Answer: What is Method Acting?

Method Acting Explained

Question: What is the acting technique, based on the principles of Stanislavsky that was popularized in 1930’s America by director Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, New York?

If this were an episode of Jeopardy, the correct answer would be the title. However, defining something does not imply understanding, and the term “method acting” is often thrown around acting circles, but seldom understood.

In some ways, the Method has become a parody of itself through interpretation and criticism from film audiences over the decades. The wild behavior of method actors off-screen has taken the limelight from the performances that the actors unleash onscreen.

Heath Ledger’s death, tragic as it was, became the most popular and shocking story associated with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Even to this day, it overshadows an Oscar-winning performance. Method acting has been accused of leading to his death, mostly by those who don’t understand what method acting actually is.

History of the Method

The father of method acting was actor and director Lee Strasberg. He, along with several colleagues (Adler, Meisner, Kazan, etc.), adapted the teaching of Stanislavsky for their American acting students. They focused on an “inside-out” performance, stirring past emotions from the actor’s life that they could draw upon during performance.

This became known as sense memory, and Strasberg developed a series of exercises for his students, based on cultivating sense memory. Together, this collection of exercises comprises the Method.

Method acting took off in the 1940’s and 50’s behind the powerhouse performances of Marlon Brando under the direction of Elia Kazan. Note that Kazan also directed James Dean in East of Eden, also famous for its use of the Method.

The roles and performances of early method actors came to define American acting. Audiences were amazed by the sense of reality. They felt as if they weren’t watching actors at all, but peeking into the lives of real people.

After this period of success in the mid-20th century, method acting continued to be employed by many famous actors; Newman, Pacino, Monroe, and Hathaway to name a few. They have always attracted attention for their performances, but also for their technique of getting into character.

The Basics of Method Acting

The Method requires intense devotion and emotional bravery. Part of the reason its practitioners are so respected is because of those challenges. Understanding of the history and development of method acting helps to understand the goal; creating an emotionally truthful performance.

The process of method acting is simply one way to reach that goal, but remember, all actors take ideas and techniques and change them to fit their needs. No actor practices the Method the same. Here is a basic guide to method acting:

  1. Know Stanislavsky’s System – The Method starts here. Script analysis is crucial to understanding your character and beginning to ask questions. List out the actions and objectives of characters and then ask about the psychology of their decisions.
  2. Build a Back Story – To know a character, you must know about their past. Look for clues in the text that could provide support to their emotional journey in the play. Developing a character history will also help you, the actor, connect to the character.
  3. Connect Personally and Truthfully – Strasberg asks, “What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?” Think of your past as it relates to the emotions that you have identified in your character. Was there a time when you felt a similar emotion? What did it feel like?
  4. Practice and Apply – There is no substitute for doing. After you do the prep work, find an outlet for performance so that you can practice your skills. Continue to hone in on a character and on your technique. Behind the simple naturalism of a method actor’s performance is hours and hours of deep thought.

Since its inception in the 1930’s, method acting has evolved and changed through experimentation on stage and screen, but the core principles remain the same. The goal is to create a lifelike character, to escape impersonation and simply be.

What is method acting? Answer: Not acting at all.

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3 thoughts on “Answer: What is Method Acting?

  1. Definitely one of the better, simpler explanations of Method Acting.
    I can’t believe how much the term has been so bastardized.
    People not having a clue as to what they’re talking about.

    Although, I’m pretty sure that Method Acting is not just sense memory,
    as many say it is, from my understanding, and having trained in it.
    That’s what everyone constantly hears about Strasberg, but leave out other aspects.

    Strasberg seems to be ‘bashed’ the most, and personally I think out of all of them, he was the most complete.
    Meisner’s repetition concept is profound, but it is only one aspect of being a good actor, and personally I see a lot of meisner students , who has only studied that, to be very limited as actors, definitely ‘in the moment’, good listener actor/reactors, but little depth, no characterization,etc..

    For one, the media and/or public labeled it ‘the Method’, not Strasberg or his students.
    Strasberg, like Stanislavsky constantly said there was no one way.
    Strasberg was constantly asked to write a book, but avoided it for a long time as he said ‘then people would see this as the acting bible, or my acting bible, and there’s no such thing’.

    Sense memory developed further into emotional recall or affective memory to trigger emotions an actor may not be able to get to.
    But sense memory itself was just strengthening an actor’s senses, not necessarily to reach any emotional state.

    What many don’t mention, and why to me Srasberg was the most complete out of the rest of ‘the group’, Meisner, Adler,etc., is that along with sense memory and affective memory, he had exercises for ‘private moment’, he put a lot emphasis on relaxation exercises, he created song and dance exercises to bring the internal work outside and both physicalize and vocalize it, he used gibberish a lot to get beyond the words, and he worked a lot with improvisation.

    Unlike Meisner, where it was more of a method in the sense that his repetition exercises was step to step, working in stages of it.
    Strasberg used many different tools depending on what’s needed.
    He had ‘steps’ within some of exercises, but there is not one thing alone from Strasberg’s teachings that together makes up ‘method acting’.

    He reiterated many times , that emotional recall is used only if the actor
    cannot tap into that emotion any other way, not to be used all the time.
    He said ‘private moment’ doesn’t work for everyone, there’s no ‘one’ tool
    that works for everyone.

    The best book to get the real idea of Strasberg is ‘Strasberg at the actor’s studio (tape recorded sessions).
    That dispels all the mis-interpreted versions of Method acting.
    Bottom line is there’s no such thing, and no one from Actor’s studio called it that.

  2. I’ve been trained in most of the Stanislavsky based teachings i.e. Strasberg, Meisner, Hagen,etc.
    Just like the media and public created the term ‘method acting’,
    the same was with Stanislavsky’s ‘system’.
    He never called what he did a ‘system’.

    He would say to his students to master the tools they learn at his school,
    and then once out in the real world, let them go,
    create your own unique way of acting.

    These tools are to give you a base. Something to start with.
    After years of hearing people way off base as to the method, stanislavsky system,etc. I finally came to the core of what the system, or method is.
    And as soon as I did, I read Jack Nicholson making a quote that said the same thing.
    He said ‘the method is whatever it takes to create a brilliant performance’.
    You hear people thinking method is gaining 40lbs to feel what it’s like, to go out and get drunk to know what it’s like,etc………it’s all garbage.
    Actor’s make choices of their own how to approach a role, teachers don’t tell them to do these things.
    The one thing that I remember being emphasized is don’/t just be an ok actor, strive to be a great actor, and to do so you need to……..
    That is it in a nutshell.

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