Actors' Craft

The art of acting and theatre has been studied since ancient Greece. Even before that storytelling has been central to humans. And what is acting but storytelling. There's much more to acting than standing on stage and delivering the correct words. The best actors have gone through rigorous training, studying their craft.

How does one go about creating that believable world for audiences to enjoy at the theatre? Acting involves making choices. The results are dependent upon the actor who takes on the role. There are as many different schools of thought on the actor's craft as there are countries in the world. From Aristotle (who believed that actors had to be divinely inspired) through to Stanislavski (who believed that actors could use their own experiences as a means to creating a character's emotional state) there has never been only one thought on the subject. What makes acting different from other careers is that the way you do it or train for it is an individual choice. Here are some people who have had a huge impact on acting and theatre: David Garrick, Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, Bertolt Brecht, Uta Hagen and Augusto Boal.

David Garrick

What were the stage conditions upon which actors worked? Theatre in England during the 18th Century was dominated by David Garrick, an actor, manager and playwright whose style and memorable performances had a huge impact on the actor's craft. Gas lighting was first introduced in 1817, in London's Drury Lane Theatre and by the end of the century, electrical lighting made its appearance on stage. Through the 1900's in North America, further advances in theatre technology, a more natural form of speaking and acting was popularized on stage.

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Konstantin Stanislavski

Konstantin Stanislavski was a Russian theorist, playwright, actor, director and theatre manager. He is best known for his theory of acting and for his establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre, which was founded in 1897 after a lengthy conversation with another Russian theatre enthusiast, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.

Stanislavski's acting theory came out of his work as a director at the Moscow Art Theatre, working on such plays as Chekhov's The Seagull. This version of The Seagull was revolutionary in Russia because Stanislavski was implementing many of his own ideas about acting, into the process.

One of the most important ideas Stanislavski contributed to the art of acting was the idea of sense memory. The actor, instead of relying on the make believe emotions of the character, remembered their own feelings or thoughts from a time in their lives that was similar to that of the character. This created a truth to the acting and offered a new approach to acting. The connection between the actor and the audience was also heightened by this new found truth. Stanislavski, in essence, laid the foundation for the "method" of acting, which was to become, prevalent all over the world as the century progressed. Stanislavski's important books include: An Actor Prepares, An Actor's Handbook, Building a Character, and Creating a Character.

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Bertolt Brecht

The German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht was born in 1898 in Augsburg Germany. Working out of Germany until his exile in 1933 to Scandinavia, Denmark and finally America (where he wrote screen plays), his method of acting and ideas about theatre were strongly influenced by his belief in Marxist politics. He believed that the theatre was a place that could teach and make the audience think, not simply feel. In fact, Brecht did not want his audience to feel like they had been transported into a real life. He wanted them to know that the play was just that, a play. The audience was to experience the political message from the work instead of the emotional. His "epic" theatre was based on what he called "Verfremdungseffekt" or his "alienation effect." The audience never got emotionally attached with the characters because something or someone always stopped them.

In 1949, after being questioned for communist involvement by the American government, Brecht returned to Berlin where he began his own company called the Berliner Ensemble with his wife Helene Weigel. Some of Brecht's plays include The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Life of Galileo, The Good Woman of Setzuanand The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

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Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg was an American theatre director, actor and teacher who created the acting technique known as "The Method" based on Stanislavski's theories of acting. He was born in the Ukraine in 1901 and emigrated to the United States of America in 1909. He is most famous for teaching his emotion-based acting technique to actors all across America and the world. In 1947, Elia Kazan and others founded the Actor's Studio. Strasberg became the Artistic Director of the Actor's Studio in 1951. In 1969, he founded the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute that continues to teach "The Method." Strasberg's best known book is A Dream of Passion. The Actors Studio, a television series on Bravo gives a weekly portrait of famous actors from the United States, their acting process, techniques and career.

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Uta Hagen

Uta Hagen was an important teacher and actor whose work on the Broadway stage is legendary. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and made her professional debut in 1937 as Ophelia in Hamlet. In 1938, still in her eighteenth year, she made her Broadway debut as Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull. Some of her famous roles included Blanche Dubois in the national company of A Streetcar Named Desire with Anthony Quinn and later on Broadway for two years. In 1950 she won a Tony Award for her role of Georgia Elgin in Cliffords Odets' The Country Girl on Broadway. She originated the role of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf. In 2000 she starred in Collected Stories at the Stratford Festival. Hagen taught at The Herbert Berghof Studio where she trained many outstanding actors of the American stage and screen. Her book, Respect for Acting is a standard text for actors. Uta Hagen was also an advisor to The Actors Workshop in Toronto.

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Augusto Boal

The writings and workshops of Augusto Boal of Brazil have influenced many theatre makers and social change organizations around the world. Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed or "forum theatre" deliver socially/politically relevant plays that involve the participation of actors and audiences. He was arrested by the military regime of Brazil and exiled in the seventies for his activism. While abroad, he continued his interactive theatre, teaching and writing to inspire change through theatre. He returned to Brazil in 1986 and created the Centre for the Theatre of the Oppressed. A good description of Boal's forms of theatre can be found on the website of the Toronto theatre, Mixed Company, Two "must read" books by Boal include Games for Actors and Non-Actorsand The Rainbow of Desire.

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