Method Acting and Practical Aesthetics: What’s the Difference?

Method Acting and Practical Aesthetics: What’s the Difference?

For Oliver.

One of my students asked about the difference between Method Acting and Practical Aesthetics:

First off, let’s make clear a point of similarity. All acting techniques have the same goal, to produce truthful acting by freeing the actor from self-consciousness and physical tension.

A second point is that they are both derived from the life’s work of Konstantin Stanislavsky, Russian actor, director and theorist. However, whilst Method Acting was shaped in America by Lee Strasberg, a devotee of Stanislavsky who never directly studied with the man, Practical Aesthetics is influenced strongly by Sanford Meisner, a contemporary of Strasberg, who chose to focus on behaviour and doing as a route to truthful acting, rather than Strasberg’s focus on Emotion.

I will be generalizing throughout this blog, in order to refrain from writing a PhD thesis here.

First off, the Strasberg-Meisner difference is at the heart of the difference between Practical Aesthetics and Method Acting. Acting for us is based in what Meisner called the reality of doing and the truth of the moment. This is a focus on the actor’s actual reality, not pretend circumstances. This is a focus on the actor’s subjective view of the truth of the moment and not a belief in the imaginary circumstances, which results in Scenic or Dramatic Truth. A truth based on the actor’s capacity to delude themselves that fictional things are real.

Next, the Practical Aesthetics (PA) is writer-centred, the creator is the writer, they do the job of making things up, the actor is a creative interpreter but not a creator in the same way that a writer is. Method Acting (whatever that means) is more actor centered. We are most interested in serving the writing, this cannot be said of the Method Actor, who creates a character built from details of the script but also from their imagination. They may also serve the writer, but they do so by trying to create a ‘truthful’ fully dimensional character.

To the Practical Aesthetics actor, there is no character. It cannot be created, the writer has already given you everything you need to act the role by suggestions made in the script. The illusion of character is created when the writer’s words mixes with the performer’s actions and is born in the audience’s mind.

The Practical Aesthetics trained actor, does not look for emotional connection to the text or character, instead, they find the commonality in action. We are interested in how the character fulfils their intent. It is about truthfully carrying out the character’s actions, although note that we are not talking about walking, talking or eating breakfast, we are talking about objectives fuelled by intention and manifested through the truthful performance of psychophysical actions.

The Method Actor creates from the self, the actor is the start and end point. For us, it is the text and the other people in the scene. We are not infinitely fascinated by our own creative capacity, but firmly focused on the Other. They (writer/text/other actors) are our fuel source, everything we do is motivated by a concretely achievable goal (we call an Essential Action) and based in the subjective truth of each moment. It is not ‘does my character smoke?’ but instead ‘what can I do to change the behaviour of my scene partner?’.

Quite often, less experienced students will confuse the method by which we connect to the scene and the role known as the ‘As-If’ with Emotional Memory. First of all, in Method Acting, actors are trained to recall the memory of their senses, this is later used to help stimulate the recall of emotion through provocative memories.
The goal is emotional truth and a connection to the inner life of the character.

In the As-If exercise, the goal is a personal connection, an understanding of what performing the Essential action is like to you. We often use analogous (past) circumstances to help relate to the action, but we do not look for emotionally stimulating memories, especially when a daydream will do instead. We are reliving nothing as we believe it removes one from the scene. We work out what the action means to us and use the memory or daydream as a memory aid, to remind us how to behave, not feel, but how to act.

One is a tool for stimulating truthful emotion (I have not set out my objections to this here) and the other is a stimulus to action. Quite different intention and practical application.

Practical Aesthetics is also not a ‘system’, it is a few simple principles to bypass the common day bullshit of actor training and rehearsal. Of course , the philosophy that surrounds PA is entirely different from that of other acting techniques too.

Rehearsing a play with Practical Aesthetics is entirely different too, much simpler and yet with deeply affecting results nonetheless. How? Because challenging the dominant acting ideology does not mean replacing it with something devoid of beautiful, affecting. Practical Aesthetics is just as effective and affective.

For us, it is not the actor that should undergo the great emotional journey but the audience. It is they that should feel.

Whereas the actor and their character is centre stage in the Method Actor’s performance, the Practical Aesthetics trained actor gives a truthful performance, which steps aside and allows the story to be told, rather than featuring emotional oases demonstrating the actor’s capacity to ‘feel’ on command.

In Practical Aesthetics, a simple motto:

Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing, Accept Everything and Get On With It!

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