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Nathan Thomas
Feminism and the Method
Scene4 Magazine-inView

May 2012

In setting out to write about Rosemary Malague's book, An Actress Prepares: Women and "the Method" (New York: Routledge, 2012), I had considered writing about the time I was called a lesbian.  But then I thought that's simply being self-aggrandizing in terms of working to provide my feminist bona fides in some way.

It then occurred to me that – as a man – in accordance with some perspectives I can't escape my gender. In other perspectives, I'm not allowed to escape my gender.  Nevertheless, my reading of Malague's book may be tainted from the outset and my active support as an activist in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment in Oklahoma years ago may not mean much at all.

Malague's book stands as a commercial version of her doctoral dissertation, it appears.  Her mission seems straightforward, mostly.  Malague searches to discover if instruction in the Method possesses existential sexism. Malague asks, "Is there a genealogy of gender biases built into the patriarchal structure of theory and practice of Method actor training?"

This question poses a series of interesting puzzles awaiting solution. I've never been a deliberate disciple or defender of any of the great 20th century Method teachers – Strasberg, Adler, Meisner.  Their pedagogical work stands or fails on its own without comment from me.

That being said, I did have a year of graduate acting with a mid-level erstwhile student of Strasberg at the Actor's Studio back in the day.  This teacher was not a great teacher for multiple reasons.  But I never blamed that on Strasberg.  I think it was a series of extenuating circumstances made him an awful teacher that year.  So I don't believe I have any on-going agenda about the Method.

Those of us who teach acting on a regular basis face a series of bottomless questions – what is acting?  Can it be taught?  What are the actual impetuses that lead to human behavior?  Is there an efficient and beneficial way to deal with the admittedly odd psychology of acting, promote and nurture creativity, and teach art all at the same time?

Also, it's a given that most plays are not about happy, well-adjusted people having a good day.  Most plays are about people in trouble having problems.  Because of the nature of grappling with these problems, outside of close relationships a normal person would just walk away from most situations in plays.  But because plays are about families, close friends, and close relationships mostly – characters appear compelled to stick it out.

It's also true that theatre, because of its unique history, plays fast and loose with notions of gender on the stage.  Gender is fluid on stage.  Biology is in no way determinative of gender on stage.  Men are behind the masks of the female characters in the original production of Lysistrata.  At the end of the play a supposedly naked woman appears on stage.  How's that possible with nothing but men on the stage? It happens because in the fictive world of theatre gender is what we say it is.

Therefore a feminist examination of the foundational concepts of actor training in America would be a welcome addition to the intellectual world of theatre.

Malague argues that a generalized axiom of Stanislavsky and the ensuing American teachers of the Method centers on a belief in "truthful" acting.  Malague recognizes this generalization risks oversimplification.  Nevertheless, the notion of "truthful acting" remains an on-going touchstone throughout the text.

Not surprising the question of truthful acting suggests the immediate question about the nature of truth in the theatre where fictions rule.  The sword is made of plastic, there's no liquor in the decanters stage right, and please don't eat the nuts in the dish – they're lacquered in place.  How does truth work in such an atmosphere?  And what does it look like?

I generally prefer the truth to lies, but fiction adheres to its own rules. At some point, truth might be less important than other theatrical values – communicative communion amongst the actors, for example.

Malague pursues her issues through the use of case studies.  For example, in her introduction Malague relates a story from an award-winning actress who was sidelined and typecast by her college acting teachers and directors.   

I am a slightly paunchy, bald white heterosexual male.  Since my high school days, I've regularly been cast as the "Father" character.  Rarely in the past or now has anyone cast me in a leading male role or a romantic male role.

I realize this is to a degree a false equivalence.  It's naughty of me to begin to suggest that my typecasting is the same as female typecasting which relies so heavily in our culture's almost fetishized notions of feminine beauty.   

Malague explicitly suggests that her work relies upon anecdotal evidence, but plows on anyway.

This becomes the challenge for the researcher.  If you live by the case study and the anecdotal evidence in place of other forms of evidence, one can counter the case study by the case study that suggests the opposite.

For example, Malague provides a fair amount of space to the probably dysfunctional relationship between Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe.  It doesn't take much effort to conclude that Strasberg milked his relationship with Monroe.  OK.

Is that relationship balanced to the point of nullification by former female students who did not have troubled relationships with Strasberg?

In an interview with James Lipton, Ellen Burstyn said about Strasberg, " . . .I felt he took me seriously, and I hadn't had that feeling before. Anywhere. He listened to me in a way that I hadn't ever been listened to, that I hadn't listened to myself.  I was a pretty, silly girl.  I got by on my looks a lot, and I did okay, doing that.  But he looked beyond that, and, saw my humanity."[i]

I'm not diminishing Strasberg's dysfunction with Monroe.  But is it balanced by Burstyn's testimony? If we live by anecdotal evidence, can we also die by it?

The original task Malague sets for herself is, "Is there a genealogy of gender biases built into the patriarchal structure of theory and practice of Method actor training?"

One of the book's deficits is the theory of Method acting theory. While it's undeniable that Strasberg and Stanislavsky were men, Adler and Hagan were not.  Is acting theory necessarily tied to gender?  Or, another way to put it, is a penis or vagina the determining factor in assessing bias in acting theory?  Can a man be unbiased in thinking of the theory of Method actor training?

Constantine Stanislavsky was a complicated fellow.  His mother evidently could be temperamental and seemingly out of nowhere shout at her children.  It happened that Stanislavsky unaccountably briefly yelled at people – including women. Was it because he had a bias against the actors, or was he simply acting out the family training he received from his mother?[ii]

Likewise, there's little acknowledgement from Malague that Strasberg, Adler, and Meisner all came from strongly patriarchal social structures. Was their work compromised by gender bias?  Or was their work marked (and maybe marred) by the cultural background that was theirs?

It will help the researcher and the person who thinks about the arts to have a book that raises excellent questions and issues about the many troubles facing women in the theatre.   

Sadly, Malague's book does not fulfill that goal.

 


[i] James Lipton, Inside Inside, New York: New American Library, 2008, pg.117.

[ii] Maria Ignatieva, Stanislavsky and Female Actors: Women in Stanislavsky's Life and Art, New York: University Press, 2008.

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©2012 Nathan Thomas
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

 

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