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An Actors’ Guide to Method Acting

As an actor, portraying characters realistically can be extremely challenging. Method acting applies a range of techniques that require an actor to understand and express the emotions and motivations of the characters they play. In this article, we’ll explore the history and application of method acting. We’ll take a look at examples of method acting techniques; and we’ll examine some method acting exercises. 

What is Method Acting? How it All Started

To determine the “what,” we should begin with the people who invented method acting. In the early part of the 20th century, Konstantin Stanislavski elaborated a methodology which he termed the “art of experiencing.” In essence, it means “living” a role rather than just representing it, but contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t necessarily mean living the role off-stage or off-camera. 

Another Russian, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, developed so-called “object exercises” for learning method acting. His philosophy was that actors should look at the circumstances their characters find themselves in and consider what would make them exhibit similar behaviour if they were in that situation in real life. It’s a subtle distinction from Stanislavski’s idea in that the actor not only considers how they’d behave in certain scenarios, but also what would motivate them to react as their character does. 

In the 1920s, the Moscow Art Theatre toured the US, and a student of Stanislavski, Richard Boleslawski, hosted lectures on early method acting philosophy that were well received and published as a book in 1933. Reacting to the work’s enthusiastic reception, Boleslawski and other practitioners of Stanislavski’s method acting techniques emigrated to the US to teach method acting. 

Their version of method acting meant that actors should portray emotion by using recollections of their own, genuine experiences in the past. Stella Adler disagreed. She observed that the specific circumstances of the scene should be imagined by the method actor instead of drawing on real experiences and emotions. For example, how can you portray death if you’ve never experienced it? The best you can do is imagine it.

Building on contributions to method acting philosophy, but particularly Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg finally produced the seminal work on method acting. It’s a book titled “A Dream of Passion,” and it is he who is considered to be the true father of method acting as we know it today. 

However, not all actors use method acting. Laurence Olivier is famed for telling Dustin Hoffman, a dedicated method actor who hoped to live roles both on-screen and off “You should try acting. It’s so much easier.” In other words, “living” oneself into a role in real life shouldn’t be necessary in order to act a role on stage or screen. 

Method Acting Examples

Whether or not you support method acting techniques, there’s no denying that it has led to some powerful performances. Think of Marlon Brando’s performance in “On the Waterfront,” or Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull.” Other famous method actors include Daniel Day-Lewis, Forest Whitaker, and more recently, Charlize Theron’s performance in “Monster.”

The list of famous method actors could be a long one, but it’s worth remembering that some of the actors credited with using method acting never received any training in it. Were they just brilliant natural actors, or did they simply use the method instinctively? And yes, as a Brit, you may have to work harder at it than Americans do. We aren’t as much inclined towards psychoanalysis and “out there” emotional expression. 

Examples of Method Acting Exercises

Teachers of method acting believe that releasing tension and opening oneself to “becoming” a character requires relaxation. So, relaxation techniques are taught before requiring students to see the world in a different way to what they normally do. Actors are required to be intensely alert to sensations, focussing on all the senses, and are given exercises to achieve this. 

With a sharpened focus on the senses, so-called “sense memory” is now evoked to induce an experience that brings acting very near to reality. The aim is to use these memories in producing an emotionally evocative, genuine-seeming performance. In essence, the actor is called on to identify the sensations his or her character would experience in a real, rather than fictional context, and to replicate them realistically as if they actually were the character. 

Method Acting vs Natural Acting

Natural acting isn’t really the antithesis of method acting. It simply means portraying your character in a realistic, natural-seeming way. In this sense, it’s really a partner to method acting. It means suspending judgement of your character when playing the role – no creepy “bad guy” voices or delivery of lines as if you were reading them off rather than speaking naturally. 

In a sense, method acting consists of techniques that help actors to “live” their characters on stage and on set, and the result is natural acting that’s believable and realistic. 

Pros and Cons of Method Acting

One often reads of the excesses actors indulge in to step into their acting roles. They may lose or gain weight, force themselves to go without sleep, skip bathing, or even use drugs in order to immerse themselves in a role. However, as one commentator puts it: “Hollywood has got it all wrong.” 

The idea of method acting is to replicate genuine emotions by exploring your own, and to use this for an immersive portrayal of a character that ends when you leave the stage or when filming stops. You don’t need to “become” a character when you’re not performing in order to be a method actor. Instead, you’re looking for sufficient empathy to provide a realistic portrayal, and then return to being yourself straight afterwards. 

To define method acting succinctly, we need to see it as a technique that allows the actor sufficient identification with a role to express emotion realistically. It was never intended that the acting should go on when the show was over. Unfortunately, some method actors become so immersed in their roles that they do just this. They may lose their sense of self and suffer severe psychological difficulties as a result. 

The bottom line? If you aim to learn and apply the method, have a strong sense of self and be sure you know how to step back into your own skin with even greater ease than you step into a role.

Where Can I Study Method Acting in London?

You won’t have to look far to find method acting courses in London. There’s the eponymous Method Acting College. Strassberg Campus in London also offers training in method acting, as does City Academy. As with all professions, training coupled with practice hones your skills. 

You can also practice your method acting and observe people in different situations in real-life scenarios. You can seek that magical connection with an audience of one person – but do keep it positive! We all know the stereotype of actors as emotion-wracked and manipulative prima-donnas. Fortunately, you don’t have to live a stereotype in order to be a good actor! 

While you’re studying, you’ll need a steady income, and what could be better than an organisation that actively seeks to employ actors simply because they’re good at identifying with an audience? Get some much-needed practice in method acting and earn a living at the same time with RSVP’s part-time jobs for actors

We need you to act as, and behave as, a caring representative of our client companies. We need you to build empathy with callers, giving them an unforgettable customer service experience. Who better for this than aspiring actors? At the same time, we understand your ambitions, and your dreams of a successful acting career, and far from standing in your way, we work hard to promote your success. It’s a win-win situation, so why not contact us today? We’re looking forward to working with you!


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