Monday, April 20, 2009

The Method, Cont'd

A loyal reader writes:
I’ve returned a number of times to that wonderful clip you posted on your blog. The more I think about it the clearer it seems to me that Sir Ian is completely correct but not entirely complete. By that I mean acting is as simple as joining craft to imagination and then “pretending” to be the character. But there is a critical additional element – freedom. The actor has to give himself the freedom to fully pretend. He can’t think about pretending, he can’t prepare to pretend, he must give himself the freedom to simply completely do so. Indeed this is the essence of all creativity from Jazz, to poetry, to particle physics; the creative act is the ultimate assertion of personal freedom. The creative act, by definition opens new ground, expands frontiers, and in ways large and small redefines the universe. To do so requires freedom. A kind of freedom that comes from within. A clarity and openness the both allows and demands the creative response. It is as simple as “Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian. Action this wizard shall not pass! Cut. Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian” and as complex.
I fear I may come off a little flip about what we call “method acting.” This is sort of on purpose, but people who know me know that my real problem isn’t flippancy but a surplus of sobriety over almost anything. My real opposition stems from my belief that “method acting” as such is a broken system and I suppose my sloppy reasoning thinks what might start with teasing will grow into a substantive rumination toward an alternative. This is not what I’ve seen so far, unfortunately, and I think while a lot of people recognize the limitations of sense memory and American Stanislavskian approaches, few have had the drive to come up with another system. This is the foundation, though not the limit, of my respect for Viewpoints.

I also have a theoretical quibble with “the method,” which is the way in which it emphasizes the actor’s experience (feelings) over the task in hand. Conversely, take a look at Peter Brook’s dissection of the work of acting in The Open Door:
Daily life consists of being “any-old-how”. Let us take three examples. For instance, if one is taking an exam, or when one speaks with an intellectual, one will endeavour not to be “any-old-how” in thought or in speech, but without realizing it, “any-old-how” will be in our body, which will be ignored and limp. However, if we are with someone who is in distress, we will not be “any-old-how” in our feelings, we will certainly be kind and attentive, but our thoughts may be adrift or confused, and the same with our bodies. And in the third case, when one is driving a car, the entire body may well be mobilized, but the head, left to itself, can drift into “any-old-how” thoughts.

For an actor’s intentions to be perfectly clear, with intellectual alertness, true feeling and a balanced and tuned body, the three elements—thought, emotion, body, must be in perfect harmony. Only then can he fulfil the requirement to be more intense within a short space of time than when he is at home.
The method appeals to the totality of this work and the difficulty of it. Too often the alternative to the method is to pretend as though acting isn’t work, that it is easy, and this is part of the fun of Sir Ian’s explanation. But Brook’s discussion, like my loyal reader’s, neither erases acting as work, nor makes it into pure magic.


Anne Nicholson Weber said...

I imagine that techniques of acting come in and out of fashion in synch with cultural changes. The Method must have been very powerful for a generation that had trouble accessing their feelings. In our era of weepy Oprah segments, I would expect actors face very different cultural challenges to the ideal of intellectual/emotional/physical clarity and expressiveness. But even now, the Method is just the ticket for some individual actors.
And beyond either of those considerations is the question of what kind of play you're in. New writing may require new acting styles, and therefore new approaches to training actors.

Benedict Nelson said...

I think that's a very interesting observation. The lingering seduction of Method Acting is its "intensity" in a very actorly way. It helps people feel as though the work they are doing is very weighty and significant and that is obviously very satisfying as it should be. The problem is that in this intensity actors get away from maybe the most fantastic thing Stanislavski said: Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art. The danger with The Method today (as opposed to its significance at its conception) is its self-reflexivity.