Monday, April 12th, 2010: The paper is printed.. I’m not editing anymore!


By: Kimberly Hall4/12/2010


KKB221 Assessment #2

Written Overview of Theatre acting

1.                 Introduction

Acting, over the years, has been defined in many ways but the most common quote to define this word is that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances (Short 2006). But in order to understand acting (or to be exact, theatre acting), one must understand theatre, its origins and its evolvement.

There are many versions of theatre, such as Asian and Middle Eastern Theatre, but for this outline I will be covering Western Theatre and the methods of acting developed within it. The main purpose of any playwright is to affect people; knowing that it is only on the stage that he can tell his story, portray compelling human problems, and entertain, move, or reach his audience (Short 2006, Coakley 1999, Gil-Gomez 2000).Through the playwright, an actor’s performance is considered to be successful if he is able to feel real emotion and cry real tears (Short 2006). But before I get into actor methods and process, as I’ve said before, to understand theatre acting we need to delve into the history of Western Theatre.

2.                 Areas of Investigation and Products

2.1            Evolution of Theatre

There are many styles of theatre: Comedy, Expressionism, Modernism, Puppetry, Tragedy, Musical Comedy, Melodrama, Opera and Ballet (Wikipedia 2010); but for the purposes of this outline I will be narrowing the scope to the styles, forms and movements that helped develop theatre acting into what it is today.

Greek theatre, in the sixth-century, grew out of Dionysian worship through a form of choral song chanted at festivals. The Renaissance era gave birth to Opera by a group who, at the end of the sixteenth-century believed that Greeks had originally recited or chanted their plays to music, and sought to revive Greek tragedy. In Italy, around the mid-sixteenth-century, emerged a nonliterary tradition of professional theatre named Commedia Dell’ Arte, which was centered on the actor, which profoundly influenced the development of European theatre (Brittanica 2010). London, in 1576, after the first playhouse called “The Theatre” was erected, many more were built, but within small confined areas; which caused considerable intimacy between actors and audiences involved. The writer then had to place the emphasis on the actor to interpret his words while still holding the attention of the spectators; forcing them to use their imaginations, being that there was no longer space for an expansive set. In turn the middle class audience demanded something more realistic, and less artificial and formal than the theatre of the late seventeenth-century anyway. This need continued into the Romantic era, which at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, was obsessed with authentic settings and costumes.

The naturalism movement swept Europe and reached its peak in Russia in 1898 when the Moscow Art Theatre was formed (Brittanica 2010). Stanislavski, actor and teacher, trained his company in an approach based on “emotional memory”, which emphasized the self-expression of the actor who achieved a “perfect surface naturalism with great emotional complexity beneath.” (Brittanica 2010) Later, under the imposition of Socialist Realism on the arts in 1932, theatre scenery became more and more “laboriously realistic”, because a setting that was in any way impressionistic was condemned as being abstract art (Brittanica 2010). This further strengthened the movement.

There was little attention in actor training, until 1931 when the “Group Theatre” in New York, influenced by Stanislavski’s system and aimed at developing this style of acting, was formed. This period gave birth to the “creation of plays that simulated real life” (Hetzler 2008) and required a different kind of acting where actors had to be involved with each other. These changes led to acting theories that were based on the re-creation of emotion, because the plays required truth in the reactions of the actors to one another (Hetzler 2008).

2.2            Bad Acting & the Fathers of Modern Acting Theory

Theatrical performers of the eighteenth-century were skilled who substituted genuine emotion for energy and were much more concerned with the audience than with each other. This was commonly known as mechanical acting, which is based on “conventional theatrical stereotypes: a hand over the heart to indicate love, shaking a first for rage”, and “rubbing the forehead to show the character deep in thought.” (Short 2006)  

The most common twentieth-century theorists of Western theatre were Chekhov, Strasberg and Stanislavski. Stanislavski is generally thought of as the father of modern acting theory; as the study of acting with any sort of serious purpose starts with him and his system. Stanislavski developed the idea that the task of the actor was to interpret life as it is defined by the playwright (Short 2006), and said that “a role built on truth will grow, whereas one built on stereotype will shrivel.” (1989) He felt that actors were able to get through a role and “thrill an audience with personality driven performances when inspired, but had no way of capturing that inspiration through a thought-out, profound technique” (Short 2006). Stanislavski’s system was often misused and in the 1970’s-80’s caused many actors to get lost in themselves as their work was “overwrought and overindulgent”. Later, theorists like Strasberg would refine Stanislavski’s ideas.

In 1951 Strasberg was named artistic director of The Actor’s Studio, an organization created in 1941 to preserve this new American acting style (Manolikakis 2007). Strasberg and The Actors Studio were the dominant force in American actor training for several decades. Exercises and scene work were heavily psychological and students were considered to have a great class if they accomplished a “breakthrough” of erupted rage and crying (Short 2006).

3.                 Assumptions of Practice

There are many assumptions about the conventions and style which guide ones performance, the structure of actions which are performed, the shape that those actions take (as a character, role, or sequence of actions), and its relationship to the audience (Peck 1997). Given the complicated web of assumptions and fundamental truths of acting available for the stage, I’ve narrowed this outline to a selected few.

3.1            Assumptions on Content:

Any “theory” of acting is a set of assumptions about the body, mind, their relationship, the nature of the “self”, and the “inner” experience of what the actor does.

3.2            Assumptions on Differences:

“In all the races on our planet, the bodies are more or less the same, there are a few differences in size and color, but essentially the head is always above the shoulders, the nose, eyes, mouth, stomach, and feet are in the same place. The instrument of the body is the same throughout the world, what differs are the styles and cultural differences“ (Peck 1997).

3.3            Assumptions of Emotion as a By-Product:

Actors generally see emotion as a by-product of the reaction of their character to their circumstances. The emotions they experience are “real”, but they do not feel them in a personal way: they belong to the character they are portraying (Hetzler 2008). What is apparent in the words a character speaks in a play often has no bearing on what is essentially motivating him. (Marowitz 2007).

3.4            Assumptions of a Single Motivation:

There is an assumption that a character can only want one thing at a time, but one can simultaneously have multiple goals and mixed feelings. The list of possible moods and mood-changes are endless, and each one of them dictates a different action, and each action, a different mode of behavior (Marowitz 2007).

4.                 Key Concepts & Theories

4.1      Stanislavski’s System

Stanislavski system was based on naturalism, a focus on living the role fully at every moment of the play every time. Stanislavski devised a methodology that the actor was to aid himself in the playing of the smaller, internal objectives and the super-objective by using what Stanislavski called “the magic if” (Short 2006). The play was divided into units, each unit would have an objective for the character: what does the character want (objective) in the scene, what does he want (super-objective) in the play, and how does he accomplish his goal (action), and by utilizing sense memory or emotional recall.

4.2            Strasberg’s Method, & Emotion Memory

Strasberg believed that an actor’s approach to a role should be psychologically oriented. Thus, instead of pretending to feel whatever emotions the scene seemed to require, the actor would find within himself real feelings so that he would experience the same thing that the character was experiencing: emotion memory (Zarilli 2007). By recalling an event where the motion was very strong, the needed emotion and memory lulled to life with sense memory rather than forcing the issue. But this kind of emotional substitution can lose its power. As performances go by, emotional memory becomes less potent and eventually leaves one with the grim business of gesturing their way through it (Peck 1997, Short 2006). Meisner’s core belief was that “the foundation of acting is the reality of doing” (Short 2006). It was based in wanting to find a way of working that would keep the actor in the moment. Meisner shifted the attention off of self and onto the partner.

5.                 Methods

Among the many participants in theatre there are the: Audience, Director, Producer, Stagehand, Scenic, Lighting,  Sound and, Costume Designers(Wikipedia 2010), but none more important than that of the actor. For an actor, there is no one way to approach and prepare for a role. Choices about super-objective, objective, and action need to be tried and discarded and new ones put in their place until the actor and the director agree that they feel right and are true to the character and the role. Of the six major contemporary Western acting approaches that Zarilli (2007) observes: psychological truth, performance as artifice, theatre-making as play, acting as personal encounter, and performance as cultural exchange; I will describe the most common and the most contested of them.

5.1      Common: Personal Encounter Approach

This principle is based in the simple notion that the actor is involved in some sort of task at all times while playing his role, and that everything one needs to be fully present, profound, instinctive, truthful, and alive on stage can be found in one’s scene partner. This approach accomplishes an objective through a scene partner by picking a compelling objective and then taking actions to make it come about. If these actions were not effective, then one would instinctively change what one was doing to make something else happen to reach one’s goal or objective (Short 2006).

5.2            Contested: Enactive Approach

In 1890, the idea that emotions are “internal, physical happenings which are afterward felt as mental experiences” was proposed (Hetzler 2008). The enactive approach rejects the overly simplistic view of an input and output model where “perception is input from the world to mind, action is output from mind to world.” This approach believed that perception is active and relational: as in vision and touch, where we gain perceptual content by active inquiry and exploration. The notion of “skills” are acquired through bodily skills that we come to possess. Stating that “what we perceive is determined by what we do.” (Zarilli 2007) Zarilli goes on to explain how psychologists in the 1960’s and 1970’s assumed that the mind would work on the raw material of experience: sensations of light, sound, pressure on the skin; organize them into an internal model and use as a guide to subsequent action. The mind, then, was conceived as a kind of data-processing device (2007).

6.                 Conclusion

Acting should be viewed as a dynamically lived experience in which the actor is responsive to the demands of the particular moment. The general idea to be an actor is to work hard on a role, learn lines and blocking quickly, and do what the director tells them to do. But a true theatre actor knows that what are missing from this list are methodologies that consist of script analysis, objectives, external choices and instincts. Strasberg felt that there was no one method that fits all and that actor training should be highly individualized (Short 2006). 

7.                 Bibliography


Brittanica. 2010. Western Theatre in Encyplopaedia Brittanica Online. (accessed April 10th, 2010).

Coakley, J. 1999. American Drama: The Bastard Art/Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860/The Emergence of the Modern American Theatre, 1914-1929. Comparative Drama 33 (2):306-307. academic research library (accessed April 8th, 2010).

Gil-Gomez, E. 2000. Latina Performance: Traversing the Stage. Journal of Women’s History Summer 2000: 12 (2):215. (accessed April 7th, 2010).

Hetzler, E. T. 2008. Actors and emotion in performance. Studies in Theatre & Performance 28 (1):59-78. (accessed April 8th, 2010).

Manolikakis, A. 2008. Our History: The Actors Studio. (accessed April 8th, 2010).

Marowitz, C. 2007. Getting Stanislavsky Wrong. American Theatre 24 (3):56-59. (accessed April 8th, 2010).

Peck, J. 1997. Open Door: Thoughts on Acting & Theatre, The (Book). TDR: The Drama Review 41 (2):171-176. (accessed April 7th, 2010)

Short, J. 2006. Living Truthfully: An exploration of the acting process, including the preparation and performance of “Swimming in the Shallows” for the California Repertory Theatre Company. M.F.A Dissertation, California State University, Long Beach. (accessed April 10th, 2010)

Stanislavski, K. ed. 1989. An Actor Prepares. Edited by E. R. Hapgood. New York: Routledge. 

Wikipedia. 2010. Styles of Theatre in Outline of Theatre. (accessed April 8th, 2010).

Zarrilli, P. 2007. An Enactive Approach to Understanding Acting. Theatre Journal 59 (4):635-647. (accessed April 7th, 2010).


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