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Classical acting

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Title: Classical acting  
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Subject: List of acting techniques, Method acting, Stanislavski's system
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Classical acting

Classical acting is a type of acting that is based on the theories and systems of select classical actors and directors including Constantin Stanislavski and Michel Saint-Denis, including the expression of the body, voice, imagination, personalizing, improvisation, external stimuli, and script analysis.


  • History 1
  • Education 2
  • Classically trained actors 3
  • Controversy 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6


The origin of classical acting stems from an acting system created by Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski who rose to prominence in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His system was that of both script analysis and personal exploration to find "the truth" of a part—or rather what would be truthful to the actor portraying the part.[1] The precise system was based on having an expressive and responsive body to relay detailed and nuanced character portrayals, as well as addressing the creation of an inner life.[2] Stanislavski's theories were published in the translated 1936 book An Actor Prepares. The training included:[3]

  • An emphasis on physical acting, or physical actions
  • Imagination as a way to find character and relate to other actors
  • The super-objective and "through line of actions" in analyzing the script, including the main essence
  • Exploring subtext
  • Personalizing through affective memory—from real-life and imagined experiences

Another influential theorist of classical acting in the early-to mid-1900s was Michel Saint-Denis, a French actor and theater director who founded The London Theatre Studio and dedicated much of his career to experimental theatre. He incorporated many of Stanislavski's techniques into his teaching, as well as improvisation and sense memory, seeking a balance between external and internal techniques. Actors Alec Guinness, Jessica Tandy, and Laurence Olivier were some of his first students. Later on, he developed a training model that was incorporated by many university drama programs.[4]

As time went on, Stanislavski and Saint-Denis' practices became influential in the development of other types of acting technique, including Method acting, the Meisner technique, and the teachings of Robert Lewis and Stella Adler.

Some educators today may relate classical acting to learning Shakespeare and physical acting without the broader Stanislavski technique and attribute personalizing and emotions to Method acting approaches.[5] And there is a sense that today's often-taught classical acting can be intellectual and "theatrical" and, as a result, becomes outdated if not combined with more psychological approaches in order to be a well-rounded, competitive actor.[6]


Classical acting today is available for study in universities, drama conservatories, and acting studios across the world. Schools that are attached to or affiliated with a professional classical theatre company give students exposure and opportunity beyond simply the education.[7] Examples of schools or studios with classical acting programs include --

  • University of London's Drama Conservatoire: This Masters of Acting program draws on theories of Michel Saint-Denis with training of the body, voice, and imagination. There is an emphasis on re-interpretation and re-imagining, with equal parts of art and craft in the education. Classical texts of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare are utilized, as well as modern plays.[8]
  • The Juilliard School Drama Division in New York: The School has both a B.F.A. and M.F.A. program that emphasizes intuition and spontaneity, as well as discipline, technique, and intellectual development. There is both vocal and physical training, with script and word analysis, style work, and risk taking with imagination.[9]
  • Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada: This three-year conservatory training program focuses on learning the craft and art of acting through the contemporary theatre, applying techniques of voice, singing, and movement. The School ascribes to the philosophies of Michel Saint-Denis, which includes exploration, writing, studio presentations, imagination, improvisation, "the mask", and audition preparation.[10]
  • The Berg Studios in Los Angeles: The Studios offer a series of classes at various levels to explore classical acting technique and imagination, including developing of a repeatable acting system, script analysis, physical movement, self-discovery through imagination, and illuminating the dialogue through subtext.[11]
  • Yale School of Drama in New Haven, Connecticut: In its M.F.A. program, a strong imagination is encouraged and developed, along with physical and vocal work. Actors are also given extensive production work opportunities, working with director, dramaturgs, and playwrights to create theatre pieces and learn from the collaborative process. Using the body as a source of inspiration and expression of work is a focus of the first year training. Later, text analysis, voice, and speech work are integrated.[12]
  • The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, United Kingdom: Opened in 1946 by Lawrence Olivier, this South West England school offers a highly selective B.A. Honors of Professional Acting conservatory program. The first year focuses on voice and body, moving onto public productions, and then to preparation for a professional career.[13] The school also provides short courses for the general public who has had some experience or training in acting and wants to broaden skills; the classical acting classes include learning opportunities in voice, movement, verse speaking, improvisation, and stagecraft.[14]

Classically trained actors

Some of the more well-known classically trained actors include[15]


In 2008, Stanislavski's books were re-translated by scholar Jean Benedetti and published into a more complete set of material called An Actor's Work: A Student's Diary, and followed by An Actor's Work on a Role in 2009. Benedetti felt that the previous editions of Stanislavski's material had many mistranslations that "resulted in profound distortions in the way his system has been interpreted and taught."[16] These distortions included his belief that today's American Method acting has an "over-limited reliance on psychological approaches."[17] Method acting had developed in the 1920s after the Moscow Art Theatre visited the United States, and Method acting ended up heavily relying on the emotional or affective memory element of Stanislavski's system.[2]

See also


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