Lee Strasberg

American acting teacher Lee Strasberg was best known for his association with the Actors Studio, of which he became the artistic director in 1951. Strasberg used emotion-oriented techniques to train many actors, including Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. In 1969 Strasberg founded the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute.

Peter Basch/Globe Photos, Inc.

Acting, the representation of a character on stage, in a motion picture, or in a television production. Acting is a formalization of play. Its symbol-making process predates writing and is thought to be a universal cultural phenomenon. Most societies have designated special times and places where make-believe activities are presented before spectators. The performers who entertain the audience by transforming themselves into human, animal, or divine characters are called actors.

Makeup Transforms Boris Karloff

Actors almost always use some makeup during performances to give their features a natural look despite the bright lights illuminating the stage or set. But makeup artists also use large amounts of makeup when they need to transform an actor’s appearance radically. This interactive illustration shows British-born actor Boris Karloff as makeup transforms him from one character to another in the motion picture Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953). In the film, Karloff plays Dr. Jekyll, a scientist who discovers a potion that changes him into the maniacal Mr. Hyde.

© Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.© Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The impulse to act appears to be instinctive in humans. It is related to the natural development of the imagination and of social skills in children. Mimicry, disguise, imitation, fantasy, and transformation are the sources of most play activity and complex games. Learning to pretend and mastering different roles allow children to find their place in the family and among their peers.


Each theatrical tradition has its own rules and conventions as to what constitutes good acting. Essentially, an actor’s talents are judged by his or her ability to effectively communicate dialogue and a sense of character to the spectator. This is normally accomplished through voice, movement, and the registration of emotion. But other artistic qualities—often difficult to describe or define—such as charm, depth of feeling, originality, plausibility, and physical attractiveness also affect the audience’s judgment.

Acting is a complex art. The professional actor’s mastery of voice projection, elocution (speaking style), diction (clarity of pronunciation), gesture, stage movement, and other abilities is only the first component of the craft. Other basic skills include the memorization of lines and cueing; manipulation of masks, costumes, and stage properties; and the embodiment of character through the expression of class status, gender, age, nationality, and temperament. Learning these skills generally takes several years. For traditional forms of Asian theater, training is often arduous. Most forms of Indian dance-drama, for example, require dedicated study beginning in early childhood to master a complex, stylized system of gestures, movements, and facial expressions.

In theater productions the actor speaks and moves in the imaginary environment of the stage, and so his or her powers of pretense must be sharply focused over an extended period of time or the entire dramatic atmosphere may collapse. Achieving a believable transformation into the character and entry into the play’s circumstances requires a constant stream of inspiration from the actor’s psyche. In many cultures, this ability to awaken the creative centers of the brain and achieve vibrant expression is the foundation of great acting. Only when the performer is properly stimulated internally can the spectator also be stirred deeply and propelled into the moment-by-moment reality of the play.

The controlled production of emotions is the actor’s special creative problem. Other artists—such as painters, sculptors, composers, or novelists—are not expected to complete a new masterpiece every night, or even every year; yet the working stage actor must perform creatively on command at an announced time and place before a live audience. Or put another way, the performing artist is forced to inhabit a character even when he or she may feel no special inspiration or artistic impulse. And since theater performances are normally repeated over several evenings or months, actors, even when successful one night, must constantly replenish, or reinspire, themselves artistically. The performer’s fear of losing certain psychic and physical energies—or growing stale in a role—has been articulated since the 1st century ad. The need to overcome this obstacle differentiates actor training from all other forms of artistic study.


Aristotle undertook the first theoretical discussion of acting in the West in his Poetics (about 330 bc). Actors in the classical Greek theater wore larger-than-life masks and heavy garments to represent mythological and historical characters. They communicated temperament and feeling primarily through speech and stylized gestures whose meaning was clear to spectators. Professional performers underwent a rigorous regimen of speech training and vocal exercise. According to Aristotle, the human voice alone could register passion and delight. He also wrote that the most convincing portrayals of distress and anger, for example, were produced by performers who truthfully felt those emotions at the moment they expressed them. Finding the true feeling in the proper place and time on stage, however, was a problem that Aristotle addressed less well. He concluded that acting was an occupation for the gifted or insane.

How to cross the artistic boundary beyond feigned emotions and flat imitation obsessed many Greek actors. In 315 bc the tragedian Polus carried the real ashes of his recently deceased son in an urn to stimulate a sense of genuine grief when he played the mythological character Electra mourning her dead brother Orestes. (At that time and for hundreds of years afterward, male actors played the parts of women.) In doing so, he moved his Athenian audience deeply, but Polus’s experiment was not easily duplicated and remained a historical curiosity.

With the decline of the Greek theater by the 3rd century bc, the art of acting almost disappeared for a thousand years in the West. Theater existed and flourished during the Roman Empire (1st century bc to 5th century ad) and in European courts and cities during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), but actors themselves were normally regarded as unreliable vagabonds or social outcasts. Rarely were they accorded the status of true artists or professional interpreters of dramatic texts. Only in the 17th and 18th centuries did the perception of theater and acting change.

A The Rise of Acting Technique

Edmund Kean

British actor Edmund Kean won critical acclaim for his interpretation of leading roles in plays by William Shakespeare. His last performance was in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello in 1833.


Troupes of the commedia dell’arte, popular Italian comedy, spread throughout Europe in the early 1600s. Working without scripts on makeshift stages, the commedia companies, which included the first professional female actors, produced a new dynamic between performer and spectator. The sources of theatrical creativity sprang directly from the performers, who improvised their own words and comic actions around a basic plot and stock character types. Unlike in the literary theater or the opera, where the audience concentrated on a playwright’s speeches or on individual arias, the spectator’s interest in the commedia attached itself to the improvised and expressive accomplishments of the entire ensemble. Literary concepts and spectacular scenic displays were uncommon in commedia dell’arte, and this encouraged attention to the art of acting.

During the 17th century, when the plays of such dramatists as William Shakespeare and Molière were popular in England and France, theater integrated great dramatic literature with the excitement of professional acting. But once again the playwright’s art overshadowed the performer. It was difficult to untangle artistically the words of the dramatist from the skill of the actor speaking them. Only the historical separation of these first productions from their restagings a generation later allowed audiences to fully appreciate the actor’s art, independent of the original dialogues.

Beginning in the late 17th century, theatergoers in England learned to distinguish the treatment of Hamlet by actor-manager Thomas Betterton from other productions of Shakespeare’s play. Different stagings of classical or familiar plays sharpened spectators’ critical facilities. In addition, theater halls designed with a concern for good acoustics permitted performers to be heard differently and allowed for more subtle, natural inflections. Sophisticated systems of indoor stage lighting displayed the faces and hands of individual actors, so that the visual details of a performance could be more easily perceived and critiqued.

Among the first modern actors on the British stage in the 18th century were Charles Macklin and his student David Garrick. Macklin, who was hired because of his background in commedia-like farces and pantomime, based his celebrated Shylock (a Jewish businessman in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice) on observations of Jews in London. Essentially, Macklin added lifelike details of movement and authentic speech to written text, acting features that may not have been noticed 50 years earlier with less advanced acoustics, lighting, and other theater technology.

Garrick continued this novelty of natural acting but with still more plausibility and under better lighting conditions. Garrick practiced imitating the facial expressions of actual people and brought this mimicry to the stage. What would be a good comic turn in a fairground performance became a new expressive technique for tragedy. For example, Garrick based his portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Lear on a crazed neighbor who compulsively reenacted the accidental killing of his infant daughter. Although Macklin, in contrast to the prevailing style of the time, never dropped his character during a performance, Garrick went further by listening and reacting in character to all the dialogue around him. This standard feature of the unscripted commedia became a surprising innovation when applied to Shakespeare. Audience members could not take their eyes off Garrick.

Eighteenth-century French encyclopedist Denis Diderot, who saw Garrick on tour in Paris, became fascinated with Garrick’s abilities to rapidly portray emotional states on his face without actually feeling them. Diderot believed the less the actor felt the emotions of his character, the more artistic control he could have, and therefore, he could deliver a more consistent and stronger performance. In the essay “Le paradoxe sur le comédien” (1773; translated as “The Paradox of the Actor,” 1883), Diderot contrasted the techniques of two famous rivals, Marie-Françoise Dumesnil and Hippolyte Clairon, who performed at the Comedie Française. Dumesnil, the representative of the so-called emotional school, thought it was an actor’s duty to become the character. Although horribly uneven as a performer—she normally coasted through a play until she reached a tragic point—Dumesnil had tremendous power and emotional depth. She claimed she knew the secret of great acting: heaven. She prayed to find out who she was as a character, where she was, and what she had done. Unfortunately, her divine inspiration was frequently stimulated by alcohol. Clairon maintained she did not become her characters, she did not even play them. Instead, she created them through movement and speech. Perfecting the “look” of emotions and rehearsing endlessly, Clairon managed to develop fairly natural and reliable character portrayals. Clarion declared audiences applauded actors, not characters. What Diderot had really uncovered in his comparison of the two actors were the polarities of inspiration and technique.

Neither Macklin, Garrick, Diderot, Dumesnil, nor Clairon solved the problems of inspiration and expressiveness for other actors. For one thing, the schools and treatises they left behind were more philosophical than technical. In fact, Garrick’s natural school of acting vanished with his death. For British audiences, it was a fad associated with the actor. The truth of the matter was that Garrick and the rest could not teach their highly personal techniques.

The emotional and antiemotional acting styles of the great actors ran in cycles through the 19th century. In every country, an actor of one generation championed the first technique and was followed by a younger performer who advocated the other. So the romantic and emotive Edmund Kean followed the stately Sarah Siddons, who followed Garrick. But as limelight gave rise to gas lighting and then to electricity, more and more physical detail appeared on the stage. Costumes and scenic displays grew in complexity and size, dwarfing the actor.

B Twentieth-Century Techniques

Konstantin Stanislavsky

Russian actor, director, and writer Konstantin Stanislavsky developed a technique in which actors use personal experiences to develop an emotional reality for their characters. He cofounded the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) in 1897 and led it for 40 years.


In 1907 Konstantin Stanislavsky, artistic director of the Moscow Art Theater in Russia, began developing a new form of actor training. Already internationally celebrated as an actor and director, Stanislavsky searched for a system to awaken the performer emotionally. His goal was to achieve the creative state of mind in the actor. Harking back to Polus, Stanislavsky thought the performer’s past emotional experiences could be truthfully relived on stage. Basing his discoveries on the preparations of great actors and his knowledge of yoga, Stanislavsky schooled his Moscow Art players in physical exercises that emphasized relaxation, concentration, and belief. According to Stanislavsky, one could reawaken and control these memories only indirectly, through the stimulation of the five senses.

Revised continually over several decades, Stanislavsky’s system in many variations became the touchstone of 20th-century actor training. Its attention to awakening truthful emotion in the actor, which registers in facial detail, made it an ideal technique for naturalistic film and television acting. Almost from the start, however, Stanislavsky’s teachings produced countertheories and opposing approaches, from both experimental and traditional directors.

In Russia, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Mikhail Chekhov, both students of Stanislavsky, designed actor-training regimes that shunned psychological stimulation for more physical and imaginative actor preparations. Avant-garde theater practitioners in the 1930s, such as German playwright Bertolt Brecht and French theorist Antonin Artaud, also challenged Stanislavsky’s theatrical orientation as overly realistic and internalized. To a large degree, Stanislavsky’s clarion call was ignored in countries where theatrical traditions were firmly entrenched, as in France and England.

Historically, Stanislavsky’s greatest success outside Russia was in the United States. The Group Theatre in the 1930s and the Actors Studio two decades later helped popularize the Russian’s ideas as the Method, which became the foundation of postwar motion-picture acting in Hollywood (see Lee Strasberg). By the 1960s directors of the alternative American theater, especially those influenced by Artaud and contemporary Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, began exploring innovative acting techniques that emphasized the external and superphysical qualities of the performer. By the late 1990s, many American acting teachers borrowed from both traditions as well as from Asian theater and modern dance.
Contributed By:
Mel Gordon

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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