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Method Actor 

Definition: An actor who subscribes to one or more of three systematic approaches to acting that were taught respectively by Americans Lee Strasberg (1901-1982), Stella Adler (1901-1992) and Sanford Meisner (1905-1997). All three methods originated in the mid-20th Century and were based on teachings by Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938). Each focused on different Stanislavski techniques for understanding and projecting a character’s inner emotions and motivations.

method actorsOften credited as the father of method acting or “The Method,” Strasberg emphasized “Affective Memory,” that is, actors summoning memories from their lives to bring to life the emotional and physical beings of their characters. Adler emphasized studying text and imagining the cultural, sociological and personal circumstances, past and present, that would influence the character’s behavior. Memory was largely limited to realizing the character’s physical behavior. Meisner believed physical behavior summoned emotional expression, and trained actors to key on the movement, expression and vocal inflections of fellow actors. The three methods did share various elements traceable to “The System” of Stanislavski.

History: Lee Strasberg studied under two students of Stanislavski before he co-founded the Group Theater in New York in 1931. The Group Theater was the first American acting company to put Stanislavski's techniques into theatrical practice and would reflect Strasberg’s concentration on Affective Memory. The company would include both Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner.

StanislavskiIn 1934, Adler left the Group Theater for Paris to study under Stanislavski for five weeks. She would learn Stanislavski had revised his system, discounting the emotional aspect of Affective Memory (or “Emotional Memory” as Stanislavski called it) in favor of imagining the character’s emotions based on his circumstances. The problem with Emotional Memory, Stanislavski observed, was that it tended to make actors appear hysterical. Judging by students of Strasberg, the emotional component of Affective Memory did foster the projection of emotional vulnerability and neuroticism, e.g., Montgomery Clift in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955).

Memory remained important to Stanislavski (and Adler with him) when trying to physically embody the character. For instance, in “Raging Bull,” Robert De Niro, one of Adler’s future students, trained as a boxer to play middle-weight Jake LaMotta. When memory didn’t serve to portray LaMotta in middle age, De Niro binge ate to go from 145 pounds to 215 pounds.

Meisner’s method, dubbed the “Meisner Technique,” would continue to accept the emotional component of Affective Memory, but only insofar as it emotionally charged an actor at the beginning of a scene. After that, the actor must respond to the behavior and voices of the scene’s other actors. Meisner believed that spontaneity projects truth and that an actor should not make any choices until he can justifiably react to another actor’s action. Accordingly Meisner’s curriculum involved extensive exercises in improvisation to teach actors how to connect spontaneously.

acting guruThe Group Theater dissolved in 1941. Disputes over method led Strasberg and Adler to leave the group in 1937. Meisner would remain active in the group until its dissolution.

In 1948, Strasberg became a teacher with the Actors Studio in New York, and in 1951 became its artistic director. Reputedly America’s first theatrical collective, the Actors Studio offered actors, directors and playwrights workshops for artistic development. Strasberg’s unwavering belief in Affective Memory during his 30-year tenure caused Actors Studio to become popularly synonymous with The Method. In the 1970s Strasberg also appeared in the films “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), “The Cassandra Crossing” (1976) and “Going in Style” (1979). Notable students of Strasberg included James Dean, Anne Bancroft, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Shelly Winters, Jack Nicholson, Julie Harris and Martin Landau.

adlerAfter siding with Stanislavski against Strasberg over the value of Affective Memory, Adler left the Group Theater in 1937 for Hollywood. There she spent six years as an associate producer for Metro Goldwyn Mayer and acted in MGM films such as “Love on Toast” (1937) and “Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941). She then returned to New York to perform, direct and teach, and in 1949 founded the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting. Her notable students included Marlon Brando, Dolores Del Rio, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Elaine Stritch, Harvey Keitel, Melanie Griffith and Martin Sheen.

acting teacherMeisner became involved with the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York while still associated with the Group Theater. It was at the Neighborhood Playhouse that he developed and taught the Meisner Technique, which he described as the “first American acting technique.”  In 1958, Meisner moved to Los Angeles to become director of the New Talent Division for 20th Century Fox. He returned to the Neighborhood Playhouse to head its Drama Department from 1964 to 1990. Meisner appeared in the films “The Story on Page One” (1959) and “Tender Is the Night” (1962), as well as in several television dramas. In 1995 he founded the Meisner Center for the Arts, later to become The Meisner Center, an acting school and theater still active in Los Angeles. Notable students of Meisner included Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, Peter Falk, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Cruise, Naomi Watts, Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Bridges.

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