in one go. Considering how tough this is to do well, I'm astonished that anyone does this for fun.

Anyway, if I were to offer any suggestions, and I'm not an actor so take this with a couple or three grains of salt, the first thing to do would be to try to develop a mental image of the character from reading the script. That may help in getting the details down.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill! Nice post.

To me, one of the most obnoxious legacies of the Strasberg school is the elevation of actor subjectivism as the singular virtue of the play. By that I mean that the maintenance of an actor's emotional state becomes more important than drama, storytelling, or even the bigger picture of the character's arc.
The most self-absorbed among actors use the "Method" to justify living in a world in which their every emotional whim must be fed before making the slightest move. I think that describes Brando, who was at his best only when he was working with strong directors like Elia Kazan, who could filter out the 99% of Brando that was accident to focus on the essential.

My favorite actors are the ones that listen, not just to the director, but to each other. As a director, I tend to favor Meisner-trained actors, because they are schooled in the art of listening, and thereby reacting. (Although, even here, many Meisner actors forget that they are not onstage simply to listen to each other, but to present the play to the audience.)

Oh yeah, one other thing. If I see on an actor's resume that they've had some training in London, I'll take a closer look. It doesn't guarantee anything, but the difference between the English classical tradition and the modern American is profound and huge. It's more likely that an English actor will have clear diction, respect for the text and will be less of a solipsist.

Myrhaf said...

Good points, Joel.

(Joel directed me in Monna Vanna last year, and an excellent director he is.)

Anonymous said...

I would say you are all collectively lacking a basic understanding of Stanislavsky's as well as Strasberg's actual work, both in intent and application.