Introduction to Theatre
Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

This page last modified: January 4, 2008 .
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Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:
Elements of Acting

Training and Means

The Acting Process

Modern Realistic Acting:

Method vs Technique

Representational vs Presentational

Elements of Acting:

The most visible element of the theatre; it seems to personify theatre.

Thespis -- considered to be the first actor -- thus the term thespian -- 554 BC.
Acting was not really widely a "profession" till the 16th century.

It involves sophisticated role-playing and make-believe, pretending, conveyed through doing -- enacting on the stage a vision of life.

An impersonation -- usually at the service of a script; though not always a script.

Acting can be considered as a "pure art":  the artist and the instrument are the same.Acting consists of:

1. a series of tasks, usually in a situation or context;   
2. done usually as someone else; and  
3. imaginary -- at least part of it.
The actor must discover the essence of character and project that essence to the audience.

The Essence of the character has been perceived differently, however, at different times, periods, styles, and cultures, and by different personalities of actors.

"The Paradox of the actor" --an essay written by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) -- begins to approach part of the actor's challenge:
to appear real, the actor must be artificial. (Wilson, p. 108, tells us that Diderot endorsed more realistic prose dialog rather than verse.) Before this, there was not much of a specifically acknowledged approach to acting.

Francois Delsarte (1811-1871) -- devised system of expression that reduced emotions to a series of fixed poses and attitudes, achieved through body and voice -- became methodistic and unworkable, but Wilson notes that the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, founded in 1894 (which your instructor graduated from) was founded on Delsarte principles.

The American Mime Theatre, which held some classes at The American Academy, approaches acting in a similar, though certainly not exact, manner.

Modern "realistic" acting based much on Stanislavsky (1863-1938).

3 basic ingredients of the actor:

1. native ability (talent)
2. training (including general education)
3. practice
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Training and Means:

Relaxation, Concentration, Imagination, Observation
A. voice and body -- must learn control voice and body to express to audience.
1. understand
2. practice
3. discipline
Tensions and blocks must be overcome usually through exercises, improvisations (enacting characters in a situation without planned script or blocking), theatre games (animals, stereotypes, machines, etc.).

Also used to arrive at a "neutral state" ("tabula rasa"--blank slate). Many artists believe that to create they must first have a blank slate -- an empty canvas -- on which to place their art. Actors must find various ways to achieve this... Wilson and Goldfarb use the term "centering." 

B. Imagination and Observation

Observe and imagine people in various relationships.

The term "affective memory" has often been used to refer to use of the actor's memory to find things in his/her life that are similar to, or could evoke, the emotions required by the character on stage.
This would involve emotional memory (remembering feeling from the past),
sense memory (remembering sensations), and substitution (mentally replacing the thing / person in the play with something / someone in real life).[discussed below]

C. Control and discipline
Actors must learn how to develop their powers of concentration.Must be aware at all times of their current situation (being an actor on stage, with an audience out front) and the context of the play (what is the character doing/feeling/etc.)What am I doing? -- NOT how am I doing?
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The Acting Process:

A. Analyze the role

1. use the script to help determine all information about the character-- and fabricate what the script does not tell you.

The quotation analysis is a valuable tool for the actor: analyzing what the character says and does, and what others say about the character and behave toward the character

2. Define goals of the characters --

Determine the character's Objectives -- what character wants for each scene -- intention, purpose -- this is really the characters entire justification for being on stage...
Often broken down into three "types" of objectives:

Objective -- what the character wants for each scene

Super objective -- the "Spine" -- what character wants for the whole play.  Also called the through-line.

"beats," "units" -- sub-objectives -- changes of mood, intention, subject, etc., in a scene. 

3. Character relationships:

Robert Cohen in his Acting Power uses the term "relacom," referring to "relationship communication."
All communication has at least two dimensions: the content dimension of the message and the relationship dimension of the message. We not only say things, but we say them in particular ways -- and the WAY we say things often tends to develop, clarify, redefine a relationship. This is very important for actors to explore -- the subtext-- what is UNDER the lines.

4. Function that the role fulfills in the play.

Actors need to understand how their character relates to the theme and the action of the play: is the character a protagonist, antagonist, or foil, a major or minor character.

5. Sensitivity to subtext -- not what you say but how you say it--the actions and unspoken thoughts going through the mind of the character -- between the lines -- the underlying emotional motivations for actions (including what character says to others), psychological, emotional, motivations.

6. Role in the overall production

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B. Psychological and Emotional Preparation

Ways of inducing belief in self and character when actor finds difficulty fitting self in situation.

The "magic if" -- what would I do if I were that character in that situation. 

Emotional and sense memory -- "affective memory" and "substitution," sense memory -- clothes, air etc. -- how do they affect your senses?

Emotional memory -- remembering action / feelings from own life that resemble character's in play.

Substitution -- substituting a real person (mentally) for other actor.

To what extent does the actor "become" the character?

There are different degrees of identification (or detachment) from character -- probably combined -- actor and character, involved and detached...

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C. Movement, gesture,

stage business -- "Obvious and detailed physical movement of performers to reveal character, aid action, or establish mood."
Brockett, 440: stage business -- "often prescribed by the script, but may be invented by the actors or the director to clarify or enrich action or characterization."
"Business" -- doing actively -- to simulate real life

Delsarte -- focused on physical characteristics -- body language (see W&G for brief discussion of Stanislavsky's concept of "psycho-physical action").

Blocking -- "...the arrangement and movements of performers relative to each other as well as to furniture and to the places where they enter and leave the stage."
where actors move, how, and facing which directions

Stage areas (from the Acting Workshop Online)

Body positions (from the Acting Workshop Online)

Gesture -- to help express character.

Cheating - opening out / up -- making sure as much of the front of your face and body can be seen by the audience as possible, while still retaining the illusion of normal conversation.

Crossing and counter-crossing -- moving from one part of the stage to another, sometimes "countering" another's movements to make the stage picture more balanced.

D. Vocal characteristics

Actors are armed with a variety of exercises to improve their vocal quality (projection [ability to be heard], tone, inflections, pitch, rate) and their articulation (pronouncing words clearly and accurately).

E. "Learning Lines" (Memorization) and line readings -- learning lines suggests more than just memorization -- it suggests learning why, for what purposes, in what circumstances lines are said...
semantics refers to the "meaning" of what is said.

F. Conservation and build

Actors learn that usually "less is more" -- they develop a sense of economy, using their ability to conserve energy and action to build to ever stronger actions.

G. "Ensemble" playing -- a sense of wholeness--everyone working together -- working together as a unit toward a common goal, like a well-oiled machine. 

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Modern "Realistic"Acting:

Begun by (attributed to) The Duke of Saxe Meiningen--who ran a theatre troupe in the late 19th century in Germany -- 1870-1890 -- and toured Europe.

He emphasized a pictorial style of directing --
For acting he emphasized crowd scenes and ensemble.

In our modern age -- the industrial age needed to examine the world -- to discover the functions of things and increase our understanding of them.

Acting becomes more literal and "representative" of manners and behaviors.

Konstantin Stanislavsky:

Developed the "system" (now known more popularly as "the method") of acting that emphasizes causality, purpose, and literal interpretation of behaviors...
Used Motivational Psychology championed by Sigmund Freud, who made the inner workings of the mind something we could examine and study.

In the later 20th century, there have been reinterpretations and rejections of this "method."

Two basic schools of thought that actually merge -- most actors will use a combination of both:

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Method (Internal) vs. Techniques (External)

Technique (External)

Method (Internal) In practice--probably a combination of both of these is best. Most actors will tell you that they veer toward "method" or "technique," but most probably use a combination of both.

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Representational Vs Presentational Acting:

Representational: actors want to make us "believe" they are the character; they "pretend.

Presentational: rather than "pretending" they are the character, actors "present" the character to us, almost as if saying, "Hi, this is the actor speaking, and I'm going to present the ideas of this character to you; I don't really believe I'm anything other than myself, but you can believe it if you want."
          "personality" actors -- even today, many successful actors never play anyone but themselves, but do it very well.


On the "representational" side of the aisle, arguably:  Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson

On the "presentational side," arguably again: Paul Newman, Denzel Washington;
Does anyone ever believe that Bruce Willis plays anything other than himself, but does it really well?
A critic (witty Dorothy Parker) said of Katherine Hepburn in the 1930's that "she runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
John Wayne -- never tried to be anything else...but they are successful because they help us to believe the story...

A "revolt" against Stanislavsky's "method" acting:  Brecht's "Alienation-effect" asks actors to "present" their characters to the audience and specifically NOT to get involved.


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Important terms:


"method "


internal approach

external approach



emotional, sense, affective memory

magic if



Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg

beats, units, objective, super-objective (spine)


Duke of Saxe-Meiningen

stage business


Click here for a short study quiz on this lesson...


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This page last modified: January 4, 2008