Practical Aesthetics – The Best of Both?

Posted on 31 August 2016

Practical Aesthetics


At first glance, practical aesthetics might seem to be the same as method acting. They both come from the theories of our favourite, Konstantin Stanislavski; and like all acting techniques they both have the goal of evoking “truth” in an acting performance.

The difference is how these two techniques were shaped after being sparked by Stanislavski. We’ve covered the rise of the Lee Strasberg method before, as well as Stanislavski himself. The “method” and the way we teach here is based on the work of Lee Strasberg.

Practical aesthetics, on the other hand, arises from the work of Sanford Meisner. Like Strasberg, Meisner was a huge fan of Stanislavski. The two of them studied together with others to expand his system before going different ways in interpreting truthfulness in acting; Strasberg preferred psychology and Meisner preferred physiology.


The Actor versus The Writer

The Meisner Technique involves a more fantastic approach to imagination; the “scenic truth” comes from an actor’s total belief in the fictional world they’re performing. In the Strasberg Method, actors’ reactions are more grounded in reality. Practical aesthetics ties into Meisner’s version of a performance by being writer-centred.

Focus on the writing and the creation of the world means that a practical aesthetics actor isn’t given a character to interpret, but instead a creative moment. The actor takes their lines and scripted actions and creates their own persona using imagination. Words, context, and the actor’s own actions combine to create a “character” that varies with each iteration of the play.

This means that an actor trained in practical aesthetics is not as focused on emotional truthfulness as a method actor. There is no looking for parallel experiences, or ways to trigger genuine emotional empathy with the character. Instead, the practical aesthetics actor is focused on physically embodying the script; the actor’s body is a vessel for a plot, not a person.

Don’t mistake practical aesthetics for an emotion-free style of performance; each action is still carried out with intent and truthfulness, often in a much more vulnerable way because the actor has freedom to feel whatever comes naturally.


Developing a Character

The method is all about the actor; there is little differentiation between the actor and the character. It’s all about truly living the life of the scene. However, in practical aesthetics the actor is defined by everything around their “character”; other actors, the text, and the scene that’s set.

Because of this external focus, practical aesthetics is often a creative playground of sorts; there is constant contextual feedback. The questions the actor asks of themselves are focused externally, and often not on the minor details a method actor would obsess over.


As-If versus Emotional Memory

Emotional memory is something we talk a lot about on our blog. In a nutshell, it’s the use of personal memories to evoke genuine emotion during a scene. The practical aesthetics As-If exercise is often taken to mean the same thing, but it is different.

In As-If, your memories are used to understand your behaviour in a scene; but your emotions don’t factor into it. Instead, the focus is on your physical embodiment of the action. Past memories help you to form a personal connection to the actions you carry out; similar to muscle memory, this exercise makes physical movement on the stage seem natural and realistic.

As-If is an improvisation exercise. There is an action scripted for the actor, and so they run through every possible way of doing this action: with a heavy sadness or with an ecstatic joy; facing the back wall or facing the audience. It’s termed “As-If” because by creating as-if phrases the actor can verbalise these actions. For example, the action is a physical expression of “seizing an opportunity”. The as-if might be “it’s as if I got a job in New York but I’m afraid to take it up”.

The difference in what is achieved is straightforward: emotional memory produces an honest depiction of emotion; and As-If produces an honest series of actions, without excess drama or pomp.


Practicing Practical Aesthetics

An exercise many actors trained in practical aesthetics will do is script analysis; this is very different to method actors, who try not to over-analyse their performances. Practical aesthetics, however, is so built on fitting into a context that the actors who do it have script analysis down to a fine art.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how you might analyse like a practical aestheticist:

  1. On first reading of the script, make a note of every literal action your character takes. A step to the left, a friendly wave, etc.
  2. Next, determine your character’s “goal” in the scene – this will inform the manner in which you carry out those actions described in step one.
  3. Find one action – your “essential action”- that encapsulates your character’s goal and personality. It may not be scripted, and is very similar in nature to Meisner’s psychological gesture.

Actions are vital to analysis because practical aesthetics is so focused on physical interpretation of a script. Each action you take carries the weight of emotion a method actor would carry in their face or voice; practical aesthetics uses the actor’s whole body.

You should now be able to see that, despite their common ancestry, method acting and practical aesthetics couldn’t be more different. Where Strasberg’s method acting is built on inward reflection and psychoanalysis, practical aesthetics is focused on getting the actor out of their head and into the physical realm.

However, the two styles of acting don’t have to be exclusive of each other. Because method acting is such a mental endeavour, it can help to have physical techniques in your toolbox to ground you. On our Ultimate Acting Programme we largely teach Strasberg’s method, but we appreciate techniques from all acting schools; after all, the more technical acting knowledge you have under your belt, the better.

If you consider yourself capable of the tough mental and physical work of acting, why not apply for one of our courses?


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