The Other Method Acting: “a ticket to the tears”
Many people think that Method Acting is living the role. Well it isn’t, strictly speaking. The term Method Acting, as per its roots comes from New York. It came from Marlon Brando and Streetcar Named Desire. The actual meaning is using personal or childhood experiences in your acting to get a deep emotional response. It is not living the role as per Dustin Hoffman running around the block in Marathon Man (1976) to appear puffed-out on screen. Or staying in character as a Daniel Day Lewis would. See my post on this subject: The Dangers of Method Acting.
MEISNER? Is that method acting? No. Sandford Meisner the great teacher from New York’s Neighbourhood Playhouse, developed The repetition exercise. Which I believe is his greatest contribution to art of acting, because it cures self-consciousness and cultivates spontaneity. But that is not Method Acting.
Marlon Brando came on stage in 1947 and Method Acting was born. His performance in A Streetcar Named Desire was so powerful and so RAW, that audiences were shocked. Acting at the time had been almost stuck in the artificial, of controlled delivery of a character to an audience. Acting that had a of performance to it, but not raw, cold, uncomfortable emotions imposed on an audience by an in your face sexual panther. Marlon was exorcising childhood traumas and a life not so comfy. He was raised by an alcoholic mother, a philandering absent father and suffered some sexual abuse. But he made something beautiful out of this terribleness. His career changed the face of acting forever and he inspired James Dean and every other young actor for the last 60 years. So because his work was so personal and because it was coming at a time when acting was dated in the old English theatrical style of performance based acting, it made a massive impact and it took off as the thing in acting. The seeds of this actually
came from Stanislavski and Russian Theatre, because he coined the idea of using real childhood memories in your acting. But Brando was trained by Stella Adler who touted the importance of watching other people’s behaviour with razor sharp detail. Flood the subconscious with detail from real life and let it chew on it and spit it out in certain roles, certain moments. But this doesn’t serve you when you have do a big emotional scene. Where do you get those tears?
Lee Strasberg was a massive exponent and “flag waiver” of Emotion Memory. This is the real method acting or at least the one actors talk about. In workshop, the actor, once relaxed, goes back to his or her childhood to extract any memory or incident that they remember vivdly. In extreme detail. The detail is the “ticket to the tears”. This detail might be the colour of the wall, the scent of daddy’s cologne, the sound of a cat screeching, the feel of a certain fabric…these sensory details are what one focusses on to Recall the emotion of that moment from the actor’s childhood. Because of this, Sense Memory work is advised for those hoping to use Emotion Memory as a goto technique in his or her career. Sense memory is the individual practice of devoloping a strong recall in the body of a sensory event. It might be sight, sound, touch or smell.
This Emotion Memory and Sense Memory techniques are only really learnt under strong Stanislavski based instruction. It is highly recommended technique that might work for you. In my experience it is not for everyone, but for the people it does work for, it is FAIL SAFE goto that careers can be built on. Imagine being on set or being on stage and being able to turn on the tears with just a little preparation. So strong that you have enough to play against them and hold them back – really get the sympathy/ empathy of the audience. The closest I got was when I watch a sporting contest and the team that is habitually losing rises up and punches the air when they conquer the unbeatable – for some reason tears come on. I don’t mean shallow tears either. Deep truthful ones. But this is not a childhood memory per se and I personally use other techniques when I have to deliver. But if you want to scream to the celing “STELLA” and move the earth – just like Marlon Brando did, then you must at least investigate the big daddy of acting techniques – Emotion Memory or Method Acting.