Lee Strasberg’s ‘Method’ has created controversy since Lee first began teaching it. It created issues between himself, Stanford Meisner and Stella Adler, two famous acting teachers who worked at The Group Theatre at the same time as Lee. Lee Strasberg fought through the criticism and doubt, so The Method lives on today as a way for actors to become connected to their emotions and give genuine performances.
To this day there are many misconceptions and myths surrounding The Method and Method Acting. To debunk some of these myths, I interviewed David Lee Strasberg, CEO and Creative Director of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Los Angeles and son of Lee Strasberg. David is familiar with the myths surrounding The Method, and he works to educate people about what The Method really is, how method actors use it, and how powerful it can be.
The best thing people can do is educate themselves. “The answer to misconceptions is education… insight that leads to inspiration… when you have inspiration you don’t need tricks.” Acting ‘tricks’ such as never dropping character (Myth #2) or turning to doing extreme physical acts to feel like you’re ‘in character’ (Myth #1).
The Method has always had doubters and it has always provided answers for people who are willing to learn.David Lee Strasberg
To begin, it is helpful to define what Method Acting is so one can better understand what it is not. “That is the number one question I get asked,” said David. In his own words The Method is “behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
At LSTFI “we like reactions.” “A big portion of our work is creating the reality to react to… that is a really powerful ability.” If you create your own reality, you don’t have to rely “on a scene partner or a green screen,” the reality exists within you.
Myth #1: A ‘Method Performance’ requires making everything real
“[Actors] want truth in acting so [they] experiment with literal truth… it’s not viable in most circumstances and it comes with a cost… the actor has much less control.”David Lee Strasberg
Here is an example about how acting ‘literally’ can actually hurt a performance. Let’s say a person is playing a character in a movie who is a drunk. They show up to the set everyday drunk and they drink all day to experience what it is like to be drunk, but they are missing the point of The Method. “The challenge is why you drink,” said David. As an actor, you’d want to find out “the life of the character and what drives them to drinking.” If you are intoxicated all day “you’re not in a position to create that.”
“The art of acting is not literal… [literal acting] isn’t our work.” Literal acting creates a space where the actor has much less control over their actions and character, and creates a physical reality rather than a mental reality.
Myth #2: There is no separation of self
“Our Technique is designed to be engaged and then stopped… you don’t continue the reality.”David Lee Strasberg
“There is a fascination with staying in character… it is an anxious act.” Actors who choose to stay in character all day on set are actually doing it out of anxiety and not commitment. Actors “don’t have the confidence to go in and out” with a character. “If you are committed you can pick it back up.”
On the other hand, with learning physical parts of the character, like an accent or a certain physicality, David said that can be helpful to incorporate into an actor’s daily life. Developing physicality is helpful to “put the sensation in your body.”
Myth #3: Emotions are based on past trauma
One of the key exercises in Lee Strasberg’s Method is the Affective Memory. As the exercise deals with memories of intense emotions, it is often misunderstood as intentionally invoking past trauma. According to David, “Through The Method you are “building a relationship between your body, thoughts, memories, and emotions… if it is only based on trauma, that relationship will not work.” Affective memory is something everyone experiences, whether or not you are an actor. It is the way your brain processes information moment to moment in order to perceive the world. “Your affective memory is always active… sorting through your experiences to make sense of the current moment.” As no one person experiences the world the same way, The Method allows the actor to “bring a particular perspective onstage” that no one else can bring. The Method is not based on past trauma, but it is based on past experiences, because your affective memory is “an unstoppable force… which an actor cannot erase.”
There is a rule at LSTFI that you should only employ an affective memory if it is over 7 years old. This is not an issue of safety, and doing a more recent memory is not considered harmful. However, you will not be able to predict your response to a recent memory and it may be inconsistent. If an affective memory is more than 7 years old and still works, it is an indication that your response to it has set and that you will be able to employ it for the duration of your career.
Myth #4: The Method requires you to be so far into the character that you can’t escape
This is “also a fallacy.” When you finish with a scene or a sense memory exercise (a series of exercises developed by Lee used in Method Acting Classes in New York and LA), “you’ll have a residual sensation… like a rock thrown in a pond.” But those lingering feelings from the scene don’t last.
David gave me the example of a light bulb. When a light bulb has been on for a long time, it will still be hot immediately after you turn it off, but in time the light bulb will cool off, unless you give it energy again. “The light will only be hot when you are still giving it energy.” Same with acting. If you stop giving your energy to a certain emotion, that emotion will disperse.
Myth #5: Anyone can be ‘Method’ without training
“Anyone can train,” said David, “and untrained you could do [The Method] with half an understanding,” but it won’t be as powerful as it would be with training. You could “jump on a basketball court and imagine you’re LeBron James.” Without training you probably won’t be LeBron, because he trained for years to be as good as he is. Same with method actors. “You earn your miracles” through hard work and training. “There are no short cuts” when it comes to acting. A well trained actor will give a much more through and in depth performance.
Myth #6: The Method is dangerous
This is probably the most popular myth of them all. People dismiss the power of The Method because they believe it is harmful to the actors who do it. This is false, in fact The Method “create more stability, not less” within an actor’s psyche.
“The work we do involves physical sensation… that is one of the secrets of why Method actors can carry intense emotion.”David Lee Strasberg
The Method grounds actors and makes them feel secure in their emotions. “Method Acting stabilizes and channels energy in a productive way.” People who claim to be ‘method acting,’ but they put themselves and others through emotional trauma while doing it are not real method actors.
Method Acting is a powerful tool for actors to use to create truth on stage. Lee Strasberg created The Method and sense memory exercises in order to solves the problems he saw actors dealing with. Like David Lee Strasberg said, ” The Method has always had doubters and it has always provided answers for people who are willing to learn.”