A major criticism of Lee Strasberg’s acting “Method” has been that it tends to stifle the actor’s imagination with it’s alleged insistence that the actor use only his or her own personal experience in the creation of a character.
This perception of Method practice is, of course, not accurate, as evidenced by the high number of obviously imaginative Method actors (Dustin Hoffman immediately comes to mind). The practice of Method sense memory, though immensely valuable, can divert the actor from applying the experience of the character where it differs from the actor’s own experience.
Many techniques of acting emphasize the imaginative creation of character. The more successful of these rely on close external observation and some degree of psychological perception. These more external techniques, however, mostly produce non-experiential and therefore quite artificial performances, except in those moments when the actor is extremely inspired. Though an actor of, say, British royal Academy technique may be skillful and even dazzling to watch and listen to, in the end such a performer has drawn more attention to their own skill and talent than to the character and the world of the story.
So the dilemma becomes how to allow the real experience of the actor serve the creation of the character without limiting the actor’s talent and imagination. Towards this end, I’ve developed a series of exercises of the imagination designed to fully utilize the Method actor’s skills with sense memory and organic acting technique. I must emphasize that the stronger and more developed the actor is in the practice of sense memory, the more the work of the imagination will simulate real experience in a way that is unconscious and organic.
Every good actor seeks to make the world of the play somehow real to him or herself. For this reason, aspects of these imaginative exercises have been worked on intuitively for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
We now propose a more formal technique incorporating this intuitive and imaginative work, supported by traditional sense memory. This technique invites the actor to work on the sense memories, personal objects, etc. of the character. In addition the actor can imagine the past events of the character’s life sensorily and experientially, not just biographically. In addition, the actor should have some training in Sanford Meisner’s highly reactive, here-and-now approach.
Many serious actors, especially in the U.S., have trained in some version of the three main organic approaches: Strasberg’s “sense-memory,” Stella Adler’s “imagination,” and Meisner’s “repetition, etc.” Actors have realized very good results by pursuing two or even all three of these techniques. We believe, though, that there should be an organized integration of and development from these techniques. We have discovered, for instance, that sense memory can ground the imaginative work in a more organic reality. This integration of existing and new ways of working, when well-applied, can create characters that truly experience the moment, and are also quite distinct in behavior and inner life from the actor’s own.
An additional benefit emerges. As the actor constructs the character’s life experience in a more organic way, he or she tends to be far more interested in script interpretation as a process of discovery, rather than as imposed mental theory. What I mean by ‘imposed mental theory’ is the sort of intellectually laid-on interpretations common in mediocre avant-garde theatre, e.g.: ‘Hamlet’s problem is that he is fat’ (yes, his mother, Gertrude, actually says this), ‘Hamlet’s problem is that he is gay,’ ‘Hamlet has an overwhelming Oedipal Complex variant, and therefore wants to have sex, literally, with his mother’ (three out of four modern Hamlets seem to have the Prince practically raping Gertrude in the ‘closet’ scene. It has become the cool thing to do).
Part of the modern actor’s problem is that he or she has become something of a mindless pawn in the intellectually schooled director’s grand vision. This is exactly why Stanislavski warned against what he called “Director’s Theatre.” The director needs to support the actors in their investigations and weave it all together, not fascistically impose some intellectually based vision from on high. Otherwise there can be no discovery, no organic reality, and no true, cohesive human experience.
This has become particularly true with the greater plays of Checkov, in which most directors completely ignore Checkov’s insistence that his plays are comedies. Most productions of these plays (except the obvious farces like “The Wedding Proposal” and “The Bear”) are somber, sentimental, usually suffocatingly boring manifestations of totally dead “High Culture.” The actors and director, no matter how celebrated they may be, have not discovered the true nature of Checkov’s characters, basically that they are all complete fools. Only organic experience of the characters combined with full free use of the imagination will reveal the true comedy in Checkov, and in fact, the level of theatrical reality of any well-written play.
September 30, 2009