The most important thing an actor can do for their craft is to get quality training. However, with the insane amount of acting techniques being marketed to actors everyday, it is hard to discern which school of thought will serve you the best. It is important to be able to comprehend and figure out which technique will give YOU the greatest chance at success. Below I have highlighted some of the most well respected techniques and will try to provide some further insight into what they really teach.
Founder: Sanford Meisner in the 1940s
Principles: Many people know this technique from the statement “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” and while this is a great way to begin the description, the technique is so much more nuanced. A derivative of Stanislovski’s teachings, Meisner describes his technique as a way to bring “the actor back to his emotional impulses and to acting that is firmly rooted in the instinctive”. Through exercises that build upon each other, starting with repetition and working up to scene work, the actor learns to react spontaneously from the heart and abandon any preconceived notions about how a scene is supposed to go. Meisner also stresses that an actor’s least important instrument is their mind.
Who Will Benefit: Actors who are constantly getting “stuck in their own heads” and overthinking everything about their performance. Actors who want to focus on truly living in their acting and work from their heart and not the head.
Famous Students: Sam Rockwell, Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, and Diane Keaton.
Where the Study:
- The Taylor Studio is a a Meisner estate school in Los Angeles with weekly progressing classes.
- William Esper Studio offers weekly classes with a yearly commitment and a two year Meisner technique conservatory program in the heart of New York City.
- Sanford Meisner on Acting walks you through a class with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
- The Actor’s Art and Craft and The Actor’s Guide to Creating a Character has a similar approach to the above book but provides a slightly easier read through a class at the William Esper Studio (these are two of my personal favorites).
- The Sanford Meisner Approach: Workbook offers the opportunity to actively learn the technique through individual activities that you can do alone at your own pace.
Founder: David Mamet in the 1980s
Principles: There are two main principles of Practical Aesthetics, think before you act and act before you think. The technique states that if you can answer four simple questions about your character and performance, you can learn how to act. Straight from the Atlantic Acting School website, these four questions are:
- What is the character literally doing?
- What does the character want the other character to do in the scene?
- What is the actor doing onstage to achieve this goal?
- The “as if,” which personalizes it. Or: What is this to me?
Like the Meisner Technique this school of thought stresses imagination over personal recall. In Practical Aesthetics, Mamet states that you need to separate the thinking from the acting at all times.
Who Will Benefit: Actors who are looking for a clearly structured way to approach their acting. Actors who want a mix of intellect and spontaneity in their technique.
Famous Students: Felicity Huffman, Rose Byrne, Jessica Alba, and Camryn Manheim.
Where the Study:
- Atlantic Acting School is a segment of NYU’s Tisch and offers weekly classes for anyone in New York City as well as an audition based two year conservatory.
- Teaching Acting with Practical Aesthetics offers an inside look into the Practical Aesthetics technique through the view of an educator.
Founder: Uta Hagen
Principles: The technique that Hagen provides includes five key attributes: substitution, transference, specificity, authenticity, and preparation. She encourages actors to stay out of their heads as much as they can and instead occupy themselves with real activities and instill confidence through thorough preparation. One key idea that Hagen’s technique brings to the table is substitution, a much healthier version of the emotional recall that gives Strasburg’s technique such a controversial name. She also stresses the importance of the destination of a scene as she believes it can be the root of fascinating and strong choices.
Who Will Benefit: Actors looking for a dense technique with a clear set of instructions. Actors who want to focus on concentration in their performance in a less intense manner than Strasburg provides.
Famous Students: Matthew Broderick, Sigourney Weaver, Jack Lemmon, and Judy Garland.
Where the Study:
- HB Studio is a studio located in New York City named after her late husband. Weekly classes are offered as well as a one year conservatory that can transfer into college credit at some universities.
- Respect for Acting is Uta Hagen’s first book filled to the brim with comprehensive information about the technique.
- A Challenge For The Actor is Uta Hagen’s second book which she herself deems superior to the first.
Founder: Lee Strasburg in the 1930s
Principles: Commonly known as method acting, the Strasburg technique is a way to train the actor’s “instrument” through creative imagination and an actor’s own life experience. Stemming from the teachings of Stanislavski, The method trains an actor’s physical, mental, and emotional self to be able to transform into the character in an authentic and original way. This could be considered the most psychological approach to acting, stressing the need to become the character from the inside out.
Who Will Benefit: Actors who thrive with heavy concentration in their craft. Actors who have trouble with imagination and need to pull from their own experiences.
Famous Students: Sally Field, Laura Dern, Chris Evans, and Marilyn Monroe.
Where the Study:
- The Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute has locations in both New York City and Los Angeles with a wide variety of classes and programs both online and in person.
- A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method does a really good job of thoroughly explaining what the method does and how it works.
- The Lee Strasberg Notes is a more colorful read filled with unpublished transcripts from one of Strasburg’s classes.
Founder: Stella Adler in the 1930s
Principles: Derived from the teachings of Stanislavski, Adler teaches actors to draw from personal experiences in a different way than Strasburg. Instead of relying on personal memories to help their performance, this technique recommends using real observations that the actor has had to shape their emotions and create a three demential character. Adler breaks her training down into body, voice, and mind.
Who Will Benefit: Actors who need clear structure that is not limiting. Actors who have found they work best drawing from their experiences but don’t want to fully commit to the method.
Famous Students: Robert DeNiro, Benicio Del Toro, Mark Ruffalo, and Melanie Griffith.
Where the Study:
- Stella Adler Studio of Acting located in New York City has classes in a weekly and conservatory format.
- Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre offers a wide variety variety of classes weekly, part time, or for a full two year conservatory located in Los Angeles.
- The Art of Acting offers an in-depth look into the Adler technique and principles.
Founder: Michael Chekhov in the 1950s
Principles: Chekhov has developed a “psycho-physical” approach to acting, which includes transformation, impulse work, imagination, and gestures. He believed that focusing mostly on the physical with the techniques listed above is the way that an actor can reach their full potential. This technique offers clear and practical tools for an actor working with imagination, feelings, and atmosphere.
Who Will Benefit: Actors who thrive with physical training. Actors who struggle with the focus and intellect aspects of other techniques
Famous Students: Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, and Jack Nicholson.
Where the Study:
- Michael Chekhov Acting Studio offers workshops, 12-week programs, and a variety of other opportunities in the heart of New York City.
Founder: Viola Spolin in the 1960s
Principles: Known as the mother of modern improv, Viola Spolin was a pioneer of acting back in the 60s. Her technique is taught through a series of theatre games that demand an actor’s intelligence and body language in order to be successful. This technique strips and actor of their natural self conscious nature and requires them to revert back to a child-like state to simply play in a non-judgmental setting as part of a unified team.
Who Will Benefit: Actors who are overly critical of themselves. Actors who need to let loose, be spontaneous, and just play.
Famous Students: Alan Arkin, Fred Willard, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner.
Where the Study:
- Viola Spolin Workshops offers periodic workshops in the technique both online and in various cities across the United States.
- Theater Games for the Lone Actor contains over 40 exercises that allows the actor to self coach themselves and gain a glimpse into what training in Spolin’s technique is really like.
- Improvisation for the Theater is aimed at the educator and thoroughly explains how the games are meant to be played and what the benefit is.
While this is a lot of information to digest, it is important to know the differences and similarities between the different techniques. Making sure you pick a school of thought that fits you personally is a major key to success in this industry. I encourage you to keep educating yourself on the craft of acting and figure out the right unique path for yourself.