Acting Is Acting, Right?
As a novice, you may look at acting as simply a case of pretending to be a character whilst you are in acting classes, rehearsals or performing on stage. Little did you know, however, that there are different techniques involved in acting, just as there are in the other creative arts (take painting styles, for example) and even different styles and techniques in theatre and playwriting.
If you are showing an interest in Drama because you want to hopefully pursue a career in acting, then you really should know and understand the different techniques. Some have been around for a long time, whilst others have emerged thanks to modern developments in theatre, but all have their own distinct properties.
Here, we have listed some of the principal acting techniques and styles and explained how they differ from one another, but also how they share some similarities.
The theatre and film differ significantly, but do also include some of the same features. What's more, the training and employment of skills and the body and mind that you get for drama can also be quite discrepant when it comes to actually performing.
Whatever scene you're looking to steal, or whatever class you're looking to enrol in and learn about for your career, Stanislavski and Brecht will both smile upon students who really know what to show a director, be it in the theatre or in front of the camera when audition and reading.
This term, which often conjures up images of Shakespearean actors, is relatively broad and integrates the expression of voice, body, imagination, and script analysis, focusing strongly on precision. It is based upon the theories and principles of a selection of classical actors and directors.
For the record, students with little experience on their resume tend to think that this is the best way to show they've been able to learn a lot from their class. When it actually comes time to casting though, some more movement is also needed, and a director may even get actors to improv so they know that they can work well together, and can draw upon many a drama school throughout the production, and be adaptable with their voice and body.
Thus, needless to say, take this with a grain of salt, as being an actor takes a broad range of time and skills, whether you will be on screen or in the theatre.
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The Stanislavski method, for example, draws on feelings and experiences that are said to convey the truth about the characters being portrayed. The actors are encouraged to put themselves in the mindset of the person they are playing and to find links and things in common to make their performances feel more genuine.
Classical actors are geared up towards the action, rather than the feeling of the performance, yet they still deliver their lines and dialogues carefully.
What sets classically-trained actors and actresses apart from those who have undergone Method Acting training is that Classical performers use a precise script combined with their own interpretation of the lines they have learned and rehearsed to bring their characters to life before the audience.
Stanislavski is also known for being one of the most essential voices when it comes to acting training. Reading up on him is essential experience for any actor, playing any role, at any stage of their career. This is precisely because when you read him, you know that he sees into the mind of an actor, being a reputed character actor himself.
You will have his voice your head from the very beginning of your time at drama school, even in your very first class because he is the inventor of method acting. Any actor's resume will be assumed to have a knowledge of this, which can include how to seek the inner motivations of your character, and to really inhabit their space and work out how they think. This can be through improv and drama training to work on a given scene, or can be through reading up on what you think the character would do day to day. Either way, your director will guide you in this, and it is something you will learn to do job to job as you play different roles throughout your career.
Method actors, meanwhile, are less controlled, making room for a little bit of improvisation and less attention to detail when it comes to the action that takes its course. With Classical Acting, you memorise your lines and you don't deviate from the script, so performances are solid and what one can expect when going to watch a play of this kind.
Even though it has quite rigid rules, audiences have loved this style of acting for centuries - for a long stretch of the history of theatre - so it clearly has a good impact on spectators!
Method Acting encompasses a range of techniques formulated by Strasberg in order to develop a cognitive and psychological understanding of the actor's character, bringing to the surface raw and powerful emotions. The individual is urged to draw on their own experiences to identify personally with their role, so it is also based Stanislavski's ideas (as are the Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner techniques which are seen as different from the Method Acting umbrella).
A Method actor will take his or her role so seriously, that they will be willing to put themselves through pain or sorrow just to depict a stronger and more raw emotion on stage. So, for example, if the character is supposed to be going through heartache, the actor will focus intently on a situation in their life that made them feel sad or full of pain. Real tears are far more believable than crocodile tears, after all!
The primary tool used by Method actors is 'sense memory', i.e. remembering emotions and bringing them to the surface.
Lee Strasberg, the true creator of this acting technique, believed that actors should live and breathe their characters in the run up to performances.
One example of an actor who took this intense approach to his work was the late Heath Ledger, when portraying the mentally unstable Joker in Batman: The Dark Knight. The actor, who won many posthumous awards and honours for his performance in the film, was said to have become heavily involved in his rehearsal of the role and was almost obsessed.
Whilst 'living' as this controversial character, it is clear that the celebrity had his very own battles that he was working through behind the scenes before he met his untimely death whilst filming the last scenes.
Just like the amazing Ledger, Method actors refuse to break their composure and risk losing that connection to their character until the last scene is finished and they hear the word 'cut'. Many committed actors or actresses will alter how they live just to make their performance more authentic, like taking up smoking, changing their diet, messing around with their sleeping habits and more.
Thus, a big part of method acting is also knowing how to let go of roles too. When you're a method actor, it can take up all of your emotional and mental energy. A good example of how actors deal with this was seen with Jim Carrey as the American entertainer Andy Kaufman. The role was so taxing and took up so much of Carrey's time that he would go out and greet people in character and lived as him entirely until the time filming was done, even arriving on set already in character, much to the chagrin of the other cast and crew.
When revisited many years later in a Netflix documentary, Carrey commented openly about how difficult it was to find the line between himself and the character. Being a method actor can mean that it's not only hard to turn off the character, but also difficult to let it go once the role is over. This led to a loss of Carrey's own sense of identity, and led to many mental health issues for him.
Understandably then, in the unfortunate case of Heath Ledger, he started to think that he actually thought and felt like the Joker, which is precisely why actors need to be able to detach from the character and the work just as much as they need to know how to portray them.
The Meisner Technique
The Meisner Technique, formulated by Sanford Meisner, asks the actor to focus on nothing but the other actor or actors in the scene with them, as if nothing else in the world exists during that moment. The idea is that the intensity of the performance makes the scene feel more authentic and powerful.
To achieve these goals, actors understandably rely more on improv techniques than reading techniques in order to portray something moving and powerful on the screen or stage.
There is still an element of relying on text, and having to read to understand the character, but this is more intuitive than textual, in the sense that they are getting the sense of the character and their relationship and importance to the whole piece, and how to live within this space (similar to the way an actor will get into the thought pattern of their character with method acting).
The piece is nothing without the script and the story, so being able to analyse the story arc and gauge the sense of the entire work can permit more free movement and use of voice and body in preparation of entry into the world the playwright/screenwriter has created. This is precisely why critics and scholars of this method tout that it is the most effective in letting actors enter and discover new worlds, with their own intuitive pace as the character deciding and defining these parametres.
Listening is one of the primary tools used by actors following the Meisner Technique. Actors on stage listen to one another, responding to impulses and having real conversations rather than responding to cues and simply reading lines. By reacting with instinct, even if spontaneous at times, the person is being truthful to the character and the audience.
You would expect, as an actor, that you would be expected to memorise and plan for a performance. Meisner didn't believe in planning, though, or even engaging with the fact that you were an actor. In his eyes, he wanted the performers to tell themselves that they were just individuals existing in imaginary situations, reacting and improvising with the circumstances that occur in the scenes.
Therefore, in a complete reversal from Classical Acting, this technique throws away the rule book, makes you go against your instincts to plan and prepare, and asks you to instead go with the flow and respond to what you are given!
You can learn the Meisner technique and others by typing "drama classes near me" into your search bar or looking directly on Superprof!
Last but not least, Practical Aesthetics is a technique that derives from a conception that David Mamet and William H. Macy came up with, based once again on the Stanislavski method, along with the Meisner technique and the philosopher Epictetus. The approach includes script analysis, repetition exercises and explores adaptability.
As a technique that is highly influenced by the teachings of Stoical Philosophers, Practical Aesthetics is quite literally about applying theories that are capable of being put to use.
Quite the opposite of Method Acting, which its creators found to be a self-indulgent method of acting, the technique is seen as a tool that focuses on the actor's will, intention and the actions that follow thereafter, all of which benefit the actor, the director and the writer of the piece equally.
Acting Techniques: An Overview
If all of the above is too much to take in all at once, don't feel disheartened. Sometimes, all it takes is to try out a particular style of acting to see if it works for you and, if it doesn't, then you can explore the other techniques until you find a method that you feel comfortable with. Also, you might not play a piece by Bertold Brecht the same way you would play Shakespeare or Eugene O'Neill.
Acting school is there for a reason, and will put you in touch with a way that works best for you while exploring and forcing you to engage with all of them. For this reason, many actors take parts of various styles so as to form the one that works the best for them.
Some actors really do prefer to focus on the characterisation and work the mindset into that, whereas others prefer to feel their way into the character first, thus developing character traits later.
A private acting teacher or lessons outside of acting school (or whatever other studies you may be undertaking) can really benefit you to find which works for you, away from the pressure and competition of school. They can understand what makes you tick and approach a role, and feel your way into characterisation. They are also greatly beneficial thanks to the extra resources they can give you to discover and continue to learn on your own terms and at your own pace. After all, an actor is a free agent who is the artist and the art.
Remember also that it all depends on how your tutor delivers instructions and the principles of your chosen style of acting, so understanding and connecting with them is equally important.
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