The Main Types of Acting Explained

Classical Acting

Before talking pictures developed, actors primarily learned and practices their craft on stage in theatres. Acting for the stage required overly dramatic gestures, exaggerated actions and slow, drawn out speech to reach the audience in the back of the theatre. With the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s, this type of overacting began to lose favor and transformed itself into what is known as Classical Acting. With its roots in Shakespearean acting, Classical Acting is action-oriented and strives not to stray from the screenplay dialogue. This stems from the legal language used for theatrical stage productions which states that the performance must be as written, or not at all—no ad libbing allowed. Classical actors bring a character to life through analysis of the writer’s words and the actions required to bring these words to life. Some famous actors who were trained in Classical Acting include Richard Attenborough, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, Bette Davis, William Shatner and Patrick Stewart.

Modern Acting

Modern acting techniques stem from Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director and guiding force behind the Moscow Art Theatre. In the early 1900s, he began developing a style of acting that called for actors to inhabit authentic emotions while performing by drawing upon their own life experiences. Part of this acting process was to encourage actors to explore their character’s motivations which is where the line “What’s my motive?” began. This type of acting became known as the Stanislavski method or “Method Acting.” Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were practitioners of the Stanislavski’s system.

Method Acting Comes to the U.S. – Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler

In the early 1920s, the Moscow Art Theatre embarked on a world tour. Several members of the troupe stayed on in the United States and went on to instruct Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler who in turn later founded their own acting schools. Lee Strasburg’s version of method acting called for the actor to dredge up past experiences “sense memory” to bring realistic emotions to the performance. Famous actors who studied with Lee Strasburg include James Dean, Al Pacino, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman. His acting school where his techniques are still taught includes Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi as alumni.

Stella Adler’s version of method acting allowed the actor to use their imagination in bringing realistic emotions to the performance. Stella even travelled to Paris to meet with Constantin Stanislavski who revealed to her that he had moved on from “sense memory” and embraced her use of imaginative motivation. Famous actors who studied with Stella Adler include Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. Other actors who use Adler’s techniques include Judd Nelson, Martin Sheen, Anthony Quinn, Salma Hayek, Mark Ruffalo and Christopher Guest. One of the things that made method acting so popular was it was perfectly suited for the big screen, where the lifting of an eyebrow—magnified many times on the screen—could evoke a heartfelt emotion in the audience. As in a family tree, there were many disciples of Constantin Stanislavski, including Sanford Meisner and Michael Chekov.

The Meisner Technique

The Meisner Acting Technique preached that constant repetition could lead to unconscious instincts that would reveal a truthfulness in the performance. Famous actors who employ the Meisner Acting Technique include Amy Schumer, Diane Keaton, Grace Kelly, James Gandolfini and Robert Duvall.

The Chekov Technique

The Chekov Acting Technique had actors learn gestures that imparted universal psychological meaning. Famous actors who use the Chekov Acting Technique include Clint Eastwood, Patricia Neal, Johnny Depp, Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson. What all method acting techniques strive to do is to bring the character to life by living the life of the character. Method acting stresses the circumstances of a scene and demands the actor identify and perform actions that relate to the circumstances. The different Method Acting techniques vary on how the actor finds these circumstances. Method actors often go to extremes in living the character as they prepare for their role. Robert DeNiro famously spent weeks driving a cab for 12 hours a day while preparing for his role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Because he was so immersed in his character, he ad libbed a number of his lines, including “You talking to me?” in the famous mirror scene.

At the end of the day, acting boils down to a few simple things: know your lines, understand the context the scene takes place in, know your marks and lay down a realistic performance that is true to your character. The first two are products of reading the script. The third is determined by the director and the director of photography. The fourth is where acting technique has its most value, especially in closeups where often time the actor is performing alone. To be a successful actor means you can make the audience believe in your character. Did you ever see a movie where it took you almost the entire movie to realize who was playing the part, even though you’d seen them in other roles? That is acting in a nutshell.

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