Lee Strasberg and The Dying Art of The Method

Lee Strasberg leading a class in The Method.

Lee Strasberg leading a class in The Method.

by Zev Kohan and Gabrielle Friedrich

Lee Strasberg (November 17, 1901—February 17, 1982) has undoubtedly been the most controversial acting instructor in the history of the craft, more so than even Konstantin Stanislavski who originated the early techniques that Strasberg refined and honed into what he eventually termed The Method. Even today, more than thirty years since his passing, Strasberg and his legacy continues to inspire and provoke criticism and debate among acting professionals, from those who swear by The Method in their artistic work to those that condemn it as pretentious pseudo-psychotherapy that not only ruins performances, but potentially those actors who practice it.

It is clear, though, that in all of this criticism and praise, most outside the professional acting community, and even many within it, are not aware of what The Method actually is nor what it consists of. This includes many actors themselves who claim to be active practitioners of the techniques that make up The Method. Even worse, most today are unaware that The Method, as originally taught by Strasberg, is a dying art, to the detriment of countless aspiring actors who sign up for absurdly expensive classes claiming to provide training according to Strasberg’s exact principles, instead receiving varying forms of highly diluted and revisionist second and third hand interpretations of his techniques. The vast increase in popularity of Meisner technique and its many derivations (which often crossover with various aspects of the techniques and acting philosophy of Stella Adler) since the mid-to-late 1990s has only made The Method even more esoteric than it ever had been before.

As a result, there are very few genuine instructors of The Method left today, and even during Strasberg’s lifetime they were few and far between. But back then, you could at the very least walk into the Actors Studio or The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute (now officially called The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute) with a high degree of certainty that you’d be getting trained in The Method the way Strasberg intended. Today, even at the Strasberg Institute itself, owned by the Strasberg family, you’d be hard pressed to find bona fide instructors of The Method, save for one at the New York branch (Irma Sandrey) and one at the West Hollywood branch (Marc Marno), both of whom were not only personally trained by Lee Strasberg, but considered by him to have been his finest students. And of course, there is John Strasberg, Lee’s son by his second wife, Paula, who teaches at his own studio in New York and prior to Lee’s death, also ran the Strasberg Theatre Institute (which we’ll discuss later.) From the rest, you’re not getting what you went in paying for, and the low caliber of students and their lack of motivation and work ethic leaves much to be desired.

But, what exactly is The Method?

Definition

To be clear, when we refer to “The Method” and “Method acting,” we are talking about the work of Lee Strasberg, which was a refinement—or corruption, if Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner and their proteges are to be believed—of the original training techniques and acting philosophy of Konstantin Stanislavski. Strasberg originated the term “Method” to describe his approach to actor training and acting philosophy, but over the years others began associating the term “Method” with the training methodologies of Adler and Meisner, much to both their chagrin, as neither Adler nor Meisner vehemently denied any commonalities between their approach to training and that of Strasberg’s. To make matters even more convoluted, uninformed acting instructors and journalists began referring to just about any kind of actor training in the United States that differed from the Classical (or Shakespearean) school of externalized physical presentation as “Method.”

The reality is that Method acting revolves purely around Strasberg and his interpretation, refinement and expansion of Stanislavski’s early techniques. There are those who argue against this, claiming that anything remotely related to Stanislavski should be termed “Method,” but as Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Robert X. Modica, David Mamet, Milton Katselas and other famed instructors have stated, conflating Strasberg’s Method with totally unrelated techniques and watered down derivations is inappropriate and simply creates confusion and misunderstanding among students.

Stanislavski himself referred to his acting philosophy and approach to actor training as a “system” and never used any terms analogous to “method.” Interestingly enough, the Encyclopedia Britannica, which considers itself the paragon of factual accuracy, makes an enormously glaring and laughable blunder in referring to Stanislavski’s system as “The Method.” Not even Wikipedia’s primary articles on Stanislavski make this mistake, nor do any recognized scholars of theatre associate Stanislavski as having been the founder or originator of The Method.

Techniques

The Method revolves around three of Strasberg’s essential contributions to acting theory: relaxation and affective memory, the latter also including sense memory as part of its technique.

Relaxation

Relaxation is the fundamental core of The Method and was developed by Strasberg based upon his studies of Alexander technique and, more importantly, the Feldenkrais Method. The purpose of relaxation is not to “relax” the actor in the general sense, but rather to lessen the amount of nervous tension in the body. Relaxation does not aim to completely eliminate nervous tension, as Strasberg sardonically states that “total relaxation” equals a dead body. Strasberg likewise stressed that relaxation should not be approached as a mere “exercise,” but as a fundamental technique of The Method, and that the success and workability of The Method rises and falls on the efficacy of relaxation.

From Strasberg’s point of view, a certain degree of nervous tension is necessary to help the actor bring out their emotion. What relaxation does, in effect, is help train the actor to control their emotional state at any given time. In theory, if one were to master relaxation technique so effectively as to become second nature, one could then instantly achieve an emotional reality on stage when necessary, and the process of evoking the necessary emotional states would occur on the subconscious level.

What relaxation entails is having the actor rest their body in a basic armless chair with a short back that will allow them to lean their body over. The actor ensures that their body is as limp and loose as possible in the chair, not allowing for any overt tension or stiffness. When the actor has loosened their body sufficiently and feels that they are as relaxed as they are going to be in the physical position that they are in, they then begin to slowly and gradually probe for excess tension in the limbs and joints by carefully moving their hands, arms, legs, and neck about. Strasberg encouraged his students to also engage in vocalizations during relaxation sessions, such as having students feeling overly tense or feeling anxiety yelling or screaming as they move their body about in the chair. Often times, students will break into tears and start crying uncontrollably, which Strasberg practitioners consider a normal side effect of the relaxation process. To an outside witness, these relaxation sessions can come across as bizarre and crazy, even cultish, something that might be expected in a mental asylum, but not in an acting class. But in The Method, none of this is weird and unusual, and most students will often acclimate themselves to the process.

In the class environment, relaxation, as with sense and emotion memory sessions, must be overseen and directed by a qualified instructor. The instructor, following Strasberg’s traditional lead, will generally walk around the class advising on what to do, what to focus on, and so forth, while also randomly checking students’ bodies to see how their relaxation is progressing by lifting up and testing their arms and legs to see how loose they are. Needless to say, for those actors who don’t like to be touched or suffer from OCD, The Method is most definitely not for them.

Whether Method relaxation is harmful or helpful has long been open to casual debate among theatre professionals, but as with The Method in general, it’s practice is not exactly popular and in certain quarters, frowned upon. While Strasberg and those who adhere to the exact practice of The Method advocate routine practice of relaxation before rehearsals and performances, doing such in a professional environment, such as in the dressing room, is likely to get one ridiculed or even looked upon as something of a prima donna.

Interestingly, Anna Strasberg, Lee Strasberg’s third wife and current owner of the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institutes in New York and West Hollywood, has criticized relaxation and denied its efficacy during various private lecture sessions. This, in spite of the fact that her son, David Lee Strasberg, who is not an actor nor had any proper training in The Method and is the chief principal behind the West Hollywood school, has advocated the reverse. But we’ll get to these issues a bit later.

Affective Memory

Every proper Method training session begins with relaxation. In this, if one is to adhere to Strasberg’s principals, there can be no deviation. Orthodox practitioners of Method will tell you that one of the best ways to figure out if a particular instructor knows what they are doing is to find out if they incorporate relaxation into each of their classes and direct them according to the way Strasberg laid out.

And just as every proper Method training session begins with relaxation, it is immediately followed by sense memory exercises, or sensorial, as they are often called. Sensorial involves the recall of physical sensations, such as drinking a cup of water, or the feeling of a breeze of wind, and so on. The transition from relaxation to sensorial is, or rather should be, seamless. As the student is going through relaxation, the instructor will, one-by-one, direct those students who he or she feels has sufficiently achieved relaxation to begin a sensorial exercise. With novice students, the exercise is generally very simple, something basic like the aforementioned sensation of a beverage. The key to all affective memory exercises is to use real sensations and memories to evoke the emotional reality. In the case of sensorial, using the beverage as an example, the student would not handle an imaginary beverage, but neither a real one. To the outside observer, the student will, of course, appear to handling an imaginary beverage. But in the realm of The Method, there is an actual beverage being handled, touched, tasted, felt–a beverage from actual memory, not being recalled, but relived in the present time of the moment. This is done using only physical movements–it is not a mental or intellectual exercise, which is to say the beverage is not being evoked from memory through the mind, but rather through the motions and behavior of the body.

As the student progresses, the sensorial exercise becomes more complex and drawn out. Again using the example of the beverage, the instructor might direct the student to relive a moment when they were sitting somewhere, such as in a restaurant or café, and then once the student feels as though they are effectively living that moment, to add in more elements from memory, such as weather conditions, the touch and feel of the table, and so on. As the exercise advances, the instructor will usually direct that a person be brought into the “scene,” as it were, such as a friend, a loved one, or someone that will provoke feeling in the student. And so the possibilities for how far one can take sensorial are limited only by how far the instructor is willing to push the boundaries with the student.

After the sensory period, the class will typically take a break and return for a second half, consisting of scene study. In Method classes, scene study is fairly routine and not radically different than what you would find anywhere else, with the exception of an instructor incorporating elements from sensorial and affective memory sessions into the students’ work.

What has been described thus far is a standard Method class. Contrary to what many believe, affective memory does not constitute a part of every single class, but is reserved for specific classes. In an average twelve-week academic session, this will usually mean that only two or three classes will be devoted to the practice of affective memory, and some instructors will reduce that to only one when dealing with novices.

The reason why this is so is because affective memory is considered to be a highly convoluted process, requiring careful attention from the instructor and directed in such a way that any potential harmful side effects are minimized as much as possible down to zero.

In a typical affective memory session, a few students–sometimes only one or two–are selected by the instructor to practice the exercise, often at the front of the class or on the stage if one is present. Affective memory, as related by Strasberg, is the culmination of all the work the student has gone through with relaxation and sensory, and builds upon that foundation. The exercise itself involves the actor reliving in the present moment a past memory, which is always a negative one, the more traumatic and painful the better. The purpose of the exercise is to present a method by which the student can train themselves to use a particular memory in specific scenes or situations in their performances. The content of the memory need not have any relevance at all to the scene at hand–the only important factor involved is the emotional and physical state that the memory evokes. For example, in a scene where the actor is playing a character who is being interrogated and tortured, the actor may choose to use a memory of having been violently attacked by a gang of kids in school, or an argument with a lover that led to a severe emotional breakdown. If those memories evoke the appropriate emotional state necessary to that particular scene, then they are fair game, and this likewise applies to any memory at all.

This then is the origin of Strasberg’s choice of the word “method” to describe his approach, as it is literally a method by which the actor is able to–at least in theory–train themselves to create an emotional reality on stage or in front of the camera to such a degree that their performance not only suspends the audience’s disbelief, but that of the actor themselves. This aspect forms a key aspect of Strasberg’s theory of performance, that the only way to suspend an audience’s disbelief is to first suspend your own, otherwise the performance will come across as overtly artificial.

Beyond sensory and affective memory, there are other exercises that were developed by Strasberg, such as the Private Moment, Personal Substitution, Song and Dance (a particularly infamous one), and the oft-hated Animal Exercise, which differs quite a bit from Stella Adler’s variation. All of these are optional exercises that are not part of the core training program, so not all students would be subject to them. These are utilized by the instructor at their discretion where an actor is having difficulty with affective memory or for specific issues arising from scene study.

Criticisms and Condemnations of The Method

Ask a thousand actors what they think of The Method and you’ll get a thousand different responses, but what most of them will have in common is that they won’t think much of it. The harshest critics of Strasberg, from Stella Adler to David Mamet, allege that The Method is wholly unnecessary and is psychologically harmful. Adler herself considered Strasberg as something of a sadist, even a misogynist to some extent considering how much further he seemed to push women than he did men, and his apparent preference to select women for sensory and affective memory exercises in front of his classes. However, such arguments and allegations have also been made against Adler herself, who was notoriously harsher with her female students than she was with the men. Adler’s defenders, however, have pointed out that rather than being harsh, she was simply attempting to challenge her female students into developing themselves into strong and resilient enough actors in order to discourage and dissuade Hollywood from casting her women students in cliched submissive roles, and encouraging them to pursue respectable roles that would not be passive nor self-denigrating. In this respect, she considered The Method to be especially harmful as she viewed it as reducing women actors to overemotional and mentally unstable stereotypes, due to her observation that Method tended toward a kind of insanity.

Whether The Method is genuinely harmful is open to speculation, but the bigger question could be whether it is actually productive toward achieving its aims. Many students of The Method we’ve known and encountered have claimed variously that it doesn’t actually work, that affective memory was useless during actual performances and even during rehearsals, and so on. There is also that infamous example of the Method student who goes up on stage in front of the class to do an affective memory exercise and becomes very emotional, breaking down and crying, and later stating that they were not evoking any memory whatsoever and they simply willed themselves toward achieving the breakdown. Stella Adler was well known to be able to cry at the snap of a finger. The truth may be that emotional reality is more a question of talent rather than training, however one wishes to define “talent.” According to Strasberg, talent is memory. To Adler and Meisner, it’s all about imagination and nothing else.

A Dying Art, A Legacy Defamed

Today, one is hard pressed to find any legitimate and authentic instructors of The Method. Most advertising themselves as skilled Method practitioners do not even incorporate relaxation into their classes, nor do they have any proper understanding of sensory and affective memory. The peak era of Method was during the Eighties, when skilled Strasberg alumni from the Actors Studio were still plentiful in Los Angeles and New York. It’s been downhill since then.

The decline of The Method has often been attributed by critics to the technique itself, but in reality it is due to Strasberg’s estate and its mismanagement by Anna Strasberg and her family. Anna’s primary focus since Lee Strasberg’s death has been in exploiting the estate of Marilyn Monroe for massive profit, the estate having been previously bequeathed by Monroe to Strasberg, which then passed on to Anna following his death. Lee, not having any interest in business or profiteering, did not himself do anything with Monroe’s estate or attempt to cash in on her likeness. With Anna, however, the story is radically different, and even at times unbelievable.

Not long after Strasberg’s death, Anna hired a firm called CMG Worldwide which has a rather morbid specialization in securing the estates and intellectual property “rights” of dead celebrities for seemingly limitless profit. One particular pernicious and perfidious act Anna committed was to auction off most of Monroe’s personal items at Christie’s in 1999, netting her millions. Following years of protracted lawsuits over publicity rights to Monroe’s likeness and other aspects of her estate, Anna sold off the remainder of Monroe’s estate to Authentic Brands Group for a sum estimated to in the area of $30 million, possibly even ten or twenty million more, with Anna keeping a minority stake in the new arrangement.

The major controversy at the heart of all this grossly profane profiteering is the fact that Monroe willed her estate to Strasberg on the condition that all her personal effects would be distributed–without profit–to her friends and associates, and that her estate not be exploited for any personal or commercial gain. Anna’s aggressive and ruthless commercialization of Monroe’s image throughout the Eighties and Nineties and later violation of this request in 1999 at the Christie’s auction irreparably damaged and harmed the image and reputation of Lee Strasberg and The Method in Hollywood. This damage has been harmful to the extent that the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institutes do not have a good reputation among Hollywood producers, and not even the Strasberg program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University–which was actually brokered and established by John Strasberg, who was soon chased out by Anna some years afterward–has been able to rehabilitate that image. Many of the instructors at the Institute’s locations in West Hollywood and New York privately concede that the deteriorating situation has been hopeless, and the bottom line in recent years has been to fleece the students, most of whom are young foreigners from wealthy families, for as much money as possible. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the Eighties and Nineties, in those years following Strasberg’s death, when tuition did not cost an arm a leg, and this due only to the fact that Anna was not particularly interested in the Institutes for precisely this reason, and her primary focus remained on profiting from Monroe’s estate. Beginning around the mid-2000s, tuition at the Institutes began to gradually skyrocket year after year, and this has likely been due to the numerous lawsuits and legal battles over intellectual property rights to the Monroe estate.

While there are a few enough Method instructors of the old school remaining at both the West Hollywood and New York locations, the ridiculously expensive tuition, combined with the fact that they accept literally anyone off the street so long as they have the cash to pay, has resulted in a severe decline in the quality of the student bodies. As any instructor will affirm, an acting class is only as good as the students in it.

The students are the most important facet of any acting class, especially when it comes to scene study and rehearsals. As a student, there is nothing worse than being stuck with a scene partner who is not reliable, never answers their phone, doesn’t show up for rehearsals, doesn’t rehearse properly, doesn’t show up for classes, and so on. Having a few students like that in a school is bad enough as it is, but imagine most of the students behave in such a fashion. That is exactly what the environment at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute has degenerated into. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the film programs–just as ridiculously expensive as the general acting programs, if not more so–at the Institute are something of a joke in the film production community. AFI they most certainly are not.

In this fashion, the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute is very similar to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, which has become notorious for its absurdly high tuition rates, their lack of quality instruction and high turnover of instructors, and the fact they will accept anyone who can afford to attend there–the real motivating factor behind the Academy of Art University, however, is in making as much money as possible in order to buy up as much lucrative San Francisco property as possible. In the case of the Lee Strasberg Institute, the goal is to make as much money as possible for Anna Strasberg and certain key members of her immediate family.

Among the many other reasons for the terrible reputation of the Institute in Hollywood is Strasberg’s son by Anna, David Lee Strasberg, who has no background in acting or performance whatsoever, but rather has an MBA and spent some time working for the Republican Mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, in the Nineties, and considering that this did not lead anywhere and his administrative talents (or perhaps lack thereof) were not in demand elsewhere, he ended working for his mother as the artistic and administrative director of the West Hollywood school. That he fancies himself a professional acting instructor is a bit rich, and his claims that he was trained by his father something of a stretch considering he was eleven years old when Lee Strasberg died. This fact alone should give one a great amount of pause when considering where to study for a professional career as an actor in Hollywood. There is so much more scandal, drama, innuendo, and absurdity in all this business related to Lee Strasberg that one could write volumes about it all.

In spite of all this, The Method is not dead. The art of teaching The Method, however, has gradually been dying, but it’s not completely dead yet, though Anna Strasberg and her family have tried very hard to kill it off for good. They’ve not been successful. It is overwhelmingly depressing to find these shamelessly blatant profiteers exploiting the wealthy foreign youth and bilking them for all they’re worth, and there will be those who will say that the wealthy deserve to be ripped off by the wealthy, considering that wealth feeds off of wealth like a vampire. But it is even more overwhelmingly depressing when those students getting ripped off by the schools–and again, most of them are foreign and often have no proper grasp of English–come from low income backgrounds and who spent years saving their money just to attend this particular school, all in the hope of becoming a huge Hollywood star.

The Lee Strasberg Institute does what Strasberg himself never did: it promises to make anyone who attends into a huge star, so long as you have the cash to pay to attend in the first place. During his lifetime, Strasberg promised nothing except to train those who came to him to become capable enough actors to be able to pursue a career in acting. Whether they were successful was entirely up to them. Strasberg was notorious for doing and saying whatever he could to dissuade aspiring actors who came to him from pursuing such a career path, stating that acting was the most difficult of professions and that most will fail and fail miserably in such a pursuit. The fact is you simply cannot sell talent or the promise of talent, let alone the promise of a career in Hollywood.

For those intent on learning The Method as it was meant to be learned, grab yourself a copy of A Dream of Passion, audit a few classes and see if how the instructor is instructing aligns well with Strasberg’s approach, and even more importantly, try as much as possible to get a handle on how the students are and whether or not they are motivated and reliable. In the end, its the student body that makes or breaks an acting class.

But whatever you do, don’t let yourself get ripped off by those taking advantage of Lee Strasberg’s name. The Method deserves better, and so do you.

[Editor’s note: The authors are seasoned alumni of The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and have attended both the West Hollywood and New York locations, having studied under various instructors including Irma Sandrey, Lola Cohen, Geoffey Horne, Marc Marno, among others.]


 

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