03 November, 2013

Ask Al: Method Acting

The Method Makers..

Dear Al, 

You seem to know stuff. 

Method Acting: 
...what exactly… IS it? 

Thank you,



Dear Curious,

Yeah. Good one. 
Let's start with a Dictionary-esque definition: 
"Method Acting is a group of techniques actors use to create in themselves the thoughts and feelings of their characters, so as to develop lifelike performances."

[**balloon drop!!*]

[. . . crickets . . .]

... I know. 
That's it. 
Not all that shocking right? 
No one slices off their leg, or speaks in tongues, or won't answer to the name on their birth certificate in that definition.  

C'mon! Admit it: you expected me to mention living amongst a family of wolves for a year to prepare for your star-making turn in "The Jungle Book." 


Look: just like Square dancing, beauty pageants, certain religions, the cities of Detroit, Liverpool, and Tripoli, carbohydrates, and that majority of "isms" everywhere; sometimes perfectly non-crazy, totally decent stuff gets some weird, and arguably bad, "press." 

So: I'm not passing judgement on any of the previously mentioned, by the way (who doesn't like a good talent competition and for Pete's sake I'm from Detroit), I merely present them as things you doubtless have some kind of opinion about without a lot of true research or experience. Just like Method Acting. Everything you "know" you most likely don't really know--you've just heard about it...

To begin, let's break down what Method Acting's origins, in order to understand it better. 

Stanislavski.... DA...

The "Method" refers to a method of teaching the craft of acting, based upon “The System” created by Konstantin Stanislavski (made internationally famous by his first publication entitled, "An Actor Prepares," published in 1911). In the mid-to-late 1920s Stanislavski's method of teaching acting began to be adapted by American actor, director and teacher Lee Strasberg specifically for American actors to meet the particular psychological needs of the American actors of their time, to keep apace with the ever-changing
evolution of drama and theatre itself.

Based on the 1911 Stanislavski conceived-concept of Emotional Memory (a well of memories within us that stir and create truthful emotional responses), Strasberg based the majority of his teachings. But by the 1920s, Stanislavski had moved on from this concept, discrediting Emotional Memory as a viable means of achieving truthful acting, and replaced his theory with the use of Imagination ONLY. But this shift occurred unbeknownst to American followers who, of course—pre-internet-communicado—could not communicate directly with him

Thus, (and this is crucial): ‘THE METHOD’ IS NOT THE SAME AS STANISLAVSKI’S 'SYSTEM' — it is an OUTGROWTH of the American theatre scene--particularly in New York, flourishing in the 1930s and 40s. (
NOTE: Though sometimes Stanislavski's teaching are referred to as "the Method," for the sake of clarity within this post, whenever I refer to Stanislavski's work I shall call it "The System" and whenever I refer to the American off-branch started by Lee Strasberg I shall call it "The Method." Making this distinction with such starkness is somewhat unique to me and my acting/teaching life, so wherever your further research may take you, these terms may be used interchangeably. Be very sure to establish which school of thought is being referred to because they are similar but different.)

To put it simply: Stanislavsky's ideas changed over his life (particularly in regards to his use of Emotional Memory) and Strasberg did not necessarily incorporate these changes

Though not all Method actors ultimately use the same approach, the origins of their techniques lie here. Stanislavski and Strasberg are the "Fertile Crescent" of Method Acting. 


Lee Strasberg (1901 – 1982)  - AFFECTIVE MEMORY

"The real secret to method acting—which is as old as the theater itself—is creating reality."
– Lee Strasberg

Lee "Feel Your Feelings" Strasberg

Considered the "father of Method Acting in America,” Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre in 1931with directors Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, hailed as "America's first true theatrical collective.” In 1951, he became director of the non-profit Actors Studio considered "the nation's most prestigious acting school".

Strasberg's method emphasized the practice of connecting to a character by heavily drawing upon on personal emotions and memories and experiences, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and what he termed “AFFECTIVE MEMORY”—a memory present in our lives that causes an AFFECT. This is different and distinct from Stanislavski’s Emotional Memory.

Affective memory is defined as:
 "...any memory you as a human being can call upon when approaching a character to manufacture controlled emotional reactions to specific events and circumstances."

For most actors, simply recalling a past event will not produce an honest emotional response.  Relaxation plus truly vivid Sense Memory is the "combination to the safe--" the safe in which personal treasures (of the actor's memories) are stored away for the lifetime. The actor delves within his memory for the parallel event, and finally commits to creating its re-living

The "Affective Memory" is one of the most widely known procedures in all of "method" acting.  It has obtained a reputation that ranges from "dangerous" to "genius."
(...understandably... on both counts...)   

Noted Strasberg students/practitioners are Ellen Burstyn, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Sally Field, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda.

The most controversial technique of Strasberg’s Method teaches drawing emotions for a character from a specific past experiences and remembrances of the actor.

Strasberg renamed Stanislavski's earlier technique to 'Affective Memory' and continued to teach it as a proper acting method long after Stanislavki discredited it as a useful acting method.

To illustrate the difference between the two methods:
  • Stanislavski has the actor ask himself, "What would I do if I were in this circumstance?
  • Strasberg adopted a modification, "What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?"

Strasberg asks actors to replace the play's circumstances with their own, and if they did not HAVE those circumstances— to go out to, [please oh please oh Lordy-loo] WITHIN REASON, find them… 

Allow me to clarify for the hot-tempered: 
  1. He SPECIFICALLY notes that drawing from memories/experiences a MINIMUM of seven years old is crucial to avoiding risking psychological trauma.
  2. And "going out and finding" experiences includes, say, learning to ride a horse... NOT, say, STABBING YOURSELF... (like a certain Nicholas this-script-looks-absolutely-terrible-okay-I'll-do-it Cage was once rumored to do... whooops...


...And now! A little History lesson! 
 [*Go-back-in-time music*]


Once upon a time….
Three friends Lee (Strasberg), Sanford (Meisner) and Stella (Adler) were all acting and learning from one another mostly at a place called THE GROUP THEATRE (founded in 1931 by Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford). 

[*Do do do! Lee, Stella and Sandford all doing theatre stuff*]

Over time, Sanford and his fellow actor Stella began to fall out with Lee over his use of Emotional Recall, they both preferred/chose to use the Imagination to stimulate emotion and involvement in a play's imaginary circumstances. 

[*And now, for a little more context...Before The Group Theatre...*
...*further-back-in-time-music *]

Stella Adler (1901– 1992) - IMAGINATION

"In your choices, lies your talent!" 
– Stella Adler

In 1922–1923, Stanislavski made his only US tour with his Moscow Art Theatre. Many actors went out of their way to view these performances, and among them was Stella Adler. These had a powerful and lasting impact on her career (and subsequently upon 20th-century American theatre.) She joined the American Laboratory Theatre in 1925; it was there that she was introduced to Stanislavski's acting theories, taught to her directly from founders/Russian actor-teachers/former members of the Moscow Art Theater – Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya.

When Adler joined the Group Theatre in 1931, members there were already leading interpreters of what was being called “The Method acting technique” based on the work and writings of Stanislavski.

As actor-types are want to do, they all began dating each other. Adler was hot-and-heavy with Group Theatre co-founder Harold Clurman (remember him from earlier? She eventually married him in 1943), and in 1934, they went to Paris together.  It was there, in France, that Stella Adler studied intensively with Stanislavski for five weeks (she was the only American actor to personally study with Stanislavsky). During this period, Adler learned that Stanislavski had revised his theories, emphasizing that the actor should create by Imagination rather than Emotional (Experience/Memory) Recall

Upon her return, she broke away from Strasberg, on the fundamental aspects of his now noted "Method" acting.  In fact, Adler specifically stated: 
"Drawing on the emotions I experienced—for example, when my mother died—to create a role, is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don't want to do it." 
Whoa... strong stuff. (I guess it had just never really... been her thing...)

She left Strasberg to feel his feelings, and started her internationally renowned Adler schools in both New York and Los Angeles. And also wrote a heap of marvelous books. Among her noteworthy students are Robert DiNiro, Marlon Brando (possibly her most vocal champion), Martin Sheen, Warren Beatty, and Elaine Stritch.


Sanford Meisner (1905 –1997) - INSTINCT

"An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words"
– Sandford Meisner

While Adler broke away and started her Adler Schools, Sandford Meisner (who probably 'didn't wanna fight,') also left the Group Theatre to develop his own techniques over at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

Sanford Meisner...? ...Sanford Meisner....Sandford... MEISNER...

Meisner created the first comprehensive, full-blown American acting technique, which he developed to train an actor to create all the layers of a complete performance over a two year period. (It was, and still is, one of the most systematic and complete acting techniques in the Western world). 

His teachings make up his opus, "On Acting."
Meisner's work was based on the principle that acting found its most profound and truthful expressions in behavior that came from the actor's real human response to circumstances and other people. Because of this, his entire training method relied heavily on accessing the actor's IMPULSES, through which real, truthful responses, as well as real behavior were accessed in the moment. 

So, just for clarity, what exactly IS and "impulse?"
1 (a). An impelling force; an impetus.
1 (b). The motion produced by such a force.
2. A sudden wish or urge that prompts an unpremeditated act or feeling; an abrupt inclination.

This technique was not only applied to improvisation with others, but also to rehearsal, interpreting a script, and creating the specific physical characteristics of each character. 
Meisner has become perhaps the most noted for his "Repetition Exercise--" that is, the basic (but revolutionary) exercise that Meisner invented to train the actor's responses. 

In this exercise, two actors sit across from each other and respond to each other through a repeated phrase.  
  • Actors observe and respond to each others' behavior (and the subtext therein), and reflects what is going on between them in the moment, such as "You're smiling." The partner responds with "I'm smiling." "You're smiling!" "Yes, I'm smiling..." Etcetera. The way this phrase is said as it is repeated changes in meaning, tone and intensity to correspond with the behavior that each actor produces towards the other. 
  • Through this device, the actor stops thinking of what to say and do, and responds more freely and spontaneously, both physically and vocally.  
  • The exercise also eliminates line readings, since the way the actor speaks becomes coordinated with his behavioral response.  
Later, as the exercise evolves in complexity to include "given circumstances," "relationships," actions and obstacles, this skill remains critical. From start to finish—from repetition to rehearsing a lead role—the principles of "listen and respond" and "stay in the moment" are fundamental to the work.
His approach was designed “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

Meisner's noteworthy students include Alex Baldwin, Peter Falk, Gregory Peck, James Gandolfini, Jeff Goldblum, Steve McQueen, and Naomi Watts.


So you want my point-blank advice? 
 I dunno. 
I'm a personal believer in using what is the most effective and appropriate for the given project, role, time in your life, and circumstances of all of the above. Sometimes impulse needs to be brought to the forefront. Sometimes it isn't healthy to use a real-life affective memory and my vibrant imagination will serve perfectly well. Other times, I am certain that my affective memory is what makes me a "special" casting for a particular role, and feel it is (in a way) my responsibility to share that truth.

In short:
               Do what works

But as a guide: 

Don't move to a farm.
Don't stab yourself.
Don't die. 

Over and out,



  1. I'm with you on ALL of this. "The specific needs for projects" is perfect. Wouldn't prepare 42St like Rent, but same dedication.

    PS) --and we did lots of repetition at Guthrie during my time. the 'impulse' to make out was unsurprisingly common. ;)

  2. Al, I was blessed to study with Stella. She was emphatic that Stanislavski had said of what Strasberg was doing, "that is not a whole acting technique - it's just one small rehearsal tool!"
    Indeed, she was all about Imagination (each human contains all human possibilities) and Choice (finding the right possibilities for the scene - and for you.) "You are the piano - NOT the music!"

  3. I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.
    Visit the Website to Learn more



Related Posts with Thumbnails