Teachers & Techniques

Acting began all the way back in the sixth century BCE with the ancient Greeks, so it's only natural that there have been many different kinds of acting, acting teachers, and acting techniques throughout history. For our purposes, I'll tell you about five of the most famous, well-known names that you're bound to hear around the American theater over and over again: Constantin Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg. (However, it is important to know that there are many others.) One thing I've learned in my research is that many acting teachers have different ways of teaching the exact same lessons. For the most part, they believe in the same preparation, but have different "specialties." Thus, you might notice some overlap between teachers and their techniques. This is to be expected: if one teacher finds something that works and can show results with it, other teachers are bound to try it.

Konstantin Stanislavski

Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1963) was a Russian director and actor. To this day, he is one of the most influential figures in American theater and has influenced dozens upon dozens of actors and teachers. The umbrella term for his series of techniques is called Stanislavski's system, and the most common chunk of the system is "the method." This technique asks of the actor, "What would I do if I were in the character's situation?" Basically, if whatever circumstances of the scene were happening to YOU, how would you react? This question led to the analysis of motivation and objective, both of which have become so commonplace in theater that they are no longer a style; they are theater basics. What would you do? Why would you do it? Objectives, he said, should be based on actions— something the character can physically do and measurably achieve— rather than some kind of "internal" goal. This way, you can actually produce visible action onstage that the audience can see, rather than acting it all out in mind.

To promote truth onstage (rather than "acting"), Stanislavski advised actors to recall different emotional experiences they've had in the past. If your character's grandfather has just died, and you the actor have ever known the feeling of losing your own grandfather (or any family member, for that matter), recall the experience. How did you feel? What did you do? What did you want at the time it happened? All of these can be used to fuel your character's own choices and objectives.

An acting class puts Stanislavski's techniques to use.

Uta Hagen

Uta Hagen (1919-2004) was an American Broadway actress and drama teacher, born in Germany. Her focus too became a staple of American theater study: she was a strong purveyor of research. Hagen advised actors to learn as much as possible about the character, to research everything related to the character's world. She also devised a series of exercises designed to make the actor more aware of his or her surroundings and wrote lists of questions for actors to answer ("Who am I? Where am I? What do I want? What is in my way of getting what I want?" and others).

Hagen also stressed the importance of doing rather than just standing around. People don't just stand and wait, she said in an example. They fiddle with things. They talk to themselves. They study their environments. They people watch. On stage, no one should just "wait" without some type of corresponding action. Above all, Hagen spoke about honesty, making choices and actions not to "show" any acting but to truly be in the moment.

Uta Hagen teaches an acting class and watches student scenes.

Sandy Meisner

Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) was an American actor who pioneered what is now known as the Meisner technique. A form of method acting, his technique professes the importance of finding a motivation for every moment, whether that moment is silence, dialogue, or action. Like Stanislavski, he stressed doing; always having a visible indication of the character, rather than just "feeling it" internally. His technique is where the "live truthfully under fictional circumstances" comes into play. He did not want actors to merely play the emotion in the script. He wanted the subtext of the lines and emotions of the objectives guide the actor into their next moment.

Another technique Meisner was known for was memorizing lines without vocal inflections or gestures. The technique says that by having actors learn their lines "dry," the actual delivery onstage will be more natural instead of pre-prepared. He embraced spontaneity; not knowing what will happen until the moment actually occurs onstage.

An acting teacher explains the Meisner technique in better detail.

Stella Adler

Stella Adler (1901-1992) was an American actress famous for roles on stage and screen. She founded two famous schools of acting in New York and Los Angeles. Adler believed in many of Stanislavski's teachings, but she also stressed the importance of being big, and not boring, onstage. Small and subtle movements? No.

Unlike some teachers who may champion very little preparation for the sake of spontaneity, Adler encouraged a lot of it. She wanted actors to rehearse often, taking in the minor details more and more each time. Immersion in the environment, the character, and the situation was her lesson. Whereas Meisner's techniques often relied on an acting partner to carry their weight of the scene, Adler's can be better adapted toward monologues or cold readings, where the scene partner may be the director and not a fellow actor.

Actor Mark Ruffalo explains his use of Adler's techniques on Inside the Actors Studio.

Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) was an American actor, acting teacher, and director who was a strong purveyor of method acting. He had a strong interest in psychology, which was quite influential in his acting techniques. He advised actors to dive fully into researching every aspect of his or her character, especially his or her backstory and personal life before the narrative of the show begins. One of his goals was to have actors become so familiar with their characters' lives, the characters would be just as constant as the actors' own lives.

Memory was also important to Strasberg. He asked actors to try and remember as many reactions, thoughts, and feelings as possible through everyday living and try to apply them to a character going through the same experiences.

Lee Strasberg talks an acting class about the importance of backstory.