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MODERN TIMES NEED MODERN METHODS

By

Kenneth D. Plonkey, Ph.D.

It has been 70 years since the collapse of The Group Theatre, American
Theatre’s attempt at producing art as a collective endeavor in the manner of
Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre. The Group Theatre failed because, like all
far-left endeavors, it did not allow for individual achievement which had to be stifled for
the common good. It didn’t take long for playwright Clifford Odets and actors like
John Garfield to defect to the Capitalism of Hollywood. Soon so many had left that
there was no more group to make theatre. Founders, Harold Clurman, Cheryl
Crawford, and Lee Strasberg went back to New York City where they also pursued
individual achievement once again.

The Group had been founded when Strasberg and others read the first English
translation of Stanislavsky’s works. They leapt to the assumption that Stanislavsky
was some sort of Messiah sent to save the theatre from bad acting. The success of the
Moscow Art Theatre was being praised around the world for bringing new truth and
realism to acting. But there was something wrong with the assumptions of Strasberg
and others about Stanislavsky—what they thought he advocated for the training of
actors was based on a particular need in Russia at the turn of the 19 Century. What
th

Stanislavsky did and how he did it served that particular situation, but was not meant
to be a prescription for curing all of the ills of acting universally.

Stanislavsky and Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, a time
when the prevalent acting style in much of Europe and especially in Russia was
artificial and bombastic, with strutting, posing, declaiming performers facing the
audience with their contrived postures and gestures delivered down stage center with
no regard for the other actors as characters in the play. This style of acting was deeply
imbedded and required some pretty rigorous exercises and even psychological
retraining of the actors to bring them around to a style of performance that was more
realistic and life-like. Stanslavsky wrote about how he achieve this transformation, and
those who read his books hailed him as Savior of the Theatre and tried to emulate him.

Two really unfortunate things resulted from all this adulation of Stanislavsky’s
work with the Russian actors of his time (1898-1935). The first was the adoring
adherence of many to his way of training those actors that they called The
Stanislavsky System. They forced Stanislavsky’s exercises and psychological ordeals
upon anyone they could convince that he was the one true way to honesty and realism
in acting. Their misguided adherence to a nearly century old way of training actors
continues today with many of the modern disciples of The System setting themselves
up as gurus whose wisdom about acting is not to be questioned.

Not only should The Stanislavsky System be questioned, but also it should be
discontinued as antiquated and unnecessary in a time when we have had nearly 80
years of realism on our stages and in our films. But Stanislavsky has left a legacy of
greater proportions than his System alone, and that is the second thing that was
wrong.

When Strasberg opened The Actor’s Studio, teaching his misinterpretation of


Stanislavky, he created The Method, and we had another Messiah and his legacy to
endure. Strasberg became America’s Stanislavsky, the savior of acting in our time. He
was and still is worshiped and emulated by adoring disciples of The Method. Worse,
Strasberg tried to take credit for things he didn’t do, a fault of every college or
professional school that had a famous person sneeze in their corridors. In his
biography, Marlon Brando says “After I had some success, Lee Strasberg tried to take
credit for teaching me how to act. He never taught me anything! Sometimes, I went to
the Actor’s Studio on Saturday mornings because Elia Kazan was teaching, and there
were usually a lot of good-looking girls. But Strasberg never taught me acting.”

Like the Stanislavsky system, The Method continues far beyond it’s time of glory and
is now passé and should be abandoned as a curiosity of antiquity. Modern acting
simply does not require the angst of these disciplines to be effectively realistic. We
have progressed beyond therapy (apologies to Christopher Durang) to a simple,
straight-forward, honest approach of reaction instead of pretense in our acting.

Additionally, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner,(both members of the Group Theatre) and
many others since have take bits of Stanislavski and molded them into other ways of
training actors. They also are idolized by their disciples who continue to teach their
approaches to acting.

And therein lies the problem. All of the above teachers teach Acting, and today’s
approach to stage and screen performance is to eliminate the artifice of acting and
replace it with reacting. One of the better modern ways of training actors is Acting
Without Agony as set forth in Don Richardson’s book of that title and as taught at the
Acting Without Agony Academy in Los Angeles that he founded shortly before he died.

Richardson’s approach is part of the contemporary movement away from


“acting,” led by teachers such as Erik Morris in “No Acting, Please,” and Harold
Guskin in “How to Stop Acting” as well as many others who espouse being natural
instead of acting as though you are natural. Tony Barr whose definition of acting in
“Acting for the Camera” sets the bar for today’s actor. It is simple, complete and
without artifice (I paraphrase slightly): “Acting is reacting to stimuli in imaginary
circumstances in a creative and dynamic manner that is true to the character and his
environment so as to communicate ideas and emotions to an audience.” Thus, we
have acting pure and simple, and easy to achieve.

As Stanislavsky and his adherents and imitators replaced the acting style of
their past with a new kind of acting, today’s adherents to the non-acting, reacting kind
of character portrayal are replacing the Strasbergs, Adlers, Meisners, and others that
have dominated acting instruction from the 1930’s until the present. It is time to
relegate them to the history books. And, of course, someday, today’s way of acting
will be replaced as well and follow them there.