Differentiating Between Similar Terms.
The difference between an acting system, method and technique might be more significant than you thought.
Length: 900 words
Reading Time: 3-4 minutes
The history of modern acting saw the development of several branching schools of thought. They’re commonly referred to as methods, techniques and/or systems. For example, Constantin Stanislavski created the Stanislavski System. There is also his Method of Physical Action. There’s “The Method” (Lee Strasberg’s approach), Sanford Meisner‘s Technique, Ivana Chubbuck’s Technique and many more (of which most are named after their creators).
Unravelling them can be difficult. To an actor who’s well-studied in one of them, the differences are significant. To an outsider, they might seem to be minor variations of the same basic set of ideas. After all, the words “system, method and technique” practically mean the same thing. Many dictionaries use one of the terms to define the other two! In spite of this, there’s some benefit to settling upon the difference between them.
This is, by no means, an official set of definitions. It’s something I thought up one afternoon while working on my thesis and (quite annoyingly) the idea just wouldn’t go away. It’s a way of looking at a variety of acting practices in the hope that by outlining how they are organized, it might shed light on the taxonomy of actor training. (Note- a taxonomy is an arrangement of terms and categories.)
To visualise a definition of “system, method and technique,” I’ll rely on the metaphoric image of a natural crystal formation.
When a crystal formation starts out, it is an unorganised, hot soup of raw elements. This unformed, liquid state is much like a body of undefined knowledge. When geologic activity pushes the molten raw elements toward the surface of the Earth, the elements begin to cool down, separate and organise themselves.
This base-level organisation is analogous to system-level thinking in any discipline. A system organises things just enough so they can be used and manipulated. If you think of systems like the alphanumeric system. It has labelled symbols, enabling people to arrange concepts meaningfully. With the letters A through Z and digits 0 through 9, people can create rules and perform all sorts of math.
Similar taxonomies of thought can be found in Stanislavski’s System. He identifies he basic elements of dramatic acting such as the experiential and embodied aspects of performance. He divides the actor’s work up into categories of exercises and maps out how the elements of performance flow together. If you’d like to read more about this system, there’s a dedicated article on this website with several references to online resources. Another system is The Six Viewpoints of Mary Overlie. In her taxonomy, Overlie labels the fundamental, irreducible elements of performance, allowing the artist to disaggregate any unquestioned hierarchies and tropes that may be present in their ways of working.
As the elements cool down more, they extrude from their common origin and individualise a bit further. This could represent how methods create set ways of manipulating and working with the elements of a system. In spite of their common origin, you can use the elements of the alphanumeric system to form different sets of rules. You might do arithmetic, geometry, algebra or calculus. They each provide you with procedures to arrive upon a result.
Similarly, methods in acting might consist of rules to arrive at consistently good results. A method like Stanislavski’s might tell you how to break the script down into beats (bits) of action. It might contain exercises and aphorisms that express the system, focusing the practitioners mind on a range of choices that are predetermined by the system. Mary Overlie created a set of practices called “bridges.” These are meant to be a link between what her system defines and how to illustrate it or work with it.
In essence, methods are the practices and expressions of an abstract system. They bring system-level elements into the real world, but as they give the artist the tools for consistent success, they also begin to narrow choices, because tools are often defined by culturally/historically determined aesthetics.
If you notice in the diagram, the methods are quite close to each other, they can overlap. But as practitioners refine them even further, extending them to the tip of the formation, they are more distinct and isolated. This is the “technique.” This is where. for example, a Meisner-trained actor might feel that their technique is vastly different from, say, Ivana Chubbuck’s.
The “highest-level” and most individual part of the crystal formation is at the end of each extrusion. A technique is a highly specialised version of a method. In many ways, they are the furthest removed from the hot soup of their origin. Yet they are the most specific expression of it. Once you’re expressing a system with such specialised tools, you limit what can be thought and done within the technique. You might have heard the saying “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” This illustrates how specialised knowledge can limit what may be done. It might take a creative “descent” down into the raw system in order to get away from this conclusive way of thinking.
At the “high” level, you have acting techniques that help you work with quality and consistency. At the “low” end, you can experiment and re-arrange the elements of your work. When you think about it, this might be how new styles and genres of performance are created. At first, you may produce unrefined results, but these may lead you to create new methods and techniques.
This is where the Crosspoints sit. They’re a kind of hybrid of Stanislavskian and Overlian system-level thinking, proposing a few different methods for you to experiment, refine and re-tool new techniques for yourself.
The model of the acting system, method and technique can be seen in the Crosspoints. Actors are encouraged to descend to the level of sources. When I teach a class in Image Studies and Emblems, I ask them to avoid trying to fit what they are doing into a script. Let whatever you’re doing be “formless clay.” If you can avoid the temptation to “finish” it, the unformed and inconclusive results are more meaningful and revealing of yourself. I consider things like the Emblems and Partners to be “proto-characters,” the things you build in preparation for a character. This idea is not new. In Jacques Lecoq‘s mask work, you “evolve” from neutral, up through the larval masks and into characters.
Another thing about this is, well… it’s exhausting! Whenever I teach more than three image studies in a class, everyone is pretty knackered. It’s not as simple as physical exhaustion, but an imaginative one (at least when it comes to the first few Image Studies). Eventually people get into the Zone of Optimal Development or the “flow.” My advice is to avoid creative fatigue. As Michael Chekhov once said, “never toil,” it will not be creative.
Standing In Space: The Six Viewpoints Theory & Practice, Mary Overlie, 2016.
To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting, Michael Chekhov, 2014.
Crosspoints: An Integrative Acting System, Stephen Atkins, 2020.