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Method Acting in Theater and Film

Good acting often implies endowing a role with emotional truth. Method acting is all about stimulating that truth.

Stanislavski, the renowned early 20th century Russian acting theorist and theater director, aimed to dismantle the highly stylized “acting” of his day. In his legendary Moscow Art Theater, he spent a lifetime observing and recording the habits and techniques of great actors.

At a time when Freud and the modern foundations of psychology were still in its early stages, Stanislavski partook of a larger cultural movement wherein naturalism was sought in representations of art. Stanislavski’s findings, which underwent many revisions throughout his life, became known as “the System.”

The system turned acting on its head, bringing the focus from the external to the internal. (Some would say from the clichéd to the authentic.) With the advent of film and its microscopic capture of an actor’s every frown and tic, realistic acting caught on. From the 1930s onwards, the Group Theater and later, the Actors Studio in New York, further experimented with what is now known as “the Method.” In the 1940s and 1950s, it was all but the most celebrated acting method of American actors.

As the leader of the Actor’s Studio, Lee Strasberg brought to prominence the use of one very effective but controversial technique for stimulating truth in performance: Affective memory.

Affective Memory

With affective memory or emotional memory, the actor searches for a corresponding emotion to the one called for in the scene. Using sense memory – sound, taste, sight, touch, smell – the actor summons the response by triggering a personal memory to the surface. Like the psychological stimulus-response theory, exemplified by Pavlov’s famous dog, a stimulus made to mean something by experience may elicit a given response.

When applied to acting, this technique of triggering (the stimulus) is carefully chosen to stir the particular memory on the individual actor. The goal is to induce a reaction, a state of emotional truth, which matches the needs of the character in a given scene. To keep the edge off the memory, Strasberg advocated summoning older memories that were powerful but not uncontrollably raw.

Controversy Around Affective Memory

Many, including Lee Strasberg in his later years, have been wary of the use of emotional memory. Emotions, for being spontaneous and thus, potentially volatile, can get out of control. It has also being criticized for lacking structure and relying heavily on outdated or out-of-fashion psychological practices.

Actors Employing the Method

Although the Method generates controversy and/or ridicule in some circles, it undoubtedly left its mark on the acting scene. Many of its past and present practitioners are celebrated icons. Among them are Ellyn Burstyn, Marlon Brandon, Harvey Keitel, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Robert de Niro, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, and Joanne Woodward.

Whether or not one dons “the Method” as their approach, the quest for emotional truth in performance is still viable today. Many actors use method techniques, consciously or not.

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