Acting for the Stage


Wilson and Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Art, 7th edition: Chapter 6.

Outside reading...
        Charles McGaw and Larry D. Clarck. Acting is Believing, 7th edition. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1996.
        Constantin Stanislavski. An Actor Prepares. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York: Theatre Arts Books. 1936.

1. What is the actor's function?

To turn the dramatic character developed by the playwright into a living breathing human being. Acting is "impersonating a character in a dramatic presentation before an audience." (Wilson and Goldfarb, page 102)

2. What is the difference between the actor and the character he is creating?

The actor is the artist, the character is the work of art. The problem is that they inhabit the same body. According to Jeremy Kareken, a member of the Theatre Discussion List, acting is "infusing a play's character with the life of the actor; it's offering up the soul of personality."

Hal Holbrook (left) has portrayed Mark Twain (right) in a one man show entitled Mark Twain Tonight! since its premiere on a Pennsylvania college campus in 1954. His first public appearence as Mark Twain was on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. He staged his one man show Off-Broadway in 1958 and on Broadway in 1966, 1977 and 2005. He has performed on stage as Mark Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens (the real Mark Twain).

Link to a YouTube video of Hal Holbrook, as Mark Twain, exponding upon "Man, the reasoning animal" from Mark Twain Tonight! (1967).

3. What is the mechanical external approach to acting, and how does it differ from the psychological internal approach?

In the external approach, the actor re-creates (without becoming emotionally involved) the external signs of the character's emotions.

In the internal approach, the character grows from within the actor.The actor is personally involved with the character.

4. Who was Francois Delsarte?

Francois Delsarte
Francois Delsarte
Francois Delsarte (1811-1871) was a French actor, opera singer, and teacher who believed that a character's emotional state could be projected to the audience through a formal set of gestures, postures, and physical attitudes.

     What was the "Delsarte System?"

Delsarte Exercises
Delsarte's ideas on how a character's emotional state could be projected to the audience was the foundation of the Delsarte System of Expression published in 1885 by Genevieve Stebbins (1857-1914). This system was used during the last fifteen years of the 19th century in the actor training programs at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Emerson's School of Oratory. Although the this approach was replaced by the Stanislavski method in the 20th centry, the influence of Delsarte can still be seen in American Modern Dance.

The Delsarte Exercises to the left from Pastimes at Home and School: A Practical Manual of Delsarte Exercises and Elocution (1897) illustrate a posture for discovery, mourning, and supplication. This formal, conventional, often melodramatic approach to acting can be seen in silent films such as DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney. Links are to the film's entry in the Internet Movie Database.

Phantom of the Opera (1925) : The Unmasking Scene

5. Who was Constantin Stanislavski?

Constantin Stanislavsky
Constantin Stanislavski
Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor and director who developed a "method" to train his fellow actors at the Moscow Art Theatre. He wanted his actors to discover, and project, the "inner truth" of the character, so the performance would be real to the audience.

     With which approach is he associated?

Psychological internal. As Norman B. Schwartz has posted to the Theatre Discussion List
KS [Stanislavski] felt that when an actor truly experienced what the character was living under imaginary circumstances, the many layers of meaning in the play would be revealed in a way that would rid it of cliches. He contended that his method of acting was more effective than illustration or indication of emotion by calculated poses and tricks of voice and gesture. If the actor believed in the imaginary circumstances, revealing the subtleties of the text by truthful action rather than rhetoric, the audience would see things in the play that had been hidden previously by poor or lazy acting. KS insisted upon more [from] the actor, and particularly [from] an ensemble of actors, than many directors who preceded him.
© 2000 by Norman B. Schwartz

6. When did he live?

Stanislavski was born in 1863 and died in 1938. His method was developed during the first two decades of the 20th century. He wrote four books, two of which were published after his death: My Life in Art (1924), An Actor Prepares (1936), Building a Character (1949), and Creating a Role (1961).



7. What was the American home of the Stanislavski method?

The American home of "The Method" is the Actor's Studio, founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan (the director of Streetcar Named Desire), Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford. Only about 1100 artists have been admitted to Studio membership. Collectively, they have received more than 150 Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards. In September 2006 the Actor's Studio became the Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University in New York City.

     Who was its master teacher?

Lee Strasburg (1901-1982). In 1979 he joined George Burns and Art Carney in a film comedy about three retired men who were Going in Style.

8. Who was its first celebrated pupil?

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando (1924-2004). Other actors who are part of the studio include Alec Baldwin, Robert DeNiro, Sally Field, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, Walter Matthau, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Gene Wilder.

     What was his (Marlon Brando's) first major New York success?

Tennessee William's Streetcar Named Desire (1948) which was directed by Eli Kazan, one of the founders of the Actor's Studio.

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh
in the film version of Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

9. Briefly outline the seven steps of the Stanislavskian approach (or method) to acting?

  1. The actor needs a trained body and voice.
  2. He must know "stage technique."
  3. He must be a skilled observer of life, and be able to re-call what he observes.
  4. He must analyze the script to determine his character's motivation -- his spine or major-objective.
  5. He should become emotionally involved with the character he is creating while he is on stage.
  6. He must concentrate on the character he is creating, pushing everything else out of his mind.
  7. He must continually work on perfecting his art and craft.

10. How can an actor prepare his body and voice for the stage?

An actor can prepare his voice by taking voice (singing) lessons and his body by taking fencing (sword fighting) lessons. Voice class isn't just for singers. Learning how to control your instrument and produce volume and/or change your timbre, resonance, or pitch without injury is a basic part of an actor's training. He must also learn to sensitize his physical instrument, his body, to respond appropriately to the emotional or attitudinal changes within his character.

11. What is stage technique?

The skill necessary to adapt everyday life to the conventions of the stage. There are techniques for walking, talking on the phone, opening a door, sitting in a chair, firing a gun, eating food, etc.

12. Why must an actor be a skilled observer of life?

Because it is one of his primary research tools. He builds his character from these observations.

13. What is emotional recall?

The actor's ability to recall an experience from his past, and re-live that experience on stage.

    The magic if?

The actor, asking himself, "If I was this character, what would I do?"

14. What is the difference between a character's text and his sub-text?

The text is the lines written by the playwright. The sub-text is the meaning behind those lines. It is the "action" which is implied instead of stated.
The cast should have a shared immersion in the playwright's text. Not an immersion that provides all the answers, but one that offers multiple possibilities. Such an immersion does two things:
  1. It forces the actor to make choices, rather than respond in a way predetermined either by themselves or by their director, and
  2. It makes them respectful of the choices made by the other actors in the ensemble.
(Ed Pixley, Theatre Discussion List, 2000)

    What is a character's spine, or major objective?

A character's spine, using Stanislavski's terminology, is the character's major goal or objective, the internal force which drives the character's choices. For example, Hamlet's spine may be to cleanse the court of Denmark.

15. Why must the actor concentrate on the character he is creating?

It is the actor's concentration which makes it possible to ignore everything else that is happening on stage and focus his attention on the character he is creating.

16. What is an actor's most difficult problem?

To make each performance new and fresh. To make the audience believe that this is the first time that this "happening" is occuring. The secret to keeping a perfomance fresh is listening. As Broadway director Warren Enters has said "Acting is about listening and responding honestly. If you really are listening you will be able to react honestly to what you are hearing. It is about being absolutely present in the moment and listening."

17. What is the economic reality of the acting profession?

An actor spends much of his time out of work. There may be two or three months between shows. For every fifteen auditions, he is lucky to be cast in one show. The minimum weekly salary (or "scale") for a New York based Equity actor ranges from $ 525 (for a small 100 seat off-Broadway house) to $ 1,605 (for a first class Broadway production). An actor's income is very unstable. He may make less than a thousand dollars one season, and twenty thousand the next. Most actors have other jobs (as a waiter, secretary, salesman, teacher, model, etc) that they rely on for their bread and butter.

18. Why is an actor "always on the road?"

Outside of New York, LA, and possibily Chicago a professional actor is usually unable to find enough shows in one community to make a living. So he will perform for four weeks in Seattle, then do six weeks in Atlanta, five weeks in Minneapolis, etc.

19. Which union represents the actor?

AEA: Actor's Equity Association. AEA is a member of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the 4As), an umbrella organization which also includes the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), the Guild of Italian American Actors (GIAA), and the Hebrew Actors Union (HAU).

20. How do you become a member of this union?

You become a member of Equity when you are cast in an Equity production. You may also join Equity through its fifty week "Membership Candidate Program." The candidate learns the art through nearly a years experience in the acting company of Equity approved theatres.

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Last updated: August 8, 2011
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