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In the dramatic arts, method acting is a group of techniques actors use to create in themselves the thoughts and feelings of their characters, so as to develop lifelike performances. Though not all Method actors use the same approach, the "Method" refers to the method of teaching the craft of acting, which was created by Constantin Stanislavski in order to teach concepts of acting to his students. Later, Stanislavski's method of teaching acting was adapted by Lee Strasberg for American actors. Strasberg's method emphasized the practice of connecting to a character by drawing on personal emotions and memories, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and affective memory. Stanislavski's system of acting was the foundation of Strasberg's technique. Rigorous adherents of Strasberg's technique are now commonly referred to as "Method Actors", although the "Method" refers to Stanislavski's original system.
Method acting has been described as having "revolutionized 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)".
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 Theatre (founded in 1897).
Strasberg's students included many of the best known American actors of the latter half of the 20th century, including Paul Newman, Al Pacino, George Peppard, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke, and many others. Using the Method, the actor also recalls emotions or reactions from their own life and uses them to identify with their character.
"The Method" refers to the teachings of Lee Strasberg—but the term "method acting" sometimes applies to teachings of his Group Theatre colleagues, including Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, and Sanford Meisner, and to other schools of acting influenced by Stanislavski's system, each of which takes a slightly different approach.
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.
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 sense memory and affective memory—basic techniques espoused by Strasberg through which actors access their own personal experiences to identify with and portray the emotional lives of their characters. Meisner believed this approach made actors focus on themselves and not fully tell the story. He advocated actors fully immersing themselves "in the moment" and concentrating on their partner. Meisner taught actors to achieve spontaneity by understanding the given circumstances of the scene (as did Strasberg). He designed interpersonal exercises 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 students include Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro, also broke with Strasberg after she studied with Stanislavski himself, by which time he had modified many of his early ideas. 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.
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.
Constantin 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 inspired by Stanislavski include:
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