What is Method Acting: A straight answer

Most actors are afraid to admit that they don’t really know what Method Acting is. They don’t want to look stupid so they don’t ask.

But they should.

Method Acting is the search to find  a moment of actual experience in your acting – a moment of living – as opposed to the outward appearance of living. An actor who does our work actually experiences something when they act, rather than looking like they are experiencing something.

Stanislavsky committed his life to this pursuit of truth in acting, what he called “Perezhivanie.” Lee Strasberg, my father, picked up the baton and devoted his life to the same quest.

Konstantine Stanislavsky

Konstantine Stanislavsky

The russian word used by Stanislavsky, strictly meaning “experience,” is usually translated as ‘living through,” meaning the desire for actors to, as my father said, “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Instead of an actor indicating what he or she wants the audience to understand, the actor should experience those things that he or she wishes to convey.

That is why we talk about truth. It is more than reality. It is more than being natural. Those are issues of style rather than content. Truth is about the undeniable experience of really living something. It is powerful and magnetic, and it is an ability that all of our greatest actors have mastered.

This answer is not just a matter of theory. It is the explicit goal of our training, and it is the measuring stick that each actor should look to in order to evaluate their work. Are they experiencing a truth, according to their own senses, while they work or are they just faking it? If you can experience something with great conviction, then you are already probably in the top echelon. You can move on to the more stylistic issues of character, genre, and storytelling.

If you are faking it, it’s back to the drawing board.

That is what every actor should be asking themselves. Am I just acting the lines? Am I telling you what I think I  should be saying in a manner that conveys the way I think the character should be feeling? That is what most actors settle for.

Method Actors want more. We want to contribute something creative to the process. We have the guts to share our unique response to moment rather than being boxed in by cliche or convention. We are determined to give some of ourselves to the role and to the story in that very instant of “living through.” That, after all, is what Perezhivanie is all about. All the other wrangling aside, that is what Stanislavsky sought. That is what Lee Strasberg insisted on without compromise. Its what makes us special, and it is why our actors are the best.

Published in: on April 11, 2009 at 10:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi David,

    There is a popular fundemental misunderstanding about Stanislavsky’s use and meaning of the term perezhivanie. That misunderstanding imparts the notion that perezhivanie was the “goal” that Stanislavsky had in mind for actors – the idea of “living through” a role, having real experience as the character might. That however does not accurately describe the concept of perezahivanie or impart the proper reasoning and meaning of the term. In the training of actors for example, envisioned by Stanislavsky, there is a “process of perezhivanie” which refers to the actors work to “revive” themselves or “return to life” under the specific and particular conditions of the stage. Stanislavsky knew from experience and observation that the conditions of the stage have a tendency to make many actors freeze up or lose their normal biological responses. In those cases, actors then often turned to cliched behavior, or attempts to impress the audience, i.e. get laughs etc. Stanislavsky asked the actors to begin a “return to life” under these stage conditions as one half of the total process involved for the actor. The second half or companion process as you probably know, is “Voplozhenie” – referring to how the work of Perezhivanie is manifested. Together these two concepts comprise what would lead to and/or be considered an inspired creative state of being for the actor under the conditions of the stage. For Stanislavsky, these two concepts are inseperable and must go hand in hand. The watered down version, or weaker understanding of this by the way, is the idea that perezhivanie is “inner” and voplozhenie is “outer.” That’s wrong too (and just indicates a human penchant for dichotomy). Its not as easy as saying there has to be an inner experience and it has to be expressed outwardly. The concepts are more intricate and intertwined than that and the key is that they must or should lead to that inspired creative state which frees the actor on the stage. That is the goal of Stanislavskys work. Perezhivanie is but a part of that.

    That said – your father is/was without doubt the one who best understood it all and who had the talent himself as actor, director and teacher to put it in practice.


    • MrG, you are certainly correct that Perzhivanie is not the only critical element of Stanislavsky’s work. In fact the physical element is no less important -in much the way of Eastern philosophy we must acknowledge that body and mind are inextricably tied together. They interact so automatically that they have to be trained together.

      However, while that understanding is an essential part of our process and our training, I would argue that the it is a factor that the teacher must understand in order to effectively train. Still it is a tool to understand and achieve the concept of “living through” which I believe is the paradigm shift.

      In order to achieve the state of experience that we seek- that place of creativity and control fueled by truth- we energize the body and use it as the vehicle for our journey. Yet we must not mistake the car with the destination. So while I agree in principle, I left it out given the context of this post.

      I always like people with an informed opinion, so please keep it coming. And excuse the delay in posting your comment – you mistakenly were swept into the SPAM folder. Your thoughts always welcome on this blog any time!

  2. Thank you David. I greatly appreciate it. And thank you for keeping this blog in the first place.

  3. Hi, David.

    I’ve been acting since I was 17 years old in my native country, Malaysia. And acting didn’t just come out of passion. It is breathing in me. When I’m not acting for a live audience, or in front of the camera – I’m simply creating diverse stories, plots and characters in my mind. With those mind-made characters, I would act them out in my room. I cannot describe how acting feels for me. Because it’s the feeling of acting itself that has become me.

    In Malaysia, acting is still popularly considered as a hobby. Though you have many talented Malaysians actors who have chosen to pursue this field as a full-time career. But in my country, Malays films fare better than English ones. It was not until years down the road, that I decided to take up acting full-time. As a career. I currently have a day job working for an advertising agency. I’ve always wanted to pursue acting full-time, but I never had the means to support myself or my family without a day job. Hence, the procrastination. Though, I never gave up this living passion.

    It was not until recently, that I decided to give up my job and go full force, with faith, what I loved doing best. I googled all the acting schools on the World Wide Web, and the best option I was given, was the New York Film Academy. In some way, this school just didn’t “feel” right. So broadened my search. Until one fine morning, just a couple of weeks ago, when I turned the pages of my local newspaper, and there it was – The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, in black newsprint. The Institute was announcing its new location openings in India. At that instant, although I’ve never heard of your Institute, I simply felt that this is the place I should be going to.

    And here I am, writing to you. I’m hoping to sharpen and perfect my skills as an actor. To immerse myself in the art of acting. To learn and live The Method. I’ve been reading so much of your Institute, its inspiration is seeping into me. I’ll be enrolling for the Winter 2010 Session in Los Angeles.

    David, I’m hoping you would be able to assure me of my decision. Feel free to ask me any question with regard to my experience and passion. Also, would you by any chance be one of my tutors? I hope so.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Much thanks.

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