"For me, our job as artists is to serve the story, serve the director, and serve the fellow actors. And if you do that, by osmosis you're serving yourself because you'll get the best out of yourself." -David Oyelowo
Actors on the big screen, small screen and theatre stage have the power to influence audiences all over the world. To develop their skills and become masters at their craft, the best actors have completed many acting courses to learn more about the different types of acting techniques and methods.
Acting methods and techniques help actors perform at their best. Just like any other discipline, understanding the theories and techniques behind acting is just as important as the performance.
Some of the most popular acting methods have been practised by famous performers such as Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino and Sir Laurence Olivier.
While professional training is not always required to be an accomplished actor, it helps performers rise above the rest during auditions and stand out. An actor who knows their stuff is admirable, especially if they can do it well.
You don't necessarily need to attend an acting school to learn about acting methods–you can teach yourself and run through acting techniques with friends or colleagues.
Throughout this article, we'll consider six different acting methods that all young actors should know about: classical acting, Stanislavski's system, method acting, the Meisner technique, the Brechtian method and practical aesthetics.
Each method of acting is unique and will suit practicing and professional actors on different levels, depending on how the actor connects to the techniques. For instance, some actors might find it more difficult to emphasise with particular characters with wildly contrasting experiences to them. Emphasising and understanding the character is a dominant trait in classical acting and method acting.
On the contrary, the Brechtian method involves a more detached performance, since the actor's job is not to immerse the audience into a fictional story, but to keep the audience thinking critically about the ideas presented in the narrative.
Read on to learn more about different types of acting methods.
Types of Acting Methods and Techniques
Classical acting came into effect and prominence in the 1800s as a consequence of the acting methods developed by Konstantin Konstantin Stanislavski.
Stanislavski believed that all performers should carefully analyse the script they were given to explore the character personally and create a realistic performance.
Stanislavski published a book that was translated into the English language in 1936 titled, An Actor Prepares. He emphasised physical actions and recalling emotional memories about real-life experiences to fabricate an honest and complex character.
Influenced by Stanislavski's methods, Michel Saint-Denis moved to London in 1935 and established an acting school where he taught famous alumni such as Sir Alec Guinness and Jessica Tandy the techniques of classical acting. Saint-Denis used improvisation, sense memory and a balance between internal and external motivation to teach acting students.
The essence of classical acting is the actor identifying with the character they are portraying to perform a truthful, complex and realistic character.
Identifying traits of classical acting include using gestures and body movements in a careful and controlled manner, conveying emotion by effectively using the voice, using identification and personalisation with the character, improvisation and external motivation. The previously mentioned characteristics can be observed by watching actors on the silver screen or the theatre stage.
Most classical actors draw from their own experiences and memories to understand a character's motivations and feelings. By emphasising with the scripted character, classical actors can use their own emotions to get inside a character's mind.
They tend not to deviate from the script and make it work for them, however difficult.
Classical acting techniques can be studied in Australia in reputable schools such as the National Institute of Dramatic Art Sydney (alumni includes Cate Blanchett and Mel Gibson), Victorian College of the Arts and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (alumni includes Hugh Jackman and Heath Ledger). Classical acting can also be studied abroad at the Julliard School in NYC, the CNSAD in Paris and The National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal.
Famous thespians who have applied classical acting techniques in their performances include Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator, Elizabeth), Patrick Stewart (stage performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the X-Men film franchise), and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Trial).
Stanislavski's Acting Method or System
Stanislavski’s system has influenced the majority of modern-day acting methods. He was born in 1863 and died in 1938 at the age of 75.
Along with playwright and director Vladimir Nemirovich Danchencko, Stanislavski established the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. He developed his technique or system after years of taking notes and evaluating his performances at the Moscow Art Theatre, among other venues. The first mention of his system was in 1909 during a rehearsal for a stage play. After some years of perfecting his theories, he insisted that the Moscow Art Theatre implement his methods in all performances.
His methods are still practised today by many film and theatre actors. Stanislavski is widely considered as the most influential of all modern theatre practitioners.
Aspects of Stanislavski’s system include realism in the theatre, given circumstances, emotional memory and the magic ‘if’. The most critical thing actors must remember about the Stanislavski system is that they must inhabit the role they are playing.
To do this, the Stanislavski method features questions of ‘given circumstances’ to help actors build more believable performances:
- Who am I?
- Where am I?
- When is it?
- What do I want?
- Why do I want it?
- How will I get it?
- What do I need to overcome?
- What relationships do I have?
- What happened before the play started?
Given circumstances help the actor to understand the comprehensive context surrounding the character and the play, musical, film or series. For instance, asking ‘who am I’, ‘where am I’, and ‘when is it,’ or ‘what happened before this scene,’ helps to set up the current and surrounding context of a scene.
The magic ‘if’ is when an actor considers these circumstances and the context, and questions what their character would or how they would respond in any situation, such as questioning ‘what do I want and why do I want it,’ and ‘how will I get it?’.
By using these techniques, the actor can understand and take on the character they are portraying. Humans are complex, after all, and considering these questions enables the actor to perform as a fully nuanced, complex character, rather than a simplified version of one.
The most believable performances are those by actors that immerse themselves into their character with ease and consistency. In long-form narratives such as a TV series, the best characters are those who grow and change within the series, but are consistent in their actions. This could mean as a character moves through their fictional life, they continue to align with their core values and react in a way that makes sense within the given circumstances of the character and series.
Stanislavski’s system should not be mistaken with the method that Lee Strasberg developed in the mid-1900s.
The Stanislavski method can be studied in many schools all around the world. The most reputable schools in Australia to study Stanislavski’s techniques include the Actors Studio Australia and the National Institute of Dramatic Art.
Celebrated actors who use or have used in the past the Stanislavski system include Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Requiem For a Dream), Marlon Brando (Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and The Godfather) and John Gielgud (Julius Caesar, The Good Companions and Arthur).
Chekhov Acting Technique
A student of Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov was a Russian-American actor and author. In 1936, Chekhov developed the Chekhov Theatre School in England.
His technique has the actor focus on tapping into the subconscious mind. This technique requires the character to internalise an issue physically, through gestures and physical movement. According to Chekhov, external movement helps the actor to perform the character subconsciously by helping them evoke psychological and universal emotions.
Chekhov called his technique ‘psychological gesture’. He believed actors shouldn’t be limited by their experiences, especially if they are different from the character they’re portraying. He explored the connection between the body and emotions.
Although he was influenced by Stanislavski, Chekhov’s acting method differs from most acting techniques, which focus more on understanding and emphasising inner emotions rather than internalising external movement.
Chekhov’s acting technique lost its popularity after he died in 1955. Other acting methods that focused on psychological realism and emotions grew more popular and became the norm within the acting scene.
Famous actors who have used Chekhov techniques include, most notably, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood.
The Method acting technique is one of the most well-known, but also one of the most controversial. The origin of method acting stems from Polish-born actor and director Lee Strasberg.
Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre and was the first artistic director of the Actors Studio in New York City. Lee Strasberg worked hard to develop method acting due to being highly influenced by the authentic acting methods developed by Stanislavski, after viewing several performances of the Moscow Art Theatre while they toured the United States in the 1920s.
Strasberg knew that the system of acting established by Stanislavski would revolutionise the world of acting. Therefore, he took many classes with acting coaches, who had been previously trained by Konstantin Stanislavski and, in time, developed his own techniques that become known as method acting.
Method acting can be recognised as an internal and psychological technique where the actor trains vigorously to behave realistically under hypothetical situations.
Fundamental elements of method acting include the requirement of having actors create a blank slate by ridding themselves of all the stress and worries they experience in their personal life to embody the emotions of the role they are playing, focus and hyper-attention to the senses and sense memory where everyday activities are completed with realistic detail. Method actors perform their roles even when the cameras aren’t rolling and they’re not on stage–many method actors continue as their character until filming is wrapped up.
A specific drawback of method acting includes the fact that performers who implement this technique often gain the reputation of being very difficult to work with, and this can end a career for performers who are new to the game.
In extreme circumstances, method actors take on a character so dramatically, they may act out in ways their character would but their personal self would never–hence why the method is often seen as controversial. Method actors can embody a character so intensely that they live just like their characters for months and months on end–taking on their lifestyle and diet, no matter how extreme. This can include disconnected from society, losing or gaining dramatic amounts of weight, isolating themselves and taking on a character's personality of physical characteristics months in advance.
This is what makes method acting so fascinating–an actor can take on a character to the extent that they essentially become the character.
Many famous actors have utilised method acting to create iconic cinematic roles. Daniel Day-Lewis' performances in Lincoln and My Left Foot, Heath Ledger as the Joker, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Charlize Theron's portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster and Robert De Niro's work in Taxi Driver, are all excellent examples of method actors working at their best.
Meisner Acting Technique
Sanford Meisner was born in 1905 and is regarded as one of the best theatre practitioners and acting coaches of all time. He developed the Meisner technique after working with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler at the Group Theatre in New York City.
After his departure from the Group Theatre, he joined the faculty of The Neighbourhood Playhouse, and while working there perfected his technique. The Neighbourhood Playhouse is widely regarded as being the home of the Meisner technique.
The Meisner technique is often confused with Strasberg's Method since they both share roots from Stanislavski's system of acting.
The Meisner technique is known as 'truthful acting' because the actors get out of their heads in order to behave instinctively with the surrounding environment.
To develop this 'truthful acting', emotional preparation is needed for the actor to develop the character's complexities and emotional life.
Significant aspects of the Meisner technique include preparation, repetition, truthful acting, improvisation and imagination, which all contribute to realistic and truthful performances from actors.
Preparation includes deciding on a character's backgrounds, and developing an understanding for how that influences their feelings and reactions, as well as interviewing real-life people who may have similar experiences to that of the character.
Repetition is the process of repeating a phrase with another actor, whilst varying the tone and emotion of the phrase.
Improvisation is just what it seems–the actor improvises in alignment with how the character would respond on instinct.
Since the Meisner technique is one of the most popular methods of acting, it can be studied in many schools in Australia such as the Actors Pulse, National Institute of Dramatic Art and Impulse Company Australia.
Famous thespians who apply the Meisner technique in their acting include screen favourites such as Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, The Godfather franchise and Marvin's Room), Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, Apocalypse Now and The Judge) and Sandra Bullock (Miss Congeniality, Speed and The Blind Side).
Brechtian Acting Method
Bertolt Brecht was born in 1898 and is best known for his contributions to theatre and poetry. Brechtian acting methods, developed by Brecht, were widely popular in the decades following the second World War and are still being used by theatre directors today.
Well known for his exceptionally political stage plays that were influenced by his Marxist thoughts, Brecht did not want his audience to sit down and get lost in the ideas of the story; he wanted viewers to leave the theatre with opinions on social, economic and political issues. He did this by using techniques to keep the audience detached and unemotional throughout the plays. This differentiates Brechtian method from the other acting methods.
Famous plays of Brecht include Mother Courage and Her Children, Life of Galileo and The Good Person of Schezwan. The previously mentioned stage plays were provocative, ironic, and sparked interest.
Some of Brecht’s techniques include the following:
- Narration: narratives were used to remind the audience that they were watching a story. This was done in order to help the audience detach from the play, and make objective, unemotional observations.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: the fourth wall that was established in Stanislavski’s theories was torn down by Brecht who wanted his stage actors to address the audience directly with a comment, speech or question. This is another way the method helped the audience stay unemotional within the story.
- Use of Song and Music: songs would be played in the background at random moments to remind the crowd that they were not watching a realistic play.
Actors in Brecht’s plays used the acting techniques of Verfremdungseffekt and gestus in the stage productions. Verfremdungseffekt refers to to the actor using techniques of distancing and the alienation effect. Gestus is a word made up by Brecht that signifies the combination of a gesture and a social meaning in the same action.
Brecht is also known as the main component of the theatre genre known as the epic or dialectical theatre. Epic theatre is highly political and forces audiences to think introspectively and critically about specific moments that were occurring on the stage and why they were happening in that way.
Epic theatre is different from dramatic theatre since it has a fractured narrative and jumps in time in an order that is not chronological. Also, there is no attachment to the characters and all plays show an argument and express a clear political statement.
Artists who were influenced by Brecht include the filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Jean Luc Godard.
Practical Aesthetics Method
In the summers of 1983 and 1984 in the American state of Vermont, there were NYU acting workshops that were held by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet and Academy Award-nominated actor William H. Macy. During these summer workshops, the practical aesthetics acting method was developed.
Along with 30 of their acting students from New York University, Macy and Mamet established the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City in 1985 which is widely regarded as the home of the practical aesthetics technique.
The practical aesthetics acting approach is a practical technique of acting that reduces the actor’s tendency towards any self-conscious introspection. It can be understood more clearly through the following motto:
Invent nothing, deny nothing, accept everything and get on with it!
The practical aesthetics technique is made up of three major components: repetition, performance technique, and script analysis.
Aspiring actors are also taught about the necessary actions a character may try to achieve in a scene. The 11 essential actions that are part of practical aesthetics include the following:
- To get someone on my team
- To lay down the law
- To draw the dividing law
- To get someone to take a significant risk
- To understand what is rightfully mine
- To get someone to see the bigger picture
- To enlighten someone to a higher understanding
- To tell a simple story
- To get to the bottom of something
- To close the deal
- To get someone to throw a necessary lifeline
Necessary or essential actions have the purpose of focusing the actor on what they wish to achieve in the scene. It is also important to note that a thespian studying the practical aesthetics method needs to be patient, committed, and have an open mind.
The practical aesthetics method can be studied at Australia at Practical Aesthetics Australia in Sydney.
Famous practitioners of the practical aesthetics method include William H. Macy (Fargo and the television series Shameless), Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, X-Men film franchise, and Neighbours) and Felicity Huffman (TV’s Desperate Housewives).
More information about the practical aesthetics acting method can be read in the book, A Practical Handbook for the Actor written by Melissa Bruder in 1986.
Which acting methods should you stick to?
Not sure which acting methods suit you? Your best bet is to try them all out at an acting or drama school and see which techniques you connect with most.
Studying your favourite films, series and actors can help you find your ground. Watch and be inspired by actors, especially those whose performances you’re blown away by, and search up their practiced acting technique.
Here is a summarised list of the best drama schools in Australia:
- National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Sydney
- Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Perth
- Actors Centre Australia (ACA), Sydney
- Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Melbourne
- Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), Sydney
- Sydney Drama School, Sydney
- National Theatre Drama School, Melbourne
To learn any of the mentioned acting techniques, it might be a good idea to enrol in a course such as a Bachelor of Performing Arts, Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts (Acting) or a Bachelor of Acting. Formal education isn’t necessary, but may give you a head start in your acting career and help you find your footing in which acting techniques works for you best.
Being surrounded by other aspiring actors and professionals alike will be a great supportive network while you work on your career. Teachers can be your mentor and give you advice on getting your foot in the door.
All of these acting techniques have the purpose of training actors to excel at their craft. Choosing an acting method that suits your artistic abilities will prepare you for a rewarding career in the performing arts!