by Ellora Vilkin

published May 2, 2014

Acid belly, bone throat 

Ladies and gentlemen may I have your attention please.

Welcome to our

skin chill

theater, to our

hands shake


Please, no

neckback zing

photography or recording of any

quake knee

kind. And finally, a reminder

they’re watching

to silence

it’s quiet

your cell phone.

Now please, relax


and enjoy the show


To relieve his stage fright, Constantin Stanislavski devised a method of acting centered on attention, on focus so trained and intense it would burn. Burn the acid from his belly, the dry from his throat, make him flash hot cold then crystal. Performed correctly, the Stanislavski method, what some have called the “heated style” of acting, should feel almost vulgar. It should be a focus so absurd that (as Stanislavski said, by way of example) you could walk along the top of a citywall carrying a pot brimful of your mother’s blood and never spill it. This sounds difficult, and it is. But as Stanislavski explains it in An Actor’s Work, his textbook for actors, “The secret is very simple: to divert your attention from the auditorium you must become engrossed in what is happening on stage.” When people speak about the method or method acting, this is what they mean.

     The method begins with your subtle body sighing. Let it be as if alone. Make yourself alone: Only when you believe no one else is there will you inhale and exhale for yourself and not for the audience. Be alone in spite of them. Imagine your body on the citywall, setting one foot before the other, swinging not-too-wide before planting firmly, inevitably, again and again. To begin there can be nothing but your body breathing.

     Stanislavski understood acting as planting your mental images in someone else. Forget, forget, forget about the audience: speak only to your partner. You have made yourselves alone together, and so you could not be closer: everything must be done only for them.

     The relaxation is not meditative but urgent. It is like weeping, loudly and violently, while driving on a busy highway. Your car is low to the ground. Passersby peer through the windows and you disregard them. You slow to pay the toll, hand quarters to an attendant, and you are not embarrassed by the wet on your face. Free of the sensation of being watched—or having liberated yourself precisely because you are being watched—you continue to weep, to give forth from a place knotted beneath the sternum, under the trapezius, at the base of the skull. You are not embarrassed: You may even revel in being seen. You enjoy that you are alone, and feeling this public solitude. 


Successful practitioners of the method tend to earn a reputation for being serious. Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, studied the techniques of Strasberg and Meisner, Stanislavski’s American descendants. “What it takes to be a great athlete is the same thing that it takes to be a great actor,” Hoffman told NPR’s Terry Gross in an interview following The Master, in 2012. “That kind of concentration and that kind of privacy in public and that kind of unselfconscious kind of experience are very similar, and that kind of pressure of the people watching and finding privacy in front of—and all that stuff. So, you know, I find it very similar.”

     Hoffman had a reputation for combining, as critic Richard Brody put it, “a fury for acting and a virtuoso technique.” His performances were as sopped full of torment and tenuous joy as they were physically riveting—he invented gestures, voices, fully realized worlds of other-personness and filled them with elation, despair, charm so natural they seemed to be of his nature. When Hoffman overdosed in March after battling addiction for decades, editorials tolled the loss, pondering the link between his brilliance and his pain. “We don’t walk around our lives just constantly trying to delve into the understanding of ourselves… But that’s what actors do, you know?” Hoffman had said in the radio interview. “If you’re carrying that around and the emotional life of that around over a period of time, it can be burdensome.”

     Unlike classical acting—where gestures are calculated to convey emotion or feeling—or like impersonation, the method arises from living the part. In Russian the word is perezhivanie, to experience, to undergo, to live through, in the sense you might say It was a formative experience. For Stanislavski acting was about revealing emotional truths of the human experience. And so to really experience, you must be able to produce truthful emotion on demand.

     Stanislavski was highly critical of actors who resigned to fall back on clichés like pretending to cry or affecting rage through raised voice and large gestures. He called these the actor’s stencil, trick, or “conventional external sign.” He writes, in The Actor’s Work, “In that case, why bother to think again? Or justify what you were doing using your own experience of life, your feelings, the things you have lived through in the real world?”

     For method actors, artifice is a death knell. But to perform intense emotions—weeping, rage, lust—is taxing, burdensome. To do so authentically is harder still. If you know what is coming next in the role and have repeated it many times before, even if you only have to say “hello” to another character coming into a room, your reaction to their entrance may lack spontaneity. And it is the task of the audience—never of performers—to wallow in anticipation.


“‘Acting is such a tenuous thing…A fragile, shy thing that a sensitive director can help lure out of you,’” said Marlon Brando. Like Hoffman, Brando was famous for combining an uncanny physical intelligence—friends bragged that he could mimic anyone after fifteen minutes—with intense emotional realism. He described his process to Truman Capote in a 1957 profile, notably his theory of the “sensitive moment.” Something would click for Brando around the third take of a scene. “‘By then you just need a whisper from the director to crystallize it for you,’” he explained. These moments of coalescence, of import, were Brando’s grail, and he admired the actors in whose work he found them. “‘Spencer Tracy is the kind of actor I like to watch,” he said. “The way he holds back, holds back—then darts in to make his point, darts back.”

     Like Hoffman, Brando’s acting shared strategies with his life. “‘Do you know how I make a friend?’” he asked Capote. “‘I go about it very gently. I circle around and around. I circle. Then, gradually, I come nearer. Then I reach out and touch them—ah, so gently,” he said, grazing Capote’s arm with his fingers, like feelers. His method of making friends, like the acting he prized, relied on measured ebb and flow. Brando made friends like he made movies: He seduced them.

     “‘I draw back,’” he continued, “‘Wait awhile. Make them wonder. At just the right moment, I move in again.’” His acme, like Stanislavski’s, was acting as seduction: you make yourself, and so your partner, and so the audience, believe that you hate them, love them, need them to forgive you. “‘They don’t know what’s happening. Before they realize it, they’re all entangled, involved. I have them. And suddenly, sometimes, I’m all they have.”