Improv and The Method

Character is movement and sound. This is what I tell company members and students. What about motivation and interior monologue? I don't care about those things. I don't think they have any place in improv and maybe not even in acting.

Am I an iconoclast? A madman? A fool? Yes, of course, I'm all those things. But here's the deal; we've been just about "Methoded" to death. Folks are so concerned with feeling it that they don't spend enough time or energy showing it.

It is my understanding that Stanislavsky developed the Method to help already competent actors refine their work. These actors were people who knew how to use their bodies and voices to convey information and emotion in a wide variety of performance venues. The Method served as a turbocharger, getting extra power out of these actors, a spice to add zest to a dish.

What I see now is a bowl of spice with no sustenance, a turbocharger without an engine. The Method isn't a place to start. Actors need to express. Routinely I have my actors and students overact to get them to break through the malaise of subtlety and social convention. We all tend to be so self-centered and solipsistic that even when we have a typhoon of emotion whirling within our heads and hearts it barely registers on the exterior. Once we're able to go way over the top then maybe we can begin to modulate.

There also seems to be a widely held belief that realism is the evolutionary zenith of acting. Thus good acting must per force be subtle and within the boundaries of social convention. This, to me, is an absurd suggestion. To say that realistic acting is the ultimate end is akin to saying that representational, photographic painting is the supreme evolution of visual art. Just as with painting, actors and directors have an immense array of stylistic choices to make and none is inherently better than another.

The Method, as I understand it, involves going within oneself to recall a feeling and in essence to relive it. That seems rather inefficient to me. Why not just pretend to be elated or sad or frustrated or turned on? There's no time for recollection and application in improv.

In the improvisational process one must convey quickly and clearly the emotions and thoughts of a character. Generally speaking the improv actor cannot lose him/herself in a character because then s/he is no longer a functional member of the scene and cannot see the larger picture. In improv you've got to act.

In turning performers inward, the Method goes against one of the primary objectives for improvisers—turning themselves outward and getting out of their own heads. Their partners must become more important than themselves. They are creating something outside themselves, discovering and exploring something that is without and among the players.

Too often I've heard someone say something to the effect of, "I really felt it tonight," and the sad truth of which the speaker is unaware is that although s/he "felt it," the 200 people in the audience felt nothing at all. Theater isn't about reaching the actor; it's about reaching the audience.

So actors, I implore you, focus on your body and voice. Learn how to use them to maximum effect. Learn to chew some scenery, to overact. Once you can do that and go anywhere with it you'll be ready to explore subtlety, a subtlety that will have some real texture to it.

Once you've learned all that, maybe you're ready to begin your exploration of the Method. And then maybe you can tell me whether or not it has a place in improv.

-Greg Hohn, Director