Updated: Mar 21, 2019
A Commentary on the Dangers of Glorifying and Misrepresenting Method Acting
Last week, the results of a study were published in an article by the CBC and other news media answering the long-standing question of what happens to actors' brains when we're in character. Steven Brown at McMaster University led a team of researchers who performed a variety of neurological tests on actors both in- and out of character and discovered that the part of the brain associated with our sense of self experienced significantly less activity while participants were interacting with questions in character. I, among others in my field, consider this a breakthrough both for neuroscience and the theatre community. Until now, there has been very little research done on what exactly happens to actors when we're "in the zone," but many could tell you that there is a perceptible shift in presence and mentality when an actor "goes into character." This amazing discovery has proven decades of intuition correct and is a significant validation for many.
In this article, it mentions that the actors who participated in the study were all students at McMaster and, given their curriculum, were all studying the Stanislavski Method which emphasizes character mentality as a means of inhabiting a role. This raises no alarms the first time it's mentioned, Stanislavski is a very helpful tool for a lot of actors if it's employed safely, just like any other technique. Also, the study was being conducted at McMaster so it stands to reason that they would use actors from their own campus. Perfectly sensible information. However, the article went on to mention two or three more times that method actors were the subjects of this study and that method actors' brains change when they go into character. Instead of the article simply reporting on the findings of a study that most assuredly applies to all actors in some degree, it became an article about how method actors are special.
Up popped the red flag.
Myself and many of my peers know that there is a difference between the original method behind the Stanislavski technique and its dangerous extrapolated cousin, American Method Acting. While American Method Acting came from the principles of Stanislavski, it bloated from being a useful imaginative tool to being a dangerous self-exploration and re-traumatization. Allow me to provide a brief, rough comparison. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that I am playing a character whose brother has just died. I do not have a brother, nor have I experience the loss of a sibling. With the Stanislavski Method, I would be encouraged to think back to a time in my life when I had experienced loss: a pet, a grandparent, etc. I would then recall what it felt like to be in that emotional state, what my internal sensations were. Was I sad? Was I angry? Was I confused? I would then take that memory of my reaction and apply it to the new context of my character and the loss of their brother, asking "what if I was this different person in a similar situation?" Intense, but manageable.
Using the same scenario as an American Method Actor, I would be encouraged to, not just remember what it felt like to be grieving, but to go back to that time in my life and relive the painful moment. As you can imagine, this can be an incredibly dangerous exercise for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. We are not meant to revisit trauma in the way that Method Acting often asks us to, and frequent reopening of what is essentially emotional scar tissue can make it difficult to close up again.
We, as a performance-loving society, are still recovering from the era of Marlon Brando who, aside from being a skilled actor, was an unwell abusive manipulator and a bully. And yet we still hold him up as this golden ideal to model ourselves after, even with the knowledge of how Method Acting affected him both in his career and his personal life. Remember Heath Ledger? The most common thing I hear said about him is, "That's such a crazy amount of dedication, he really messed himself up. So cool! What a performance!" The truth is, he died for the sake of a comic book character. It wasn't some revolutionary role, it wasn't meant to change the world: Heath Ledger died in the attempt to embody a psychopathic comic book character in yet another film in a lengthy series of remakes. And yet, when the news came out that he had died, people rushed off to the theatre to see movie. His acting was so good it killed him, and everyone was drooling to see it. I refused. I refused to witness the waste of life that was Ledger's final character and still do.
There is an inherent glorification of those who do damage to themselves for the sake of "brilliance" and very little praise for those who care for themselves in pursuit and achievement of the same. Two actors, both considered Goliaths of Method Acting, are still, after their deaths, being rewarded for harmful behaviour in the name of Great Art. This has to stop. There is still a widely-held argument for why American Method Acting is the only true form of acting because it's the only method that... what, messes us up? Forces us to "face our demons"? Creates a "genuine reaction"? What is a "genuine" reaction? One of my directors in university defined acting as "having real reactions to imaginary circumstances." In my opinion, that should be enough. Are we bringing joy to our audiences by allowing them to feel with us? Are we being honest in the moment with our fellow actors? Yes? Great, the buck can stop there.
Not everyone knows that there is a difference between the Stanislavski Method and American Method Acting. My concern with how frequently the article mentioned Method Actors is that people who do not know the difference will read the article and be given yet another reason to idealize a dangerous and outdated acting technique.
To view the published research in its entirety, click here!
These are my thoughts for now. I hope you enjoyed my first blog post! There will be more to come, I'm sure, and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you.