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An Actor’s Guide to the Classical Acting Technique

Proponents of modern techniques may feel that the classical acting technique is rather outdated, but this traditional approach to acting is alive and well and is used by some very successful actors. How does classical acting differ from other approaches? To a certain extent, we can consider the differences between performing on stage instead of on screen – but classical acting can also work very well at close quarters in the right contexts. 

If we consider the history of acting as a performing art, the stage is the place to begin, so let’s start there. When watching stage performances, audiences form their impressions of the characters in a play and interpret their emotions primarily through what they can see and hear, and these are the foundations of classical techniques. However, classical acting in Europe was never truly codified in the same way that it was in Asia, so attempts to define it in very fine detail are likely to be met with debate. 

Shakespeare and Classical Acting

Although classical acting goes all the way back to the 5th century, and possibly even further, most English speakers will associate it with Shakespearean acting. If you call the way Shaksepare’s plays are enacted to mind, you’ll be able to conjure up a relatively clear picture of the classical acting style in action.

Classical actors use physical and vocal techniques to convey characters, and they use their imaginations to portray characters rather than trying to “live” experiences or “be” the characters. Hence, classical acting has a strong focus on voice, movement, and imagination, and productions of Shakespeare’s plays are usually performed in the classical style. 

Do you have an ambition to strut the boards as Hamlet or to enchant your audiences as Titania? The art of classical acting will be an essential part of your training. But it’s not only lovers of Shakespeare that may benefit. 

Criticisms of Classical Acting

In its most traditional form, classical acting techniques create “larger than life” characters. That can be perfect when you’re trying to draw audience members seated far from the stage into the story, but it’s also the reason why classical acting has its critics. Dramatic gestures, exaggerated movements, and an almost operatic delivery of lines fall short of realism, and that’s exactly why modern acting techniques differ from classical acting. 

At the same time, mastery of voice and movement along with a lively imagination can result in memorable performances – particularly when powerful individuals are portrayed on stage or screen. As a result, classic acting techniques are often seen as a good place for actors to start their training, and they’re often used in combination with other acting techniques on the stages and screens we all know and love. 

Method Acting vs Classical Acting

To illustrate some of the differences between classical acting and modern acting styles, we can compare classical acting to method acting. Classical actors use technique and imagination. Method actors, on the other hand, reach into themselves and attempt to “live” their roles in order to create a sense of realism. 

Classical actors analyse their characters from the outside while method actors try to get under their characters’ skins and feel as they feel, do as they do, and express themselves as if they were really living the experiences of the characters they play. While this may sound like an ideal approach, it has its drawbacks. If you immerse yourself in a character, can you retain a sense of self? If you experience their emotions, will you be resilient enough to tolerate the emotional strain you may experience? Perhaps “imagining” and using your training will be easier on your psyche and work just as well – especially if you have a good imagination! 

Characteristics of a Classically Trained Actor

How can you spot classical acting? Think about the differences between jazz music and classical music. In the latter, training, technique, and rigid adherence to the “script” makes for a harmonious performance. In the former, there’s a much greater focus on improvisation and in-the-moment interaction. 

Similarly, classically trained actors use their bodies and voices and the techniques and methods they’ve learned. But although there’s a strong focus on discipline, even classical acting (or classical music) allows for some level of unique interpretation – so it’s far more open to creativity and expressiveness than you might have thought. 

Where to Study Classical Acting

If you’d like to study classical acting techniques, you’ll find that all the top acting schools offer courses in this time-honoured approach to your art. Look for courses presented by one of the members of the Federation of Drama Schools (FDS) if you’d like to be trained at one of the UK’s top 20 acting schools. And, if landing a role in a Shakespearean play is your top reason for being interested in classical drama training, you’ll find plenty of courses that are intended to prepare you for exactly that. 

Famous Actors Who Use the Classical Acting Method

A list of famous actors who had classical training reads like the who’s who of showbiz. Lawrence Olivier is generally seen as the top example, and who can forget his iconic roles in Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III? However, he brought his classical techniques to other roles too. His 1939 role in Wuthering Heights and 1960’s Spartacus are just two examples of the powerful performances he delivered. 

Since classical acting forms an important part of any actor’s training, you’re likely to find elements of it in almost any famous actor’s performances – particularly in the ways in which they use their voices and bodies. For example, Cate Blanchett, who is known to use Method Acting, is also a classically trained actor. In fact, there’s hardly an award-winning actor out there who didn’t receive classical training at some point in their careers. So, although you might prefer other techniques, at least in principle, training in classical acting provides you with a strong foundation on which to build your acting career

Classical Acting and the Power of Voice

Perhaps one of the most notable contributions that classical training can make to your acting abilities is the art of mastering the power of voice. Vocal ability and using your voice as a form of expression and characterisation are among the most useful skills that classical training can confer. Vocal clarity and emotional range will add power to your performances – even when your audiences can’t see your face or movements. 

Are you fulfilling your voice’s potential to the full? Practice makes perfect! Put your skills to work at every opportunity. From stage to screen and from voiceovers to ordinary telephone conversations there are plenty of opportunities to develop your abilities. Being the voice of a brand is among the best of these. Companies have personalities, and they’re looking for people who can represent them in character. 

Ready to give it a try? RSVP, a London-based call centre, has a unique proposition for you. We’re recruiting talented actors to help us represent our clients to their customers – and because we support your efforts to build an acting career, we’re flexible too. Acting classes to attend? That big audition you’re hoping to ace? Schedule full of rehearsals? We’ll be cheering you on! Visit the RSVP Careers Page to find out more! 


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