By Linda Buchwald
NEW YORK’S Atlantic Theater Company is home to many high-profile Off-Broadway shows, some of which transfer to Broadway, including the Tony-winning musicals The Band’s Visit and Spring Awakening. It is also an acting school that teaches the Practical Aesthetics acting technique.
Mary McCann, executive director of the Atlantic Acting School, learned Practical Aesthetics as it developed. She recalls being a student at New York University in the early 1980s and auditioning for playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy. They taught her and a group of other NYU students the Practical Aesthetics method they’d been working on. Together with these students, Mamet and Macy refined the method and formed the Atlantic Theater Company.
PRINCIPLES OF PRACTICAL AESTHETICS
“I think Practical Aesthetics is wonderful in that it is a very specific method that is practical and doable, but it is also a philosophy of theatre-making rooted in the great tradition of ensemble,” said Anya Saffir, who has been teaching at the Atlantic Acting School for nearly 20 years. Like McCann, Saffir trained in the Practical Aesthetics method from original company members when she was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
There are two fundamental pillars of the technique: 1. Think before you act, and 2. Act before you think. The approach is further broken down into essential questions that relate to concepts of action and moment.
McCann remembers Mamet and Macy putting three questions on the board. “They said if you can answer these three questions, you can learn how to act,” she said. “It sounds practical and simple to begin with, but when you go back over and over those philosophical questions, it is a very sophisticated approach to acting and creating character storytelling.”
The three initial questions became four, which now comprise the script analysis approach that makes up the “thinking before you act” part of Practical Aesthetics. “It’s a very rigorous script analysis process designed to help the actor explore the given circumstances, do research, really understand the script and the character, and begin to make choices for their own personal performance of how to tell this story,” said McCann.
The four questions are:
- What is the character literally doing?
- What does the character want the other character to do in the scene?
- What is the actor doing onstage to achieve this goal?
- The “as if,” which personalizes it. Or: What is this to me?
Next comes “act before you think,” which is based on the repetition work of acting teacher Sanford Meisner and involves performing different exercises designed to discover the truth of the moment. “We want the audience to leave the theatre talking about the play, talking about the hero’s journey, talking about what the protagonist went through in terms of overcoming the obstacles — as opposed to the actor’s performance,” McCann said. “We believe the audience needs to watch the story unfold and see the actors pursue whatever they’re pursuing in a very truthful way, so we break it down to what is the essential nature. Once the actor has determined the action of what they’re going to play, then the answer of ‘How do you know how to play the action?’ is based on what you see in the other person.”
While McCann refers to this exercise as “very much a playwright’s technique,” she believes it can also be used to “demystify the process of acting.”
WHAT SETS PRACTICAL AESTHETICS APART?
Though McCann says that many techniques now incorporate some of the same ideas as Practical Aesthetics, at the time it was created it felt quite new. “We really approached character in what seemed like a radical way at the time because David [Mamet] said there is no such thing as character. It’s words on the page,” she said. “He would say, ‘You don’t have to think about any standard set of questions about who am I and how do I become this character.’ That’s not something that was part of the conversation. You’re not becoming the character; you’re creating an illusion of character.”
The “as if” step also set Practical Aesthetics apart from other acting approaches at the time. “The ‘as if’ was how to use your imagination to explore what stakes are needed for the scene,” McCann said. “You bring yourself to it very personally through the imagination as opposed to a personal memory.”
Although the technique is based on the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski, Saffir says what makes Practical Aesthetics unique is the rigorous script analysis. “A lot of actors don’t know what to do when they’re given a script. This method really tells you how to dig deep into it. But once that work is done, you step onto the stage, and you throw it away. It’s like a giant trust exercise with your preparation,” she said.
The idea of separating the thinking from the doing parts of acting is at the core of this technique, more so than many others. “When you’re acting, you’re not thinking, and when you’re thinking, you’re not really feeling your way through the preparation very profoundly,” said Saffir. “But [when you separate the two], you can earn the right to enter into a flow state of performance and play the moments as a kind of fluid improvisation with the other actors onstage.”
ADVICE FOR YOUNG ACTORS
Interested in trying Practical Aesthetics? McCann and Saffir offer this advice.
Start with A Practical Handbook for the Actor
A Practical Handbook for the Actor was published in 1986 from summaries of the technique by the original students. It’s been updated and evolved since then, but McCann says it’s still the best place to start to get an idea of the technique.
Allow yourself to love
Saffir advises cultivating love for your character’s story and making sure that, in any rehearsal, you are devoted to your acting partner.
Prepare to improvise
“Prepare to improvise” is the Atlantic motto, according to Saffir. “What I think is amazing and a little radical about Practical Aesthetics is the free jazz of the moment work after you’ve earned that right through rigorous script work and preparation,” she said. “Obviously, for the actor, the text is non-negotiable and that is never improvised. The actual moments as they play out between two human beings have the capability for this kind of receptivity to the other person. Those moments are an improvisation, a dance that you recreate every night.”
McCann admitted that the term Practical Aesthetics sounds scholarly, and indeed, she said, “When you first start, it can seem like a rigorous academic approach. But ultimately it’s so creative and freeing and engages the imagination in every way.”
A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, et. al.