Acting: Systems, Methods and Techniques

Picture by Steven Shorrock

Picture by Steven Shorrock

There are many examples of actors successfully crossing into directing. From Charlie Chaplin to Clint Eastwood passing by Ron Howard and George Clooney, actors have transitioned onto the other side of the camera, and done so with an advantage. If empathy is an important aspect of being a filmmaker, who can understand a task better than the ones having felt the complexities, challenges and possibilities of doing said task first hand? It is important for a director to understand where your actors come from, how did they inform their craft? what “schools” or “methods” influenced their development?

“In the language of an actor, to know is synonymous with to feel.” – Constantin Stanislavski

One of the names most commonly associated with directing and acting is Constantin Stanislavski. Famous for his writings in An Actor Prepares, An Actor’s Work on a Role and My Life in Art, his work on acting techniques and methods is the foundation of many of the 20th century acting/directing movements. The System, as often referred to, offers a series of considerations aimed at achieving realism in the actorʼs performance.

Stanislavski believed that each scene in a play could be divided into units of action. In each unit of action, each character has a sub-objective and its actions help them to achieve this goal. One important aspect of the system is the identification of the various “beats” and how they are arranged to form the charactersʼ progression throughout the plot or scene.

The actor has to try to answer the question “If I were in the Characterʼs position, what would I do? How would I react?”. Playing with a Magic If forces the actor to concentrate on the characters trait more than the action. As a director, this can be facilitated by vividly painting the situation with words, as opposed to describing the actions.

Stanislavski insisted that an actor was either driven by emotions or by the mind to choose physical actions. This in turn aroused the ʻwillʼ of the actor to perform the given actions. ʻMotivationʼ looks backwards into the psychology and the past. In other words, where does the character comes from?

ʻObjectivesʼ look forward towards an action. It is the driving force of the characters. Sub-objectives (for the various beats), Objectives (for specific scenes, or the entire plot) and Super-Objectives (for life) need to be clearly identified to guide the actor through the performance.

Emotional Memory is often used as part of the System. That is, the actor needs to identify an event from her/his personal life that resembles closely to the emotional “needs” of the character. The actor has to concentrate on the physical sensation surrounding the emotional events, as opposed to the emotion itself or the specific of the event, in an attempt at recalling them and projecting them into the character and the scene. What was the smell like? What could you hear? What kind of sensation could you feel on your skin? Could you taste something?

“Acting isn’t something you do. Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you’re going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.” – Lee Strasberg

Another popular and often misunderstood name in the world of acting is The Method. Derived by Lee Strasberg from Stanislavski’s System, Method Acting combines the actor’s study of the character’s psychological motives and personal identification with the character. The actors own life is a pool from which he can recall emotions and sensations that match the character’s emotional state.

It is often believed that Method acting always involve the actorʼs becoming the character, living 24/7 impersonating the character and spending time researching the character by living in his habitat and facing similar situation in a real life setting. This is not always the case but it is often associated to Method acting. Total immersion can generate a wealth of emotions and sensation that can be added to the emotional pool.

Method acting starts with relaxation. To be free, an actor needs to get rid of all the muscular and mental tension that restrict him. Lee Strasberg believed that actors who can relax their muscles reach a higher state of concentration and responsiveness. The actor develops concentration through sense memory exercises. A beginning method actor will first explore real objects and locations through all five senses. Subsequently, he will try to recall these sensations away from the location or without any physical interactions with the object. The focus of the task is on the actor’s senses rather than internal emotional patterns.  These actors learn to use sense memory to recall emotional experiences from their past. Instead of trying to remember or force an emotion, the actor tries to re-create with his senses the circumstances surrounding the experience. With practice, an accomplished method actor can trigger the right emotion for his character within seconds by simply recalling a single smell or sound.

Lee Strasberg also developed several exercises to help actors create believable characters on stage. The most known is the animal exercise where a method student will observe an animal and then try to create the experience of being that animal through their five senses. With practice, the actor can pick a couple of attributes of the animal and incorporate them into the role he’s playing. Lee Strasberg “method” is the most widely used acting technique in America.

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“Listen with your gut not your head” – Sanford Meisner

Another popular approach to acting derives from the work of  Sanford Meisner. His technique concentrates on self, circumstances  and reaction to others. To enable actors to play on action and reaction, repetitive dialog is often used as an exercise. The focus is on considering the characters objective, reading other actors’ tone and body language. Meisner’s cause and effect teaching helps the actor to be fully present in the community of the performance. What is the catalyst of change and how as a character you deal with change and the chain reaction that follows it?.

The greater point of the exercise and the technique as a whole is to get you working off the other person so that you are connected and their emotions feed your emotions and vice versa. The goal is to really truly listen. One actor makes a simple truthful statement about the other. The statement is based on that moment and from the actorʼs point of view. The other actor repeats and the repetition continue until one actor notices something new.

For example:

“Youʼre sitting there.”  “I’m sitting here”

“Youʼre sitting there.”  “I’m sitting here”

“Youʼre sitting there.”  “You don’t like that”

“I don’t like that.”  “You don’t like that.”

“You seem nervous” “I seem nervous”

“You seem nervous” “I am nervous”

“You are nervous” “So are you”

“I am nervous” “We are nervous”

“They will judge us” “They are judging us”

“They are judging us” “I think they know”

“You think they know” “Yes, they know”

It isn’t about being interesting, funny, or entertaining. It is about identifying the first impulse and not filtering it. Sometimes the exercise can be used directly in a scene. An actor can take an “emotional reading” of the other before introducing elements from the scene. The repetitions and emotional reading can help reconnect the characters (actors) when “things” do not want to “work” for you.

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“The problems of acting do not require that actors stop thinking, but that they find out what to think about.” – Robert Cohen

A last approach I would like to include in this post is the work of Robert Cohen and his GOTE Sheet. Before rehearsing a scene, the actors would need to assess 4 main points relating to their character and the nature of the scene: Goal, Obstacles, Tactics and Expectation. This approach places a great emphasis on the objectives and obstacles within the scene. 

Goal: What do I really want? When do I want it?

Other/Obstacles: From whom (in the scene) do I want it? Who in the play/scene can help me? Who in the play/scene can hurt me? Who is an obstacle? Why? Who could I affect with my actions? What are my fears?

Tactics: How can I get it? How (and whom) should I threaten? How (and whom) should I induce?

Expectation: Why do I expect to get it? Why does it excite me? What will I do when I get it?

The content of the sheet(s) is revised with the director and memorised before rehearsals. The actor should concentrate most on the GOTE rather than the content of the script. In a way, GOTE is very close to the manner in which we (should) approach life itself, in the present, without excessive focus on the past and with a sight on the future.

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As a director, it is your duty to understand your actors and provide them with the right stimuli. What is the best approach? The one that works best with the actors you are working with. There is no magic trick that will always work in all situations (where would the fun be?). Remember, when judging an actor on screen it is not only the actor you are judging but also the director. It is easier for an amazing director to help a struggling actor deliver a good performance than it is for an amazing actor to deliver a good performance when being helped by a struggling director.

2 responses to “Acting: Systems, Methods and Techniques

  1. The GOTE method seems very similar to David Mamet and William H Macy’s method Practical Aesthetics, as described in A Practical Handbook for the Actor.

  2. Pingback: Continuity: Lines, Beats and Crossings | w(a/o)ndering filmmaking·

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