On the record: An interview with Isaac Butler, author of “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act”

“There Are No Small Roles, Only Small Actors”

October 30, 2023 Peter Stamelman
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Isaac Butler’s compelling, meticulously researched book “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” is a glorious ode to Stanislavski, Strasberg, Adler, Meisner and their students: John Garfield, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, et al. The book is simply spectacular, filled with colorful episodes, astute insight and unforgettable characters. Butler has written the essential book about the Method and it should be required reading in all college theater classes. It’s quite simply a gem of a book.

I recently spoke with Butler via Zoom. He was speaking from his home in Boerum Hill.

PETER STAMELMAN: I’m curious to know if the pandemic impacted your writing of the book?

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ISAAC BUTLER: Oh, that’s a great question. One of the primary impacts was that I had to get an extension [on delivering the book.] When the pandemic started I was about ⅔ of the way through a first draft. With the onset of the pandemic I had to become a full-time dad for a while. My wife works in corporate America and her job actually got more intense. Plus our kid’s school was closed. At first we had this totally bonkers schedule where I would look after our daughter until 4:00, then my wife would take over and I would try to get work done from 4:00 to 7:00 PM and that’s crazy. So the first impact was we moved out of New York and we first moved in with my mother-in-law, then with my parents so that we could have child care and I could get work done. I was very lucky in that I had already done the archival research for the third part of the book. The real thing that the pandemic inadvertently gave me, once we were out of the city, was really concentrated work and time. And no distractions, because I couldn’t go out and hang with anyone, I was able to focus intensely on writing.

STAMELMAN: Not to cue up a Henny Youngman line, but how was it working at your mother-in-law’s?

BUTLER: A funny story involving my mother-in-law: For part three of the book, which for your readers who don’t know, was really the famous time for the Method, from the birth of the Actor’s Studio through to the end of the twentieth century. I was watching a movie a day. So when my mother-in-law would come down to the basement, where I was working, she would always see me watching a movie on my computer. After the book came out, and my mother-in-law read it — and I should add that my mother-in-law and I have a wonderful relationship — she said, after she read it, “You know, I’d be watching your daughter and I’d come down to the basement and you’d just be sitting there watching a movie. But now I get it”! And I said, “I knew you were thinking that!”

STAMELMAN: You acted professionally as a child and you recount that some of the Stanislavski techniques put unbearable strain on your emotions. And in college you had such trouble separating yourself from the characters you played that you actually stopped performing. Do you feel you were a victim of the Method? And how do others studying the Method avoid that burn-out?

BUTLER: There are people who do think of themselves as a victim of the Method. I don’t know if that training is for everyone. There is a lot of different training now, and all of them have upsides and downsides and finding the right fit is difficult. I don’t think of myself as a victim of the Method. I actually learned an enormous amount from my Stanislavski training that I used every day as an actor and now everyday as a director. And also use now as a writer. I consider it a wonderful part of my life, as a human being, do you know what I mean? As an actor, you know, I was just at the beginning of that training when I went off to college…

STAMELMAN: Sorry to interrupt: did you go to acting school?

BUTLER: No, I went to Vassar College, which has a liberal arts program in theater, so I have my BA in Theater. You know, the history and literature of theater. And this was a student production and the very nice men who were directing this production had never directed anything before. They didn’t know how to help an actor who was using this training. How to help them be at their best and protect themselves. So I don’t consider myself a victim of it as much as it was just sort of a bad circumstance.

STAMELMAN: That leads me to a question about the Method and academia. If a student goes to Yale Drama, or NYU Tisch, or Juilliard…does the Method get taught in the academy?

BUTLER: It depends. I will say that Stanislavski’s system, in particular his tools of script analysis, are the bedrock of American acting training. Almost all of American acting training can be traced back to Stanislavski. You know, breaking the script down into beats, what are the given circumstances? What does your character want in this moment? What is getting in the way of what they want? How do they get around this obstacle? Those are fundamentals of American acting training. In terms of the key techniques of the Method – with a capital “M,” Strasberg’s Method — we’re really talking about memory and emotion work, going into the self for memory work…that sort of stuff has fallen out of favor. Some people use them, some people don’t, it really depends on the program and depends on the teacher. To give an example of a multi-pronged approach, you mentioned Tisch: If you’re an undergrad studying acting at Tisch, you actually study in a studio, and one of those studios is the Lee Strasberg Institute. Some students are doing that, some are doing [Stella] Adler technique, some students are doing [Sanford] Meisner technique, some students are doing experimental technique, some are doing musical theater or film and TV so you get a sense of the varied approach in the academy right now. It’s not so dogmatic, it’s here are the options: what do you want to load up your plate with?

STAMELMAN:  How would you define Stanislavski’s precept – and I’m going to mispronounce this — Perezhivanie

The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.
Photo: Bloomsbury

Butler corrects my pronunciation.

BUTLER: Let me start by saying that I only know how to pronounce it because when I was doing the audiobook I wrote a Russian friend of mine and said “Oh, my God, I’m doing the audiobook and I don’t know how to say any of these words or names, can you help me?!” I paid him a little money so he could say all the words and names into a long voice memo. And, of course, perezhivanie is a transliteration of Cyrillic characters, so it’s actually even more difficult to say. The closest translation we have is the “experiencing” or “re-experiencing.” What it really means is that time as an actor when you’re feeling really present in the moment, you’re experiencing to some extent what the character is going through. Now you’re not becoming the character — if you fully became the character you wouldn’t remember your lines. Peter, if you were playing Hamlet you’re not really going to become Hamlet or start speaking in iambic pentameter (now Butler imitates an actor floundering around, trying to speak in iambic pentameter, waving his hands and Geschreing “Oh, my God, my uncle killed my father and married my mother!”) It’s not that. Perezhivanie is really when you’re alive to the character’s experience and you sort of enter that experience in a really powerful way. Think of it as what in other art forms they call “the flow state.”

STAMELMAN: Or when an athlete speaks of being “in the zone?”

BUTLER: Yes, exactly. You know I’m a big tennis nut and the way tennis players talk about “being in the zone” is almost identical to the way actors talk about perezhivanie.

STAMELMAN: For our readers’ edification, can you clarify the word “perezhivanie”?

BUTLER: Sure. So “perezhivanie” which is pronounced something like pear-is-zha-VAHN-ee means “experiencing.” It’s the flow state in acting, when everything has really clicked into place, and you’re able to freely experience what the character is going through, but in a controlled way. You don’t fully become the character, but at the same time, you’re no longer constantly working to portray the character, you and the character have met in the middle somewhere, your consciousnesses kind of merge. I know that sounds very woo woo and ephemeral, but if you actually experience it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

STAMELMAN: In the final scene of the original production of Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” when Group “plants” in the house yell “Strike!” “Strike!,” and members of the audience shout along with them, do you think that could happen today, with our jaded, multi-tasking audiences?

BUTLER: I have definitely seen productions that involve audience participation in really wild and profound ways. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” – speaking of Brooklyn [Drury is a Brooklyn-based playwright] — the show ends with all of the white people in the audience being invited to get up on the stage to be observed by all the people of color in the audience. The night I saw it there was this awkward moment when all of the white people were thinking “Are we going to do this?” Then all of a sudden they all ran up on the stage.

But I do think your question points to something, which is the idealism of that moment in American art. And I think our pendulum swings in regard to that sense of optimism. We have idealistic times, we have jaded times. You know, immediately after World War I was an extremely jaded time for some fairly obvious reasons. Then, during the Group era, during the Depression, the pendulum swung in the other direction. The Group was about hope, they were Utopians and they really believed in unlocking human potential through art. Artists today don’t think about their work that way.

STAMELMAN: Is it fair to say that, for an actor, the question boils down to the following: Does the actor need to feel the character’s emotions in order to represent them, or should emotions be presented without being felt?

BUTLER: That is an age-old question that goes back to the ancient Greeks, as I discuss a little bit in the book. That question has been around since we’ve had Western theater, at least according to Plutarch. And certainly that’s what underlies Diderot’s “The Paradox of the Actor,” one of the most important texts ever written about acting, even though he didn’t publish it in his lifetime, it’s gone on to become one of the most influential texts about acting. The question is about, if I may reframe your question, whether the actor inhabits the character or represents the character.

STAMELMAN: Is it fair and accurate to say that the first embodiment of the Method on a Broadway stage was Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire?” 

BUTLER: I don’t think that’s fair to say actually because Brando comes after the Group. Marlon — and I keep calling him “Marlon” in conversation as if I knew him because I’ve read so much about him by people who did know him — Brando was the person who made the Method famous. It was not famous before Brando. But the Group was around in the Thirties and they were using the Method. Like actors such as Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, who was an actor at that point, John Garfield, Kazan, who was acting a lot on stage at that time. Brando in “Streetcar” is the late Forties. The Group was really using the Method. They were embodying their characters on stage as far back as the 30s. In fact, at the time a lot of critics would say “I don’t really like these plays the Group is doing but you can’t argue with their acting.”

STAMELMAN: How would you define the “Magic If?”

BUTLER: (laughing) I was just talking about the “Magic If” yesterday so it’s funny that you mention it! The “Magic If” was Stanislavski’s way… Well, here let me illustrate it. We were just talking about “Hamlet,” right? Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, Peter, and say that you have never been a medieval prince whose uncle murdered your father and married your mother. Now, I don’t know you very well but I’m just going to assume that’s a life experience that’s pretty foreign to you…

STAMELMAN: You’re very astute.

BUTLER: (Laughing) So where do you start, as an actor, thinking about how to make that character work? The Magic If” is a moment of saying “Okay, sure I’ve never been a medieval prince, my father’s not been murdered, my mother’s never married my uncle” but if were in that situation how would that feel? It’s that first question to get you to empathetically bridge the gap between you and the character. I think it can be incredibly helpful if you are playing a character you are prone to judge. Stanley in “Streetcar” is a perfect example. He’s kind of a monster, he’s a rapist, he’s a misogynist…

STAMELMAN: He beats his wife.

BUTLER: He beats his wife. He’s a drunk. But your job as the actor in that play is to sympathize with Stanley. In order for “Streetcar” to work for you as an actor, you really need to connect with something in Stanley. How would I feel if I was in control of my life and then this woman, who I am sexually attracted to, moved into my apartment and disrupted everything? You would start there, with the loss of control. It’s how you find those little “ins” to the character.

STAMELMAN: There are so many great quotes in your book. One of my favorites is Al Pacino saying “What do I know from Stanislavski, he’s from Russia, I’m from the Bronx.” How did you track down quotes like that?

BUTLER: It really just comes from research. I read whatever I could get my hands on and I read constantly. You have to be a little cautious because sometimes a quote that sounds good is horseshit. You have to do your due diligence.

STAMELMAN: Speaking of quotes I love “There are no small roles, only small actors.” To whom is that attributable? 

BUTLER: That’s Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko, co-founders of the Moscow Art Theater. It’s one of their “aphorisms,” one of their guiding principles of the theater. And you know I grew up being told this all the time: in acting class, in drama camp, in children’s theater, in professional theater. I would hear this constantly. And when I read their memoirs – Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko – and that quote came up I actually had to put the book down and pace back and forth for a minute. My reaction to it was “Oh my God!” It’s like finding out you had a secret ancestor. It almost felt like genealogy research.

STAMELMAN: Is the paperback edition still coming out this month?

BUTLER: It’s coming out in November.

STAMELMAN: Have you written a new preface or made any other changes?

BUTLER: I have not. I wanted it to be the experience I had when I wrote it originally, I didn’t want to monkey with it. There were a couple of typos we fixed and I corrected one of my footnotes. Of course, you want to get everything right, but I’m not the same me as I was when I wrote the book and I want it to be a record of its own time.

Isaac Butler’s “The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act” is a Bloomsbury Book and will be available in paperback next month.

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