Hoffman, Brando, and Levine: Back in the HABIT

In 1976, a young actor named Dustin Hoffman was performing in the film Marathon Man with a veteran actor named Sir Lawrence Olivier. Hoffman was portraying a character that was under extreme duress having been tortured by Olivier’s character. To prepare for the scene, Hoffman purposely went days without sleep or a proper diet. He was obviously looking pretty rough, and Sir Lawrence, upon seeing him, simply asked, “My boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

I feel like the term “Method Acting” gets a bad rap sometimes—mostly because it’s often associated with stories like that. It prompts people to wonder why actors would push themselves to these levels if the consequences have the potential to be so severe. Most actors would say that the reason is this: “to make it more realistic”

Acting didn’t always look the way it does today. In the mid-1800’s, the adage of the day seemed to be “the bigger, the better”—and acting wasn’t really meant to look like real life. It was meant to look like something bigger…something more dramatic. Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski thought real life was dramatic enough. So, he began to develop a process that would strip away the excess and leave actors simply listening and responding truthfully. The goal was simple: make acting look more realistic. The fad picked up and eventually playwrights like Ibsen and Chekhov were writing plays to be performed in that same vein… plays that took place in real time (no blackouts or scene changes allowed) with actors that ate real food and smoked real cigars… how edgy… how risky… how … contemporary…

This concept of truthful, realistic acting eventually made its way to the United States, where a group of actors (appropriately named The Group Theater) picked it up and ran with it. Now, here’s where it gets sticky: As this “method” spread farther and farther across the globe, it became exposed to more and more interpretations, and quite a few disagreements—particularly over concepts like sense memory/sense recall (the act of recalling a memory from your past and allowing yourself to emotionally respond to it). These disagreements eventually led to a rift in The Group and, eventually, everyone had their own acting school: There was the Stella Adler School, there was the Lee Strasberg School, there was the Sanford Meisner School…and they all had different approaches. To make things even more complicated, Stanislavski himself is purported to have changed his mind on a few key elements of his own original method. But, despite their differences, each method’s goal was always the same: make acting look real. And, to do that, we were left with a few basic rules for actors to follow:

1. Don’t do anything unless something causes you to do it (AKA, the dreaded: “What’s my motivation?”)

2. Live truthfully in the moment—don’t add anything that doesn’t need to be there.

3. Embrace everything that happens, even if unexpected, as part of the world of the play.


4. Never break the scene—in other words, don’t stop “acting” until the show is over or someone tells you to hold.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite movies, On the Waterfront. During filming, Ms. Saint was meant to pull her gloves out of her purse and put them on her hands, but one of her gloves slipped and fell on the ground. Watch what Brando does and how Saint reacts:

YouTube Preview Image

Okay, okay, okay. So, what does any of this have to do with David Levine’s HABIT at MASS MoCA? Well, let me ask you: Knowing what we know about how actors work, wouldn’t you want to put them in a house and have them “live” for 8-hours straight in character?

Come on, you’re not even curious?

The concept is fairly straightforward. There is a house, three actors, and a script. Other than that, anything goes. Mr. Levine hasn’t staged the play. Instead, he channels that energy on making sure that his actors understand their circumstances and fully embrace their characters. That way, when those characters are placed within their own four walls, the real magic can happen—spontaneously, naturally, and truthfully. (You watch the situations unfold by peering through the windows and doorways.)

At the end of the day, acting is a game of house. When we were young, we had no trouble immersing ourselves in our own worlds and reacting truthfully to our playmates. Levine is essentially recreating these circumstances to cultivate those same adolescent instincts—instincts that most actors spend their entire careers to (re)develop.

I’ll end with a thought from one of my favorite acting teachers:

Sanford Meisner began some of his classes by asking his students to count every source of light in the room. When they were done, he would have a dialogue that would go something like this:

MEISNER: Did you count every light?


MEISNER: Are you sure?

STUDENT: Yes, I counted every light.

MEISNER: But, did you really count every light?

STUDENT: Yes, every one.

MEISNER: And, you were actually counting?


…and so on.

Meisner’s point was this: his students weren’t “acting” like they were counting the lights in the room, they were actually counting. He didn’t want his students to “act”, he wanted them to do. There is a line somewhere between “acting” and “doing” that often gets blurred… So, in closing, I ask you this question:

If we ask three actors to live in a house, where they are actually eating, actually napping, actually interacting with each other…when are they actually acting?

Come see for yourself this week:

Thurs, Feb 24, noon- 5PM

Friday, Feb 25, 2PM – 8PM

Saturday, Feb 26, noon – 8 PM

Sunday, Feb 27, noon– 5PM

Written by: Charles E. Jabour

Posted February 21, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Habit, Theater, Work-in-progress
1 Comment »

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One Comment on “Hoffman, Brando, and Levine: Back in the HABIT”

  1. top actors Says:

    Next is the ability to express simple behaviors, behaviors such as awareness, reflections, realizations, and expectations. This category also includes the reversal, a promising endeavor that turns sour. A great number of these behaviors have to do with creating believable facial expressions and doing segues from one expression to another. To be believable, these expressions need to be grounded in the intentions and emotions of the character; and mindful and felt by the actor.

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