For many reasons, I love working with young actors who are taking their first steps on stage, but my favorite part is seeing them say a line, or make a gesture, or move around the stage without whatever informing their decisions.
Acting, like all things, has fundamentals to master, and the way in which I present these fundamentals to young actors is always the same. Let’s say an actor hits a triumphant note at the end of her song, and she slowly lifts her arms to the side as if opening up for a hug.
Why do you do this? I ask.
Do what? She responds, her arms still outstretched.
In another scene, an actor crosses the stage during his line and continues talking to the other actor, who is now behind him.
Hold it! Why did you move there? I ask, knowing what the answer will be.
And it’s the same answer to both questions: I don’t know.
Bingo. The first step towards improving as a new player is to answer these questions, and there are many ways to do it. The most common response when you ask someone, how do actors act? would probably be a method, but method is only one of many theatrical methodologies.
Most non-actors separate actors into two groups: actors and method actors. Think of Marlon Brando, Heath Ledger or Hilary Swank. Unheated people generally think the method becomes the character and it can be, but often elements of the method are used piecemeal to support the craft.
Before we break down acting techniques, however, we must first go back to early 1900s Russia.
Konstantin Stanislavski is one of the most influential figures in the history of modern theater, and the acting system he created laid the foundation for contemporary performance as we know it. The Stanislavskis system encouraged actors to approach their characters holistically and to read between the lines of the text to better understand their role.
The system emphasized a full understanding of the character: a physical, emotional and technical embodiment. Stanislavsky had many students, and when his system found its way to America, three of them perfected it and turned it into what we now call the Method.
Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Stanford Meisner refined and broadened their experiences with the Stanislavskis system into something new, each focusing on a different aspect of the holistic approach. Contrary to popular belief, the method is do not about life as a character outside the theatrical space. While some famous (and even infamous) actors have taken this approach, these techniques don’t need to be considered in the real world.
Back to the question I ask my students Why did you do this? and answer it using the method. Suppose an actor makes an overall actor choice to limp his character. The text does not call for limping, but the actor can make that choice by reading beyond the text in the story of his characters.
It was mentioned in the script that this character received a Purple Heart while serving in the military, so we know this individual was injured. The actor further chooses to walk with a limp but not to use a cane, so physical choice now also informs emotional choices: this character is purposeful and proud, or maybe he’s stubborn.
These emotional choices could then inform more physical choices. This stubbornness, for example, can lead to a rigid or meticulous quality of the character’s actions: perhaps he is adjusting his chair. just like that every time he sits.
We could go further by considering where the story takes place and where the character was likely to have grown up. Are there any regional dialects to consider that might inform the way a character speaks? When does the game take place and does it inform pronunciation choices? (Think cursed against cursed.)
These elements of the characters’ lives are not brought to light in the script, but by investigating the realities of the characters. outside From the text, the actor can build a base of interconnected choices that inform each other during the performance.
Now you might be wondering why what a character ate for breakfast this morning is important to the audience during the performance? After all, the public will never know or even care about making those connections.
I think that’s a good question, and that’s why method is just one of the many methodologies actors can use to create a performance. Next time, take a good look at the purely physical game: how actors can create a character with their bodies alone.
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