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The History of Acting (Part One)

Some people would say that acting has existed since humans learned how to lie for personal gain. Ok, maybe that's a bit cynical, but hear us out...


From Thespis to Stanislavski

Thespis | Considered the first person to get on stage and perform a character other than himself.

According to ancient Greek sources, circa 534 B.C.E a guy named Thespis became the first person to act as a form of entertainment as opposed to good old-fashioned fraud. Thespis created the art form we know today, and also the word “thespian” which is no longer used by anyone who wasn’t vice president of the high school drama club. Although we still perform plays by the likes of Aeshchylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the Greeks actually held actors in about the same regard they had for prostitutes – maybe even respecting the world’s oldest profession a bit more for its honesty.

Philosophers like Socrates and Plato hated actors for their ability to convincingly imitate and project false emotions. However, their protégé and equally-regarded-philosopher-in-his-own-right Aristotle believed that drama could help real people feel real emotion – sure, actors were telling lies on stage, but they were also dropping truth bombs all over the audience. This helped boost the status of actors a tiny bit, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.C.E. After that, Western Europeans basically stopped acting in order to slaughter each other in the name of God or to die from terrible diseases that God sent their way. We usually call this period the Dark Ages, though there were undoubtedly interesting theater movements happening in the Byzantine Empire as well as places like India, China and Japan.

Acting really started to make a comeback in western culture around the time of the Renaissance, through the commedia dell’arte (weird masks, stock characters) in Italy and Elizabethan drama (Shakespeare, dudes playing girls except for Gwyneth Paltrow) in England. Yet modern acting, like almost pretty much anything we consider modern, really doesn’t come about until the early 20th century when a Russian acting teacher named Constantin Stanislavski had a wild idea: instead of offering a stylized, theatrical representation of human behavior, actors should try to act like real people when they perform.

Commedia dell'Arte | Masks and Stock Characters

"Acting is not about being someone different. It's finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there."

– Meryl Streep

The "Method," Chekhov and a question for the future

Konstantin Stanislavski
Stanislavski's brightest student, Mikhail Chekhov

More importantly, Stanislavski formalized how performers could do this, creating the first real method for acting. Stanislavski pioneered a series of exercises and guidelines intended to help an actor discover the inner emotional life of a character. To Stanislavski, the words on the page were only the part of the characters’ existence we could see, and did not necessarily represent their entire range of emotions or memories. After all, they were supposed to be real people, right? While this may sound like a formula for rogue actors going off script, Stanislavski was also pretty adamant that actors needed to defer to the director’s guidance and the artistic vision of the production. Stanislavski’s greatest student, Mikhail Chekhov (not to be confused with the legendary playwright Anton Chekov, whose influential style of dramatic realism became a testing ground for their methods…okay, wait, that is pretty confusing) added another dimension onto Stanislavski’s method: the psychological gesture. Chekhov believed that a physical movement could reveal the character’s true psychological state. Yes, this is basically just another way of saying actions speak louder than words, but from a practical standpoint, this meant that actors should study how people move as well as how people talk to make their characters more human.

"It's important not to indicate. People don't try to show their feelings, they try to hide them."

– Robert De Niro

So how does all this affect what we do today on our various screens? Well, think about the timing of Stanislavski’s new ideas. As he was advocating a greater degree of realism in the theater, the medium of film basically demanded more realistic performances from its actors, especially after the advent of sound, when even some veteran screen performers couldn’t make the transition to “talkies.” This brings up an interesting thought as we venture out into the wild west of New Media. What does a “realistic performance” look like on an internet that thrives on its already apparent sense of “authenticity?” Stanislavski’s system had not only helped redefine a craft as old as written human history, but perhaps even set a precedent for its future in film. His methods really arrive in the United States, and specifically in Hollywood films, through three influential acting teachers who studied his theories in the 1920’s and 30’s: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner…turning the method into methods.

A quick look at our profiles associated with Acting.

Part 2 will focus on the method rivalry and how The Godfather is probably the perfect petri dish to study all of them. Stay tuned!

Check out some of our resources and other profiles below!


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An Actor Prepares

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A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method

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Naturalism and Stanislavski

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