Written by Brian Timoney
“Going method.” What does this term mean to you?
Since the conception of method acting in Stanislavski’s ‘System’ in the early 20th century, the ‘Method’ has been subject to scores of different representations and interpretations.
Method acting is an all-round practical approach to acting training that germinated in a particular set of circumstances, but has evolved organically and adapted to changing times over more than seventy years.
Let’s have a look at its journey.
Stanislavski to Strasberg
“The great actor should be full of feeling, and especially he should feel the thing he is portraying.” – Konstantin Stanislavski
The ‘Method’ developed from the workings of Konstanin Stanislavski, founder of the Moscow Theatre, in the early 1900s. Described by theatre critic Michael Billington as “greatest single influence on modern acting,” Stanislavski conceived one of the first concise approaches to acting training – ‘The System.’
The aim of ‘The System’, was for actors to create artistic truth by ‘experiencing the part.’ It was comprised of three core ideas: a reliance on “emotional memory”, a focus on the actor’s “circle of attention” and a search for a “through-line of action” in which the actor pins down key objectives.
“Stanislavski provided a route map for exploring what he called “that conscious road to the gates of the unconscious”, which is the foundation of modern theatre. And it is a map that no actor, even today, can afford to ignore.” – Michael Billington
Following Stanislavski’s death, his disciples Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner and, most famous of all, Lee Strasberg, who took up the mantle of ‘The Method.’ From his New York Actors’ Studio, Strasberg created a new generation of American method actors between 1951 and 1982, affectionately know as the “Italians Street Actors”.
Italian Street Actors
“the Italian Street Actors…all the method boys, who would come to rehearsals in t-shirts and ripped jeans” – Christopher Plummer
The alumni of Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio reads like a who’s who of Hollywood Greats – Marlon Brando, James Dean, Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift and perhaps the most famous method actor working today, Robert De Niro.
They are know as a radical generation of “Italian Street Actors”, method actors who shifted acting paradigms in Hollywood forever, and presided over the birth of the modern method.
“Method acting is what all actors have always done whenever they acted well.” – Lee Strasberg
Madness in the Method
Stories of actors staying in character 24/7, putting on or losing weight for a role, living in the woods, and physically harming themselves to fulfil their roles make up a web of myths surrounding method acting.
The representation of method acting in the press is dominated these days by reports of certain actors’ extreme interpretations of the ‘Method.’ A cursory Google search, for example, will bring up pages and pages of reports of Shia LeBeouf’s disruptive behaviour, or Daniel Day Lewis’s latest extreme role preparation.
In this, and in the premature deaths of celebrated method actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger, critics have found reason to criticise the Method. They have said that excavating painful memories or experiences from their past to fill out a character is damaging to actors, and had a part to play in their downfalls.
Of course, these actors demonstrate unbelievable dedication to their craft, but this is not the whole story.
What Does The Method Mean to Us?
“Method Acting is the reality of truth brought into performance” – David Bennett
Method acting is about authentically living the character’s experience and then presenting that to an audience. It is a series of techniques that allow the actor to ‘feel on cue’ and conjure emotions and memories on demand.
The ‘Method’ teaches actors to express freely without fear, to call on personal experiences to lend truth and authenticity to their character, the be “as private, in public.” It is an immersive process that take character creation to another, more believable level.
Method acting training is the perfect foundation for any aspiring actor.
Would you like to know more about method acting? Why not pick up a copy of my book, The Ultimate Guide to Method Acting?
Brian Timoney is one of the world’s leading authorities on method acting. He currently delivers a range of method acting classes at the Brian Timoney Actors’ Studio in London & LA, & is author of “The Ultimate Guide to Method Acting”.