“The human being who acts is the human being who lives.”
If an actor calls himself a “Method actor,” most likely he is crediting his technique to that developed and popularized by Lee Strasberg, though Method Acting takes its roots in the system originally established by Constantin Stanislavski. Strasberg became enamored with Stanislavski’s approach after watching a performance by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1923. At the time, Stanislavski used a technique called affective memory, which he later dismissed; Strasberg latched onto this idea and further developed it into emotional recall (see below), the keystone of Method Acting.
Strasberg worked alongside Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner in the Group Theatre, and served as Director of the Actors Studio. He once said, “An actor’s tribute to me is in his work,” and that tribute can be seen in notable performers including James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, and Al Pacino.
Strasberg believes an actor achieves her most authentic performance when she applies a memory from her own life that evokes an emotion similar to her character’s. The use of an actor’s own memories may provide an emotionally compelling performance on stage, but this technique earned Strasberg some criticism from his peers, including Adler, Meisner, and Michael Chekhov, all of whom preferred an actor live within the imaginary circumstances created by the play.
Relaxation and Sense Memory
In order to fully activate these past memories, Method actors must first achieve complete physical and mental relaxation, and then must develop an awareness of all five senses. Among the exercises developed by Strasberg to achieve these goals is the coffee cup exercise, in which actors first hold and drink a hot beverage, and then try to authentically recreate the beverage through pantomime. By experiencing the coffee with all five senses, both in the initial drinking and in the pantomime to follow, an actor can develop the ability to quickly imagine the specific details of the coffee, a skill that translates into emotionally recalling memories from the past.
Strasberg also created exercises to force actors out of their comfort zones. For example, the animal exercise requires an actor to observe an animal at the zoo (one that reminds him of his character), and then to embody the animal fully vocally, physically, and behaviorally. The catch? The actor must imitate the animal while still at the zoo, challenging him to push aside his inhibitions and fully commit to the exercise in a public arena.
High School Training
High school students interested in Method Acting can study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in the Young Actors at Strasberg program, available in both New York and West Hollywood. Programs run for two to five weeks and include training in Method Acting as well as elective studies ranging from stage combat to Shakespeare. Also check out the books The Lee Strasberg Notes, edited by Lola Cohen, and Strasberg at the Actors Studio, edited by Robert H. Hethmon, both of which consist of transcribed lectures taught by Strasberg.
Elizabeth Brendel Horn is an assistant professor in Theatre for Young Audiences at the University of Central Florida.
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