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How Actors Act, Part One: The Method

For many reasons, I love working with young actors who are taking their first steps onto the stage, but my favorite part is seeing them say a line, or make a gesture, or move across the stage without anything informing their decisions. 

Acting, like all things, has fundamentals to master, and the way I introduce young actors to those fundamentals is always the same. Let’s say an actor hits a triumphant note at the end of her song, and she slowly raises her arms to the side as though she’s opening up for a hug. 

“Why did you do that?” I ask. 

“Do what?” She responds, arms still reaching outward.

In another scene, one actor moves across the stage during his line and continues talking to the other actor, who is now behind him. 

“Hold it! Why did you move there?” I ask, knowing what the answer will be. 

And it’s the same answer to both questions: “I don’t know.”

Bingo. The first step toward improvement as a new actor is to answer those questions, and there are many ways to do that. The most common response when you ask someone, “How do actors act?” would probably be “method acting,” but the method is only one of a great number of theatrical methodologies.

Most nonactors separate actors into two groups: actors and method actors. Think Marlon Brando, Heath Ledger or Hilary Swank. Nontheater people generally think of method acting as “becoming the character” – and it can be – but often elements of the method are used piecemeal to support the craft. 

Before we break down acting techniques, however, we must first travel back to early-1900s Russia.

Konstantin Stanislavski is one of the most influential figures in modern theater history, and the acting system he created laid the foundation for contemporary performance as we know it. Stanislavski’s system encouraged actors to approach their characters holistically and to read between the lines of the text to more fully inform their understanding of their roles. 

The system emphasized a complete understanding of the character: a physical, emotional and technical embodiment. Stanislavski had many students, and when his system found its way to America, three of them honed and transformed it into what we now know as method acting.

Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Stanford Meisner refined and expanded their experiences with Stanislavski’s system into something new, each one focusing on a different aspect of the holistic approach. Contrary to popular belief, the method is not about living as the character outside of the theater space. Though some actors famously (and even infamously) have taken this approach, there is no requirement that these techniques be taken into the real world. 

Let’s return to the question I ask my students – “Why did you do that?” – and answer it using the method. Say an actor makes an overarching acting choice to give his character a limp. The text doesn’t call for the limp, but the actor may make that choice by reading beyond the text into his character’s history. 

It was mentioned in the script that this character was awarded a Purple Heart while serving in the military, so we know this individual was wounded. The actor further chooses to walk with a limp but not use a cane, so that physical choice is now informing emotional choices as well: This character is determined and proud, or maybe he’s stubborn.

These emotional choices might then inform more physical choices. That stubbornness, for example, may lead to a rigid or meticulous quality to the character’s actions: Maybe he adjusts his chair just so each time he sits down. 

We could go further with this by considering where the story takes place and where the character was likely to have grown up. Are there regional dialects to consider that might inform the way a character speaks? When is the play set, and does that inform any pronunciation choices? (Think “cursed” versus “curs-ed.”)

These elements of the character’s life are not highlighted in the script, but by investigating the character’s realities outside of the text, the actor can build a foundation of interconnecting choices that inform each other during the performance.

Now you may be wondering, why does what a character ate for breakfast that morning matter to the audience during the performance? After all, the audience will never know or even care to make those connections. 

I think that’s a fair question, and it’s why the method is only one of many methodologies actors can use to create a performance. Next time we’ll look at purely physical acting: how actors can create a character with their bodies alone.