Method acting is a technique learned by serious actors to support them in what they do on stage or camera. It is not a "paint-by-numbers" technique to be sheepishly followed by those who are without talent, creativity and acting ability. Creating the character, telling the story, playing not only the scene but also the intent (of the character and the dramatist/script writer) is the actor's job and can certainly be done without using Method acting. Method actors are made aware of this fact over and over again while they train with me. What The Method helps them to do is to make what the character experiences real, believable, truthful and honest. We use the techniques to solve acting problems. Method, therefore, provides the cherry on the cake!
There are many methods of acting that are used by successful and competent actors and I encourage my students to use any methods of acting that will help them to do good work. I have yet, however, to discover any other technique that brings about the honest response and expression I require in a performance, which is why I believe in Method acting so passionately.
So... let's have some fun!
Let's look at some of the myths, misconceptions and stupidities
blown about by idiot winds!
The Method is dangerous because it makes you crazy... look at what happened to Marilyn Monroe!
My question to the propagators of this ridiculous belief is... what about all the other Method actors who are not "crazy"? Al Pacino, the late Paul Newman, Clare Danes and Helen Hunt all look quite sane to me. I have personally never experienced a single person "losing their mind" (permanently!) during my studies in New York or in my class... not once in the past 32 years of my involvement with this technique. There are many people drawn to the arts who have psychological, emotional or substance abuse problems, of course, but they enter the process already somewhat off-balance. If you learn how to use the techniques correctly - even "traumatic" emotional memory work - the results with regard to your state of mind can only be positive.
The Method is only usable when playing serious, very emotional roles where you have to cry and scream.
Really? What about Gene Wilder's cooky movie characters? Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie"? The different types created by Johnny Depp in countless brilliant performances? Throughout the years I've done comedies, stylized plays and Absurdist theatre as well as serious and Medieval drama, and my students have used Method Acting in all of these different genres very successfully to create characters an audience could believe in.
The Method, as taught in school, can only be used when acting on stage. I want to act on camera!
If that's the case I have no idea where all those successful, brilliant, famous film actors, who studied and use The Method when working, are coming from. A third force... or perhaps the Hollywood Fairy?... must be involved in some diabolical scheme!
Method actors are difficult to work with... and they always want a motivation for everything they're required to do.
I guess some actors are difficult to work with, no matter what their "method" may be. I personally find actors who pretend, indicate, fake it, come to rehearsal unprepared, arrive late, behave like prima donnas and get jealous of fellow actors difficult to work with. The actors I train are expected to behave like professionals. They are taught to respect the director and do what's expected of them. They're supposed to take their work seriously and do their best at all times. Method actors who have trained with me for four years know how I expect them to behave - whether they do what I require or not - and if they behave unprofessionally it is not The Method's fault but their own.
Yes, a major part of how we work requires finding a motivation for each action the character executes, otherwise the action will be empty and without intent or purpose. It will not be motivated and justified, leading to a dishonest performance. My actors are taught to find these motivations for themselves and not to bug the director with it. It is the actor's responsibility.
I believe that partially trained actors who don't understand how the work is to be used, are the culprits here. I personally do not regard anyone who has studied for less than four years as a Method actor. Actors who have been partially trained can, in fact, give The Method a bad name in the industry because they are bound to suffer from bad working practice, misconceptions and ignorance as far as correct application of the work is concerned.
A QUESTIONAIRE RE: THE METHOD AS ANSWERED BY STEPHANIE VAN NIEKERK
(including some myths, misconceptions and idiotic beliefs!)
WHERE DID YOU STUDY?
I completed a B.A. Drama degree at the University of Pretoria in 1976 and then spent 1980 to 1984 at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. While there, I was invited to become a member of the Second Studio for Actors under the direction of Harv Dean. I also studied Philosophy and English Literature through UNISA, became a certified Shiatsu Therapist and received a Diploma in Holistic Psychology from the Natural Health Institute during the nine years I lived in Toronto, Canada.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO STUDY METHOD ACTING IN NEW YORK?
I arrived in Toronto in 1977, without working papers. By the time I received permanent residence and the right to work, I had not acted for a number of years. I decided that I needed a "refresher course", went for interviews to a number of schools in New York (Stella Adler, Herbert Berghoff etc.), but decided on the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute's summer course (four months) because his name was the best known and therefore familiar to me. Watching the students work at my first class, I realized that this was what I'd been praying for all my life... and that I was starting over after twenty years as an actor (I had started working professionally as a child of eight). It was also clear to me that nothing I had learnt up to that time was really applicable to the Method way of working. I immediately recognized that the Method would give me the means by which I could discover and express the inner depth I always knew I had, but could never tap or reveal as an actress, that I would never have to push or "act" or fake it ever again! Since it doesn't take four months to develop the necessary skills, I ended up staying for four years.
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE STUDYING IN NEW YORK COMPARED TO SOUTH AFRICA?
My New York experience meant FREEDOM, letting go of old beliefs and judgements and ways of looking at myself and acting and the world. It was a time of self-discovery, growth, change and spiritual evolvement. I also met and befriended not only Americans and Canadians, but people from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Holland, Germany, England, Ireland, Russia, Central and South America and learnt from and about them and their realities. The world became my oyster!
HOW DID THE TEACHING METHODS DIFFER BETWEEN THE STRASBERG INSTITUTE AND THE TRAINING YOU RECEIVED IN SOUTH AFRICA?
The main difference between Strasberg and the University of Pretoria, as well as private teachers in S.A., was that the Method teaches you very specific techniques to help you to overcome acting problems. You may use them however you see fit once you've learnt how and once your instrument has been trained to respond to sensory recall. Once you know how to use the Method, you have absolute freedom as an actor to make your own choices re: what exercises/techniques to use, how to work, which different philosophies or ways of working you combine to get the results of truth and honesty and reality in your work. Being a Method actor does not mean painting by numbers - it is not a mechanical, robotic repeat of learnt exercises. Yet, once I'd been studying the Method techniques for a period of time, I realized how well it worked for me, how safe and real I felt when working on stage because I was concentrating on WORK all the time, I did not want to go back to acting mechanically, flying by the seat of my pants and hoping for inspiration to hit!
I learned many things, both theoretical and practical, at the University of Pretoria, for which I will always be grateful. Certain stage techniques and the experience I'd gained during my three years there are still invaluable. Yet... I was not taught how to act. The varied exercises (Stanislavsky techniques and others) we worked with in class were diffused, generalized - definitely not a SYSTEM or way of working that had clear goals or results. They were not, in my experience, applicable to the very specific craft of building a real character and doing believable work. As important as stage techniques, games and improvs are to bring about technically professional performances, open up the actor's instrument and lead her to creativity and discovery, as a training tool they only go so far. Substance and depth is needed to train an actor to do meaningful work. It takes four years to train a Method actor and I do not regard anyone who has spent less time on their Method studies as such.
DID YOU STUDY WITH ANY MEMORABLE TEACHERS OR DIRECTORS?
I had tremendous respect for the teachers at Strasberg that I finally chose to work with: Irma Sandrey, Hope Arthur and Harv Dean. Strasberg himself died before I was advanced enough to be considered for his Master Classes. In South Africa I learnt a lot from Carel Trichardt and the late Fred Steyn. I love and respect them all to this day.
WHAT IS TALENT?
I can only tell you what I think it is... Mainly sensitivity, intelligence, strong analytical abilities, awareness, the ability to communicate, insight, good concentration, strong will and perseverance. The Method can make believable, strong, creative actors out of those who possess these qualities and are willing to do the work. The really wonderful actors, those who knock your socks off, have a few extras - charm, charisma, self-confidence, a gut recognition and faith in what feels right - and a little thing called "magic", which is indefinable!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE STARTING OUT IN ACTING?
STUDY!! Learn your craft from proven, good teachers. Build your skills - how to speak, move, experience, express, create, communicate and behave effectively and truthfully and never stop honing those skills. Get to know yourself and your instrument, because that is what you use to do your work. Travel. Read widely and as much as you possibly can. Learn to appreciate ALL the arts. Study psychology - the human being - and the philosophies of the world. Work to gain maturity, self-knowledge, empathy, humility and self-esteem because, in this industry, you're going to need it!
Be very clear on what type of actor you want to be, and when you go out there to look for work - don't give up! Have faith in yourself and your skills and the knowledge you've gained. I also believe that one shouldn't wait for others to employ you - not the way things are in S.A. today re: the industry. Get together with others, write and create original work and perform where-ever and whenever you can. WORK - even if there seems not to be a place for you in existing structures at this time.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN OBSTACLES YOU COME UP AGAINST IN TEACHING ACTORS?
The main obstacles I come up against are blocks in the instrument - psychological, spiritual and physical. Also fear and resistance to self-knowledge and looking ridiculous, fear of exploration and discovery, suppressed emotional issues - South African society is restricted, angry, has difficulty trusting and opening up - laziness and wanting things to just happen without working for it, and let's not forget about ignorance and stupidity...
Due to the school system being what it is, students also wish to be spoon-fed. They need to be convinced to accept the fact that they make choices every moment of the day and that they are responsible for how their lives turn out as a result of those choices. Many young people look for excuses and wish to make others "wrong" and/or responsible for the fact that they, themselves, are not in control of their lives / work / studies. As a result, irresponsible behavior, laziness (again!) and lack of willpower become obstacles in getting results.
Since 1994 one of the greatest problems I face is the incredibly low level of education in South Africa. Vast numbers of students who have passed Grade 12 are in fact functionally illiterate. They can hardly read and their vocabulary, spelling, grammar and analytical abilities are practically non-existent. For the past 6 years I've had to test these abilities before making a decision whether to accept a student into the school. Many with Grade 12 operate on anything between Grade 5 and Grade 8 when it comes to world standards. A number of my students need to take remedial classes in language, reading and comprehension in order to be able to do my course. The education system in this country has failed these young people. It's a disgrace!
DO YOUR STUDENTS STUDY ANY LITERATURE APART FROM THE PLAYS THEY REHEARSE?
Absolutely!! They have to read the following books: An Actor Prepares and Building a Character by Stanislavsky, On Method Acting by Edward Dwight Easty, Method - Or Madness? by Robert Lewis, A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg, Do's and Don't's of Drama by Jean Lee Latham, The Empty Space by Peter Brook and Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater. The student needs to pass three written assignments every year.
We also do three different in-depth text analysis workshops each year for which they have to do research on the dramatist, his/her body of work and the particular play in question, including one Absurd Drama as well as Absurdist principles. I expect of them to attend classes with an expert on each text analysis assignment for approximately two months before the exam in order that they may pass.
The students put together their own Prose and Poetry Programs and I also expect of them to do extensive research re: the dramatists and plays they do scenes from in class. They are encouraged to read widely and often.
WHY DO YOU THINK METHOD ACTORS HAVE TROUBLE DOING SITCOMS?
Never having done a sitcom myself, I can only guess... Fortunately sitcoms are basically superficial, silly and geared towards mass consumption. Audiences do not wish to either think or feel deeply when tuning in and will happily accept atrocious acting... in fact, they expect it!
I'd imagine that inexperienced, half-trained actors (those who did not complete their studies) who need more time to prepare would find the "sausage machine" process of quickly doing a run to basically sort out technical stuff and then shooting the scene, unnerving to deal with if they are faced with acting problems to be solved - it depends on how the process is run and how much rehearsal time is allowed on any given set. I expect that experienced Method actors (like Al Pacino and Helen Hunt and those who are properly trained) can get work to solve any problems they may experience within seconds, and that the system would therefore not cause them any difficulties at all. You have to understand that longstanding, experienced Method actors have instruments that are well trained, primed and ready to work. They also are very sure of what the different techniques can give them and they can work VERY FAST, needing seconds to incorporate a choice into their acting. Method helps to solve acting problems and make you believable so the audience can relate - that's what it's there for, to help. And it does!
Unfortunately, many of my students who were close to brilliant at the end of their fourth year of study, simply stop doing "the work" when they are cast with non-Method actors. I suppose they feel different and therefore embarrassed to do the work in front of actors who have no idea what they are doing. Maybe they fear being laughed at or excluded or regarded as elitist or ridiculous. I don't know. So they gossip and flirt and chew the fat and play silly buggers with their pals while waiting to do a scene rather than doing what they are getting paid to do - the work! As a result they become just as bad as they were in their first year very quickly - indicating, play-acting, faking emotion and response. This saddens me deeply.
Trained Method actors don't have to make an exhibition of preparing their work while other actors look on. Due to the fact that their instruments are in perfect working order after many years of training, they simply need to separate themselves from the group and quietly focus on their chosen sensory work in a relaxed way, stay concentrated while keeping the preparation going and strengthen it when the cameras are rolling. Nobody will think anything other than that they are shy or snotty or like their own company! And as for that... who cares?
CAN YOU DEFINE "EMOTIONAL MEMORY"?
Yes, I can. Emotional or Affective Memory is the conscious creation of sensory aspects in / of a remembered situation / emotion which has occurred in the actor's own past life through experiencing the sight, sound, touch, taste and smell related to that situation / emotion and the application of the response to the character being portrayed on the stage.
HOW DOES AN ACTOR PREPARE FOR AN EMOTIONAL MEMORY EXERCISE?
By doing a full relaxation the Method way to focus concentration and release excess tension from the instrument. More ordinary situations from their own lives are, of course, not a problem, but I do not allow my students to practice emotional memories that are traumatic or may have deep psychological impact, by themselves at home. Whether they do the memory in class with my assistance or in class by themselves, deeply emotional work is only done when I am present to guide, assist and help them towards full expression and to deal with any blocks that may come up to prevent expression. Traumatic situations have to be seven years old before attempting to make use of them as emotional memories.
DO THE ACTORS USE REAL, HONEST EMOTION OR REMEMBERED EMOTION?
Remembered emotion is not real or honest? An emotion that happens spontaneously, unexpectedly and in the moment can easily cause problems during performance. One never knows what may follow as a result and the actor may not be able to maintain or repeat or control such an emotion. Remembered emotion comes from a situation that has happened before, and can therefore be recreated with sense memory and repeated and controlled at will by the actor when necessary for a specific response, as needed by the character being portrayed. This, however, does not mean that the emotion is fake or dishonest. Method actors do not only deal in emotion - they deal in real response as the character within a specific situation. Actors are not required to have big emotions throughout every performance but the response (even to small things like having a chat with your mom while preparing dinner) must be real.
DO YOU KNOW OF ANYONE WHO BECAME INSANE BECAUSE OF THE METHOD?
Personally? No. I've never heard of such a thing either. If remembering aspects of your past caused people to go insane there wouldn't be a single sane person on this planet. If a person is seriously off-balance, psychologically, or if they have drug and / or alcohol problems, personality disturbances etc. etc., anything could push them over the edge. They'll probably, in fact, have the odd breakdown in varying degrees of seriousness a number of times in their lives. The Method does not CAUSE mental or emotional disturbance. I believe it helps people to deal with unhappy experiences. In my experience, working with the Method brings about higher levels of maturity, insight, self-knowledge, understanding of the self and others, empathy, spiritual depth and wisdom in my students. I see incredible personal growth and positive changes within the first year and it only becomes more apparent in those who choose to stay four years to complete the course.
I KNOW THAT USING THE METHOD PLACES A LOT OF EMOTIONAL STRESS ON THE ACTORS. WHAT DO YOU DO TO HELP THEM OVERCOME IT?
This is totally untrue. I disagree most strongly that the Method as such places emotional stress on actors. They stress less during performance if they focus on doing the work, which makes them feel safe and in control. Even if they have to create highly emotional work for a scene or throughout a play or film, they know exactly what to do the moment the cameras stop rolling or the curtain comes down. They physically and emotionally release the work by doing relaxation, shaking out, making sound and thus "coming back to reality". When they walk out of the theatre or studio they leave the work behind totally until they have to get it back again for the next show or shoot. This is much better than being a mechanical actor who believes he has to walk cripple for three months or take the character with him wherever he goes, for fear of "losing" the character, even when not performing, don't you think? Method actors drop the work and pick it back up as and when they need it and live their ordinary, normal lives when not performing. Much less stressful!
I've certainly never experienced emotional stress as a result of the work itself during the four years I studied at Strasberg. I'm aware of the fact that my actors experience stress, but it comes from their own life-issues - break-ups with lovers, work problems, self-esteem issues, bad relationships with people in their lives, fears, angers, blocked feelings, resistance, unresolved emotional baggage. So... they may get tense or scared about doing certain exercises due to their own personal challenges.
If that is the case and I become aware of the fear / resistance, I encourage them to really focus on relaxation to let go of all excess tension in the instrument. I encourage them to let their personal issues go, through a little exercise where they put these things aside until they can deal with them later. I help them to focus the concentration and the will. If the problems persist, I discuss their issues with them, as it relates to the work, and give advice, guidance and support on how they can let it go.
I get very fond of my students and I treat them with loving affection as often as I give them heck! I frequently suggest that students see a health professional or psychologist if their health or personal problems seem serious, and cannot be overcome by the above methods. I do, however, try not to get personally involved with their lives and issues if same does not get in the way of the work. It's none of my business!!
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF "SONG AND DANCE"? HAS IT ANYTHING TO DO WITH TRAINING THE "WILL" OF THE ACTOR?
The exercise addresses several aspects re: the opening up of the actor's instrument. Awareness and control of emotion and expression, development of spontaneous response, elimination of involuntary nervous expression, the breaking of verbal and physical movement habits as well as other habitual responses, open communication with an audience, development of concentration, immediate response to direction, awareness of tempo-rhythms and the ability to respond to same, and control of the instrument.
Yes! The actor's "will" is of the utmost importance here in doing something that is actually very simple but at the same time extremely difficult to do, because it goes against the grain of his training and his usual habitual responses.
WHEN YOU SAY TO THE ACTOR: "TAKE A MINUTE", WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Do a little relaxation, focus the concentration, center yourself, prepare.
... AND DON'T YOU THINK THAT ONE MINUTE IS ACTUALLY RATHER A LONG TIME ON STAGE?
It's a lifetime! Method actors do not, however, "take a minute" or "speak out" or do a full relaxation with movement and sound and opening up while on stage or make the audience wait while they get their sense memory, during performance! They do so before performing and in the training situation to teach the instrument to become aware of and control tension / lack of concentration / indicating and let it go unobserved, while working. The training process takes time, but once the instrument is primed to do the work, difficulties while working can be dealt with, without "taking a minute" during performance. That is why it takes several years to train a Method actor fully. Once s/he starts working professionally, "taking a minute" is only required before performing but totally unnecessary and not desired during in performance.
HOW LONG DO YOU THINK A STUDENT HAS TO STUDY TO BE READY FOR PROFESSIONAL ACTING?
This depends on the individual. There are film actors who started as children without any training at all, like Jodie Foster and Leonardo Di Caprio, who are both very good. But then, film acting is different to stage acting because you have all the "takes" you need to get the moment and then you can "edit" a good performance together from whatever the actor managed to give you. Depending on how fast the given person works, I regard my students as ready to start doing auditions after three to five years of part-time training - depending on the actor's instrument and understanding.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT DON RICHARDSON, WHO IS AGAINST THE METHOD, SAYING: "ART IS A REFLECTION OF REALITY, NOT REALITY ITSELF."
I agree with him.
IS IT TRUE THAT METHOD ACTORS ALWAYS PLAY VERSIONS OF THEMSELVES AND FORGET THE AUTHOR'S CONCEPT OF THE CHARACTER?
Balderdash! This is an utter fallacy. Some actors who don't know what they're doing because they haven't studied long enough and / or are there only to show how well they can emote or get into the "look at me, ain't I good" thing, may be guilty of this. But you find actors of every type and stripe who don't know what they're doing and act only to be in the spotlight.
The good, well-trained Method actor knows that you have to play the author. Everything he does - text analysis; character analysis; research; answering questions re: intent, obstacle, Who, What, Where, When, Why, the magic IF, motivation, justification, What do I want?, What do I do to get what I want?, What is the most important thing that must be created in this scene?; choosing his Method work to make the character real and believable - EVERYTHING is about creating the character the author intended him to play - allowing, of course, for the fact that interpretations may differ. My students know that I will never tolerate an actor who uses the work as therapy, or for self-aggrandizement, emotional masturbation or "getting away with it". It should be every actor's honor to do his job right, and his job is to play the author. Anyway, who are you going to use if not yourself? The girl next door?
IS METHOD DEATH TO COMEDY?
Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in "Young Frankenstein", Robert de Niro in "Analyze This!", Marilyn Monroe in "The Prince and the Showgirl", Angelina Jolie in "Pushing Tin" - there are so many examples of Method actors who do wonderful comedy work.
The more real and believable when the pigeon drops one on your head, the more the average moviegoer can relate and see himself (or his neighbor) in you, the funnier you are. The more you indicate, anticipate and comment, the more of a trial to those who have to sit through it.
DO YOUR STUDENTS DO TRUST EXERCISES?
In Group Theatre classes, yes. Not in Method. The work the Method actors do with substitution, for instance, gives them relationship, even if they don't know and trust their acting partner(s). You can substitute anyone and anything and be comfortable within that situation.
DO YOUR STUDENTS DO IMPROVISATIONAL WORK?
Absolutely. Improvisation is an integral part of the Method. I do improvisations with my Group Theatre students and expect all my Method students to use improvisations whenever they prepare scenes for class or when we work on a show. When we do a workshop production based on improvisation we start from scratch with only an idea at the beginning of the process and go on stage with a fifty-minute to one-hour play by the end of it.
There's a lot of resistance and negativity out there re: the subject I teach. People in the industry have read a book or two and / or worked with someone whom they dislike who calls him or herself a Method actor, and they form all kinds of judgement and beliefs regarding this way of working, while being totally ignorant of what it entails. Feeling ignorant and therefore threatened by something you don't understand causes fear, resentment and resistance. You cannot learn about the Method from a book! You need to experience it over the period of at least one year in order to be able to form an opinion. One cannot talk about something you know nothing about! If a person in this country has not studied with me or at one of the Method schools in the United States for long enough to know what s/he is doing (between three and five years), s/he is not a Method actor.