After Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre toured the United States, two members decided to stay behind and open a drama school called The American Laboratory Theatre in New York City in 1923. Among the first students were Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler who would in turn start their own theater with Cheryl Crawford called The Group Theatre in 1931.
The Group Theatre was a collective of actors, directors and playwrights, eschewing star driven theater and emphasizing the group and dedicated to naturalistic but highly disciplined acting focusing on the Stanislavski’s system but also trying to see how far they could push his ideas.
Founding member Lee Strasberg became extremely focused on developing the Emotional Memory aspect of Stanislavski’s system.
This didn’t sit well with fellow Group founder Stella Adler. Strasberg directed Adler in the 1934 play Gentlewoman, driving Adler nuts with forcing her to constantly revisit a painful past experience. So much so that Adler decided to take the summer off and visit Paris with her then husband and fellow Group Theatre member Harold Clurman.
In Paris, Adler discovers quite by accident that Stanislavski was doing a theater run. Adler arranges a meeting and asks legendary actor “Why did you ruin my life?”
Well Stanislavski was taken back by what the Americans were doing with his system. He had abandoned emotional memory as a primary technique years earlier instead focusing on imagination guided by emotional memory. Instead of revisiting a painful past memory, the actor should use the entire life of experience to imagine what the emotions that this particular scene requires. To ask the magic “what if” question.
So for every afternoon for five weeks, Adler and Stanislavski would work together workshopping her scenes from Gentlewoman.
When Adler returned the States, she brought a new take Stanislavski’s system that broke away from Strasberg’s emotional memory method.
Strasberg retired from the Group Theatre on Adler’s return and acting technique in the United States began to separate and develop into two parallel camps - the Strasberg Method which focused heavily on looking inward to find emotion and the Adler Technique which was a bit more congruent with Stanislavski’s current thinking on physical action and objective augmented with imagination.
These Method techniques would start to gain serious influence after World War II. Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis and Anna Sokolow started the Actor’s Studio in New York in October of 1947.
The Actor’s Studio was an place for professionals and amateurs alike to work and experiment with their craft. Members would be required to try out and it was by invitation only. It quickly became an exclusive and highly regarded place to be in New York acting circles. By 1949 several teachers began running classes at the studio, among them Sanford Meisner, Daniel Mann and Elia Kazan. Lee Strasberg was also brought on to teach theatre history but by 1951, when Elia Kazan had left for Hollywood, Strasberg became artistic director and de facto head of the Actor’s Studio and began to fashion it according to his own interpretation of the method.
But method acting would no longer be contained inside New York Theater circles for long. Also 1951 method acting exploded on the screen in a big way with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s movie adaption of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Here was a product of the New York’s elite theater giving raw and powerful performance on screen. Method acting - with its naturalistic style was the perfect for partner for cinema’s unblinking eye which could capture every nuance of the performance.
Strasberg took credit for teaching Brando his techniques. But Brando denied it completely - instead owing his success to Stella Adler who had started her own teacher school and director Elia Kazan.
Strasberg does take credit, perhaps more authentically, for other famous 50s method icons like James Dean and the incomparable Marilyn Monroe
Both Dean and Monroe are product of the Actor’s Studio and of the Strasberg method - thus cementing “method acting” as the way an actor prepares for the screen.
But what is Method Acting?
There is a considerable heated debate over which technique is right - Strasberg or Adler. There are strong proponents on both sides but in truth they both just different approaches to achieving the same thing - a truthful performance.
Some clips of Lee Strasberg at work
A documentary on Stella Adler with lots of clips from her acting class
Other acting teachers would add their own techniques including fellow Actor Studio teacher Sanford Meisner who went on teach at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre And Uta Hagen who taught at Herbert Berghof Studio.
But what has ultimately emerged from the 20th century is the approach to acting that seeks to understand and identify with the character and story as the preparation for a performance.
And for the most part when we say method acting we mean this process which an actor goes through to emotionally identify his character. How an actor accomplishes that whether that’s through emotional memory, through observation, through asking the big “what if” - that process - that method - is different from actor to actor, from teacher to teacher and even from role to role.
Even Stanislavski had this to say about the method:
"Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you."
As filmmakers I think we put too much emphasis on the technical aspects of filmmaking - the picture and sound. What drives people to the movies, is the same thing that drove the ancient Greeks to their amphitheaters - not just the love of story but the need for story.
The screenwriter creates the play, the director visualizes it, the cinematographer captures it, the sound recordists capture the audio, the editor pieces it all together and polishes it up, but it is only the actor that can breathe the life into the character and the story. And it is the character who the audience identifies with - it is through character that we undertake the journey of the plot. Everything else is in service to this. Now some genres may rely more heavily on one filmmaking aspect or another, you can craft performances and plotlines through careful editing - but it all still begins with the actor.
When it comes to performance, it is essential to train and practice. It’s not different for filmmakers. Look at your story, study the themes, ask questions, and develop you own method to make something great.