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Retiring the Dinosaur

October 8, 2010

When you see a good actor, how do you know it? What, exactly, makes one performer stand out in crowd of pretenders?

Think about this and answer for yourself. Or me. I’m actually interested in your response.

Ask any theatergoer this and you’re likely to get any number of responses:

“They really transformed into that character.”
“They were so believable.”
“They made me think it was real.”
“They were just so interesting.”

And on and on. The theme I seem to draw from the typical pool of compliments about a “good” actor is simply truth. Play the truth and you’ll win them over. Play what you think the truth should be and you’ll put them to sleep.

Ever wonder the exact opposite question; “why do I hate watching this actor so much?” Usually, the ones who are trying to act their pants off aren’t noticably bad, let’s say, but everyone just seems to get a rotten feeling every time they open their mouth, right? Ask why and you’ll probably hear precisely the opposite responses of the question above. “I just didn’t believe a word they said.”

If we’re all in the same boat, truth seems to triumph.

What then, is the reason we can tell one person is truthful and another isn’t? Just yesterday I played ‘two truths and a lie’ with a new friend. You know the game; say three one-sentence statements about yourself and make one a lie, then see if someone can guess which is which. She tried admirably to fool me, and failed instantly. Even though I barely know her, I guessed the lie right away.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

Nevermind that I felt like saying something esoteric like “I’m an actor. All I do all day, every day, is practice truth, and try to sniff out falsities in myself in others.”

I ended up responding, “I don’t know. I just knew.” (Let the record show that we immediately played another round, this time my turn, and she instantly also correctly picked my lie. You have no idea how secretly disappointing this is for an actor. But I digress).

So, how do we know? Well, we know that impulses are real. Why did you click on the link to this blog? Why did you sit down at your computer in the first place? Why did you decide to get the mail at the exact time you got it today? Impulses. Sure, you can go back and justify. You may have been waiting for a letter from a friend, a package, or in my case, a scholarship check, but the fact is, when it came time to check the mail, you had an impulse. And you followed it.

Impulses aren’t all about chores and entertainment though. Sometimes we have impulses to slap people, or shout at them. Sometimes our impulses tell us to seduce them or hug them. Ever see someone get into a passionate embrace, then stare deeply into the eyes of their partner, gaze down at their mouth, only to walk away after a pat on the back? No! Not without a kiss. If you saw that happen on the street, you’d say “man, he really wanted to kiss her, I wonder why he didn’t.” We see impulses in others and we probably don’t even know it.

Sometimes though, impulses aren’t as grand. The slightest inflection is an impulse. The shortest pause, the most specific volume. All impulses. So, if we’ve done our math right, I think we can assume that when someone isn’t following their impulses (natural, truthful behavior) we instantly finger them as false.

Perhaps our knees bend slightly to sit down but we ignore it, or we scream and rant at something we’re certain we aren’t actually that mad at. We fight impulses so that we may ACT, and ACT WELL, damnit.  But in doing so, we’re sending short-circuited, cross-wired messages to our audiences. They scratch their heads and forget our performances instantly. “Tonight’s audience sucks,” says the untruthful actor, “they’re killing me.” Meanwhile, they’re killing their own impulses, having no idea why their shouting and emphatic gesticulating doesn’t seem to be winning anyone over.

This is why I say,( at the risk of taking this post for a sharp turn and completely blasphemizing an overwhelmingly popular school of thought) that I think “method” acting should go the way of the dinosaur. Stop “the method,” Brendan? The most successfully marketed and branded acting technique in the history of mankind? Why?

Let me count the ways, and also offer caveats.

 If truth is what we’re after, why on earth would we at any point in playing a character step out of our role into our own psychological past, rummage around for a worthy replica of a feeling, conjure it up, and then attempt to utilize it back in our make-believe world? To me, this appears to be two or three steps further removed from truth. Why wouldn’t you simply use what is organically happening in your character’s life to allow the emotion to come? The most glaring problem is that thinking and feeling anything but the present moment, the present circumstances and the present impulses around you is categorically false, not true. Immediately we are no longer truthful if our intellect and emotions are somewhere else.

Let’s say a script calls for my scene partner to say,

“Your father has died.” And then my character is to cry.

So, to completely bastardize “the method,” I’ll wait for my cue, think of my poor dog Charlie who died as a puppy, and work up some tears. Truthful? Exactly the opposite. If I am emotional about anything other than what is happening onstage, the audience will know (but perhaps may not know why they kn0w), and I’ll have failed. A portrait of life has all of the lines connected, not each living it’s own story.

Now, is this what the method asks you to do? Arguably, yes. Realistically, not exactly. Unfortunately, Stanislavski and Adler and Strasberg aren’t around anymore to teach us exactly what they meant, and yet underqualified undergraduate professors and overconfident directors everywhere continue to pound this mutated acting school into our brains.

BIG FAT CAVEAT: The ‘method’ revolutionized acting. The method finally brought a scientific, understandable approach to acting that made thousands of people finally understand how to be competent on stage, and how to keep up with the true tragedians who were brilliant at what they did but didn’t exactly know why. Method acting allowed for the gigantic change into naturalism in the 19th century, and turned grand, oratorical acting into more believable “real life” plays. It helped usher in the theater we know and love today. However, about nine different “schools of thought” get crammed under the same heading, “the method.” The ‘sense-memory’ technique started with Stanislavski, who later abandonded it. Later, Lee Strasberg pioneered it in the USA, made history, and in the hands of lesser talents, it has unraveled into a mess of an artform.  There are ‘methods’ that focus on finding truth and communicating life from the inside out, yes, but many are unfortunately tied to the idea of wreaking havok on your emotional history in order to feel something on stage.

Caveat aside, the teachings were revolutionary when they were created. Many great actors thrived in the systems. But our practitioners are gone, and many of today’s institutions continue to todder aimlessly down the road of the method, scrambling the brains of hundreds of young actors along the way.

Don’t agree? Here’s a story for you: on my grad school audition tour, I had a run-in with a very reputable school (which will remain nameless in the blogosphere, ask me in person) where I was asked to do a monologue. Then I was told what the monologue was about and why I chose it (noticed how I didn’t say asked). Then, as they brilliantly declared that I had chosen the monologue “because the character was in love,” (how interesting that must be for me!) I was instructed to imagine a former lover who’d broken my heart, and that we’d just had the talk that ended it all, and that I should picture her (a ghost version of her, I suppose?) in a chair across the room. Then, pause for dramatic effect, Deliver. The. Monologue. Again.

After this, this school actually called me back up to New York to go to the private callback. I declined. Too much method made me feel like I needed a shower, not like I wanted to study with them for three years.

In short, I implore you. Stop the method. It’s old. It’s bastardized. We live in the 21st century, and in this time of reality shows and social network tidal waves, we need truth more than ever.

There are new, effective, evolving, interesting ways to study acting. As my graduate work and this blog progress, I’ll happily continue to tell you about one.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2010 11:02 pm

    I kind of love this post. I can’t even explain to you the frustration I hit as a stage manager who had to address an actor as “your highness” for the hours prior to the show. Or who had to keep the entire crew out of one section of the stage because an actor was lying in the dark and acting over and over again the death scene, and could only do it in the dark, because it was dark onstage when they died. There are many, too many, of these instances, and notably, were always the least believable/enjoyable performances for me.

    Tell the truth, and everyone will be watching – even the stage manager who has seen it every time you’ve done it.

    • October 10, 2010 12:42 pm

      I’m so glad you could relate, and you actually offered another perspective for me that I completely omitted in my post. You make an excellent reminder that this style of preparation and execution isn’t just about an inward assault on your emotions, but can be wholly annoying to those in the immediate vicinity of your artmaking.

      Is it so much to ask that you actually be a NORMAL person offstage? I never imagined that wandering around in a delusional method-induced illusion would help one be more convincing onstage, but I think it may empower those looking to separate themselves from all the lesser, unqualified artisans around them.

      Imagine that, actors putting on a show just to acheive superiority. Never would have guessed.

      PS – I’ve been snooping through your blog, too. I have to commend you on the strength and simplicity of your recent entry. It was fascinating to catch that glimpse of you.

      • October 11, 2010 6:11 pm

        Thanks! I’ve really been enjoying reading yours as well. 🙂

        I think those actors I have encountered with the need to be the character even offstage (one I think might have been certifiably insane) are trying to get past the fact that they don’t feel like they know what they are doing. It always just felt like trying too hard.

        My favorite actors are the ones who chat with me offstage right up until they walk on, never missing a beat. They are usually also my favorite ones to watch. 🙂

  2. Mark Krawczyk permalink
    October 9, 2010 12:48 am

    “The method” was a term created not by Stanislavski, but by people in Stalin’s propaganda machine to brand a uniquely new (Soviet) Russian cultural product that could be marketed across the USSR, and exported internationally as a source of pride for the “mother country” in her cultural dominance over the rest of the world. Elements of this are discussed in Sharon Carnicke’s STANISLAVSKI IN FOCUS. Think about why Stanislavski spent his remaining years under house arrest working on opera pieces in his private salon. Someone was being kept under wraps to keep him from meddling in the state appropriation of his artistic principals and turning them into rigid, conformist rules for everyone else to follow.

    Is it any wonder that the likes of Strausberg, or Meisner, would misunderstand the guiding principals of such a “method” in total when it’s told to them second hand, and what they are getting has already been partially corrupted by totalitarian interference?

    Don’t forget the language barrier of the first harbingers of Stanislavski’s principals in the USA. The first emigres from Soviet Russia bringing this “method” here were speaking such words as “bit” and, through thick East European accents, this became the American actor’s “beat,” which further adds to the mystifying of acting, and even more confusion about what this “method” (if such a thing existed at all) was all about in the first place: THE DE-MYSTIFICATION OF THE ACTING PROCESS.

    So, such confusion leads to the likes Strausberg grabbing one principal from the “method” and turning it into HIS method, and Meisner grabbing another principal and turning it into HIS method. Adler got it right by going back to the source. She sought out Stanislavski in Paris, took copious notes, and came to the states and confronted Meisner and Strausberg with the fact that they had gotten it all wrong and were running thin processes on simple principals with which Stanislavski had experimented. Neither Meisner, nor Strausberg particularly cared they had “gotten it all wrong,” and continued on with their individual journies.

    Adler wrote a book, started a studio, and worked in a way that seemed more in line with what Stanislavski originally intended: a system guided by simple acting prinicpals, but not mythical, unexplainable rules. Still, perhaps Adler’s “way” even falls short at times. Who knows.

    Again, most of this is from STANISLAVSKI IN FOCUS.

    Anyway…after that rant, I would say I agree with you, Brendan…up to a point. I would say, yes…get rid of this overblown, monolithic, mythical “method.” However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. What I would argue for is not a return to Stanislavski’s original practices. His acting practices were made for an experimental, realistic, naturalistic theatre emerging from the dominance of 19th century melodramatic acting principals that were based on grand gestures, pre described facial gestures, and other factors that had very little to do with an artifice based in reality.

    We need to get back to the original spirit of experimentation that the Stanislavski school represented. The guiding principals did not only stand for a new scientific understanding of art, but a spiritual one as well…something else the Communist, secular guards of culture cut out of Stanislavski’s teaching. So the esoteric answers to questions like, “How did you do that?” aren’t always bad. They are, in fact, sometimes all we can give.

    When I met an actor named Tomek Rodowicz, formerly of Theatre Gardzienice in Poland, someone asked him a question about his performance in THE GOLDEN ASS. A young Polish, Australian actor asked him, “Mr. Rodowicz, what do you FEEL in those moments when you seem most connected to the work?”

    “What do I FEEL…,” he replied. “What do I FEEL?! That is none of your damn business. Even if I could describe it to you, which I can’t, I wouldn’t. If there is anything that is mine, that truly BELONGS TO ME in performance, it is what I feel, and I wouldn’t give it away for anything. That is MY reward. The rest I offer up to you.”

    I also think of a good friend’s answer to the question, “How do you remember all those lines?”

    He replied, “It’s like driving your car home from work. Do you think of it all in one big block, or do you take it turn-by-turn? I have to do it turn-by-turn. It’s the only way I can remember what turn is next.”

    Moment-to-moment, turn-by-turn work.

    Claim your reward once you’ve given away your best.

    Experiment with all your heart, mind, and spirit.

    That’s the method I follow.

    • October 10, 2010 1:04 pm

      Great stuff, Mark.

      I couldn’t agree more with several things you say. My post wasn’t so much about wiping the memory of Stanislavski entirely, but asking everyone to realize that he has been filtered down so mightily, that not only have we lost track of the actual practices of the time, but the essence of the spirit of experimentation and truth behind them.

      I mean, we all owe a lot to the Wright Brothers, but you don’t see me flying around in any early 20th-century model gliders, do you? The methods of flight have taken a lot from the initial design (and also their spirit of experimentation), but the practices and the technologies in aviation have evolved dramatically. Is it such a far stretch to imagine acting as a parallel? Perhaps, but I’m happy with the analogy.

      The most difficult thing to remember about all the offshoots of the original ‘method’ (which, by the way, is difficult to assign a definition or exact origin, as you point out) is that Adler and Strasberg and Meisner all were very successful with their tunnel-visioned ventures, and they all mentored dozens of successful actors.

      I say let’s change our focus from repeating the copied methods (which, by the way, we should all be damn thankful for, or we’d still be romping around in melodramas and ‘well-made plays’) and figure out how we can build our creativity creatively. If that makes sense.

      Hey, make too many copies of anything and it’ll stop turning out right.

  3. October 9, 2010 10:04 am

    Fascinating, Captain.

    Despite all that 20th-century baggage carried by Method acting, I think it is still relevant for people who maybe are not clear on how to reach the truth for themselves, but still need to find a way in, or a way through life, and rely on something like the Method as the ‘fake-it-’til-you-make-it’ long way around, and then maybe later have to pay back all that emotional self-blackmail and come at it from a truthful approach.

    The dinosaur could still be an effective prosthesis for those not yet at your level. IMHO.


    • October 11, 2010 4:34 pm

      I’m flattered, Daniel, thank you.

      As a counterpoint, though, I’d recommend that a novice actor avoid the method initially (unlike the thousands around him who’ll cut their teeth on what they’ve been told as the end-all system for actor training). For those without a regimen for conjuring up truth and creativity onstage, I’d say that we should focus on harnessing a new system for developing those muscles.

      The method, in a way, is a shortcut. Yes, we’ve all been sad before, so if I think of something sad and actually become sad onstage, it may be believable. But one can’t possibly conjure the hundreds of feelings and emotions that a person (character) goes through in a typical drama, so as audiences often we’re left feeling that actors got the feeling of a part, but perhaps didn’t nail it. The method, in today’s permutation anyway, isn’t growing potentials into artists. Its growing hopefuls into mediocrity.

      There we have the caveat, of course, that very rarely an actor will use the method and transcend from “me thinking of sad things” to “I used a sad thing to truly discover a character’s essence.” But that leap is often a mystical one, and if it can’t be grasped, all we have on stage is a bunch of poor saps who’s acting coaches have insisted they mutilate themselves onstage on a nightly basis.

      I think that at the end of the day, method acting will progress you. But there is just no guarantee as to how far or how successfully. What I hope everyone realizes is that this one ‘method’ is merely an option, one of literally dozens. To those who have been to narrow-focused to realize this, I offer one challenge: can an actor create believable emotion, connection and truth onstage without the use of a single personal memory? Can your creativity be trained like a muscle?

  4. elle permalink
    October 12, 2010 12:44 pm

    As an MFA hopeful, I have been following your blog and have been enjoying it very much. I have always been leary of the ~Method~, but one thing that has always boggled my mind is something you briefly touched on in this post: if the script requires you to cry at a particular moment in a scene (maybe it’s just stage directions, maybe a character asks why you’re crying, etc.) yet the scene’s circumstances/moment is not enough to make you cry, what do you do? What do you do in order to both be truthful and to cry in that specific moment night after night?

    • October 13, 2010 7:04 pm

      Hey Elle, thanks for reading.

      The question you ask is a complicated one. Why might a particular stage direction fail to speak to an actor? It may be that the actor doesn’t have deep enough access to genuine emotion, or it simply may not be a worthy scene.

      If it is a playwright we trust without a doubt (Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, etc) then I would hesitate to imagine we could find fault with the script. Even the very good playwrights (O’Neill, Mamet, Williams, Albee, etc) would be difficult to prove unsuccessful in developing character, so again, I’d say it was the actor. If it’s a two-bit playwright, there would certainly be a chance that the character and or circumstances are not drawn well enough to allow the emotion to develop.

      Oftentimes, I feel actors are pressing particular moments so intently that they are doing themselves detriment. We mustn’t always “play the tragic event,” or we’ll rarely succeed. If we play “life as normal” immediately before the tragic event, and we do so with undeniable truth and freedom, the tragic event will trigger the required emotion without any problem, will it not? If we trust our playwright, we know they’ve written the script in such a way that our character has absolutely no choice but to cry when they hear their father has passed.

      Again, if we play the truth of the character prior to the revelation, that my father and I have a loving relationship, that I look up to him, that I’m inspired by him, that he is the person I turn to when something is wrong in my life, that I truly wouldn’t know what to do without him, etc… If I achieve that truth, crying when I hear of his death will be automatic, not difficult.

      If we have a good script and the tears still aren’t coming, I’d say we have one of two problems to address: One, the actor hasn’t found a way to exercise and develop their access to a range of creativity and emotions. This comes with practice, lots of it, and thankfully, is what Master’s programs are for(or at least, SHOULD be for, if you go to a good one). Two, it may be that the actor has the range of emotions to access, but hasn’t fully connected to the given circumstances of the character, like the hypothetical ones I detailed above.

      Either way, I don’t think it should frustrate an actor if they don’t get it right away. If they aren’t, as a person, easily moved to tears (or easily moved to any particular emotion for that matter), it’s difficult to immediately conjure an honest emotion.

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