ON APPLYING METHOD TECHNIQUES DURING PERFORMANCE
BY PHILLIP VAN STADEN, ALUMNI – FOUR YEARS
From my first to my fourth year of training, my views on most things have changed a lot, not only on using the Method, but on “acting” in general. I will discuss five specific aspects that have changed for me over the past four years.
METHOD AS A TOOL
When I started my studies at the Method Actors’ Training Centre, I did not know what acting was and I knew even less about what the Method is. At that point Method and acting was the same thing to me -which, in a sense, is true. I realize now that the Method is actually a small but important part of acting, that it is only one of many aspects that go into creating a performance – a tool to be used and manipulated.
Before applying work, or deciding on specific work, an actor must explore and find an interesting way of performing the scene (seriously taking the author’s intent into consideration, of course). By looking at the opposite of the obvious, comedic aspects, tempo-rhythm and the image you wish to create on stage, you discover what you need from the Method. In other words, your creative choices help you to choose your Method work, not the other way around.
Simply applying Method choices that “will do – as long as the work is real” and being content that you are “doing the work”, is not enough. We have to be imaginative and original as well. We must take chances and find the best way of performing the scene or the play.
Although the Method provides many ways for us to break through our blocks, it is not the be all and end all. We have to apply our willpower and effort in order to break through our limitations. Only when we accept responsibility for our work and personal development can the Method be beneficial to us as actors.
Intent is an extremely important part of the actor’s performance. What the character wants or must do and that which gets in the way of that intent, is very important. Method work must be chosen to back up the intent. The intent is decided on first, based on the information provided in text, and then the Method work is chosen to create and/or intensify the intent.
There are technical issues that always have to be kept in mind when acting. Sightlines, audibility, continuity, structure and logic must all be approached correctly, whether dealing with stage or camera. Being trained to perform on the stage and in front of the camera is very important because the Method in itself won’t solve the technical aspects faced by the actor. In the hands of an actor who is not doing his or her job correctly, the Method will, in fact, get in the way of solving technical issues.
To sum up what I’ve said above: The Method is a tool or set of techniques to help the actor be real and honest during performance. In order for the Method to be effective, however, we must have willpower, use our imagination, have technical training in the medium we’re acting in, think logically and theatrically, choose the correct intent and know how to apply our chosen Method work appropriately.
This view has evolved for me over time, starting from the naïve idea that the Method is the only important thing to worry about while performing and that it will automatically take care of all challenges and problems. I think this view, which is shared by many new (and not so new!) actors, comes from the intense training undergone in order to learn this unfamiliar and difficult to understand technique when we don’t know anything about acting to begin with.
As time went by and I learnt to apply the techniques, gaining experience as an actor, I started truly believing in the Method as a tool as opposed to a colossal system that has all the answers but in which I have no choice or control.
Mary: (Washing the dishes) Good morning, John! (Doorbell rings and Mary goes
into shock instantly) Oh, my! The doorbell is ringing!
John: Don’t worry, all is well. It’s just someone at the door.
Mary: (Calms down instantly) Oh, good. I’ll get it! (Opens the door and Dan enters)
Dan: (With a grim expression on his face) I’m afraid I have some bad news.
Mary: (Inconsolable crying) Oh, NO! Why? Why? Why? Why?
One of the things I expected when I first started my course, was that I would develop a machine-like ability
to immediately express any emotion instantly. What I did not take into account, were the stages an
emotion goes through. Rarely do we jump into an extreme emotion instantly.
We first go through a process of realization, shock, denial, rationalization and confusion. As we go through these thoughts and processes the underlying emotion builds, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.
During performance, it is unrealistic to skip the different processes and jump straight into the extreme of
emotion, because then we miss out on the subtleties and the reality of how emotion works. The Method
gives us the opportunity to express these subtleties without planning or thinking about them, if the work is
chosen correctly for the scene. If we need it, we can always pick an emotional memory that peaks very
quickly for a sudden outburst but we often don’t need this. We have to stay with what is true and real in
human behavior in general and the character’s behaviour in particular, remembering that transitions
I once played a scene where a son is being told that his adopted mother, who had brought him up, had died
of a stroke. Instead of bursting into tears immediately, I chose to go through a short sequence of thoughts
and feelings as the character. Though the amount of time available was extremely limited, I worked on a
transition, going from one feeling to another. I used an emotional memory that gave me confusion, then
momentary denial, then saddened shock and finally a defiant “anger”. The natural flow of the memory
mostly ran in that order, with little variation. I was able to focus on different aspects of the memory to
“control” or shape the response. I could, for instance, focus on hearing someone say specific words to
prolong the sadness or focus on hearing something else to trigger the anger.
I didn’t know if this would work, at first, but after watching the scene on film I found that the transitions
occurred very effectively even though the choice to go to anger may not have been the most appropriate
for the scene. In my first year of studying I would probably have worked for only sadness, expecting to get
sad from the second I heard the news and keeping that going until the end of the scene. The choice to flow
with the stages of the emotional memory gave more variation and light and shade to the role.
In this way a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I did not have to worry about all the subtle responses
that happen in the face, the body and the voice of a good actor while doing an emotional scene. All I had to
do was recreate the sensations inherent in a well-chosen emotional memory, which would allow me to
respond in interesting and real ways as the character.
I also realized that a relatively neutral emotional scene can become very interesting and effective if your
work choices are elegant. We can always incorporate the subtleties of real human behaviour by using well
chosen Method work. We don’t have to wait for those big outbursts or heavy emotional scenes that come
by only rarely anyway.
I NEED TO EXPERIENCE EVERYTHING 100% OR MY PERFORMANCE WILL BE RUINED!
Part of the confusion and frustration I experienced when initially learning to do relaxation, tried to
experience sense memory and attempted to apply the work in practise, was the realisation that I was
experiencing very little of what I was working for. It was discouraging when faced by the belief that I was
expected to experience every tiny little detail of a place or substitution or personal object, etc. I felt, rather
than knew, that I needed to experience sounds and smells and tastes and overall sensations perfectly in
order to experience response or an emotion and for me to be” safe” during performance.
I now have a much freer way of working. I realize that a small amount of sensory recall is enough for most
things I need to do during performance. I don’t need to see the place all around me in full definition color
and scale as it is in real life. I just need to be aware of the window frame along the fourth wall and the
painting on the left wall to create my place and be “safe”. A bit more detail will be nice if I can manage it, but
it isn’t necessary. Seeing a bit of my substitution is enough to create relationship most of the time. If there is
not much time to bring in new work, then we don’t have much choice! We have to respond to the minimum
of sensory stimulation and response and buy into the truth of it.
During a scene where I had to create an anger outburst, all I worked for were the eyes of the person substitution I was angry with and hearing the sound of their voice. That was enough for a quick outburst. As the scene proceeded I could start becoming aware of the place and sounds and other aspects that formed part of the emotional memory.
In terms of experience, the first two years of studying Method are full of confusion. What does real feel like? When do I really have sense memory and when is it imagined? At first a great deal of detail can be delivered by your imagination and we can readily fool ourselves into thinking we have experienced sensory recall. Later on little bits of real sensation sneak in and then vanish again for weeks at a time. I now have a much firmed idea of when real sensation happens and when it is constructed or imagined. I have stopped putting pressure on myself to experience sensations exactly as they are in real life. When working I don’t always have real experience! I get it when I ask for it but I’m not always asking for it … I wait for those moments when I need to respond to what is happening in the scene as the character.
This is what keeps me safe: The knowledge that when I need it, I can call for sense memory and get a real response. I realize that, even if I don’t get the exact emotion or response that I want for the best possible performance, I will always experience enough sensation on which to base real behaviour. I know that when disaster strikes and I don’t fully express or am too tense to truly experience the chosen work, I will always have my focus, concentration and Method choices to fall back on and that I really don’t need all that much to “save” me anyway.
A bit of place will focus my attention, a snippet of a song will change my mood, a little bit of a substitution will give me relationship and help me to respond to another character in a real way, a whiff of a smell can give me a momentary response and focusing on experiencing a personal object will give me an even stronger response. Experiencing everything would be wonderful … but, quite frankly, I don’t need it!
CONCENTRATION AND FOCUS
I once read an interesting interview on the internet with Christopher Walken, who studied Method with Lee Strasberg for four years. He said something that I identified with, namely that, when he started studying, he experienced concentration as staring with all his might at a fixed point intently. He later realized that concentration meant loosely being aware of many things at the same time in a relaxed way and remaining aware of them for as long as you need to.
I believe this to be true for the Method. Forcefully focusing on sense memory, experience and expression will not give you any response, especially when there are several other things you have to be aware of at the same time. To me acting became a process of being aware. Using Method work means being aware of the place and substitution while asking for sensation. Using Method work means being aware of an overall sensation and a personal object on the body while asking for sensation. Using the Method means being aware of the lines and the meaning and intent behind them and merely saying them with that intent rather than forcing the lines into a preconceived pattern, of being aware of technical aspects, the audience’s response and what you need to do next – without anticipating.
It means being aware of all the above while not allowing in any thoughts that won’t help you in your performance, like wondering about who might be in the audience, what you look like, what is currently happening in your personal life or how you feel about the other actors. More importantly, it is to not allow yourself to think about what the emotion should look like. It is to not try to control the emotion directly but to respond to the sense memory, which has been adjusted during rehearsal to reach the required responses with the correct depth and intensity.
During my first year all this was overwhelming and difficult, often adding to my stress. It added another worry to acting, making it more difficult! Now it has become a means of negating the unnecessary worries and has become, for the most part, easy. I still find every role a challenge but the battle is not one of surviving on stage but finding the best approach to the scene instead.
During my first year I over-thought everything. I focussed too intently on small aspects rather than gently and holistically trying to experience an object or sensation. It took a while but I did get better at relaxing my focus as time went by. In my fourth year I realized that focus is like opening your awareness and waiting. It means giving permission to your senses to experience and being ready to respond. It means keeping your composure internally even when tensions and emotions are high.
The issue of focus and concentration is important to me both in terms of being directed and in terms of applying the Method and coping as an actor on stage. There is no effective way in which to rush the correct interpretation and application of focus and concentration, however. It is something that develops over time without you even realizing it.
METHOD WORK MUST BE NATURAL, SUBTLE, REALISTIC AND COMFORTABLE
This belief is common and is constantly being warned against by the acting coach, but it is still difficult (in the student’s head) to confidently do something “unrealistic” (read “big”) on stage when you’re working with the Method. To be specific sometimes feels unnatural, posed or unmotivated but will only seem this way if executed in a way that is posed or unmotivated.
During the process of directing first-year scenes I realized that most students are prone to hold the above belief. They would rather make small movements and gestures, speak softly and without energy, do activities in a small and limiting way and avoid any kind of interesting or risky approach to a scene than to “indicate”. This is understandable at first-year level since there are so many things to worry about at that stage.
Sometimes, however, these habits come from an early and inaccurate assumption about the Method: The assumption is that the actor / character is supposed to fade away in a scene and not be noticed and that the lines should not be filled with meaning but should rather have a “natural”, shallow feel. That we should move in a small way and that we should not behave too energetically or purposefully. This misconception runs more strongly among those who don’t work the Method way but can initially be found to be a belief amongst first-year Method students also. It is rooted in inexperience and ignorance and not knowing where the limits are in terms of acting.
This may be an exaggerated description but I see it often. Some students develop a habit of going physically and expressively “dead” while performing rather than being judged for “over-acting”. Early in their training students find it difficult to move away from this point of view, believing that actions, behaviour, verbal or emotional expression that is “large” necessarily means that they are not being “real”. I personally had a hard time moving away from this belief and only made a conscious decision in my final year that I would definitely say every line with all its meaning and intensity being expressed during performance. Previously I would not allow myself to actually speak in a scene but would rather swallow expression even more than I do in real life! Earlier on I chose to be vague and “natural” when performing but my recent attempts at going bigger and being fully expressive (verbally and emotionally) have clearly been much more effective.
After acting in a number of Absurdist scenes and plays, I’ve realized that an actor is in fact allowed to behave “unrealistically” as a character … as long as the work is real. A character may laugh hysterically after hearing shocking news … as long as he is really laughing. A character can certainly strike a pose, pretend to be a bear or sing an opera in a public place … as long as the actions come from a real place, based in honestly experienced work.
The Method does not dictate how you may or may not play a scene. The Method is a tool to make real that which you and your director have decided to do, based on the golden thread provided by the dramatist in the script. The actor’s choices need to be creative and logical, keeping in mind the author’s intent. If limitations are imposed, we (and not the Method) are imposing them! Only with experience do we come to realize that we don’t need to limit ourselves and that we can allow the Method to help us in going bigger than any non-Method actor would think safe in terms of “realism”.