Women's Work: Can the Method Be Reconciled to Feminism? Transcending Both Seems to Have Been Stella Adler's Answer

Article excerpt

AN ACTRESS PREPARES: WOMEN AND THE METHOD'

By Rosemary Malague.

Routledge, New York, 2012.

264 pp., $31.95 paper

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ROSEMARY MALAGUE, AUTHOR OF AN ACTRESS Prepares, grew up in the house of the Method, and she wants to believe the Method loves her back. But there's a rub. Malague is a feminist. In fact, the teachings of Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen--the dominant American proponents of Method acting--lit the fuse of her feminism. There she was in acting class, asked to portray female characters from the plays of O'Neill and Williams and Miller, women who mostly cry or seduce their way through life. That was one issue, but she was asked as well, according to Method training, to locate her inner hysteric or slut in order to recreate "the truth" of these emotions, and it didn't feel right. None of it felt good, neither the playwright's vision of what a woman is, nor the requirement to locate its source in your body and body of experience. Part of the way you know you're a feminist is when you respond to a prompt like this with, "What a load of crap."

Malague, who directs the Theatre Arts Program at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges a wave of feminist reaction to the Method, including performance art and not-necessarily-feminist techniques derived from Brecht, Anne Bogart, Grotowski, Lecoq, etc. Malague sees this flowering as "alternative," however, which means she thinks there is a center. As she puts it: "Stanislaysky-derived training makes up the grammar of American acting." If you study at a university or acting school, she contends, you will learn a version of the Method.

Malague wants the Method to work for women. She wants to redeem it, somehow, although she confines her discussion to the 20th-century plays that informed American Method theory. The playwrights, with the exception of Lillian Hellman, are men: O'Neill, Odets, Saroyan, Wilder, Williams, Miller, Albee, and so on. They are interested in class, in some cases, and in interior life in others, but the sex roles in their works are hopelessly traditional. Method teaching, Malague documents, especially under Strasberg and Meisner, exhorted male and female actors to hail these stereotypes as truth. Is there something creepy and pernicious in women playing these parts now with a straight face, Malague asks? (As if there could be an answer other than yes.)

STELLA . MIR ON AMERICA'S MASTER PLAYWRIGHTS

Edited and with commentary by Barry Paris.

Knopf, New York, 2012.

368 pp., $27.95 cloth

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You might think her point would be, "Enough with the canon." But no: She wants the Method to somehow subvert the canon from within. Flow would you do that, and, really, is it worth the bother? We can treat the plays of the past as museum pieces and recreate as closely as possible the values of their time. But in this pursuit, a feminist performer won't be able to use the Method, because she won't be able to detach her contemporary consciousness from her work--from the interior search the Method insists on. Another stab is to reinterpret plays, but in all of Malague's book, she presents but one example of such a renovation via the Method--Elizabeth Franz's transformation of Linda Loman in a 1999 Broadway revival of Death o fa Salesman from a weak, used-up wife to an angry one.

A more logical path is overlooked. As the Martian says to the Woody Allen character in Stardust Memories, "You want to do mankind a. real service? Tell funnier jokes." You want to reboot the Method? TIT it on work that doesn't pigeonhole the genders. It seems obvious, right? As Malague points out, Method training equips actors for realist parts in TV film and theatre, much of which deconstructs gender and power in smart and ironic ways. But reading An Actress Prepares, you'd never that know feminism and other forms of social critique had transformed popular as well as avant-garde entertainment. …