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Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances: Sam Schacht on Method Acting

This piece was originally published on February 13, 2017 and is being republished for Women Writers Week.

Actors from the beginning of time have tried to solve the problem of how to play make-believe on purpose—in front of an audience. There's a wonderful anecdote about an actor passed down to us by Aulus Gellius, a Latin grammarian from the 2nd century A.D. Gellius tells the story of the lengths a famous Greek actor named Polus went to "get into" his role:

This Polus lost by death a son whom he dearly loved. After he felt that he had indulged his grief sufficiently, he returned to the practice of his profession. At that time he was to act the Electra of Sophocles at Athens, and it was his part to carry an urn which was supposed to contain the ashes of Orestes...Accordingly Polus ... took from the tomb the ashes and urn of his son, embraced them as if they were those of Orestes, and filled the whole place, not with the appearance and imitation of sorrow, but with genuine grief and unfeigned lamentation.

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Mrs. Sarah Siddons, a famous 18th-century tragedienne, when doing Macbeth, would go out into the alley behind the theatre—during the show—and chop wood to get herself into the proper frenzy for Lady M's sleepwalking scene. There are countless examples through history of actors doing whatever it takes to "get into" the role. The 1940s and 50s did not invent so-called "Method" acting. Mrs. Siddons worked on instinct (and her instincts were brilliant). But what about people who weren't brilliant? Could instincts be developed? Could acting be taught? 

Acting is a rich and complicated discipline with its own rules and priorities, and I am often frustrated at the general lack of understanding—or at least very shallow understanding—of acting technique that is out there, particularly among people who write about film. There are a handful of wonderful critics who understand acting, and understand how to talk about it (Dan Callahan and I discussed this when I interviewed him for this site about his biography of Vanessa Redgrave), and it's a curious thing because film is a collaboration and acting is such a huge part of that collaboration, certainly as worthy of serious study as the director's craft, or the cinematographer's. The misunderstandings about The Method—what it's supposed to be, what it was created to DO—are practically pandemic. From the get-go up until the present day, "The Method" is shorthand for mumbled dialogue, histrionic emotion, random scratching of body parts for no reason, not wearing makeup, etc. Put simply, though, all "The Method" is is a technique—one of many—to help actors come alive—truthfully—under imaginary circumstances. However you get there as an actor, Method or no, that's the gig, whether you're in a sit-com, a dinner theatre production of "Noises Off," an action film, or, hell, a television commercial. 

How do you trick yourself into believing it's a heat wave when you're in a freezing rehearsal hall? How do you believe you're turned on by your scene partner when he has halitosis? How do you believe that you're the Queen of Egypt when you're a waitress from Queens? I once watched a group of kids playing cops and robbers in the backyard, and their swan-dives of death when they were "shot" were some of the best and freest acting moments I've ever seen. Adults have to re-learn that freedom, they have to encourage it out of themselves, get into a state of play where that level of imagination and belief can operate.

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"The Method" is one way of doing that. 

The Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky spent years observing the actors' process at close range in his work at the Moscow Art Theatre, and it was from that study he developed what is known as the "System." His "System," as well as the work of acting teachers/theoreticians Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Maria Ouspenskaya, Richard Boleslavsky (to name a few) revolutionized American actors and directors once they were exposed to it. Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner - four great acting teachers of the 20th century—all came out of the Group Theatre, a 1930s company that developed new work relevant to the social and political culture of the era. The company is a roll call of greats: Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, John Garfield, Cheryl Crawford, Morris Carnovsky, Luther Adler, Ruth Nelson. Playwright Clifford Odets came out of The Group, and the Group's productions of his plays (Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Paradise Lost, Golden Boy) electrified the theatregoing public. The Group was the first to recognize the brilliance in a brand-new playwright with the odd name Tennessee Williams when he won a playwriting contest they sponsored. (For an excellent history of the Group, Wendy Smith's Real Life Drama is indispensable.) Lee Strasberg worked with the company of actors on what slowly came to be known as "The Method." A decade later, after the Group had folded, the Actors Studio was founded by former Group members Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Bobby Lewis. The Studio was envisioned as a safe place where actors could come to develop their craft without commercial pressures, as well as a place where projects could be developed. Lee Strasberg was not a founder (interesting, considering he and the Studio are practically interchangeable now in people's minds) but he moderated the acting sessions, as well as teaching private classes. He taught sense memory, effective memory, relaxation techniques, and developed a couple of exercises well-known to Studio people: the Private Moment, and—perhaps Strasberg's greatest innovation—Song and Dance. 

In my frustration with the misunderstandings about The Method, spoken by people who have never studied it, as well as larger issues having to do with how acting technique is discussed, I sat down to interview my old acting teacher, Sam Schacht.

Sam Schacht became a member of the Actors Studio in 1964 after having studied with Lee Strasberg in his private class. Schacht had a busy acting career. He appeared on Broadway in The Magic Show, Golda, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Bosoms and Neglect, and also worked at The Public Theater, Lincoln Center and regional theatres throughout the country. Film credits include "A New Leaf," "Another You," "A Shock to the System," "Heart of Midnight," "The Manhattan Project," "Tattoo," "The Gambler," and "Puzzle of a Downfall Child." He's acted in numerous made-for-television films, as well as series work. He appeared as Saul in the American Playhouse's production of Sam Shepard's "True West," opposite Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. He’s also directed, including off-Broadway productions of plays by Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Fast. When the Actors Studio MFA Program was created in 1995, he came on first as acting faculty and then as Dean. He was co-founder of two successful New York theatre companies, still in existence, The New Group and The Workshop Theater, both devoted to the development of new work. Along with teaching private classes, he also teaches scene study and a popular Chekhov Intensive at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

I first met Sam Schacht during my second year in the Actors Studio MFA program when I took his scene study class. I liked him immediately. His attitude towards technique was practical, coming out of his own experience as a working actor. He was extremely serious about actors finding authenticity in whatever it was they were doing, but he did not preach from an ivory tower. When I walked into his class, I had already had years of experience as an actress. I knew how to solve problems for myself. I knew how to survive bad direction. Sam pushed me, pushed me to go deeper, be braver. Unlike many other teachers, he does not take a one-size-fits-all approach. I've had a lot of great teachers, but Sam was the best. 

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Sam also headed up the Playwriting & Directors Unit, held every Friday, where students developed their thesis projects. That class was a madhouse, and Sam juggled many balls in the air, untangling the sometimes competing issues of the actors, the directors, and the playwrights. He was serious about the work, but he kept the mood light. He was extremely quotable. A couple of my favorites: “Do whatever you want to do. Just don’t have a rod up your ass and think you’re playing Shaw.” “So I saw that you had such ecstatic oneness with the part that you were barely in the room with us.” “To whatever degree you can get it up, try to create some authentic misery.” People got better while he worked with them. You could see it happen right in front of your eyes.

If anyone knows "The Method," if anyone knows acting technique, the experience of it, and the uses of it, it's Sam Schacht. It was a pleasure to sit down and talk with him. 

I want to get your perspective on what is known as “The Method," both as an actor and as a teacher. There is a shallow understanding of what it actually is, or how it can be used, from people who haven’t studied it. What were your beginnings as an actor, and how did you come to hear about the Actors Studio?

When I was in my teens, live television in New York was a very big thing. I was already stage-struck and I saw a lot of performances on live television from people whom I ultimately found out were members of the Actors Studio. I thought these people were sensational and acted in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I couldn’t necessarily say why. There was an actress who subsequently became very celebrated in New York acting circles: Kim Stanley, whom I was besotted by, and she did a number of great performances on television. I only knew the name of The Actors Studio from publicity in the 50s and 60s. So many of the famous actors at that time seemed to come out of there. Obviously Brando—although Brando was actually not a Studio person.

Montgomery Clift wasn’t either but he gets looped in too.

Right. It all gets mushed together. But Kim Stanley was. Then, when I was in college, I went to see a Broadway play called Compulsion. It was about Leopold and Loeb.

With Dean Stockwell!

Exactly. It was very good. There was a young woman in the play—Ina Balin. She was wonderful, and again, it was this acting style that seemed different. There was a newspaper where acting teachers would advertise their classes. And Ina Balin studied with a guy named Allan Miller. He and Lonny Chapman and Curt Conway had a studio on West 48th Street. I wanted to go where Ina Balin studied so I used to take the subway down after college classes to go to this place on 48th Street. That was where I first learned sense memory exercises from Allan Miller, a man who was a member of the Actors Studio and a disciple of Lee Strasberg. 

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Just to rewind: When I was in high school, I did some show and I remember in one performance I suddenly felt that I was in it, that I was believing it, and the notion of being in the part, believing the fiction—was very exciting to me. As an actor I had a very big tendency to be a showoff, to want attention, to be theatrical. I had gone to the theatre a lot, and I had certain ideas about acting. I thought one of the ideas of being an actor was to be “interesting” and to get attention.

When you found yourself in it during that high school play, did it happen by accident?

Yes. Totally. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was an epiphany. I thought, “This is what I want.” So I was of two minds. On the one hand, I was looking for a strictly internal experience, and on the other hand, I was looking for a showoff experience. Which, in a sense, I think probably characterized me as an actor. 

When you were introduced to sense memory, what did you think about it?

I thought it was crazy. But for some reason, I tend to be very good at hanging in there with something. Even not knowing what the hell it meant, or why I was doing it. After about a year and a half of this, I did a scene from Anna Christie, by O’Neill, the one when Matt comes in drunk to confront Anna about her having been a whore. And it was the first time I tried to create “drunkenness” sensorially and I had what I subsequently learned was a rather typical sensory exercise experience. I felt actual physical tingling. I was transported into a sense of being drunk. I was in a heightened state, totally unfamiliar to me. And, the state I was in was more important than the line readings. For the first time, I felt what it was like to be in contact with an experience that was more powerful than the intellectual manipulation of the scene and the text. It was fantastic. It was when I discovered what I really craved: Living in public. The combination of feeling I was really alive but I was also being watched. 

That was when it clicked?

That was when I realized, “That’s what it was about!”

What was your journey to Lee Strasberg?

Getting into Lee’s class at that time was almost as hard as getting a job. There was a whole mystique around it in that period. I applied and eventually I got in. 

How would you describe what it was that Lee taught? 

Each person takes what they can, or takes what they need. The biggest thing I got from him—the thing that meant the most to me – was using my self. My personal inner monologue on the stage could be incorporated. In other words, I could allow myself to feel what I felt about being on the stage. I could use what I felt about wanting approval, I could use everything. To me, that was the great gift that I took from Lee Strasberg. I was an emotion-junkie. I wanted to feel on the stage. And Lee gave me the means to access my feelings. That was his great gift. I remember Lee saying to me, “You’re not inhibited. You’re just inexperienced having your feelings.” I never forgot that. I found that very liberating. Because I don’t think I’m inhibited, I just don’t know which end is up. For me, personally, as a not particularly open person—he opened me to myself. 

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Did you do Song and Dance with him?

Yes. A lot.

Could you talk about Song and Dance?

Song and Dance was wonderful for me. Along with the acceptance of yourself is the inclusion of the here and now. The Song and Dance makes you do both. You’d get up, and you’d have to plant your feet firmly on the ground. Then, you sing an innocuous song like “Happy Birthday” and you have to elongate each vowel. 

It’s not about how well you sing.

It has nothing to do with singing, but the instruction was to try to sing the melody, but you elongate each vowel. And you’d have to look at people as you did this. You couldn’t space out. You had to really be there and look at everybody in the room and do this goofy thing and let it all be resonant in the sound. At first, it seems funny, so there’d be laughter. But sooner or later, all things being equal, other emotions would come into play. Grief, anger, rage, and if you allowed things to come out, it would all be resonant in the sound. So ultimately you accomplish a number of things. There was a wonderful feeling of putting you in the hot seat of self-exposure. Also, the exercise taught, in terms of vocal production, the whole notion of actors’ speech or sound resonating with feeling. There was a TV production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" back in the 80s with Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, and Kim Stanley. Kim Stanley is brilliant in it. Brando was quoted as saying that that was the best Williams performance since Vivien Leigh in "Streetcar." Kim Stanley was wonderful at putting her feelings into her sound. She was completely transparent emotionally. No inhibitions. She was an acting genius. 

Every actor has their own priorities. It became clear to me, eventually, that I really wanted to feel, more than anything else. If I felt connected emotionally, I was satisfied. I don’t use the phrase Method acting, but speak about Stanislavsky-based ideas. 

In my own career, and this probably happens to most people, if you have any kind of career, sooner or later the industry puts you in a niche. And whatever this niche is, whatever “type” you are, you try to do it well. I had an interesting career. I had a lot of jobs, and only a few roles where I was acting the way I liked to act. I saw "Café Society" on television last night. There’s this young woman, Kristen Stewart, I had seen her in "Clouds of Sils Maria" with Juliette Binoche, I think she’s wonderful. 

I think she’s one of the best things going right now. What is so good about her, would you say?

I was trying to think how to tell that to you, and this gets me back to my point about actors and acting. There’s a part of this whole thing that has nothing to do with acting technique, acting teachers, or any of that stuff. There’s a part of this thing that is just about the person you are. Kristen Stewart is extraordinarily authentic. It doesn’t seem like acting. She’s a slightly idiosyncratic girl. To me, she is enchanting. She is so real. But not showoff-real. 

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I don’t think she could do “showoff-real” even if she was asked to. That’s how authentic she is.

I haven’t been so enthralled by an actor or an actress in a long time. I adore her. When I saw "Clouds of Sils Maria," I thought, Who IS this girl?

I’ve been watching her for a long time. She has Movie Magic.

There is absolutely magic that happens for some people. Did you see "The Prince and the Showgirl"? 

I did. 

Marilyn Monroe wipes the screen with Laurence Olivier. He barely registers up there next to her. 

I did a television show many years ago with Maureen Stapleton. And the set-up of the studio was such that I could see her sitting across from me and there was a monitor up above where I could look up and see her on camera. In the room, it didn’t seem like anything was happening with her, but when I looked on the monitor I couldn’t believe how much was happening. There was something going on with her that the camera was seeing that I wasn’t seeing.

What do you feel about technique in general for actors? 

I’m a big believer in certain technical ideas. I make a very big deal about playing objectives. 

I remember you telling us in class when you were talking about choosing objectives for a scene, “Every scene is either Fight or Fuck. Pick one, see where it gets you.”

Exactly. If you don’t play an objective, it’s hard to know what’s going on. I teach sense-memory at Stella Adler in an attempt on my part to synthesize sense memory with Stella Adler’s work, which is very much about scene study and objectives and actions. Acting is really about the ability to immerse yourself in the here and now and in the imaginary circumstances. If sense memory can be used correctly to help you think you’re in the imaginary circumstance, then I think it’s good. I’m not fetishistic about any technique. There have been wonderful actors everywhere, in every time and every place. You see movies from everywhere in the world, places where they only have one camera, and you see superb performances. Acting is the ability to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances. If you can do that, who cares how you do it? 

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Talented people are not run-of-the-mill people, right off the bat. We’re all eccentric in one way or another, but some people’s eccentricities make them good at a particular kind of job. To be an actor is a peculiar thing. To have the willingness, the interest, the capacity, to get into make-believe so deeply, is unusual. But if you can do it, that’s what acting is. Sense memory work can be very helpful with this, but if you fetishize sense memory work or objectives, it makes acting boring. I like to be intuitive and instinctive and if it all gets reduced to a rule book, I’d rather not bother being an actor. 

From a professional perspective, whether it’s acting, writing, any of the arts, it’s so unpredictable what makes for success. This is where you get into the question of an actor’s natural personality, and that question has nothing to do with technique. Who you are is what you bring to the table. I love to watch songs being sung by successful musical performers on YouTube, and I like to compare different people doing the same song. For example, there’s that song “Maybe This Time” from "Cabaret." There’s the Liza Minnelli version from the film, and then Kristen Chenoweth also did it in a concert. They’re both very talented in different ways. But Liza Minnelli has a poignancy to her that Chenoweth does not. Kristein Chenoweth has aggression which is its own charismatic thing, but it’s not Liza.

Nobody could be Liza but Liza. 

That’s right. So, when I want an oboe, don’t give me a flute. We are all instruments in an orchestra, each with our own signature. 

I remember you saying to actors in class who were obsessed with achieving emotional states, “The name of the job is ACTor not FEEL-er.” When an actor plays an objective with all that feeling present – it’s like lightning bolts. 

That’s the best. 

Do you have to push actors to play objectives while they’re having feelings?

Yes. Stella Adler made a very big thing about how the play is not about you, the play is about the character you’re playing—and you the actor are supposed to strive for that. 

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Robert De Niro said that Stella’s script analysis class was the most important class he ever took. I read her lectures on Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. It seems like what was important to her was research and imagination. For example, when Nora leaves the house at the end of A Doll’s House—

Where is she going to go now?

Yes. What was Norway like then? What physical risk was she taking in leaving that household? Adler was begging actors to have curiosity about the world, about things other than themselves. 

There are clips of Stella Adler teaching and lecturing on YouTube. In one of them, she’s talking about Masha in Three Sisters and she makes an analogy between Masha and the contemporary bourgeois woman from Scarsdale who’s got a husband who supports her nicely but who is quietly losing her mind. When Stella is talking about that analogous situation, she starts getting very emotional. I interpret that as being some personal association for her—not her living through Masha in her imagination, but that she is having a Private Moment with some personal association. The thing that Lee always said about her and Johnny Strasberg says it in his book too Accidentally on Purpose was that she was an incredibly open and emotionally alive woman. 

Her emotions were just there for her. 

Most people who come to study acting are bottled up. Stella didn't need to be opened up. Kim Stanley didn’t need to be opened up. 

There’s that quote from Adler about Brando. “Sending Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school.” Do some people just have more feelings than others?

Oh yes. All men are not created equal. Kim Stanley had more feelings and much greater depth and resonance than other actors, so when she suffered or was having a poignant experience, it was more profound than other actors. Kim Stanley was deeply tragic. 

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There was nothing between her and her feelings.

She was a richer deeper woman than most people. There was more “there” there. That’s also part of the equation. You know it when you see it. It’s undeniable. 

Talking about technique and personality is interesting. I just wrote this essay about "East of Eden" so it’s been on my mind.

I saw Jimmy Dean in the theatre in The Immoralist with Geraldine Page. He played an Arab houseboy seducing this married Frenchman. He was cute-looking, and that helps. I wasn’t a big fan of his, although I think that in "East of Eden" he obviously had something. 

I saw it when I was 12 or 13, and it …

Knocked you out.

It helped me make the choices that led me to you, eventually, and The Studio and everything else. Kazan was always asked about Dean and Brando. Kazan felt that Brando had acting technique, and knew how to work, and that Dean didn’t. Julie Harris had to corral Dean, and Kazan had to move to live next to Dean’s bungalow during filming to keep Dean on track. I think Dean is very effective in "East in Eden," and he obviously has that Movie Magic thing going on, but he’s also effective in the aspect of what we were just talking about—when he is playing an objective.

He’s straightforward then.

Yes. He knew what was needed in those scenes. But it took a lot. To Kazan, it was a babysitting job.

That’s what they say about Marilyn Monroe, too.

Speaking of Strasberg…

I saw Marilyn once. I was at the theatre and she was there with Lee Strasberg. 

What was she like in person?

She was taller than I expected. She had unusually white skin. And she wasn’t all dolled up. 

I hear a lot of people—who don’t know what they’re talking about—approvingly quote Laurence Olivier’s comment to Dustin Hoffman during the filming of "Marathon Man"—

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“Just act.”

Yeah. And they say it in a kind of mocking way about what Hoffman put himself through for his acting. But the people who mock Hoffman do not understand that one size does not fit all. Every actor is different.

I think it’s so unfair what people have made about the Strasberg-Marilyn Monroe connection. I think the Strasbergs did wonders with her. It was—and still is—fashionable to mock Paula Strasberg whispering with Marilyn on set, but that’s ridiculous. 

There’s a quote from Laurence Olivier about the absurdity of having overheard Paula—who I studied with—say to Monroe before shooting a scene, “Just think of Sinatra and Coca Cola.” And that’s supposed to be, “Oh, isn’t that crazy and stupid.” But of course it’s not crazy. It’s brilliant. That was a way to get Marilyn excited. Marilyn Monroe was turned on by Coke and Frank Sinatra. That’s sense memory and Marilyn knew how to do it. That’s a perfect example of using sensory work to produce necessary results. It’s a perfect example of the intelligent use of sense memory.


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