I realize that I have to go slowly as I attempt to develop this idea. I hope that you will bear with me on this. It’s easy to generalize and toss around ideas about acting that seem to make sense but when you try to put them into practice they fall apart. I remember when I was first teaching, I wasn’t even aware that Method and Meisner appeared, not only on the surface but even as you penetrate more deeply into the whole structure of the art form, to be, well… diametrically opposed if not downright mutually exclusive! And they were meant to be, at first, for reasons I’m not going to discuss here because I’m not an expert on the history of acting training. My area of knowledge, and the focus of this writing, is to make the ‘process of learning acting’ as clear as I can, but sometimes a little history doesn’t hurt.
Another momentary digression – it has a purpose: my mother appeared in a play on Broadway directed by Lee Strasberg. She couldn’t stand his direction, although I can’t remember exactly why. Perhaps she didn’t say, because it would have been obvious to the person, my father, to whom she told me the story. Here’s another story that goes along with this one – and I’ll get to the point of all this in a minute. My mother and father attended the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire. As they were walking away from the Schubert Theatre, they ran into Marlon Brando, who was sitting on a doorstep, looking very concerned about something. My mother stopped to congratulate him and tried to talk to him about the play. But Brando was completely immersed in showing my parents his finger, which had been hurt – apparently not seriously, according to my father – during the course of the show that afternoon.
Somehow the fact that my mother didn’t like Strasberg as a director and the story about Brando’s involvement with his hurt finger had become conflated in my father’s mind. I think it had to do with the accusation of ‘self-involvement’ that has always been hurled at Method Acting. My father was not an actor and had probably taken his cue from my mother. So why didn’t she like Method Acting? She was an established star by the time she worked with Strasberg, and I don’t think acting methods any longer interested her. It was a job, and she was entirely wrapped up in writing novels - and trying to have some family life in the time that were left over. If she had lived, I imagine she would have become interested in the ‘actual methodology’ of Method Acting.
One criticism that can be leveled at the teachers of Method Acting is misusing the information that one inevitably acquires about the actors, whom one is teaching. Knowing something about someone doesn’t mean that one necessarily understands them or can ‘help’ them in any particular way. Obviously, acting teachers find out the sort of things therapists discover in the course of treatment, but don’t have the same kind of training. Teachers can help students psychologically in a human way, but not in a professional capacity – and they can be extremely harmful if they turn the information they have been given by a student against the student. Even with the best intentions, teachers often don’t realize how much power students give them, and they aren’t careful enough. I was guilty of this myself in the early years of my teaching. One must remember that back in the 1940’s when Method Acting was in its infancy, teachers made mistakes all the time, unwittingly. Another problem was the position of women in those days. Without even thinking about it, male teachers often assumed they were intellectually superior to the women in their classes; but even worse, women were apt to think of themselves as ‘below’ men, especially a famous, or not even famous, acting teacher. They gave them power – and they did the same thing with female teachers, of course, but for different reasons. Female teachers are often unconsciously viewed as ‘surrogate mothers,’ which is okay as long as the teacher understands that a transference can take place, but knows full well that she is neither the student’s mother nor a therapist!
Here is a third reason that Method Acting got a bad rap; it was so new there hadn’t been time enough to begin ironing out the bugs in the ‘methodology’ behind the ‘method’. This is a subject I will pursue in depth as I go on with this analysis of Method and Meisner. Please note that I do not say ‘Method vs. Meisner,’ unless I’m referring specifically to the battle –which I consider no longer necessary - being waged between them.
Consider the fact that Stanislavsky’s ideas backed both techniques (He introduced others also that became identified with individual teachers, including Adler’s script analysis and Grotowski’s physical/vocal disciplines.) This revolution in acting training was embedded in the transition from the 1800’s to the 1900’s. Looking at the whole picture, it becomes clear that Stanislavsky’s influence on the Art of Acting was part of a huge wave of political and social changes we call ‘Modernism.’
Again, I am not any sort of historian, but as a child of the mini-revolution of the 1960’s, I have experienced a lesser version of these seismic shifts in art from one era to another. First the bliss of the surge followed by the inevitable recoil of disappointment from the problems that such a bold movement inevitably causes.
I think that the split between Method and Meisner can be likened somewhat to the difference between Freud’s and Jung’s psychoanalytic views. Freud’s ideas created the first big break with the past when he unveiled the theory that we have an ‘unconscious mind.’ Jung then split from Freud by postulating the ‘collective unconscious.’ Freud constructed the first model for psychological analysis, and Jung, rather like Meisner, discovered that the space occupied by our psyche is a shared one – that as individuals we are part of a collective and are interacting even though we think of ourselves as being single. I feel that in both cases – Method/Meisner and Freud/Jung - all elements have value and that they are ultimately interdependent. These comparisons are far from exact but they are worth exploring – and explore them I shall as I proceed with my analysis.Eventually, bridging the gap between Method and Meisner will give us a unified perspective that will greatly enrich our knowledge of acting. Splits are necessary and inevitable, but if we don’t heal them we descend into the chaos of perpetual civil war.