As you begin auditioning for schools you are likely to hear a wide range of opinions about how you are supposed to dramatically present your work. Some will tell you your presentation is “too big” others will tell you it’s “too small”. How could such highly respected acting teachers have such varied opinions? The history of acting in the United States relies heavily on the influence of Stanislavsky and a group of actors called “The Group Theatre” that he inspired. Several of these actors including Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg became prominent acting teachers in the United States. These teachers all had different thoughts about what Stanislavsky’s work really meant and many disagreed with some of his teaching which inspired them to find their own approach to key concepts. American acting schools either go with one specific school of thought or mix them all together to create what my colleagues call a “Heinz 57” approach – a little of this, a little of that.
Stereotypes are never 100% accurate, but they can be helpful in terms of understanding the differences. Below are very brief “stereotypical” summaries to start your research. There are plenty of resources online about these teachers and other teachers I have not mentioned. Do your own research as you begin auditioning. Email or ask the school on a campus tour what method they teach. Then consider how that method may influence the way they evaluate your audition.
Stanislavsky: The father of modern acting techniques. Stanislavsky came to the United States from Russia in the 1930s and left a major impact on American audiences and actors. No one had ever seen anything quite like his work. Stanislavsky had many important contributions but a few of the major parts of his method are: Relaxation (learning how to release tension), Concentration (being able to really zone in on what you are doing), and Emotional Recall. Emotional recall is important because it was a splitting point for many of the other acting teachers. Emotional recall is the process in which you try to recall a specific event in your past and relive it on stage through your character. For instance: You are playing a scene where your best friend is dying in front of you. Your scene partner on stage has a line of dialogue before you turn around and realize your best friend is dead. During your partners dialogue, you begin recalling the experience of your dog dying and try to recall what that felt like so that the second that you turn around and see your “friend” on stage, you can recall the emotions of seeing your dog die and relive them onstage. Later in his life Stanislavsky moved away from this technique, but many people still remember this as a benchmark of his work.
Meisner: Meisner felt that Stanislavsky’s emotional recall work took actors out of the scene itself and made them unavailable to their colleagues on stage. For instance, while one actor may be giving a heart felt monologue about their love for the other character, the non-speaking actor would be recalling some tragic moment in their history so they could burst into tears on their first line. Meisner’s work really focuses on listening and reacting to your scene partner which teachers often call “being in communion” with each other. Meisner trained actors often learn how to communicate in a very simple and direct manor, without extraneous movement and without extensive thought on “becoming a character”. Because their style is often smaller on the surface and less presentational, it often works well for TV and Film.
The Method: Lee Strasberg is the teacher most often associated with “The Method” and there is a lot of controversy around his work. He himself was known to have bursts of rage in his work and several of his actors ended up in psychotherapy (we have no idea what the actors were like before his classes to be fair). He believed that you should recall what an emotion felt like but not feel the emotion itself. Reliving it onstage could quickly make you feel out of control and would be reckless. He called his work in this area “Affective Memory”. He also spent time with “sense memory”, playing with “Animals” where you literally walk, fly, or crawl around the room as an animal, and “Concentration” which was also an element of Stanislavsky’s work.
So how do you use this information to your advantage? Well for starters, if you start to notice that all of your dream schools are Meisner based, you should take a Meisner class or at least read a book on the method. If you are fully trained in a presentational Method based style, you should tone it down with help from a Meisner acquainted teacher before using the material at Meisner based schools. This all comes back to planning. A little planning can go a long way and drastically increase your chances of being successful.