METHOD AND FAITH
Hollywood is Vatican. Just like Vatican it is conservative and dogmatic. The doctrine that rules Hollywood is realism. The screenwriter is expected to deliver a story, the actor a dramatic character.
And so we come to Lee Strasberg and his Method.
From the famous Actor’s Studio, the most controversial acting school in the world and whose artistic director of forty years was Strasberg, came the greatest American actors, that received till today over a hundred Oscars for their roles.
How did they achieve that? Were they all great talents or has their schooling at the Actor’s Studio have something to do with it? Was it Strasberg or his Method what made artist out of them? So which is it?
Let us begin with Strasberg’s article Definition of acting he wrote for Encyclopedia Britannica and where he in concise manner addressed the main acting problems, that have emerged throughout the history of acting and the solution of which led to the development of the Method.
At the very beginning Strasberg says that acting is not as much a thing of mimicry, exhibitionism, or imitation as an ability to react to imaginary stimuli. He begins with the oldest acting problem or dilemma: are the feelings and emotions of the character simply indicated or are they experienced by an actor. Strasberg, naturally, was of the same opinion as Stanislavski – he believed the actor experiences them. Mimicry, exhibitionism and imitation are therefore acting tools with which the actor can only indicate feelings, while reacting to the imaginative stimuli allows him to experience them. If we want to clear this dilemma, we face another problem that is usually overlooked and it involves the status of the ego in the creative process of the actor.
Because of Strasberg’s preference of the experience, it is pretty obvious that that kind of acting does not concern ego – that means mimicry, exhibitionism and imitation – these are simply modes of ego. In everyday life we use these modes of ego abundantly, but the success and pleasure we experience using them, we attribute to the acting talent (sic!). From this also stems the general belief what good acting is suppose to be – you learn the text and then you pretend a little bit that you are the imagined character. I repeat, the ability to pretend, use of mimicry or exhibitionism or imitation or all three at the same time, in a general belief means true acting talent. And the Ego triumphs.
Stanislavski and Strasberg didn’t talk about acting talent. Neither did they speak about the general perception that is tied to the ego. By the way – they didn’t count on the inspiration, either. Stanislavski spoke of it ironically that it is capricious and visits the actor every leap year. They only thing that mattered to them was speaking about the creative state and procedures that the actor has to perfect as his tools. That is why the most important task was the suspension of ego as the main obstacle in the actor’s creative process. Let’s repeat; they tirelessly, even obsessively, spoke of the procedures the actor must consciously use and on which he can rely on – which is what the expressions Method or System point to. The correct and rational use of the acting tools gives the artistic results no matter the talent or the inspiration or as we commonly say – no matter how the actor is feeling himself. That is the only way the actor can perform professionally in the theater night after night. Which is why Strasberg in respect to the Method always said: “We mean business!”
Let’s take another road that Strasberg’s article points out. What does it mean to react to the imaginary stimuli? Even the relation between reacting and imaginative stimuli is not completely comprehensive. We can understand reacting, but what is up with these imaginary stimuli? What is that about? How is it possible to react to something which is imagined and where do we imagine from in the first place?
Because we are in our lives focused on the real, concrete, from which we would like to take as much as possible, we mostly overlook the spontaneous moments, which correspond to the above mentioned reactions to the imaginative stimuli. The most worn out example is seeing a bulk in the dark and instantly assuming it is a dead body. Until you make sure and realize that it is in fact a tree stump, your experiencing is intense – coming face to face with death is no small deal – but after realizing that it is in fact a tree stump, your relief makes you angry and you might kick the stump. This is an example of the unconscious, spontaneous imagination. The body, even though it was indicated, was not real – the stump was. That means that you reacted to an imaginary stimulus – the body, created by your imagination, but which you realized only post festum. The psychological reaction, the experience, only occurred because you mistook the stump for a corps. As seen, we are often victimized by our imagination and its stimuli, even though we are usually not aware of it. The actor, though, as Strasberg writes, is consciously using the imagination, so he can react emotionally. Stanislavski was first to speak about this, when he described the sense and emotional memory.
Now is the right moment to make the distinction between imagination and fantasy. Seeing a human body in the dark is imagination – a vivid sensory image. If I say sensory I am thinking of the fact that the senses are active, they are perceiving. On the other hand, images of fantasy are taking place only in our heads, with the eyes closed, without the activity of senses. Because of the fact that fantasy does not use them, any kind of transference of experiences is impossible, because there is no energy spent – nobody benefits from your fantasizing about being in Hawaii. Meanwhile, the fear you would feel, even if the body was not real, would be felt by everyone that was with you, which is according to Aristotle a part of the empathetic human nature. Every experience is emitting energy.
Acting is therefore reacting to imaginary stimuli. The reason this does not concern ego derives from the nature of imagination. With conscious imagining we are prepared to experience, as with the example above, uncomfortable feelings, which is something the ego is not willing to do. The ego runs from feelings, even the pleasant ones, but even more it prefers to stifle them. Ego is unfeeling, which is why it presents a disturbance in the creative process, which blocks the experience. His interference has to be prevented. A state of mind without the influence of ego has to be achieved; a state of temporary deegoization, only then can the creative process begin. I am not saying that a permanent absence of ego needs to be achieved for someone to be a good Method actor. In that case he would be a saint (maybe? – I do not know!). That is why I am only talking about a discreet temporary withdrawal of ego, for as long as the play lasts, I am talking about a suspension and not about a complete abolition of ego.
So the suspense of ego! It is connected to a special state of mind. Stanislavski calls it stage self-feeling of the actor or even more commonly the actor’s creative state. Strasberg calls it simply “state of being”. But as soon as we start talking about the creative state or the state of being, the term of state in both instances can be misleading. To the spectator the actor’s state can actually appear to be a state, but to the actor himself it is an activity that helps him to keep the ego out of the creative process. Strasberg usually said, when talking about maintaining the state of being that this is half of the actor’s work, the other half, naturally, is acting – the use of the creative acting procedures. Maintaining the state of being therefore means the active disabling of the ego, the suspense of ego. This is not a direct attack on the ego. The suspense of ego is an indirect result of relaxation and the conscious perception of all the senses – collectiveness. The more the actor is collected in perception while executing the procedures, the easier it is for him to react to the imaginary stimuli. When he is consciously imagining, it is easier for him to resist to his own judgments, opinions, the critic of the seen, which are the activities of ego, the easier it is for him to keep the ego at a distance.
Only after the actor solves the problem of his ego can he comprehend the significance of Stanislavki’s System or the Method and the creative procedures they propose.
Let’s go back in history for a bit. Let there be no mistake, in the past there have been quite a few actors that understood, that the ego had to be somehow disabled even though they did not expose the problem explicitly. Those were, of course, the actors that defended the experiencing.
In his article Strasberg mentions French actor François-Joseph Talma from the end of the 18th and the beginning of 19th century, who wrote in his well-known Réflexions sur Lekain et sur l’art théatral that the actor has to, if he wants to experience, nurse two abilities: unusual sensitivity and extraordinary intelligence. He writes: “I call sensibility that faculty of exaltation which agitates an actor, takes possession of his senses, shakes even his very soul, and enables him to enter into the worst tragic situations, and the most terrible of the passions as if they were his own”. About intelligence he writes: “The intelligence, which accompanies sensibility, judges the impressions which the latter has made us feel: it selects, arranges them, and subjects them to calculation.”
Let’s stop here for a moment. Sensitivity as the ability of arousing the soul is nothing but the above mentioned imagination, which lets us experience with the suspense of ego, of course. When it happens you consciously act like a child – Strasberg would say: “Watch children and animals and learn from them.” The child, once he is experiencing, is condemned to experiencing, he has to suffer, because he hasn’t developed the defense mechanisms, yet. So to speak, he is doomed to live with the unusual sensitivity. In contrast to the adults, who with the help of their defense mechanisms run away from experiencing or they, if they do not run, put themselves into the role of victims. The story begins when we console a crying child by lessening the meaning of his pain: “Everything is alright!” And naturally, he slowly begins to hide his own feelings, until he, as a well-bred adult, stifles them, pushes them from his consciousness – if possible he does not even notice them anymore. Let there be no mistake; people are sensitive and of course they suffer, but they are afraid to face the pain of experiencing and are even ashamed of it. However, it is about you bearing what life brings you and not feeling like a victim. And then there comes an actor who in the name of art consciously unleashes and bears the experiencing without running away, he even enjoys it, plays with it and even performs with it. To simplify this completely: the uncommon sensitivity is allowing oneself to consciously experience.
But as far as the expression extraordinary intelligence is concerned, I have to say this. The expression itself does not point to the bookish erudition, it does not mean, as Strasberg would say, memorized knowledge or high IQ, but rather it points to the judgments of the impressions the sensitivity enables us to feel, that is to say, the judgment while experiencing. Strasberg understands it as an ability of comprehending the functioning of the human personality. In other words: the actor while performing may not run away from experiencing, but has to accept it with a clear judgment, shape it, so that it will fit the character performed. Extraordinary intelligence is extraordinary because it is used in extraordinary circumstances – while experiencing.
Simultaneousness of the unusual sensitivity and of the extraordinary intelligence is a specific answer to the renowned paradox about the actor that French philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot warned about in his essay The Paradox of the Actor. It has to be said that the essay was found in the Talma’s legacy and was apparently known only to him until the first third of the 19th century. Perhaps that is why his writing on the art of acting is so outstanding. Diderot formulates the paradox as a demand, by which the actor has to, if he wants to touch the spectator, remain cold-blooded. Simply put, Diderot cares about the warmth in the spectator’s heart and the coolness of the actor’s mind. It is important at a first glance, that he is ignoring human compassion, which means you cannot move someone if you yourself are not moved (experiencing). Meanwhile, even the birds are talking about the contagiousness of tears and laughter. The point is, how the actor can keep a cool head while he is experiencing. That is exactly what Talma’s writing is theoretically indicating, but is practically solved by Stanislavski.
Therefore, the paradox is far less interesting for my writing than another problem, which also tormented Diderot and which was not solved in his time, but it is of vital importance for actors that are experiencing their characters. Strasberg writes: “He was aroused by the question…, how the actor, if he were full, really full, of feeling, could play the same part twice running with the same spirit and success. Full of fire at the first performance, he would be worn out and cold as marble at the third. Diderot knew that the actors feel and experience, he knew the nature of inspiration and he knew as well that some of them are rejecting the importance of the need to learn the skill.” And because of that they are at the mercy of the capricious inspiration, which is unprofessional. The question is than: What to do with experiencing? First, how to stir it in yourself, but after you feel it, how to use it creatively? And how to do it show after show? Even at a first glance these questions cannot be solved with any acting technique, if what we understand under that word is teaching the actor useful skills such as diction, mimicry, gesticulation, singing, ballet, dancing, fencing, martial arts and such. Experiencing is outside of the reach of these skills. Indicating experiencing with gestures is by definition not experiencing. I wrote above that the Method does not rely on the inspiration, if the actor wants to experience; it actually means that he can initiate it himself. Controlling the inspiration is part of his trade; poets, painters can wait for it, but the actor cannot, for him it has to be practically reachable, if he does not want his acting to waver from one show to the next as Diderot observed. And so we are at the suspense of ego by Stanislavski.
Strasberg writes that Stanislavski practically solved the main acting problems: how to achieve and maintain the creative state and how to initiate and control the processes that help the actor shape the experiencing in accordance with the character imagined. Stanislavski discovered while observing modern actors such as the great Italian actors Tommaso Salvini or Eleonora Duse, that they are relaxed when they are really experiencing in their roles. So he introduced mandatory relaxation to the education of the actor, that on the stage enables and helps maintain the creative state. As far as experiencing is concerned he discovered in one of his roles that it is linked to his own personal memories. That is how two key acting tools got developed, that made Stanislavski famous – the exercises of sense and emotional memory. Stanislavski came across the first formulation of emotional memory by the French psychologist Theodule Ribot, who wrote in 1890 about “la memoire affective”. This is a concept that is still causing excitement today, but in the thirties it was a cause of dispute between Strasberg and a famous actress and pedagogue Stella Adler, which caused the split in the Group Theater, the American version of MHAT. All who oppose the emotional memory believe that steering inside yourself is dangerous and that it is in addition a distortion of Stanislavski’s System. Strasberg would respond to this by saying that those who are afraid of blood should not be surgeons, and those who are afraid of emotions, should not work with the Method or compete with it.
Somewhere above I spoke about how people fear experiencing, but a Method actor, once he masters the emotional memory exercise on the stage, should enjoy it. What is up with that? First, we have to make clear that the emotional memory exercise of can come into consideration only with emotions which are not actual. Stanislavski spoke that the emotion has to be at least five years old. Current emotions are therefore not useful for the exercise of emotional memory. Why? Director and scenographer Edward Gordon Craig states in his famous essay The Actor and the Über-marionette that the actors are hostages of their own emotions because they cannot control them. That is why he proposed a solution he called the Über-marionette. The actor is supposed to become some kind of a puppet in the hands of the director. Craig certainly did not have in mind the deactualized emotions, he probably did not even know about their artistic value. In his thinking he must have been coming from present emotions otherwise his writing does not make sense. From experience everyone knows that after time emotions subside, they loose their intensity. Trauma, anger and the feeling of being in love diminish no matter how intense they once were, which does not mean that they are over, erased. They just settled into the memory and became a life experience. And the Method actor can bring these deactualized emotions back to life. Now this is not easy, the emotion does not trigger itself automatically, you have to work hard to make it alive again. A special effort is needed, as Strasberg would say. Why? Because in everyday life of the individual his ego reigns as the instance that regulates the social as well as the private sphere. If it wants to reign it has to develop insensitivity, it does not like emotions, because it believes that they make him weak. After awhile it hardens and does not react emotionally anymore. If the actor wants to bring to life the spirit of the role – which is in fact the definition of acting by Stanislavski: reviving the spirit of the role! – the actor has to learn to react emotionally otherwise he is artistically sterile. Only if he is alive, he can make the character come to life. He is alive if he reacts, he reacts if he is vulnerable, and he is vulnerable if his ego is suspended. Then he can feel again, he can react emotionally. Once the ego is suspended, the actor, when he wants to create, through the emotional memory exercise, a specific emotion, he no longer needs the actual presence of its inducer – the father for instance. It is enough to imagine him, to use what the emotional memory. As said, the credit for its discovery and use in the acting creative process goes to Stanislavski, even though it is known that Roman orator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus knew about the rousing of the emotions and used it for rhetorical bravuras. Strasberg developed the emotional memory exercise for practical use. The nature of emotion, which is the result of the emotional memory or the reaction to the imaginary stimuli is aesthetic, and is in accordance with the statement of the dramatist Friedrich Schiller, that art is an experience, which is not real. In his opinion the essence of art is – the de-realization. Only the de-realized (imagined – sic!) emotion can be artistically true and have an aesthetic value. That is why aesthetic emotions do not hurt, you can shape them, in short, and you can do with them whatever you desire. They are enjoyable to both the actor and the spectator. Their effect is cathartic. For this reason it is funny that emotional memory and Strasberg still remain such a stumbling block.
Maybe it will seem to some that by writing this I am putting the ego in the pillory as the enemy of creativity and that I am rooting for its abolishment. I always thought of it as the result of the socialization, which enables the individual to function normally in the society. Only then is the ego in his rightful place. Unfortunately, it cannot keep itself restrained within the limits of its jurisdiction. Therein lays the problem. Despite this, it is practically needed and it cannot be simply abolished, it is a necessary evil. Modern psychology is realizing that the ego has grown beyond its boundaries and it is endangering the very foundations of our coexistence. A hundred year ago Stanislavski stumbled upon it as the problem in the acting creative process and he found the answer how to suspend it. Strasberg, with his absorbed study of the workings of the emotional memory, discovered a shortcut solution. Stanislavski’s System and Strasberg’s Method are still current today. From different aspects they are actualized in gestalt and bioenergetic therapy, the Feldenkraise method, NLP and others, only their purpose is therapeutic or gaining social skills.
To justify the title of this writing, let me say this. I will try to answer the question that is presenting itself all the time – how is it possible that Strasberg’s Method lives only in Hollywood? Of course, it was and still is used in the American theaters from Group Theater onwards, on Broadway and elsewhere. I cannot speak about its theatrical fate; I only know it from Hollywood films. But it is interesting that the Method is one of the very few, if not the only American product, that hasn’t spread over the world like Coca-Cola or jeans did. There is no sign of it in European films and theaters. Obviously, it cannot be simply placed into a different environment, it cannot be copied instantly. Because it is not a product!! To except Stanislavski’s System and to mold it to your national character, which is what the Method did, means that you have to examine yourself very closely and get to know yourself very well. Do not tell me only Americans are capable of this? Are they not perceived as negligent, shallow and stupid?? By the way – a modern American theatrologist and expert in Russian studies Sharon Marie Carnicke writes in her book Stanislavski in Focus that Stanislavski had two homelands: one was Russia and the other United States of America. Does that tell us anything? OK, Europe did not except the Method, but why in hell did it not except Stanislavski’s system, even though it scribbles extensively about it? The fact that only Americans adopted Stanislavski is connected to the Hollywood dogmatism I mentioned at the beginning of this article. So to speak, it is a dogma about realism and in connection with the actor a dogma about the creation of the character. Stanislavski spoke, among other things, about religion, even about the naive religion of the actor creator. Usually nobody touches this subject. But if you do, it turns out, that without faith realistic modeling of the character is impossible. How come? If we understand religion as the acceptance of the profane and denouncement of superiority, that something more, then it is logical, that life experiences are the greatest treasure and the greatest possibility for the actor’s creativity. And only that is realism. It demands the actor’s metanoia. Only then does the method actor become the actor of the Method. Without metanoia you are running away from reality, from life experiences. That is how the great Russian actor and pedagogue and the nephew of a dramatist Mikhail Chehov ran away. Stella Adler ran away similarly. And both were Stanislavski’s pupils!! Testing ground for realism is still – finally I can write it – the renowned Strasberg’s emotional memory.
The suspending of ego is the common thread of this experiment. For this reason let me finish: “…you are the key, you are the gate, you are the lucky way, which leads us from a hurtful place away…”
Published in: Tretji dan: Krscanska revija za duhovnost in kulturo, 39 1-2 (January), 2010, p. 80-85.