The Evolution of Acting

Western Theatre was born in Greece c.550bc when plays in three forms tragedy, comedy and satyr celebrated the festival of Dionysius.

Early greek theatre, riding on the prolific writings of Sophocles, et al, was performed in a declamatory form. Gesture and heightened body language to convey emotion.

This style made its way through the centuries and drama arrived in England as early as the 5th century, when members of the town would reenact scenes from the bible during festivals. These reinactments were banned until the 15th century.

Plays were made from these scenes as the years passed, as words were added to the action. They were staged most commonly to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, with scenes depicted sponsored by local merchants. The scenes where later knitted together. These plays became know as the Mystery plays.

The writings of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe’s (believed by some to be the same person!) in the late 16th century challenged actors further.

With Shakespeare’s big characters and Marlowe’s mighty lines actors were forced to dig deeper. To understand the characters psyche and not just to present an emotion on an external level. Like the Greeks! Questions such as, What makes the character behave in such a way? – were starting to be asked.

The search for truth was now taking centre stage.

Naturalism, the most common form of acting today, is based on the teachings of Constantin Stanislavsky, a Russian Theatre Maker, who co-founded the Moscow Arts Theatre in the late 19th Century. Here he worked closely with Anton Chekov (a prolific Russian writer) and directed many of his works.

He believed that the solid basis for naturalistic acting was in memory association – i.e. delving back into your mind to tap into a feeling from your past, similar to that you have been asked by text to be portraying. This is called emotional memory recall.

A simple example of this is: if my character’s dog dies, and I am grief stricken, then I should try to remember and tap into how I actually really did feel when my own dog died. To try to conjure up that true feeling of grief when it happened to me. This emotion can be harnessed to influence action and then brought into the performance.

It was these theories that influenced the practitioners of the Group Theatre in America in the 1930’s, where Stanislavsky’s early research had a great affect on the the teachings of Lee Strasberg, who is regarded as the father of Method acting.

However, this form of emotional memory recall is all well and good if we have experienced a similar emotion that we can tap in to. But what if you are portraying a character that has just been given a 25 year jail sentence for killing four people, and you are asked to portray how that feels, as the character now languishs in a prison cell? Well, generally, none of us can tap in to a memory that will help us conjure up these exact feelings.

So, it is here that later teachings of Stanislavsky break from his original ideas and where method acting is really solidified further, which influenced the teachings of Stella Adler (who went to work with Stanislavsky in Paris), et al.

It is when we are asked to build up a world in our minds and around us, slowly forming a character, whilst using the text for clues.

Later Sanford Meisner developed, from the teachings of Strasberg and Adler, the ‘technique’, where he then placed more emphasis on the external rather than solely on the internal. He used repetitive exercises in improvisations where actors would concentrate on repeating over and over the same phrase whilst continually being influenced by their improvised movements and the changing external environment.

Today, many theatre and movie actors base all their research and character building work on these early and late Stanislavsky methods. It is for you to investigate each, put into practice and choose what works for you.