The Director's Cut

A Brief History of Modern Acting

by Ed Casas

Actor’s Cultural Theatre comes from a long-tradition of actor-centric, ensemble cast theatrical groups. ACT, INC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is funded in part by the Broward Cultural Division, Florida.
The history of acting is rooted in the deep past, as far back as when people first danced around a fire and assumed the role of the animals that they shared the earth with thousands of years ago.

Modern acting is a far more a recent invention compared to the discovery of fire, with the father of modern acting, Konstantin Stanislavski, passing away just 83 years ago in 1938.

Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre brought naturalistic theater to the stage at a time when melodramatic acting was the norm. It was through Stanislavski’s “system” of acting that modern acting was born.

It took an overseas visit from the Moscow Art Theatre in the 1920’s to inspire American actors to perform in a naturalistic form and to portray real people on stage as in the case of The Group Theatre.

The Group Theatre was formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lees Strasberg.

“We wanted to start a theater that should represent, be a mirror to America, a mirror of American life, show the face of America, and stimulate.”
-Lee Strasberg
Members of the Group Theater would go on to do great things in film and stage. Group Theatre alumni include director Eli Kazan, and acting teachers Stella Adler and Sandford Meisner to name but a few.

The Group Theater came to an end in 1941, but spawned a creative descendent in 1947 with the forming of the Actor’s Studio by Kazan, Crawford and Robert Lewis.

Strasberg would join the non-profit workshop and would take-over the reigns as director when Kazan left for Hollywood.

It would be Kazan’s experience with the Group Theatre and the Actor’s Studio that would aid him in directing films that would exemplify the acting techniques of Adler and Strasburg. Kazan films starring Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955) with James Dean brought naturalistic acting to the silver screen and to a larger audience.
“If Stanislavski is considered the Father of Modern Acting then Strasberg is the GODFATHER of Modern Acting.”
-Ed Casas, Director of Actor’s Cultural Theatre
Strasberg developed The Method while at the Actor’s Studio, an acting technique derived from Stanislavski’s System, meant to encourage emotionally expressive, naturalistic behavior, and realistic characters on stage.

Strasberg himself stated that his use of improv and affective memory were at the heart of his technique. It was the technique of Strasberg’s method that propelled the careers of Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Al Pacino and countless others.

In addition to Kazan, other directors trained under Strasberg like Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) who would employ Strasberg trained actors in their films.

Affective memory was a divisive concept between Strasberg and Stella Adler who in 1949 founded her own studio where she focused on imagination and the “given circumstances” of a scene. In the years following she would instruct a cadre of award-winning actors like Brando, De Niro, Keitel and many more.

Sandford Meisner, an alumni of the Group Theatre escaped the shadow of Strasberg and created his own technique which included repetition exercises of repeating the same phrase or words.

The history of modern acting would be incomplete without the contributions of Herbet Berghof, a member of the Actor’s Studio whose fellow classmates included Montgomery Clift, Sidney Lumet, and Marlon Brando. Berghof too had some creative differences with Strasberg, and founded his own HB Studios.

HB Studios was lead by Berghof and his wife Uta Hagen who would go on to create an acting technique all of her own. Berghof created the studio as a place where working actors could practice their craft free from commercial pressures.

History continues to be made and the craft of acting continues to grow and evolve, with actors like Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Oldman completely disappearing into the roles of the characters they play.

Actor’s Cultural Theatre is open to new members who are interested in a self-study and who may wish to take part in a weekly collaborative of like-minded artists.

Always audit an acting class to first see if the style and technique of the instructor matches your own unique learning requirements.

Note: Actors like Brando, De Niro, Pacino, and others did not limit themselves to one instructor, rather they trained with several of the aforementioned teachers and studios.