Q: As a working Actor who is also studying, learning and expanding a new craft I was wondering what the right way to compartmentalize new and old “methods” are. If there is a right way? I have studied Lee Strasberg’s Method for two years and I am currently studying Meisner’s work. I have been told in the past not to study other types of work while learning a new method. Should I be practicing Meisner work on set? Or with what I am most comfortable with, Strasberg’s Method?
First of all, it is commendable that you are taking your training so seriously. It’s also necessary. While the actor’s greatest desire is to live freely in the moment, the purpose of technique is consistency. You may have natural instincts that lend themselves to the role, but there will be a moment when you need the support of your technique to accomplish the moment. And your question is a great one, which techniques to use, and when?
Stanislavski said: “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Makeup something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.” This is ironic, because the most prominent American teachers, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, all developed their techniques building on Stanislavski’s principles. At the end of the day, you’re preparing your role to be able to live on the stage or screen without stopping to think about what technique you are using. But it takes a lot of preparation before you can get to that state of living truthfully. It takes a lot of study of the script and your specific relationship to your part, before you can let go and live. Much like playing scales as a piano player, or training as an athlete. Once you’re in the concert or the game, you aren’t thinking about your prep anymore. But you can’t play unless you’ve prepared.
Strasberg and Meisner chose different concentrations, but fundamentally they both valued living truthfully and in the moment. The option Strasberg gives you that Meisner doesn’t is sensory work. In a nutshell, Meisner concentrates on listening, but I would say that technique is also required in the Strasberg method. I always find that sensory work is interesting to the actor, because it particularly engages not just the conscious mind, but also the unconscious and subconscious mind. In life, every human being is engaged consciously and subconsciously at all times. So, when creating the life of a human being- your character- engaging in your preparation in this way greatens your chances of fully living your part. The chances of totally committing in a way that is personal to you are greatened by the sensory work.
Sensory work also allows actors to find a way to live the circumstances of the script truthfully, even if you haven’t experienced them in your life. John Travolta said that when he played a heroin addict in “Pulp Fiction” but had never done heroin, he had to do some research (no he didn’t go out and do heroin, it’s not a documentary). He researched by talking to current and former addicts and asked about how the drug feels. He was told that the sensation was like drinking whiskey in a hot tub. So, he did that- an experience he felt comfortable with- in order to experience that sensation. And then he knew what to create when he “did the drug” in the movie. He had a real sensation that he felt and believed. And then, so did we.
Same with an emotional sensation, like grief. Perhaps your character is grieving the loss of their grandmother, but you’ve never lost a grandmother. You can imagine it yes, and Adler would say that imagining it should take you there. But in my experience, it is even more effective to recreate a moment of loss that you have personally experienced, so you understand how that loss feels in your body. Then you have a specific sensation that is the feeling of grief to you. Now when you enter the circumstances of your grandmother’s death in the story, it lives inside you in a personal way, which is more interestingly active for you.
In Tracy Letts’ play, “August: Osage County,” the stage directions say the house is HOT. You can imagine you’re hot. OR, you can recreate heat in a sensory exercise and really experience being hot. Which seems like it’s going to help you feel more connected?
I believe there are many instances where sensory work is essential, and at least beneficial, in serving the actor’s process. Another great quote from Stanislavski is: “In the language of the actor, to know is synonymous with to feel.” Feeling is sensation, so act from sensation. You need to merge with the character truthfully, or you won’t believe you are the character, and the audience won’t believe you are the character, either.
Having said all this, there are parts that can be played from the trained actor’s instincts, and there is great value in discovering a moment spontaneously. This is not mutually exclusive with sensory work. It’s another way of discovering an experience that may lend itself to knowing who you are while inhabiting the character. Sometimes you will get a role that flows from you intuitively and simply being in the moment and listening motivates natural responses. This is always the goal, regardless of how you prepare. But I would still prepare by associating specific sensations with world of the script, before playing.
Mostly, you must listen to your body. They call it “gut instinct” for a reason. If you believe you have prepared rightly, you will feel compelled to act and your role will flow from you. If moments arise and you’re distracted from the world of the character, you know you need to fill in those blanks with personal associations, however you create them. Ask yourself what you need to believe you are in the circumstances of the piece, and then choose the techniques that you think will best serve you. Perhaps that will come from your training in Strasberg’s or in Meisner’s techniques, you will only know once you try. Once you truly feel personally motivated to play, you know you are prepared for action.
“You’ll never see two good actors approach their part in the same way.”- Stanislavski
Please send your specific questions about the art of acting to email@example.com and Kymberly will respond to a different question each week! There are no invalid questions, as long as they pertain to your craft and life as an actor.
Kymberly Harris is an actor’s director. She specializes in character-driven stories, whether the genre is drama, comedy, thriller, or action. Her extensive experience as a method acting coach to professional actors of all ages has led actors to seek her out to direct them towards their best performances in film, television, and theatre projects.