The Practical Aesthetics Method, created by David Mamet & William H. Macy, may seem much the same as method acting; both come from the theories of Konstantin Stanislavski and like all acting techniques, both have the goal of evoking “truth” in an acting performance. Practical aesthetics arises from the work of Sanford Meisner. Like Strasberg, Meisner was a huge fan of Stanislavski. Strasberg preferred psychology and Meisner preferred physiology.
Actor Versus Writer
The Meisner Technique involves an open approach to the imagination; the “scenic truth” relies on the actor’s total belief in the fictional world they’re creating. In the Strasberg Method, actors’ reactions are more grounded in reality. Practical aesthetics ties into Meisner’s version of a performance by being writer-centered.
With a focus on the writing, the creation of the fictional world means that a practical aesthetics actor isn’t given a character to interpret, but instead a creative moment. The actor takes their lines and scripted actions and creates their own persona using imagination. Words, context, and the actor’s own actions combine to create a “character” that varies with each performance.
This means that an actor trained in practical aesthetics is not as focused on emotional truthfulness as a method actor. There is no looking for parallel experiences, or ways to trigger genuine emotional empathy with the character. Instead, the practical aesthetics actor is focused on physically embodying the script; the actor’s body is a vessel for a plot, not a person.
Developing A Character
The method is all about the actor; there is little differentiation between the actor and the character. It’s all about truly living the life of the scene. However, in practical aesthetics, the actor is defined by everything around their “character”; other actors, the text, and the scene that’s set.
Because of this external focus, practical aesthetics is often a creative playground of sorts; there is constant contextual feedback. The questions the actor asks of themselves are focused externally, and often not on the minor details a method actor would obsess over.
As-If vs. Emotional Memory
Emotional memory is the use of personal memories to evoke emotion during a scene. The practical aesthetics As-If exercise is often taken to mean the same thing, but it is different.
In As-If, your memories are used to understand your behaviour in a scene; but your emotions don’t factor into it. The focus is on physical embodiment of the action. Past memories help you to form a personal connection to the actions you carry out; so the exercise makes physical movement on the stage seem natural and realistic.
As-If is improvisational. There is an action scripted for the actor, and so they run through every possible way of doing this action: with a heavy sadness or with an ecstatic joy; facing the back wall or facing the audience. It’s termed “As-If” because by creating as-if phrases the actor can verbalize these actions. For example, the action may be a physical expression of “seizing the moment”. The as-if might be “there is a girl I want to talk to but I am afraid to approach her”.
The difference in what is achieved is straightforward: emotional memory produces an honest depiction of emotion; and As-If produces an honest series of actions, without excess drama or pomp.
Practicing Practical Aesthetics
An exercise many actors who train in practical aesthetics learn is script analysis; this is very different to method actors, who try not to over-analyze their scripts. Practical aesthetics, however, is so built on fitting into a context that the actors who do it have script analysis down to a fine art.
Here’s a quick breakdown of how you might analyze like a practical aestheticist:
- On first reading of the script, make a note of every literal action your character takes. A step to the left, a friendly wave, etc.
- Next, determine your character’s “goal” in the scene – this will inform the manner in which you carry out those actions described in step one.
- Find one action – your “essential action”- that encapsulates your character’s goal and personality. It may not be scripted and is very similar in nature to Meisner’s psychological gesture.
Actions are vital to analysis because practical aesthetics is so focused on the physical interpretation of a script. Each action you take carries the same amount of weight that emotion implies with a method actor who conveys their message via their face or voice; practical aesthetics uses the actor’s whole body.
However, no two styles of acting are exclusive of each other. Because method acting is such a mental endeavour, it can help to have physical techniques in your acting arsenal to ground you and aid you in your performance.
Revised – Original content courtesy of Brian Timoney