#MeToo and the Method

“He would send one actor to listen to a piece of jazz, another to read a certain novel, another to see a psychiatrist, and another he would simply kiss.” — Arthur Miller, on Elia Kazan in Kazan on Directing

#MeToo has raised many questions about what kinds of intimacy are created in rehearsal rooms and classrooms, and to what end. As I’ve listened to the stories of survivors, I’ve been struck by the fact that the abusers in these cases, mostly men, weren’t doing anything that their predecessors in the American theatre didn’t do openly and without repercussions. At least three of the fathers of the American Method—Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Elia Kazan—had reputations for treating men and women differently, as well as for treating both women actors and women characters as sex objects. It made me wonder: Is there a connection between use of the Method and the behavior called out by #MeToo?

Since the 1930s, American theatre has been operating under the spell of the oh-so-seductive Method, a psychological acting technique that asks actors to draw on their own memories and to act “truthfully” on “instinct.” The Method is derived from Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Method of Physical Actions, usually called the System, which is a psychophysical technique that posits that engaging in physical action in pursuit of solving a problem—otherwise known as “playing an action”—will lead an actor to have a real emotional experience.

Significant scholarship—shout out to Sharon Carnicke’s Stanislavsky in Focus—has shown that the American progenitors of the Method, namely Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, misunderstood the Stanislavsky acolytes and interpreters through whom they learned the System, and wrongly placed their focus on generating emotion for its own sake. Clurman and Adler later caught their mistake when Adler traveled abroad to work with Stanislavsky himself, and they redirected their evolving processes towards physical action. But though they shared their experience with their comrades, Strasberg chose to continue to neglect the physical aspects of the System in favor of a process that centered on delving not just into the characters’ psyches, but also the actors’. Meisner, on the other hand, came to prioritize instinct. Kazan did use physical action but shared Strasberg’s interest in generating emotion using the actors’ real lives.

Due to the popularity of some of the movie stars trained at Strasberg’s Actors Studio (anyone heard of Marilyn Monroe?), Americans today, even non-actors, still use the parlance of the Method to talk about acting, and most people still conflate the Method with Stanislavsky’s System. Having a shared vocabulary can be valuable, but the parlance and practices that accompany the Method are rooted in a history of sexism and exploitation. Though many of Stanislavsky’s techniques work, the powerful men who left us our particularly American legacy didn’t just create an American version of his System, they created a technique for both acting and learning to act that has the ongoing potential to reinforce patriarchal norms.

two acting books

“Today, purely in looks, you were more attractive. You looked sexier. In [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof], the girl, no matter what she is, has to be attractive, otherwise the play becomes unpalatable…. Frankly this quality is essential for your progress, acting-wise and career-wise.” — Lee Strasberg giving feedback to an actor, from Strasberg at the Actors Studio

Stanislavsky was without doubt a patriarchal figure, and from his own writing we learn that his classrooms were not free of gender stereotypes. The women, for example, did an awful lot of fainting. But he was horrified when he accidentally had a student do an improvisation that mirrored her personal experience of losing a child and she was, understandably, devastated. This is because the System asks actors to create emotional experiences by focusing on the problem the character is trying to solve (the task or objective) and the tactics they use to solve it (the actions), not reliving past emotional experiences—usually traumatic ones—as the Method asks. Because Method directors and teachers believe that creating emotional moments on stage requires delving into the actor’s subconscious mind, they tend to take on the role of guru, opening the door for far more manipulative behavior than Stanislavsky ever advocated.

In her 2012 book An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method”, Rosemary Malague zeroes in on Strasberg and Meisner as the primary culprits of using the Method to affirm and reinscribe harmful gender stereotypes. Topping her list of feminist critiques is the idea that the goal of the Method is to produce “truthful” performances, and yet what is considered “truthful” is, in itself, a gendered concept. According to Malague’s extensive research, Strasberg’s responses to women’s acting in class often took the form of remarks upon their sexuality and desirability, as he encouraged them to play sex kittens and weeping women. In his classes, he gave different acting exercises to men and women. And when he rewarded actors for performances that he deemed truthful, he tended to reward women for being seductive and men for being fighters.

Is there a connection between use of the Method and the behavior called out by #MeToo?

Strasberg’s goal was to “break actors down,” which often meant manipulating, confusing, and shaming them, particularly the women, then encouraging them to re-suffer that shame every time they performed. In his own accounts of his practice, quoted below from An Actress Prepares, Strasberg admitted this could be unhealthy:

In fact I once had a Private Moment which was terrifying. An actress came in who I realized was very bound to convention and didn’t move from within … She had an emotional disturbance, and she should not have done Private Moments because they only lead to a re-affirmation of whatever bothers you … She did a Private Moment which was one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. I sat in amazement. I wouldn’t have believed that this girl had it in her. But she couldn’t recover from it, it was so strong.

As Malague put it, “The most intriguing statement in Strasberg’s account … is his declaration that this woman’s private moment was ‘the greatest’ he had ever seen. Watching a woman in total breakdown fulfills Strasberg’s (aesthetic?) goals.”

Meisner’s particular subgenre of the Method, called the Meisner technique, trains actors to act on instinct. The psychology underpinning it comes from Freudian theory, which, as we know, is already an extremely binary, gendered approach to the human mind, making even the simplest Meisner exercise a minefield of gendered assumptions. Malague points out that the repetition exercise, which encourages actors to make uncensored observations about one another’s physical appearance—“You are wearing a blue shirt. I am wearing a blue shirt”—could go very badly for actors whose gender identities are non-binary, or for those with nonconforming bodies or who are a minority presence in the room.

Meisner’s exercises, like Strasberg’s, tended to be different for women than for men. In his book, Sanford Meisner on Acting, he recounts a class in which he demonstrated a version of the repetition exercise twice, once with a man and once with a woman. In the first instance, he begins with “Can you lend me twenty dollars?” and, when the student eventually says no, he calls him a “big shit.” When working with the woman student, Meisner begins with “Will you come to my house tonight?” and, when she says no, he ends by calling her “a professional virgin.”

Meisner was not alone in this tendency towards encouraging aggression from men and victimization, usually sexual, from women. Apparently, Kazan used to stand next to actors as they rehearsed and poke them with a rapier; he deemed most of the women in Tennessee Williams’ plays to be motivated by a desire for sex or protection, in contrast to those of the men, who were encouraged by conflict. In fact, for Kazan, the tendency towards violence is an inherently biologically male phenomenon. In his notes on A Streetcar Named Desire, published posthumously in Kazan on Directing, he says Stanley is “desperately trying to squeeze out happiness by living ball and jowl, and it really doesn’t work because it simply stores up violence until every bar in the nation is full of Stanleys ready to explode.” Under the heading “Mitch,” he wrote, “Violence – he’s full of sperm, energy, strength.” And he characterized Blanche as a kind of succubus: “Blanche’s spine: to find protection, to find something to hold onto, some strength in whose protection she can live, like a sucker shark or a parasite. The tradition of woman (or all women) can only live through the strength of someone else.”   

Meisner's On Acting

“I’d known her when she was a plump young girl, and I had a theory ... that when a girl is fat in her early and middle teens and slims down later, she is left with an uncertainty about her appeal to boys, and what often results is a strong sexual appetite, intensified by the continuing anxiety of believing herself undesirable” — Elia Kazan, on casting Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Malague, as she herself documents, was not the first feminist scholar to point out these issues as they apply both to the rehearsal room and the classroom. Feminists have been warning about the consequences of the continued popularity of the Method since at least 1985, when Linda Walsh Jenkins and Susan Ogden-Malouf wrote the article “The (Female) Actor Prepares.” Stanislavsky emphasized what he called “faith and a sense of truth,” vaguely defining truthful acting as acting in which the actor believes in what is happening. Though Stanislavsky’s idea of “truth” was broad and could even be expressed in non-realistic ways, Method practitioners reduced the “truth” to patriarchal, gender normative behavior. This, Jenkins and Ogden-Malouf argue, is problematic because with the Method the actor must rely on an all-knowing guru to get to the “truth,” and the “truth” they must believe in is actually a stereotype.

“The (Female) Actor Prepares” was followed by Sue-Ellen Case’s book Feminism and Theatre in 1988, in which she singles out anything based in Freudian psychology, as the Method was, as likely to replicate the Freudian hierarchy that places men in the subject position while treating women as derivative and subordinate. She goes on to explicitly reject the Method for asking women actors to believe in, identify with, and see the world from a patriarchal point of view, particularly regarding their sexuality.

In 1990, Deanna Jent published her dissertation “Sex Roles in the Acting Class: Nonverbal Gender Display in Performance” about her qualitative study, over the course of six months, of gendered behavior in a group of college actors training in the Method. She found that their nonverbal behaviors changed during that time “toward more stereotypic behavior, indicating an inflexibility of traditional masculine and feminine movement patterns.” Most striking is her example of an emotional recall exercise in which “three women were asked to perform scenes involving ‘terror’ – all three relived moments of victimization and helplessness.” By retelling these kinds of stories and not looking at the gender issues they raise, Jent found that this exercise reinforced the notion of “woman as victim” or “woman as helpless.”

The idea that successful acting requires psychologically unhealthy behavior has a strong grip on American actors to this day.

For more than a decade, feminist theatre theory by Elin Diamond, Jill Dolan, Peggy Phelan, Elaine Aston, Ellen Donkin, Susan Clement, and more and more and more, continued to reject the Method, often eschewing the tradition of psychological realism all together. Yet, in the world of traditional professional theatre practice, no one listened. Adler, who died in 1992, probably would have found that depressingly familiar.

“Suppose that when the actress playing this part was five years old, a gang of four or five local ruffians dragged her into a deserted lot and ripped off her clothes. The horror, the disgrace of this experience is still so alive in her that whenever she recalls it, she breaks down. So that might be a useful preparation for the opening of this scene.” — Sanford Meisner, from Sanford Meisner on Acting

Use of the Method crossed over from rehearsal rooms to classrooms and from theatre to film, and it remains standard practice in both private studios and academic institutions. The Actor’s Studio still offers classes in the Method, as do the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and the Sanford Meisner Center. NYU’s Tisch Drama offers two-year-long intensives in Strasberg and Meisner, and colleges and universities all over the country, from state schools like Ohio University to private schools like Rutgers University, offer classes in the Method. Meisner’s technique is particularly popular in LA, and movie stars like Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi all say they use Method acting. Supposedly, Jared Leto once used the Method as an excuse to send a dead pig and a sticky Playboy magazine to his costars. The idea that successful acting requires psychologically unhealthy behavior has a strong grip on American actors to this day.

The stories told by #MeToo survivors (and Jared Leto’s castmates) attest to the fact that Method-based practices are still doing gender-based harm, whether in the form of guru gatekeepers who use their power inappropriately, gender-differentiated training that affirms stereotypes, directors and teachers who treat women actors and characters as objects instead of subjects of their own action, or actors who act irresponsibly while “in character.”

To the leaders of the American theatre just now grappling with these sexist practices in response to #MeToo, on behalf of the scholars and practitioners who identified these problems last century, I’d like to take a moment to say: Told ya.

Case's feminism and theatre

And now, some antidotes.

After Carnicke’s Stanislavsky in Focus was published in 1998, feminist scholars began to reconsider their wholesale rejection of the System. Scholar and director Rhonda Blair’s 2002 article “Reconsidering Stanislavsky: Feeling, Feminism, and the Actor” argues that recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and neurophysiology validate Stanislavsky’s systemization of acting. For example, in real life, we create what Stanislavsky called “throughlines” by “proto-narrativizing”; we turn events in our lives into meaningful stories driven by cause and effect, just as Stanislavsky asks actors to do on stage. In fact, humans have been doing this for so long that the process is embedded in our brain structures.

Blair shared that in her practice as a director, she finds Stanislavsky’s idea of a mental film of highly personal images useful for actors to emotionally connect to their roles. She also uses objects of attention, action, imagery, and physicality to engage actors, and she changes Meisner’s mantra “get out your head”—which she calls anti-intellectual, narcissistic, and mystifying—to “get out of your neocortex,” where we over-rationalize and control things, “and into your subcortex,” where we respond to circumstances spontaneously.

J. Ellen Gainor’s article “Rethinking Feminism, Stanislavsky, and Performance,” published at the same time, points feminist actors towards a Stanislavsky/Brecht hybrid technique, in which the actor combines Stanisvlasky’s ideas about physical action with Brecht’s alienation effect, enabling the actor to both empathize with a character and comment on the ways in which the character’s gendered behavior might be a performance or a product of historical circumstance instead of “instinct.”

In Jent’s dissertation, she posits that plays with traditional gender roles might be more healthily rehearsed if the characters’ gendered behaviors are treated as given circumstances instead of physiologically motivated characteristics inherent to the characters. For example, Blanche might not be biologically motivated to seek protection through seduction—she might simply be living in a world in which women have to play that role. (Having grown up in the South, I can tell you belles are not born, they are made.) Likewise, Stanley and Mitch may not be violent because they have balls and sperm—a dramaturgical choice that excuses violence against women as “instinctive”—they may choose violence as a way of controlling women.

Certainly there is plenty to explore in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof if Maggie is not inherently oversexed but is rather responding to her circumstances in the only way she can, by playing the role of Southern seductress. According to Malague’s research, Strasberg felt that the audience had to want to sleep with Maggie for the play to work, but what if the audience, instead of seeing her as an object of desire, sees her as the subject of her own actions, a woman trying to use the only means she’s been given by a sexist society to secure her economic future? It isn’t, after all, seduction that gets her what she wants from Brick in the end.

Often an actor can find an emotional anchor in a scene just by focusing on the right given circumstance, a fact about the imaginary reality of the play-world that is meaningful to them.

Today, feminist theatre theory embraces the possibilities in Stanislavsky’s System, particularly as taught by Adler. In my own practice, I recognize that often an actor can find an emotional anchor in a scene just by focusing on the right given circumstance, a fact about the imaginary reality of the play-world that is meaningful to them. An actor can also experience real emotion in performance by focusing their attention on the other actor(s) instead of on themselves, reacting in the moment to what’s actually happening on stage instead of to a memory. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of finding the right subtext.

Directors can also avoid directing actors into gender stereotypes by taking a closer and more gender-conscious look at the actions they’re asking them to play. Must men always fight? Must women always seduce? Seemingly harmless verbs, like “protect” for a man, can create a binary, gender-normative character and play-world, in which women need men’s protection, even where that is not necessarily written into the text. What if women are encouraged to play actions like “to fight”? What if men are encouraged to play actions like “to heal” and “to comfort”? There exists no one right action for any moment, and many different actions can be played with the same text to great effect.

“It is not essential that you should want to fuck the leading lady, but it is essential that you should feel emotions well past those of ordinary friendship or respect.” — Elia Kazan, from Kazan on Directing

Bogart & Landau's The Viewpoints Book

Because of #MeToo, people are finally listening to women who say the behavior typically associated with Method practices creates a toxic work environment. Under the motto “whatever the truth requires,” Profiles Theater in Chicago put actual violence—not stage combat—on stage along with sexual behavior that was not consensually choreographed. Not surprisingly, the guru in charge there used his gatekeeper status to sexually harass the women who worked for him, and the theatre programmed play after play in which women are sexually victimized and men are violent. After important reporting gave voice to abused employees, Profiles closed. At long last, widespread agreement is slowly emerging that treating women actors and characters as sexual objects is no longer acceptable.

Furthermore, the new field of intimacy choreography now encourages directors and teachers to work with consent when sex and violence are involved, rather than having actors act on “instinct.” And new acting techniques, which are more physical and less emotional, like the Viewpoints, proliferate. In The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau explicitly frame the Viewpoints as a solution to one of the problems caused by the Method:

The Herculean effort to pin down a particular emotion removes the actor from the simple task of performing an action, and thereby distances actors from one another and from the audience. Instead of forcing and fixing an emotion, Viewpoints training allows untamed feeling to arise from the actual physical, verbal and imaginative situation in which actors find themselves together.

Though thoroughly post-modern in spirit, the Viewpoints are actually more true to Stanislavsky than the Method is.

Though theatre does not need the Method anymore, I do not mean to argue that no one should ever use it again—we can’t let Jared Leto ruin everything. But even well-meaning directors and teachers need to be aware of the ways it can normalize toxic behavior. The aspects of the Method that rely on instinct and emotional truth fail to account for subconscious bias, meaning that a director or teacher who uses it could easily end up validating feminine (e.g. seductive) behavior from women and masculine (e.g. aggressive) behavior from men as “truthful,” even where other possibilities exist and even when they don’t consciously intend to do that. Because the Method removes critical thinking from the equation, artists who use it are not likely to see and check their own problematic “instincts” to create gender-binary characters. Likewise, unchecked subconscious biases can lead directors and teachers to reinforce racial, ethnic, and every other kind of harmful stereotypes as “truthful” simply because they are easily recognizable and passionately performed.

So, if you’re a director or teacher, use the Method if you must but educate yourself about its toxic possibilities (Malague’s book is a great start), learn how to help actors have genuine emotional experiences without breaking them down (go back to Stanislavsky), and be wary of your own tendencies to define “truthful” as gender normative (check yourself). Don’t just teach alternative techniques (do try the Viewpoints), but actively expose the harmful aspects of the Method, dispelling the long-standing myth that suffering is the secret to good acting (it’s not).

Finally, I hope survivors will keep speaking up about the harmful potential of these techniques, calling to account the people who continue to practice harassment, discrimination, and abuse under the name of the all-powerful Method. (Thank you.)

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This article struck me deeply in terms of assessing how I direct. Whilst I'd like to think I don't exhibit the type of highly sexist behaviour mentioned in the piece, at the end of the day, I'm still a white male and that alone requires me to evaluate my assumptions and perspectives on how I approach directing.

I truly appreciate the insight and candour of Holly L. Derr's piece in reminding me the rehearsal room must be a safe environment for ALL actors.