Method acting is often confused with the Stanislavsky System, because both were originally derived from the teachings of Constantin Stanislavsky, a Russian actor/director who, in the early 20th Century, broke with old styles of acting and created the dominant set of techniques used today, by European and American actors. (Possibly by non-Western actors, too, but I’m not sure about that.)
The Method, which was popularized in the 1950s by Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, is an American offshoot, based on what many people, today, feel was a misunderstanding of Stanislavsky’s ideas. In most acting schools I know of, Method Acting is no longer taught. The focus is on a more “pure” Stansilavskian system.
The Stanislavsky System and The Method share a common emphasis on building a character internally, rather than externally. Pre-20th Century actors focused more on physicality, gestures and vocal techniques than on psychology. (Freud and Stanislavsky were contemporaries.) In other words, a pre-Stanislavsky actor might spend hours figuring out how his character walked, talked and dressed. The Stanislavsky actor focuses on his character’s inner life.
(There are early acting books that tell you what sort of gestures to use to convey sadness, anger, etc. No modern actor that I know of would take them seriously.)
In the end, both sorts of actors, if they’re skilled, may get to the same place. The externally-focused actor may find that his gestures “sink in,” changing the way he feels internally; meanwhile the “inner truth” actor may find his character psychology projects into his body, compelling him to walk and talk in a different way.
But the starting approach is very different. While pre-Stanislavskian might say, “I can’t start until I know what I’m wearing,” the Stanislavskian will say, “That’s the wrong approach — at least for me. I need to know what my character wants and is scared of before I worry about how he’s dressed.”
Method Acting differs from The Stanislavsky System in that the former focuses on whipping yourself into your character’s emotional state; the latter focuses on goals or “actions,” which I’ll explain below, and avoids any attempt to emote.
In real life, an actor may use a mixture of both techniques — plus some external, physical stuff. I don’t want to give the impression there’s a major ideological war going on. Whatever works, works, and most actors, nowadays are pragmatic about it.
As a summary, the three main styles have these starting techniques:
1. Pre-Stanislavskians (my term): What does my character look like? How does he sound?
2. Stanislavskians: What does my character want?
3. Method Actors: How does my character feel?
In reality, though most modern actors lean towards #2, probably all actors are, to some extent, concerned with all three aspects of character: looks, goals and feelings. It’s just that a modern actor will, in general, say, “If you know what your character wants, the rest will follow.”
If you want a way to visualize the three types of acting through specific actors, think Bela Lugosi (gestural), Marlon Brando (Method) and Keifer Sutherland (“actions”). In truth, I don’t know what those actors did (and do, in Sutherland’s case), but it’s a nice illustration to keep in mind. To some extent, you can also think about how gestural acting worked will in the huge theatres of the past and it silent movies; the more emotional style worked best in smaller theatres and the sorts of realistic plays written by folks like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. The goal-based acting of today tends to be a bit more subtle (less “STEEEEEEELLLLA!), and it evolved for movies (think extreme closeups, where you can tell a lot from just looking into an actor’s eyes) and television.
(Lugosi. Most of us — myself included — find this sort of acting stilted and old-fashioned. But — DAMN! — look how beautifully those folks moved!)
If the Method Actor thinks his character should be sad at some point, he does whatever he can to make himself feel sad. He may think of a time his dog died. He may imagine breaking up with his girlfriend, etc. Method acting also teaches “sense memory,” which is the idea that if you’re miming drinking hot coffee (or dying from a stab wound), you need to dredge up some a real-life experience and remember how it felt. (E.g. for the stab wound, “That time I got a huge splinter in my foot.”) So the approach is largely about emotion and sensation.
The general public thinks this is what all actors do. It’s become a cliche, and sometimes actors even make fun of each other for being too Method-y. (“He was playing a homeless guy, so he quit bathing and lived in a cardboard box for three days.”)
There’s a famous (probably apocryphal) story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman filming “The Marathon Man.” In one scene, Hoffman’s character was supposed to have been sleep deprived and tortured, and, as the story goes, Hoffman actually put himself through what his character went through, not sleeping for several nights, not showering, not eating, etc. When he showed up on set, a total mess, Olivier said, “Next time, dear boy, what not try acting?”
(Hoffman parodies this sort of acting — and maybe himself — in the opening scenes of “Tootsie.” If you want to see a parody of method acting, watch those scenes. Meanwhile, think about the scene in “All About Eve,” which is about pre-Stanislavsky actors, in which Adison Dewitt says, “You’re too short for that gesture.”)
I’m not a big fan of Method Acting, because I find it unreliable (what if you’re not able to evoke the emotion?), but there have certainly been some great actors who have (at least to some extent) practiced it, including Strassberg himself, who you can see in “The Godfather II,” playing Hyman Roth.
Other Method actors (or, at least, people who studied with Strassberg) include Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty. If you want to see the epitome of Method Acting at its best, watch Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” His emotional cries of “Stella!” have become basically a cliche of Method Acting.
Strasberg didn’t take Stanislavsky’s ideas and pervert them. In fact, Stanislavsky himself originally believed that actors should focus on emotion and sense memory, but he later rejected that idea. From what I understand, Strasberg and his colleagues didn’t have access to Stanislavsky’s more current ideas, which, at the time, hadn’t been translated into English. (I’m not sure if that’s true or not. But, for whatever reason, Strasberg based his Method on Stanislavsky’s early techniques, rather than around his later ones.)
Sometime in the 80s (I think that’s when it started), there was a backlash against Method Acting and its focus on trying to evoke emotions. There was a return to (or a discovery of) Stanislavsky’s later techniques (sometimes called the Stanislavsky System), and this is what’s taught in most American acting schools today.
There are all sorts of variants of it, and different teachers use different terminologies, but the core idea is to center your acting work around goals (sometimes called “actions” or “intentions”). Stanislavsky-System actors never ask, “What should I be feeling right now?” and, in fact, most of them think that’s a bad question, one that will lead them to a sort of generalized acting — just feeling sad, rather than behaving in a way that’s very specific to the character in the moment.
(As a post-Method trained director, I often ask actors to stop emoting (or to not worry about trying to evoke an emotion) and focus on goals, instead.)
Instead, he asks, “What does my character want right now?” He often expresses that as an infinitive verb, as in “Right now, my character wants to eat.” Or he wants to convince, to seduce, to win, to steal, etc. He goes through his entire script and breaks down each scene into a series of these goals. Then he focuses on the tactics his character uses to achieve them. As an example, in a particular moment, my character might be playing hard-to-get (a tactic) in order to achieve his goal of “to seduce.”
As a director, when I see an actor struggling with part of a scene, I often ask “What do you want right now?” and “What are you trying to do to achieve it?”
The benefit of this system is that one doesn’t have to fake (or evoke) an emotion. One just has to try to do something. In a sense, the actor isn’t acting. He’s really” trying to achieve a goal, in real time, in front of the audience. He’s really trying to seduce the actress (or whatever). But most actors find that, as they are doing this, they start to feel emotions, even if they aren’t trying to feel them. So, as with the outside-in (physical) acting, you might say that all roads lead to Rome.
There’s a great short book about Stanislavsky-Style acting called “The Practical Handbook of the Actor,” which is worth reading if you have any interest in the subject. You can read it in an hour. It’s a fantastic book if you’re interested in building characters for any purpose, e.g. if you’re a director, screenwriter or novelist.
If you’d like to read further, I recommend “Working on the Play and the Role” http://www.amazon.com/Wor
These modern takes on the Stanislavsky System are easier to chew on, in my opinion, than Stanislavsky’s own books.
To learn more about Method Acting, read “The Art of Acting” or “The Technique of Acting” by Stella Adler
“Sanford Meisner on Acting” http://www.amazon.com/San