The Purinton Primer: Stanislavski and Friends

In my last post, I discussed the difficulty of giving exams for acting classes. In this post, I’m addressing a similar dilemma: the idea of using a textbook in acting classes. On paper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense — acting is something you need to learn hands-on. Nevertheless, there have been several textbooks written on acting.

The most prominent of these is An Actor Prepares, written by Konstantin Stanislavski, who I promised I would talk about in my last post. Yes, I have now linked to the same post twice. My goal is to one day have a total readership on this blog that is equal to the readership of just one of Becca Hafter’s posts. So, read that post. And then read it again. And then you can read it again here.

Just how good was Stanislavski? He wasn't even a little worried when this picture was taken. That face is all acting. Pure talent.

Konstantin Stanislavski is a pretty big deal in the acting world. He and his works have been named as inspiration by none other than Laurence Olivier, and he is one of the most taught scholars in the world of theatre. Stanislavski’s textbooks are written from the perspective of a fictional, unnamed actor, who learns lessons as the reader is supposed to learn them. The main problem with this is that this fictional actor is the stupidest person in existence.

The actor was fictional. Completely fictional.

In each chapter, our lovely actor learns a new lesson in his acting class and is subsequently blown away by the brilliance of his teacher. The lessons themselves are generally useful — pretty self-explanatory, but accurate nonetheless — but the way the actor learns them is incredibly inane. Each lesson starts with the actor observing something. Then, he implements this observation in a stupid way. The acting teacher points out that the actor is stupid, after which the actor is amazed.

For example, the actor observes that he has vocal power when he screams, so he decides to scream all of his lines. The teacher points out that screaming all of one’s lines doesn’t constitute acting, it just constitutes doing a lot of screaming. The actor is amazed.

Or, the actor observes that the class really liked the way he said a line one time. Thus, he decides to say that line the exact same way each time. The teacher points out that sometimes, line delivery might change based on what the other person on stage is doing. The actor is amazed.

These are pretty tame examples. I could have used the one where he smears chocolate cake on his face and begins snarling and making weird faces because he’s playing Othello. It’s weird.

But Stanislavski is not the only person who has written an acting textbook. Acclaimed actress and perennial crossword puzzle answer Uta Hagen has a textbook too.

She is best known for her work in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, winning three Tony awards and her delicious-sounding last name.

Hagen’s textbook, like Stanislavski’s, gives some good advice but nothing all that special. What’s most distinct about Hagen’s textbook is the prologue, where she explains at length that she has nothing to say and shouldn’t be writing this book because she doesn’t know more about acting than anyone else. It’s her attempt to be humble, and to say that despite her many, many, many, many accolades, she is still just like you, the lonely undergrad working herself to the bone to learn Luisa’s monologue from The Fantasticks in between shifts at Dairy Queen. I call B.S. She clearly thinks she knows more about this than other people. She’s writing a book about it. And that book contains words.

Even stranger than Hagen’s attempts at humility is the fact that David Mamet has written an acting textbook. That’s right, David Mamet, who has said, on the record, that actors are idiots who should only recite the words of a play without interpreting anything, ever, and who basically implies that actors are useless scum with no reason to live. Maybe he got this idea from reading Stanislavski’s textbook!


The point here is that David Mamet, brilliant writer that he is, is a dick. If you don’t like someone, you should insult him by calling him “a Mamet.” Seriously, the guy’s obnoxious. He once tried to cancel a production of one of his plays because he didn’t like the order of the curtain call.

The acting textbook writer I find most ridiculous is Sanford Meisner. To be fair, a lot of actors swear by Meisner and his method of teaching. To name a few, Sandra Bullock, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Diane Keaton, Peter Falk, Jon Voight, Jeff Goldblum and Grace Kelly. An impressive list, but almost all other actors think that his technique, or at least what it has become to mean, is at least slightly preposterous. Here’s a video of people swearing by Meisner. Notice how they all sound like they’re part of a cult.

The most pointless part of Meisner’s technique is his famous repetition exercise. It works like this: two actors stand or sit so that they’re looking at each other. One of them says something she observes about the other, and they go back and forth, repeating this same observation. Here is an example.

Actor 1: Your shirt is red.

Actor 2: My shirt is red.

Actor 1: Your shirt is red.

Actor 2: Yes, my shirt is red.

Actor 1: Your shirt is red, yes.

Actor 2: My shirt is red.

Actor 1: Yes, your shirt is red.

Actor 2: My shirt is red.

Actor 1: Your shirt is red.

Actor 2: This shirt? It’s red.

Actor 1: The shirt you’re wearing is red.

Actor 2: The shirt is indeed red.

Actor 1: So fucking red.

Actor 2: Shirt. Red.

Actor 1: There is a red shirt worn by you at this time.

Actor 2: My shirt is red.

I embellished this dialogue a little bit with colorful phrasing, because in the real thing, they don’t do that. They just go back and forth happily telling each other obvious things. The goal is supposedly to get in touch with the other person. I think. I don’t really know. Yes, observation is a big part of acting, as you need to be aware of yourself on stage, but I still don’t get how this exercise could possibly be the most efficient way to become a great actor. Maybe I’m just slow on the whole epiphany thing.

I should say that I don’t mean to disrespect any of these highly acclaimed teachers, and some of them give really good advice. I am anticipating a few angry comments on this post, many of which will probably be valid points about how I have misinterpreted the teachings of these great scholars. But the fact remains that I still have some problems with the idea of these textbooks. They’re valuable resources to have, but the word in them should not be taken as gospel — an actor should simply use the advice as he sees fit. There’s some good advice, but when it’s not taught hands-on, it’s often misinterpreted, and that leads to actors doing some bizarre things, to say the least. For example, there is notorious method actor Daniel Day Lewis. He’s brilliant, and I mean no disrespect for a man who is undoubtedly one of the best actors of our time, but the fact remains that he is completely insane.

Say it ain’t so, Danny!

Day-Lewis’s next role is Abraham Lincoln. What’s he gonna do in preparation, end the Civil War and get shot?

So, what do I think is good acting advice? This acting lesson, courtesy of Sir Ian McKellen. That’s really all there is to it.

One response

  1. Probably the biggest problem with the Meisner technique, if you are signed up for a 2 year program, which is usually the way it’s offered, is that you are not allowed to work while you are in training. Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of why you are training? To be a working actor? I believe that you will learn more by being involved in a production than in any class. Even if it’s an awful production, you will learn what it is like to be on stage. It’s good to know about techniques, but not to be limited by them.

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