"I love the sense of how time passes when I'm acting. When you're not aware of the clock ticking, that is always a good sign you're enjoying something." -Hannah Ware
Great acting is something worthy of marvel. The most accomplished performers on stage, film and television have years of experience honing in on their craft.
Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branaugh, Maggie Smith, Cate Blanchett and Daniel Day-Lewis are just a few of the most skilled actors working today. Their vulnerability, acting techniques and artistry have left an impact on viewers, won them a slew of awards, respect in the industry and, most importantly, inspired younger actors to perform at their best.
The majority of the previously mentioned actors have studied acting classically to become better performers.
There is a wide variety of acting techniques that are available to all and that can be implemented by aspiring performers to secure the best jobs and shine at auditions who knows, after a few years of experience, your name might be called on Oscar night!
Without further ado, Superprof will consider the characteristics of classical acting, where to study it and the famous actors that put classical acting into effect.
What is Classical Acting?
It is tough to pinpoint classical acting as a consequence of the fact that no textbook or actor will have the same definition of what classical acting is.
The standard techniques of classical acting came into effect and prominence in the late 1800s from an acting system created by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski. He believed that an actor needed to carefully analyse the script and explore the character personally to find the truth of the personage.
Actors who were involved were required to have an expressive body to relate all the details and eccentricities of the character.
Stanislavski published a book titled, An Actor Prepares, that was translated into the English language in 1936 just two years before his death in 1938 at 75 years of age. His theories of classical acting included an emphasis on physical actions, the objective of reading through the script with trained precision to find the main essence of the character and creating personalised emotional memories about real life or made up experiences.
Another pioneer of classical acting is Michel Saint Denis who moved to London in 1935 and set up a drama school where he implemented the same methods as Stanislavski and taught renowned actors such as Sir Alec Guinness (or Obi-Wan Kenobi for Star Wars geeks), Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) and Sir Laurence Olivier (no explanation needed).
Saint Denis trained his acting students using improvisation, sense memory and sought a balance between internal and external techniques.
Many British actors have widely accepted the techniques of Stanislavski and Saint Denis. Therefore, many people outside of the United Kingdom refer to classical acting as British, English or Shakespearean acting.
Before moving onto the next subheading, it is essential to state the primary purpose of Stanislavski's system, that influenced classical acting techniques, like the following: for the audience to connect with the character, the actor portraying the character must identify with the character.
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Characteristics of a Classically Trained Actor
Actors following the classical acting method are highly expressive individuals who use their body as a vessel to accurately portray the character they are playing.
When an actor disappears into character and adopts the traits, flaws and personality of the person they are portraying, they have successfully done their job and followed the advice of their classical training.
There are specific characteristics of a classically trained actor that can be observed by onlookers and differentiated from other acting methods.
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Some of the identifying traits of classical acting include the following:
- Body: the gestures and movements of the body are harnessed to use for expression and are harvested for effectiveness. Exercises and stretches such as combat training and dancing are practised to increase awareness and ability. The activities completed help actors remarkably utilise their body so that a story can be told without a single word spoken,
- Voice: the quality of voice and the tones used to convey expression are essential aspects of training experienced in acting courses. To use the voice effectively, acting teachers may bring in voice coaches to practise exercises with aspiring actors that will aid them in projecting their sound to an entire audience at a theatre house or focus on using the voice to express emotions clearly. A crack in the voice may indicate fear or sadness, while a rise in the voice may signify anger or annoyance,
- Identification and Personalisation: identifying with a character when reading the script is a critical aspect of portraying a realistic and truthful performance. The best classical actors look for similarities from events in their own lives that could help them identify with what they are saying and doing. However, identification may be difficult for actors who are portraying drug addicts, warlords or prostitutes. However, the feelings of desperation, hopelessness, greed, power and loneliness have been felt by everyone at least once in their life,
- Improvisation: while it is true that there is no room for improvisation during the performance of a live play. Nevertheless, it is a crucial technique practised beforehand to test the preparedness of the character. Acting teachers may decide to play improvisation games while young actors are "in character." The situations and games may be dramatisations of exaggerated events that may occur in the actual play,
- External Motivation: characters may be positively or negatively motivated by external conditions while at the same time be influenced by the internal struggles they face in their personal life to give more emotion to a specific character. Stanislavski studied this external and internal display as a characteristic of classical acting.
The characteristics mentioned above are some of the most notable of the classical acting technique. They can be seen by viewers watching a play, television series or film.
Where to Study Classical Acting
While a grand majority of well-known actors such as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Meg Ryan and Jennifer Lawrence never received any professional training, it is highly recommended to invest in acting classes to become a better performer.
Having polished skills from a public dramatic arts school inspires confidence in studio executives and makes you more appealing for leading roles.
Classical acting techniques can be studied in the United Kingdom and internationally at some of world's most distinguished performing arts institutions.
The United Kingdom
Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Helen Mirren and Ben Kingsley are all acclaimed actors from the United Kingdom who have received classical training.
Due to the raw talent of British actors, there are a few distinguished schools where aspiring talents can currently study classical acting. The following are two of the greatest examples:
- Bath Spa University MA in Classical Acting: a postgraduate degree course that is open for actors at any stage in their career. Taught by highly respected specialists of the performing arts, students gain insight into the classical drama canon of Ancient Greece and the 20th century. The course is divided into three trimesters that cover different topics related to classical acting. Appealing features of this course include opportunities to train in combat and at Shakespeare's Globe,
- Drama Centre London: the BA honours acting course offered at Central Saint Martins prepares students for a lifelong acting career. The course structure is based on the methods of classical acting techniques pioneered by Stanislavski, Vakhtangov and Yat Malmgren. The training is offered by teachers who are passionate about acting and whose work is adventurous, modern and international. The course is separated into different stages and lasts three years long,
- Royal Central School of Speech & Drama: this one-year classical acting course operated by the University of London is creatively, intellectually and physically demanding. Throughout the year aspiring actors have the opportunity of performing in two fully-realised public productions and an industry showcase. The classical course follows Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and the English Renaissance and Stanislavski, the Method, Realism and Expressionism. The course also draws on the highly successful acting techniques of Michel Saint Denis.
While it is true that the United Kingdom boasts very qualified schools to learn more about classical acting, some of the best schools in the world are located in other countries. The following list mentions some of the most well-renowned institutes to learn more about classical acting in other countries:
- The CNSAD (Conservatoire national supérieur d'art dramatique): located in Paris, France, this performing arts school offers superior training to those who are interested in becoming more seasoned theatre actors,
- The Julliard School: one of the most famous schools of fine arts in the world, Julliard boasts famous graduates such as Viola Davis, Robin Williams, William Hurt and Oscar Isaac. The Bachelor's and Masters of Fine Arts degree allow students to strengthen their capacity for expression in both body and voice. Competition is fierce; therefore, the application process is quite lengthy. However, there is the guaranteed expectation that all aspiring actors attending courses at Julliard are committed, imaginative and daring,
- The National Theatre School of Canada: established in the city of Montreal in 1960 by classical acting trailblazer Michel Saint Denis. The acting program is immersive and exposes aspiring artists to a wide variety of theatre styles and approaches. Actors are supported to develop their own artistic expression,
- The Yale School of Drama: the MFA offered from the acting training programme focuses on classical acting techniques. The schedule of study combines in-depth classroom training with extensive production work.
All of the previously mentioned schools, in the UK and internationally, equip students with classical acting techniques that will help them to hold their own against experienced actors.
Famous Actors Who Use the Classical Acting Method
Since the classical acting method is one of the most acclaimed acting techniques, many famous students are working in the theatre, on television and in the film industry.
Here are a few of the most recognisable faces of the classical acting method:
- Cate Blanchett: her use of voice, personalisation and body identify her as one of the greatest living actresses using the traditional acting method. Her best acting showcases include Carol, Elizabeth and Blue Jasmine,
- Patrick Stewart: uses great classical acting techniques such as voice control in his films and stage plays. He is best known for his long run with the Royal Shakespeare Company and for playing Professor X in the X-Men film franchise,
- Orson Welles: a pure genius who had mastery over acting techniques. In the majority of his performances, he displayed full control of his body and voice, which are two fundamental classing acting techniques.
Various other actors such as Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud and Emma Thompson are known for displaying techniques of classical acting on different mediums.
An aspiring actor should always work hard to develop their professional skills and adopt a method of acting that will cause them to rise above the competition during auditions.
Other acting techniques such as the marvellous Method, the devices implemented by Sanford Meisner, the Brechtian acting methods used in theatre and film, and, of course, practical aesthetics, can be further understood by reading the articles published by Superprof.