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Acting

Psycho Drama Report: On Actors and Acting Styles [Part 1 of 4 Parts]

One of the primary goals of our site is to feature and celebrate young Japanese actors. Personal preferences aside – we all have our things – we believe that these are the most promising talents that will represent the future of Japanese cinema. On many occasions, some of our readers will disagree with us on who stand out with potentials and who do not. Of course, good acting or not will remain personal and subjective. However, we want to take this chance to review some of the current thinking about acting. The purpose is not to make you all agree with us, but to offer our justifications based on current aesthetic values.

First, let’s try to answer “what is great acting?” Rinko Kikuchi has some say in it:

What is a great actor? What is a real actor? What are the criteria for a great actor? Nobody knows. Nobody can decide those criteria.

Well, not very helpful. Or according to William Esper, an ‘authentic protégé’ of Sanford Meisner which was one of the most influential pioneers of current American acting

Good acting – real acting – is impossible to spot. Great talents make the art look simple. When master actors act, their craft becomes invisible. Their art becomes artless. Real acting can never be pegged because it cannot be differentiated from real life.

To be honest, I don’t completely buy what he said so we can’t look there either. Successful acting must reflect society’s current beliefs and aesthetic values. What is considered as great acting today might not be the same as that a hundred years ago. To have a better perspective, let’s revisit some historical context.

Much of the theater in the 19th century was concerned with imitations of French plays and theatrically unreal depiction of life and character. Actors followed a director’s dictate, declaimed in artificial voices, didn’t communicate with each other and employed ham acting, cliché, easy-to-learn tricks, and indicated feelings.

The actors at that time conveyed everything mechanically and imitated joy and sorrow. We, of course, still see aspects of that approach today. This acting style is called ‘representational.’ This school of acting believes the best actors aim for a calm detachment and lack of feeling in performance, although in rehearsal they may experience many emotions. In fact, representational actor Coquelin, 19th century, called fellow actors together backstage: 

“I cried real tears on stage tonight. I apologize. It will never happen again.”

However, there were new writers and playwrights coming out of Russia who were desperate for novels and theater to reflect “Realism” and psychological subtext. The Moscow Art Theatre, of which Konstantin Stanislavsky was a co-founder and director, needed a new style of acting which would suit ‘Realism.’ Konstantin Stanislavski is widely believed to be the founding father of modern acting techniques. He aimed to discover the nature of real human experience and recreate life in performance. His primary focus is to examine our actions and uncover the impulse behind them as well as our thoughts, and feelings. His vision about acting has become the central question in modern acting: what is a human being, and how can we recreate human life realistically and truthfully in performance while instilling the audience with a writer’s themes? This new style acting has become what is called ‘presentational’ (or ‘inside-out,’ ‘realism,’ ‘psycho-physical,’ ‘the system’). In this approach, actors recreate human experience and draw on our full human make-up – integrating mind, body, imagination, will, senses and feelings as the raw material for transformation into another character while performing. The actors experience and live through the role each time they act it, moment by moment.

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These are the most important characteristics of presentational actors:

  • Experience: They believe in and live through the circumstances and actions of performances as if they are real. They live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
  • Recreating human experience: actors use their full mind and body, senses, feelings, imagination, will, intellect, memory and experience as the raw material for transforming into a character. The human experiences of ourselves and others are recreated through observation, imagination, and memory.
  • ‘The life of human spirit of a role’ – the creation of this was the central aim of Stanislavski’s. They go from the conscious to the subconscious to develop the inner and outer action and life of a character, with physical characterization following. They trust that a form will result from identification with the character.
  • Spontaneity: they find freedom within the structure of the play and production, living truthfully moment by moment through every line and action while maintaining artistic control.

Before we go on, it should be stressed that Realism is not Naturalism. Although the approach emphasizes the actor’s use of himself, it doesn’t encourage naturalistic acting. Many student-actors mistake being “natural” for being truthful. They strive to bring the ordinary, irrelevant, trivial and habitual aspects of themselves to their work, when, in fact, truth without meaning has no place on stage/screen. “Realism entails a search for selected behavior pertinent to the character’s needs within the prescribed circumstances of the dramatist.” Another misconception that needs clarification: Stage acting is not synonymous with representational acting. It’s true that you have to adjust to be more nuanced and subtle when acting in a film than on stage. However, acting on stage doesn’t mean resorting to external, ham acting of representational approach. Also, realism under Stanislavski’s visions doesn’t advocate wholly immersing in his character from the actor. In fact, Stanislavski believed that an actor had to exercise artistic control through an internal monitor or ‘dual consciousness’, and that actors who thought they were a different character were suffering from a pathological delusion.

The two acting styles still compete across the world, and we can see them both on stage and screen no matter where you are. However, it’s not hard to see which style of acting is more favored and celebrated today. My belief is that presentational acting best creates a sense of reality in the depiction of human experience in a way that communicates entirely writers’ visions and themes, and to connect with the audience to produce a deeper understanding of our lives. As such, I would call into question any judgement of good acting that focuses too much on the ability to make ‘interesting expressions’ as opposed to spontaneity, openness, the ability to react truthfully from moment-to-moment, and a sense of truth in the actors’ characterization of their roles. You may already observe that Japanese artists often fall into a combination of two approaches due to their mediums of performance, their mixed training, varied professional influences and different directors’ approaches. We may see elements of each in the same production or even the same actor performance.

To end our article, I want to quote a tip from Kaori Momoi for Japanese young actors:

“[They should] know how to create a character. The casting directors ask them to do things, and they all do exactly the same thing, that’s what the directors always tell me. They need to change this way of operating.”

Therefore, we will discuss in more details on the available acting techniques out there that can help actors create a honest, in-depth, three-dimensional characters in our next articles. Please stay tuned and come back for more!

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