How do you prepare for a character? There are no straightforward answers to this, unfortunately. Acting techniques provide exercises and methods to tailor the process, but still, it’s difficult to know what works and what doesn’t. Hence, it’s useful to explore and test out several techniques. Finding an effective technique is a lengthy process and most actors develop a personalised approach.
Acting is a craft, and so, what you may find evident after reading this post is that behind every great actor is an even greater acting coach. Here we break down the top five acting techniques to explore:
1. The Stanislavski System
Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor, producer and director born in 1863, is the “father” of modern acting. He concluded that acting could be more effective as a result of internal motivations, instead of outside actions (often seen in Shakespeare acting). Stanislavski is responsible for guiding psychology and the inner emotional life onto the stage, frequently through his work with Russian playwright Anton Chekov.
Stanislavski’s ideas have evolved into various branches over the years. Although different at the core, all can agree that acting is, to a certain degree, induced by the internal.
Recommended read: An Actor Prepares
2. Method Acting
In my first acting class at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York, my acting coach began by stating: “You are not the character and you will never become the character.” A wave of puzzled faces flooded the room as she rejected the misconception of method acting in one sentence. Acting is adopting an imaginary mask. It may seem like deceit but in simple terms, it’s acting truthfully in someone else’s shoes. Those shoes will never belong to you but you have to make it seem like they do.
The personalisation of a character’s experience is at the heart of the Method, according to Lee Strasberg. To establish this relationship, an actor substitutes people, places and events with things from his or her life, producing an organic connection to the character and story. There are two essential exercises in method acting: “relaxation” and “sense memory.” “Relaxation” is an exercise intended to free the body of tensions and provide a clean emotional palette. “Sense memory” is a set of exercises intended to provoke memories “saved” in the five senses. For instance, the smell of a perfume may be a reminder of someone you love or despise.
Famous alumni: Marilyn Monroe, Uma Thurman, James Dean, Angelina Jolie, Sally Field, etc.
3. The Meisner Technique
What began as an otherwise friendly BBQ, ended with me, a Method actor, arguing with a fervent Meisner actor. Following his final outburst: “You are stupid,” the dispute concluded in bitter tears.
After time spent with the Group Theatre, Sanford Meisner developed the Meisner technique—deriving ideas from the teachings of Stanislavski. Although often mistaken for the Method, Meisner is radically different. The work between scene partners is key, and so at the heart of Meisner acting is the “Repetition” exercise, which taps into the emotional impulses and instincts of an actor, establishing a “bond” between scene partners. Nevertheless, it’s the comprehensive and systematic character work that makes Meisner a worthwhile technique to explore.
Recommended read: On Acting
Famous alumni: Steve McQueen, Gregory Peck, Joanne Woodward, Robert Duvall, etc.
4. Stella Adler
Stella Adler, also inspired by Stanislavski, took part in the Group Theatre—but eventually left the group because she opposed Lee Strasberg and his Method. Adler met Stanislavski in person at a point in which he had abandoned the idea of “emotional memory,” so from her meetings with him, she inferred that acting is 50% internal and 50% external. To understand the character, the actor studies the circumstances of the text. An actor can encounter a character with foreign qualities which he or she must seek to understand and master.
There is an internal imaginary component to Adler’s technique, similar to the Method, but she stresses the importance of voice, walking, activity, and so on, in addition. She took Marlon Brando under her wings when he became a student at the New School in New York. “She taught me to be real,” he wrote, “and not try to act out an emotion I didn’t personally experience during a performance.”
Recommended read: The Art of Acting
Famous alumni: Marlon Brando, Salma Hayek, Christoph Waltz, Martin Sheen, etc.
5. Ivana Chubbuck
Chubbuck, nicknamed the “celebrity whisperer,” is one of the most sought-after acting coaches. She made Brad Pitt an icon after discovering him on a street corner working as a fast-food promoter dressed in a chicken suit. Her technique seeks to uncover underlying negative feelings and use those to reach the desired goal.
Her book The Power of the Actor outlines a 12-step acting technique: overall objective, scene objective, obstacles, substitution, inner objects, beats and actions, the moment before, place and the fourth wall, doings, inner monologue, previous circumstances, and let it go.
Recommended read: The Power of the Actor
Famous alumni: Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Jared Leto, Charlize Theron, etc.
Although these techniques are alike in many ways, they differ at the core. Method acting concentrates on the ego, meaning the actor surrenders the need to rely on the quality of a scene partner. Meisner, on the other hand, encourages an actor act off of his or her scene partner. In the case of a bad scene partner, a great actor should be capable of channelling frustration. That is an emotion too, you know.
Stella Adler concedes with the importance of the internal but recognizes that, in order to provide a dynamic performance, there are external factors to consider. Ivana Chubbuck balances on the ideas of her predecessors while introducing a 12-step process. Stanislavski is the original procurer of the internal and his ideas are still taught in numerous drama schools.