Monday, 2 December 2013

Why I'd never be a Method Actor

So, this week I'm going a little out of my knowledge area to talk a bit about Method Acting.

By Method Acting I'm referring specifically to acting that takes on Stanislavski's principles of Acting as developed by Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio. Not necessarily the practice of specific Method Actors.

Famed Method Acting names get banded around quite a lot: Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman etc. All fine actors (though my acting teacher would ferociously disagree with the latter) but you can't argue the fact they have all had fantastic careers, with the occasional stumble here, there and everywhere, who hasn't.

Day-Lewis is perhaps the most chronicled Actor by the ways in which he prepares for roles. For the film My Left Foot he lived in a self imposed state if paralysis for the duration of the filming, to gain an insight in to the character. After The Boxer, his trainer insisted he could turn pro if he wanted and during Lincoln, he insisted in being addressed as Mr President throughout filming, never breaking character. You'd hate to be married to the guy right? I don't believe THIS level of preparation is wholly subscribed to by practitioners of Method but the urban myths prevail. 

Now, were I to take on the role of a homeless person, should I go and live on the streets myself? In order to gain an insight in to the characters world? For one simple matter, I wouldn't want to. But suppose I did. Am I not simply generalising that all homeless people have a similar experience?  In all honesty, whatever best helps you is fine by me, each actor creates their own method eventually, and who am I to criticise, it's just not for me.  But regardless, this isn't my biggest issue with Method Acting.

Emotion Memory/Affective Memory

Perhaps one of the most debated topics within actor training; the practice of recalling your past experiences to stir your emotions within your work on a role.

If you have time, here is a wonderful article on Stanislavki's system with a large sector given over to the emotion memory debate (but I'll give you some abbreviated highlights):

The fact of the matter is that Stanislavski chucked emotion memory from his system in his later years in favour of the Method of Physical Actions, which would later go in to the current trend of Actioning.  Stella Adler had the sense to go back and work with Stanislavski after the Group Theatre disbanded and brought back his new principles.  Strasberg instead ran with Emotion Memory, developing it in to the newer, radical Affective Memory, defined by a Starbergian student as

'the conscious creation of remembered emotions which have occurred in the

actor’s own past life and then their application to the character being portrayed on stage'
The 'conscious creation'....whereby you're not truly living within the moment, but being forced to vanish within yourself to attempt to bring up past emotions.  Here, you're introverting the already introverted, because that's what we are.  As extroverted as one might appear, the fact of the matter is actors are working with ourselves consistently, our body, our instincts and our feelings are our tools and a permanent process of self awareness is in effect.  By asking you to put your attention in to your past, how can you be engaging with the present moment, and the actor opposite?  Also, we run the risk of squeezing for every last drop of emotion within ourselves, tensing and searching deep to try to feel something, it's ugly to watch someone squeeze emotion out, and you know when you're watching it. 
I titled this article 'Why I'd never be a Method Actor' because, emotion/affective memory is not for me.  Quite simply, I've had an alright life.  I certainly didn't get in to acting because I wasn't loved enough as a child, or to deal with some life-issue.  Granted I have memories, I've gone through the usual relationships, break ups, arguments, my childhood dog dying, a whole array of stuff.  But ask me to liken the death of my dog to say, a character who loses the love of their life and I'll laugh in your face.  Plus, as time moves on those memories have different meanings to me.  Were I to have had major trauma growing up that would be a different story, why would it be even remotely helpful for me to bring up horrific past memories in front of my peers?  Eventually, you'll end up with such an unstable, internalised, collective of actors requiring consistent therapy.  Surely it's not healthy for anyone's craft.  And let's not forget, an audience don't come to the theatre to watch you have feelings, they come to have feelings of their own.
Within my work, I've seen an actor in truthful tears based on an exercise in which she was no longer able to have children, based on a past abortion.  For this actor, there was no such memory to grab on to and yet the moment was served and the emotion truthful, it was gorgeous work and the other actor responded beautifully.  The imagination can be more fruitful than the memory when we stop squeezing for results.  The process is much more beneficial than the result, and that's where the real work happens.

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