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Method-to-Improv: What are the major acting techniques?

Edge Studio

As a voice-actor, you encounter many stage and screen actors and are likely to consider at least a bit of formal acting training yourself. There are many ways to approach the task of acting. The lay person has heard of “method acting, ” and that’s about it. (And they’re usually wrong as to what The Method is!)

Here’s a list of techniques. Many of them are similar to each other in some ways, very different in other ways. And none is nearly so simple as we’ve described them here. Hopefully, this will be of some service to you, even if something of a disservice to them.

Stanislavski. Developing the shift to modern acting, Constantin Stanislavski incorporated a range of natural behavioral influences, including emotional memory and self-analysis. The focus is on “experiencing” rather than “representing” the character, employing a holistic approach to performance and breaking down the text into “intentions.” The goal is to be aware of an objective, a problem to be solved, rather than be inhibited by the actor’s awareness of his or her artificial surroundings.

Method. Stanislavski had his “System”; Lee Strasberg developed it into his “Method” shifting the focus. Although it is not true that Strasberg’s called for an actor to stay in character even between scenes, the Method does focus more on psychology, using a range of rehearsal and practice techniques, including improvised situations. Emotional memory recall, “sense memory” is at the heart of it.

Stella Adler. While Stanislavski and Strasberg would have you draw on experience from your own life (whether an action or emotion), what if you never had such an experience? Often you can try to apply a feeling or situation similar to the one your character experiences, but that may seem too limited. Stella Adler called for actors to imagine the character’s circumstances and react to those.

Meisner. Similarly, Sanford Meisner called for drawing on the character’s circumstances, being in the moment — understanding the scene and relating to the other actors in it. It was Meisner who defined “acting” as living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” A fundamental tenet is the ability to be one’s self and talk by reacting automatically, not “thinking”; it’s the basis of Meisner’s well-known “repetition” exercise. Another fundamental premise is that a vivid imagination can be more “real” than memories that may have morphed since your original experience.

Michael Chekhov. A student of Stanislavski himself, Chekhov advised a version of his teacher’s holistic approach, including imagination, physicality and the present moment, as well as using experiences both conscious and subconscious.

Uta Hagen. Another shift in focus, even within her own technique. Hagen first called for “substitution,” a means of applying the actor’s life experience to one’s character, but later called for “transference,” a means of turning one’s past feelings into the current character’s actions, a way of endowing the scene with reality. Props also play a role.

Practical Aesthetics. Incorporating the techniques of Stanislavsky, Meisner and an ancient Greek philosopher, this discipline calls for analyzing a scene in four ways: What’s taking place? What does your character want the other character to do? What do you (the actor) want to occur? And how can you relate it to your own experience?

Theater Games. While other techniques include improvisational exercises, Viola Spolin’s approach focuses on them. This technique teaches quick, truthful response based on the moment at hand and has influenced a number of comedy stars.

You might encounter yet another approach or hybrid. For example, a technique at Yale Drama School blends imagination with objective and action. Yale drama Dean Earl Gister advised focusing not on what you want the other character to do, but what they should feel. Harold Guskin teaches less is more, and like Meisner incorporates reacting. But he says he has studied all techniques and watches the actor, adapting various exercises to his student’s needs. As do many other acting teachers.

Ultimately, whether you prefer to be molded to focus on some aspect within you, or prefer to have your inner self drawn out, the thing to do is what works for you. At least as far as acting relates to voice-over performance, learn what those things are, and adapt them to your needs.

For example, David Goldberg, the founder of Edge Studio, advises that each successive sentence (or fragment) is a thought that builds on the thoughts preceding it. Or maybe it changes course. Each successive thought, therefore, calls for at least a slight change in emotion. Is that like the subtle change that can occur in a Meisner repetition exercise?

But emotion is an outcome, not necessarily the approach. Another Edge Studio coach might have you analyze your imaginary surroundings and have your character speak within that context. Or you might draw up some specific memory. Or seek to induce a specific desired action or emotion. (A handy mindset for commercials, but not limited to them.)

Voice acting imposes certain technical requirements (such as maintaining a constant volume and proper mic position), but there is no one right acting technique about voice acting. You’re likely to use bits from many of them.

And you won’t have to worry about not knowing your lines.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].