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Historical Overview

An articel with a brief history of modern acting

As mentioned in the last article, the method that has mostly influenced this course is the Meisner technique. To explain just what this means and to put it in context, it might be helpful at this point to go back for a moment to Konstantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre.

Stanislavski was born in Moscow in 1863. He went on to become an actor, director and most importantly the creator of a theory and methodical approach to acting known simply as “the system”. Stanislavski wanted to develop a new way of acting that was emotionally and psychologically true, as opposed what he saw as the unrealistic acting of his time.

In the 1920’s, Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre made a guest appearance in New York, bringing his theories of acting to an international arena. Inspired by his work, what came to be known as the Group Theatre was later formed. The Group Theatre existed for only about ten years but was highly influential on the American theatre and was instrumental in creating what we now think of as modern acting. Out of the Group came famous playwrights, directors and actors, and not least three major acting teachers – Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner.

Strasberg, Adler and Meisner each formed their own unique approaches to acting and started their own schools, but they all, in their own way, built on the work of Stanislavski.

It is of course very hard to summarize their different methods of acting in just a few sentences, and how you describe their differences may depend on which of them you have primarily studied. But here’s an attempt:

Lee Strasberg’s method, simply called “The Method”, is the one that is mostly influenced by Stanislavski’s work on using the actor’s own memories and experiences to bring out genuine emotional responses, like those felt by the character.

Stella Adler abandoned the idea of using emotional memory as, among other things, she felt that reliving sometimes painful memories was potentially harmful to the actor. She thought that you could instead find everything you needed in the script itself and that through curious and careful study of the given circumstances and the use one’s own imagination one could create a true and authentic performance.

Sanford Meisner is the one whose method will be primarily influential in this course. Meisner, like Adler, favored the use of one’s imagination over the actor’s own memories. His primary focus however was on responding truthfully and spontaneously to the other actors and what’s going on around you in the present moment.

As, I said, it’s impossible to capture an entire acting methodology in just a few sentences. But hopefully this has given you a little bit of an overview. Important to note is that each of these schools has produced tons of great actors. And that there´s a lot of overlap and shared ideas between them. All of them continue to inspire new generations of actors and teachers and their work is continued and built on by others. Each of them constantly developed and changed their methods throughout their lives, and so there’s no reason that we should think of them as something finished.

© Luleå University of Technology
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Introduction to Acting

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