Method acting is not a single process, but rather a combination of different techniques which, when put together, create deep, engaging performances which feel entirely real. Knowing which of these method acting techniques to use at any given moment is one of the skills method actors have to learn and depends on both the circumstances and the needs of the actor and performance.
By looking at certain parts of the performance process and different types of actors, we can see the merits of the various method acting techniques and when they are appropriate to use.
During the rehearsal process you are first working out how to play your role, so this is the point where you need to be focusing mainly on analysis, interpretation and experimentation. There are certain core method acting techniques which can significantly help you here.
Given circumstances – This is the process of analysing the script to understand the environment and situation your character will be in for each of your scenes. Getting a handle on this broader context helps to inform the way you perform, leading to deeper and richer performances. As such, this needs to be carried out as soon as possible during the rehearsal process.
Relaxation – For method actors it is important to get into “neutral” before they begin acting. This means letting go of your usual physical ticks, such as the way you hold yourself and move your hands when you speak and also clearing your mind of your personal emotional state at the start of each session. This makes you a “blank slate” onto which you can build a performance. This is just as important during rehearsals as at any other point in the performance process.
Objects – To create a convincing performance, actors have to believe in the environment they are inhabiting. One way method actors do this is to focus on the objects in the set, such as chairs, bowls of fruit – anything real – and build a belief in their relationship to that object. By buying into the environment on that small level, they then can ignore the less real parts of the environment – such as cameras or an audience. This process of buying into the environment has to start during rehearsals so it is second-nature by the time of the actual performance.
Affective memory – One of the most fundamental method acting techniques, this is the process of using real memories to stimulate real emotions for a performance. Method actors recall personal memories with a strong emotional association, then vividly recall those memories so they experience again the emotions they felt when the memory was formed. By starting to do this during rehearsals, actors can be confident they have the tools in place to produce real emotions on cue when performing for real.
Substitution – The memories used for affective memory do not have to be direct analogues of the scenes being acted out. This means if you need to be sad, you simply have to recall any sad memory, not just one that is very similar to the scene being acted out. Working out these substitutions should happen during rehearsals so you have everything in place before you start the real performance.
Sense memory – This is a way of making affective memory work. Sense memory focuses on remembering the senses associated with particularly powerful memories. That way you effectively hotwire your brain into replaying the required emotions without a lot of logical processing. So, for example, thinking about a song that was playing when you were really happy can instantly make you feel happy again. These sensory cues should be worked out during rehearsals so they are all in place before you go in front of the cameras or an audience so you can be guaranteed an effective performance when it counts.
Animal exercise – One way to create a convincing physical presence for a character is to base their movements on an animal. If you want a character to seem powerful and aggressive you might base your performance on a gorilla, as Marlon Brando did for his Oscar-winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Do this during rehearsals and try out different animals and different interpretations of their movements until you find something that works.
Speaking out – This is a technique specially designed for rehearsals. It means breaking character during a run-through in order to directly explain an issue you are experiencing, such as not knowing how to say a certain line. You then return to the rehearsal and carry on as if nothing happened. This means issues are identified without breaking the flow of rehearsals too badly, saving time while still dealing with potential problems.
Private moment – If you are struggling with getting comfortable on stage or in front of cameras, the private exercise moment can help. This involves taking something you would normally do in private and doing it publicly instead. By forcing yourself to get used to doing private things in public, you should then suffer less anxiety during performance and appear entirely natural, as if you were not even conscious that you were being watched or recorded. As this is a tool to prepare you for performance, it is inherently part of the rehearsal process.
When it comes time to give your performance, you will usually no longer need to actively go through some of the exercises. You will have already worked out the given circumstances and so, although these will be in the back of your mind, you will not be running through the exercise during a performance. Likewise, you should have already worked out your substitutions, so unless a memory suddenly stops working for you, you shouldn’t need this exercise anymore. If you used an animal exercise to create a physicality for your character, it may be helpful to consciously remind yourself of this occasionally, but ideally the physical side of your performance should be second-nature and instinctive by this point. Finally, you will not be speaking out or carrying out a private moment exercise during a performance for obvious reasons – it would completely break the reality of the performance!
The techniques you will still likely use during performance are:
Relaxation – Being able to get into neutral is just as important, if not more important, for a performance as it is during rehearsals. Using method acting relaxation exercises before a performance means you are prepared to let go of “you” and become your character. It also means you can be more confident of delivering results when it counts, helping to boost your confidence and deal with nerves.
Objects – Having an audience watching or cameras rolling can make it even harder to believe in the environment you are inhabiting for your performance. Focusing on objects is therefore even more crucial during a performance than during rehearsals.
Affective memory – This is not just something you use during rehearsals to work out how to more accurately “fake” emotions during performances. Instead method actors use affective memory during every performance so the emotions they show are real every time. This is particularly helpful in theatre where you may end up performing the same part night after night for weeks, months or even years. Affective memory can help keep your performances fresh.
Sense memory – Although you should have worked out your sensory cues during rehearsals, you still need to use the sense memory technique to focus on those sensory cues and activate the required memories and emotions.
Moment-to-moment – This technique may be used to a certain extent during rehearsals, but is perhaps more relevant during performance. Moment-to-moment means believing in and inhabiting a scene so fully that if something unexpected happens, such as a co-star fluffing a line or improvising something, you do not react in character. This is because you are experiencing the performance “moment-to-moment” i.e. not just following a series of predetermined actions like some kind of automaton.
Types of actors
Generally, all method actors will make use of most of these techniques most of the time. Some, like affective memory and given circumstances will almost always be used by all method actors. However, how much use you make of some of the exercises will depend on the type of actor you are.
There are three broad types of actors and which you fall into will determine which of the method acting techniques you need to focus on most:
Creative actors – These are your quintessential method actors. They analyse a script, work out which emotions they need to portray and then use all the core techniques such as affective memory, sense memory and animal exercises to create a rich, dynamic, living performance. They will use virtually all of the method acting techniques, although more experienced creative actors may find less need for exercises like private moment and objects. This is because, over time, dealing with the issues they are designed to resolve can become second-nature meaning the exercises are no longer actively needed.
Imitative actors – This type of actor relies on consciously imitating what emotions look like, rather than actually feeling them. They may use techniques like affective memory initially, to work out how best to fake the emotions they need to show, but they don’t use the technique on an on-going basis. This type of actor may be convincing up to a point, but their performances will never feel quite real. They need to focus more on using affective memory and sense memory to really start feeling the emotions they want to portray every time, rather than falling back on studied imitations.
Stage hacks – Nobody likes to be called a hack, but the reason we use the term is because these are actors who may well have a fair amount of performance “talent” but they fall down because it’s all about them, not their characters. The hack never really tries to “become” their character as their own ego gets in the way so they never really leave their true self behind. Stage hacks need to focus more on relaxation, getting into neutral and letting go of themselves, then use given circumstances, affective memory and sense memory to start building more real, three-dimensional performances.
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