"For me, our job as artists is to serve the story, serve the director, and serve the fellow actors. And if you do that, by osmosis you're serving yourself because you'll get the best out of yourself." -David Oyelowo
Actors on the big screen, small screen and theatre stage have the power to influence audiences all over the world. To develop their skills and become masters at their craft, the best actors have completed many acting courses to learn more about the different types of acting techniques.
Some of the most popular acting methods have been practised by famous performers such as Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino and Sir Laurence Olivier.
While professional training is not always required to be an accomplished actor, it helps performers rise above the rest during auditions.
Superprof will now consider six different acting methods that all young actors should know about: classical acting, Stanislavski's system, method acting, the Meisner technique, the Brechtian method and practical aesthetics.
Classical acting came into effect and prominence in the 1800s as a consequence of the acting methods developed by Konstantin Konstantin Stanislavski.
Stanislavski believed that all performers should carefully analyse the script they were given to explore the character personally and create a realistic performance.
Stanislavski published a book that was translated into the English language in 1936 titled, An Actor Prepares. He emphasised physical actions and recalling emotional memories about real-life experiences to fabricate a truthful character.
Influenced by Stanislavski's methods, Michel Saint-Denis moved to London in 1935 and established an acting school where he taught famous alumni such as Sir Alec Guinness and Jessica Tandy the techniques of classical acting. Saint-Denis used improvisation, sense memory and a balance between internal and external motivation to teach acting students.
The bottom line of classical acting is influenced by the fact that the actor needs to identify with the character he is portraying to realise a truthful performance.
Identifying traits of classical acting include using gestures and body movements in a careful and controlled manner, conveying emotion by effectively using the voice, identification and personalisation with the character, improvisation and external motivation. The previously mentioned characteristics can be observed by watching actors on the silver screen or the theatre stage.
Classical acting techniques can be studied in the United Kingdom in reputable schools such as the Drama Centre London and the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. Classical acting can also be studied abroad at the Julliard School in NYC, the CNSAD in Paris and The National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal.
Famous thespians who have applied classical acting techniques in their performances include Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator, Elizabeth), Patrick Stewart (stage performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the X-Men film franchise), and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Trial).
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Stanislavski's Method or System
Stanislavski's system has influenced the majority of modern-day acting methods. He was born in 1863 and died in 1938 at the age of 75.
Along with playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich Danchencko, Stanislavski established the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. He developed his technique or system after years of taking notes and evaluating his performances at the Moscow Art Theatre, among other venues. The first mention of his System was in 1909 during a rehearsal for a stage play. After some years of perfecting his theories, he insisted that the Moscow Art Theatre implement his methods in all performances.
His methods are still practised today by many film and theatre actors. Stanislavski is widely considered as the most influential of all modern theatre practitioners.
The most critical thing actors must remember about the Stanislavski system is that they must inhabit the role they are playing.
The Stanislavski method features the following seven questions or steps to help actors build more believable performances:
- Who Am I?
- Where Am I?
- When Is It?
- What Do I Want?
- Why Do I Want It?
- How Will I Get It?
- What Do I Need To Overcome?
Additional aspects of Stanislavski's system include realism in the theatre, given circumstances, emotional memory and the magic 'if'.
Stanislavski's system should not be mistaken with the Method that Lee Strasberg developed in the mid-1900s.
The Stanislavski method can be studied in a variety of schools all around the world. The most reputable schools in the UK to study Stanislavski's techniques include the Actors Centre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). Since Los Angeles is the hub of show business and the acting industry, there are plenty of schools to learn the Stanislavski system such as The Michelle Danner Acting Studio and The Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre.
Celebrated actors who use or have used in the past the Stanislavski system include Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Requiem For a Dream), Marlon Brando (Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and The Godfather) and John Gielgud (Julius Caesar, The Good Companions and Arthur).
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The Method acting technique is one of the most well-known but also one of the most controversial. The origin of method acting stem from Polish-born actor and director Lee Strasberg.
Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre and was the first artistic director of the Actors Studio in New York City. Lee Strasberg worked hard to develop the Method after being highly influenced by the authentic acting methods developed by Stanislavski after viewing several performances of the Moscow Art Theatre while they toured the United States in the 1920s.
Strasberg knew that the System of acting established by Stanislavski would revolutionise the world of acting. Therefore, he took many classes with acting coaches who had been previously trained by Konstantin Stanislavski and, in time, developed his techniques that become known as the Method.
The Method can be recognised as an internal and psychological technique where the actor trains vigorously to behave realistically under hypothetical situations.
Fundamental elements of the Method include the requirement of having actors create a blank slate by ridding themselves of all the stress and worries they experience in their personal life to correctly embody the emotions of the role they are playing, focus and hyper-attention to the senses and sense memory where everyday activities are completed with realistic detail.
A specific drawback of the Method includes the fact that performers who implement this technique often gain the reputation of being very difficult to work with and this can be career suicide for performers who are new to the game.
Method acting can be studied at prestigious schools such as the City Academy of London and Method Acting London in the UK and at the Actors Studio and Actors Conservatory in New York City.
Many famous actors have utilised the Method to create iconic cinematic roles. Daniel Day-Lewis' performances in Lincoln and My Left Foot, Charlize Theron's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster and Robert De Niro's work in Taxi Driver, are all excellent examples of method actors working at their best.
Sanford Meisner was born in 1905 and is regarded as one of the best theatre practitioners and acting coaches of all time. He developed the Meisner technique after working with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre in New York City.
After his departure from the Group Theatre, he joined the faculty of The Neighbourhood Playhouse, and while working there perfected his technique. The Neighbourhood Playhouse is widely regarded as being the home of the Meisner technique.
The Meisner technique is often confused with Strasberg's Method since they both share roots from Stanislavski's system of acting.
The Meisner technique is known as "truthful acting" because the actors get out of their heads to behave instinctively with the surrounding environment.
Significant aspects of the Meisner technique include repetition, truthful acting, improvisation and imagination that all contributed to realistic and truthful performances from actors.
Since the Meisner technique is one of the most popular methods of acting it can be studied in many schools in the United Kingdom such as the City Academy London and The Salon Collective and abroad in prominent acting schools like The William Esper Studio and The Taylor Acting Studio.
Famous thespians who apply the Meisner technique in their acting include screen favourites such as Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, The Godfather franchise and Marvin's Room), Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, Apocalypse Now and The Judge) and Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality, Speed and The Blind Side).
Bertolt Brecht was born in 1898 and is best known for his contributions to theatre and poetry. Brechtian acting methods, developed by Brecht, were widely popular in the decades following the Second World War and are still being used by theatre directors today.
Well known for his exceptionally politically stage plays that were influenced by his Marxist thoughts. Brecht did not want his audience to sit down and get lost in the ideas of the story; he wanted viewers to leave the theatre having opinions about social, economic and political issues.
Famous plays of Brecht include Mother Courage and Her Children, Life of Galileo and The Good Person of Schezwan. The previously mentioned stage plays were provocative, ironic and sparked interest.
Some of the Brecht's techniques include the following:
- Narration: narratives were used to remind the audience that they were watching a story,
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: the fourth wall that was established in Stanislavski's theories was torn down by Brecht who wanted his stage actors to directly address the audience with a comment, speech or question,
- Use of Song and Music: songs would be played in the background at random moments to remind the crowd that they were not watching a realistic play.
Actors in Brecht's plays used the acting techniques of Verfremdungseffekt (distancing or alienation effect) and gestus (a word made up by Brecht that signifies the combination of a gesture and a social meaning in the same action) in their stage performances.
Brecht is also known as the main component of the theatre genre known as the epic or dialectical theatre. Epic theatre is highly political and forces audiences to think introspectively about the specific moments that were occurring on the stage and why they were happening in that way.
Epic theatre is different from dramatic theatre since it has a fractured narrative and jumps from through time in an order that is not chronological. Also, there is no attachment to the characters and all plays show an argument and express a clear political statement.
Artists who were influenced by Brecht include the filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Jean Luc Godard.
In the summers of 1983 and 1984 in the American state of Vermont, there were NYU acting workshops that were held by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet and Academy Award-nominated actor William H. Macy. During these summer workshops, the practical aesthetics acting method was developed.
Along with 30 of their acting students from New York University, Macy and Mamet established the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City in 1985 which is widely regarded as the home of the practical aesthetics technique.
The practical aesthetics acting approach is a practical technique of acting that reduces the actor's tendency towards any self-conscious introspection. It can be understood more clearly through the following motto:
Invent nothing, deny nothing, accept everything and get on with it!
More information about the practical aesthetics acting method can be read in the book, A Practical Handbook for the Actor written by Melissa Bruder in 1986.
The practical aesthetics technique is made up of three major components: repetition, performance technique and script analysis.
Aspiring actors are also taught about the necessary actions a character may try to achieve in a scene. The 11 essential actions that are part of practical aesthetics include the following:
- To get someone on my team,
- To lay down the law,
- To draw the dividing law,
- To get someone to take a significant risk,
- To understand what is rightfully mine,
- To get someone to see the bigger picture,
- To enlighten someone to a higher understanding,
- To tell a simple story,
- To get to the bottom of something,
- To close the deal,
- To get someone to throw a necessary lifeline.
Necessary or essential actions have the purpose of focusing the actor on what they wish to achieve in the scene. It is also important to note that a thespian studying the practical aesthetics method needs to be patient, committed and have an open mind.
The practical aesthetics method can be studied at Play with Fire Productions and Acting Coach Scotland in the UK and abroad at The Atlantic Theatre Company in NYC and in Sydney, Australia at Practical Aesthetics Australia.
Famous practitioners of the practical aesthetics method include William H. Macy (Fargo and the television series Shameless), Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, X-Men film franchise, and Neighbours) and Felicity Huffman (TV's Desperate Housewives).
All of the mentioned acting techniques have the purpose of training actors to excel at their craft. Choosing an acting method that suits your artistic abilities will prepare you for a fructiferous career in the performing arts. Don't be surprised if in a few years your name is called on Oscar night!