Understanding ‘The Method’ – The History of Method Acting
Many modern-day movies that we watch boast outstanding performances by method actors. In fact, the technique of method acting has been utilised by 80% of Oscar-winners in the ‘Best Actor’ category since the turn of the century. However, it is far from a new trend; method acting has been around in one form or another for a very long time. We thought it would be good to take a look at the history of method acting so that we can better understand its origins.
The idea of acting and theatre began in Ancient Greece. It was customary at that time for generations to pass on mythical stories by word of mouth to their children. This tradition gradually became a communal sharing and retelling of those stories. Eventually during the 6th century BC, festivals which celebrated the god Dionysus began to include performances which resembled acting. Towards the end of this century, plays adopted more of a formal style and were written down but at the time only male actors were allowed to take part in them.
As the years went by, Greek productions began to fall into one of three categories – those that were satyr, comedies or tragedies. Due to the vast size and nature of the open-air theatres, actors were forced to use a largely exaggerated style of acting which held its emphasis in vocal projection and the overstated movements of the body.
When the Roman Empire took over from the Greeks, they also enjoyed the grand spectacle of the theatre. The Romans also added musical scores to plays but phased out the traditional Greek chorus. However, once Rome fell, acting ground to a halt for centuries during the Dark Ages. Performances were very much limited to religious morality plays.
A revival in the interest of acting took place during the Italian Renaissance of the 16th Century when a form of theatre known as ‘Commedia dell’arte’ was born. This style of acting focussed on the wearing of theatrical masks and presented the art of improvisation. Typically, these improvised characters would fall into various groups: Zanni were the servants, Vecchi were the masters or elders and Innamorati were the lovers. Actresses were also welcomed to the profession.
Commedia dell’arte was hugely popular and had an enormous influence on European theatre. Each country would take different aspects of the art form and adapt it into a method of acting that pleased their own native audiences. For instance, France held passion for the improvised ‘harlequin’ character whilst the works of England’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, were hugely inspired by the Italian movement.
The Emergence Of Stanislavski
By the late 19th century, a noble gentlemen called Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev was growing up in one of the richest families in Russia. He was drawn towards the profession of acting, as his family had built a large theatre on their home estate. Whilst it was absolutely acceptable to enjoy watching theatre performances, it was completely taboo for a man of his birth to be involved in acting itself. Actors across Europe, but particularly in Russia hailed from an incredibly low social class which was the equivalent to a serf. However, Konstantin Alexeyev displayed sheer determination towards wanting to become a part of the theatre. He adopted a stage name of Konstantin Stanislavski which kept his performances and activities secret from his family.
Throughout his childhood, Stanislavski had kept a series of notebooks within which he would make detailed notes about performance styles, critique and self-analysis. It was popular at the time for actors to adopt a certain predetermined set of poses in order to suggest certain emotions or events that were taking place on stage. Stanislavski was opposed to this rigid style of acting and preferred to ‘live the part’. He set himself experiments where he would be disguised as a gypsy or a tramp and walk around in character. This was the starting point of his interest in method acting. The emergence of Stanislavski was an important landmark in the history of method acting.
The Birth Of The System
In 1909 Stanislavski produced the first draft of his ‘System’ of method acting. It was based upon years of research of performances by actors who he had great admiration for, playwrights such as Anton Chekhov and his teachings at the Moscow Arts Theatre.
Stanislavski was particularly interested in the psychology behind acting and its influence on creating realistic characters on stage. He studied the work of a French psychologist named Theodule Ribot who had come up with a concept named ‘Affective Memory’. The notion behind this concept is that an actor should recall a relevant emotional experience from their own life and then use it to summon up feelings which are associated with the event. These intense emotions can then be brought into the character that the actor is portraying. The result is a realistic performance that allows the audience to connect with the character on a deep level.
Stanislavski was also interested in the behaviour of actors before they took to the stage. He discovered that those who had prepared emotionally by relaxing into the part were more likely to deliver an outstanding performance in comparison to those who frantically buried their heads in their scripts to learn lines at the last minute.
The works of Stanislavski inspired a countless number of students. Many used the ‘System’ as a foundation from which to develop their own acting techniques. Notable examples include the Stella Adler and Meisner philosophies as well as Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting approach.
Strasberg’s Method Acting
Lee Strasberg was an American actor who grew up in the Ukraine before moving to the US. He set up the Group Theatre before becoming the director of the Actor’s Studio in New York. Whilst many acting approaches touch upon the idea of method acting, it is Strasberg who is considered to be the godfather of this effective technique and he is critical to any discussion on the history of method acting. He taught some of the most famous actors of our time including the likes of Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Marilyn Monroe and Dustin Hoffman. As the interest in film and TV productions has increased over the past few decades, method acting has allowed actors to command the screen under intense scrutiny from the cameras. As Al Pacino famously put it –
“The camera can film my face but until it captures my soul you don’t have a movie.”
Sadly Strasberg passed away in 1982 but his work and influence lives on and many actors have turned towards using method acting in their own careers. The technique allows them to use a proven process in order to create intricate characters and summon up emotion on demand.
If you’d like to join thousands of other successful actors in learning this technique, then why not consider applying to join our Ultimate Acting Programme. It is a one year, part-time course that will teach you challenging method acting, vocal and physical training. You will learn techniques for auditions and rehearsals as well as delivering excellent performances on stage or set. Students will be given access to top Hollywood and UK casting directors and will be coached on surviving the business of acting. If you’re serious about entering the top 5% of the acting profession, then apply for this exclusive course today.