Are you a Method Actor?
by N J Howell
Suggested Creative Resource:
To the Actor
Crying on Cue
What is Subtext?
What is Method Acting? Far be it from me to answer that question, since I walked out of most of the method acting classes I audited. In fact, after reading the information on the website for the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, it's fairly obvious to me that I probably never even attended a true method acting class, because what is said that is attributed directly to Strasberg isn't exactly what I experienced in the classes I took. That having been said, I still resonate most strongly with the approach taught by Michael Chekhov, although I also enjoy some of what Meisner taught ... but that's another article, ha.
If you want to learn the method, I'd suggest classes at the Strasberg institute.
The facts are that what is called "Method Acting" today, is a set of techniques for the actor designed by Lee Strasberg, emerging from the earlier "system" created by Stanislavski. Many regard "the system" to also be method acting as well though there are differences, the most significant of which (in my opinion) is that the actor must remain somewhat separate from the character they are playing. I will refer you to this article on The Stanislavski Method for exploration of those differences in the creative process.
Am I A Method Actor? To answer that, I need to chat a bit about my experiences with the acting process.
When I first started studying acting, I got a few surprises. I found myself in acting classes where guts were being wrenched. I remember, in particular, a method acting class where the teacher was asking a woman to viscerally and completely imagine the painful death of her own young son. Energetically, this felt like a type of rape to me. I had such a repulsive reaction to it that I walked out, mid-class. I wanted to take that poor woman with me but I realized it was her choice to make so I left in silence.
In some of the classes, it felt to me as if the goal were to find the most wounded places within me and relive them for the camera. Not my idea of a good time. Since then, I've seen the danger of using personal trauma as an actor. River Phoenix comes to mind ... Is it worth the awards and accolades if getting into the role requires unhealthy weight loss or weight gain, psychological pain and stress, or getting so immersed in your character that you can't talk to anyone, at all, while filming unless in character? For many, the answer seems to be yes.
For me, it is a resounding no, especially when the same incredible results can be achieved without emotional angst or suffering. Yes, even a different body type could be created without the need for extreme measures with the use of one of Michael Chekhov's practices called "imaginary body". The use of tools like "imaginary body" plus the magic of special effects make-up potentially makes gaining or losing extraordinary amounts of weight unnecessary for any role.
If you ask me if I'm a method actor, I'd have to truthfully say "sometimes" but not as a rule. The reason I qualify is that, for me, auditions are radically different than performances. In a performance, I've had time to feel into the energetic truth of the character that has been written, I have the whole script, and I see the actual actors I'm working with across from me in the scene. The actor across from me, and the story as written, are what I create sense memory around ... not some similar situation in my own life.
However, in an audition, I usually have brief excerpts from the script, called sides, and most of the time, I have no idea who is going to be playing the role opposite mine, nor can I see the big picture of the whole story being told. At auditions, particularly dramatic ones, I often pull from a similar situation in my own life, to get at some vibration of truth, given the scant information I possess at that time.
I audited many, many, many acting classes while I lived in Los Angeles. Without exception, the method acting classes always left me feeling as if I'd hurt myself, damaged myself for my art. This felt wrong. Then, I stumbled on a free seminar with Mala Powers, about the work of Michael Chekhov. Wow. I loved everything I heard so I found a teacher, Lisa Dalton, and signed up for classes. Lisa is a fantastic teacher with such a love for the techniques taught by Michael Chekhov that her enthusiasm and glee is contagious. I had the most fun in those classes and also grew the most as a performer.
What's Michael Chekhov's Deal?
The first difference I noticed in a Chekhov acting class was the absence of any note-taking. I brought my notebook with me but rarely used it because I was having too much fun ... and ... the experiential nature of the exercises was such that I knew I didn't need notes to remember them.
The second difference was how light the space felt and how flowing and creative the field was, within the loose structure of the exercises. There was so much room for personal exploration and discovery. There were no beats to analyze, no real talk of character goals and obstacles, etc. It was all about discovering the truth of a moment in the body, without any personal residual or memory getting in the way.
Most delighfully, I found ways to elicit completely truthful and dramatic response from my body, my mind and my emotions, in a way that left me completely clean and light afterwards. I did not have to dredge anything at all from my personal life and I did not have to walk away (even from the most demanding emotional scene) with any residue of the character; the character's feelings or the character's pain. Oh, what a relief it is!