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Method acting is any of a family of techniques used by actors to create in themselves the thoughts and emotions of their characters, so as to develop lifelike performances. Though not all Method actors use the same approach, the "method" in Method acting usually refers to the practice, influenced by Constantin Stanislavski and created by Lee Strasberg, in which actors draw upon their own emotions and memories in their portrayals, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and affective memory.
Method actors are often characterized[by whom?] as immersing themselves in their characters to the extent that they continue to portray them even offstage or off-camera for the duration of a project. However, this is a popular misconception. While some actors have employed this approach, it is generally not taught as part of the Method.
Method acting has been described as "revolutionizing American theater." While Classical acting instruction "had focused on developing external talents," the Method was "the first systematized training that also developed internal abilities (sensory, psychological, emotional)."
Method acting continues to evolve, with many contemporary acting teachers, schools, and colleges teaching an integrated approach that draws from several different schools of thought about acting.
"The Method" was first popularized by the Group Theatre in New York City in the 1930s and subsequently advanced by Lee Strasberg and others at The Actors Studio in the 1940s and 1950s. It was derived from the 'system' created by Constantin Stanislavski, who pioneered similar ideas in his quest for "theatrical truth." This was done through his friendships with Russia's leading actors, his collaborations with playwright Anton Chekhov, and his own teaching, writing, and acting at the Moscow Art Theater (founded in 1897).
Strasberg's students included many of America's most famous actors of the latter half of the 20th century, including Paul Newman, Al Pacino, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke, and many others.
Using the Method, the actor also recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed.
"Method acting" or "the Method" usually refers to the teachings of Lee Strasberg, but the term is also sometimes mistakenly applied to the teachings of his Group Theatre colleagues, including Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, and Sanford Meisner, and to other schools of acting derived from Stanislavski's system, each of which takes a slightly different approach. Even Stanislavski himself modified his system dramatically over the course of his career.
Generally, Method acting combines the actor's careful consideration of the character's psychological motives and personal identification with the character, possibly including a reproduction of the character's emotional state by recalling emotions or sensations from the actor's own life. It is often contrasted with acting in which thoughts and emotions are indicated, or presented in a clichéd, unrealistic way. Among the concepts and techniques of Method acting are substitution, "as if," sense memory, affective memory, animal work, and archetype work. Strasberg uses the question, "What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?" Strasberg asks the actor to replace the play's circumstances with his or her own, the substitution. sense memory Sanford Meisner, another Group Theatre pioneer, championed a closely related version of the Method, which came to be called the Meisner technique. Meisner broke from Strasberg on the subjects of sense memory and affective memory, basic techniques espoused by Strasberg through which actors access their own personal experiences in order to identify with and portray the emotional lives of their characters. Meisner believed that this approach caused actors to focus on themselves and not fully tell the story. He advocated fully immersing oneself "in the moment" and concentrating on one's partner. Meisner taught actors to achieve spontaneity by understanding the given circumstances of the scene (as did Strasberg) and through interpersonal exercises he designed to help actors invest emotionally in the scene, freeing them to react "honestly" as the character. Meisner described acting as "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances."
Robert Lewis also broke with Strasberg. In his books Method—or Madness? and the more autobiographical Slings and Arrows, Lewis disagreed with the idea that vocal training should be separated from pure emotional training. Lewis felt that more emphasis should be placed on formal voice and body training, such as teaching actors how to speak verse and enunciate clearly, rather than on pure raw emotion, which he felt was the focus of Method training.
Stella Adler, an actress and acting teacher whose fame was cemented by the success of her students Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro, also broke with Strasberg after she studied with Stanislavski himself, the only Group Theatre teacher to do so, after he had modified many of his early ideas about acting. Her version of the Method is based on the idea that actors should conjure up emotion not by using their own personal memories, but by using the scene's given circumstances. Like Strasberg's, Adler's technique relies on carrying through tasks, wants, needs, and objectives. It also seeks to stimulate the actor's imagination through the use of "as ifs." Adler often taught that "drawing on personal experience alone was too limited." Therefore, she urged performers to draw on their imaginations and utilize "emotional memory" to the fullest.
Contemporary Method acting teachers and schools often synthesize the work of their predecessors into an integrated approach. They reject the notion that any one of the major Method teachers of the 20th century was completely correct or incorrect, and they continue to develop new acting tools and techniques.
Some modern acting theorists and teachers have noted that Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, and others often misunderstood each other's work, and that their criticisms were based on this misunderstanding. For example, they all taught actors to use their imagination, to connect with each other in performance, to analyze the script for wants, needs, and objectives. Meisner often said that Strasberg actors were too focused on themselves, but Strasberg trained many of the most respected actors of the 20th century.
In addition to taking an integrated approach, contemporary actors sometimes seek help from psychologists or use imaginative tools such as dream work or archetype work to remove emotional blocks. Techniques have also been developed to prevent the world of the performance from spilling over into an actor's personal life in destructive ways.
Stanislavski described his acting system in a trilogy of books set in a fictional acting school: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life in Art. Acting teachers whose work was inspired by Stanislavski include:
In fact, most post-1930 acting philosophies have been strongly influenced by Method acting, and it continues to be taught at schools around the world, including the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York and Los Angeles, the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and Los Angeles, the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, Calif., HB Studio in New York, Le Studio Jack Garfein in Paris and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
British biographer Jean Benedetti, who was a scholar and translator of nearly all of Constantin Stanislavski's works, spent most of his later years trying to correct what he felt were gross misunderstandings of Stanislavski's works, including the "over-limited reliance on psychological approaches that led to the American conception of method acting."