ISAAC BUTLER IS the co-author (with Dan Kois) of The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, which NPR named one of the best books of 2018. His writing has appeared in New York, The Guardian, American Theatre, and other publications. He has also written for Slate, where he created and hosted Lend Me Your Ears, a podcast about Shakespeare and politics, and currently co-hosts Working, a podcast about the creative process. His work as a director has been seen on stages throughout the United States. He is the co-creator, with Darcy James Argue and Peter Nigrini, of Real Enemies, a multimedia exploration of conspiracy theories in the American psyche, which was named one of the best live events of 2015 by The New York Times and has been adapted into a feature-length film. Butler teaches theater history and performance at The New School and elsewhere, and lives in Brooklyn. His new book, The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, was published to critical acclaim earlier this year.
The Method is a biography of the acting system that originated in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and eventually completely changed acting in the United States, across theater, television, and film, through teachers such as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, and the New York City acting school The Actors Studio. Butler weaves together personalities, the theater, Hollywood, and world-changing historical events into, as Alexandra Schwartz put it in The New Yorker, “an entertaining, maximally informative” narrative. While there is more in the book than could possibly be discussed in an hour, we sat down a few weeks after the book’s publication in February at Isaac’s kitchen table to talk about how the life of an acting technique is also the story of the 20th century.
LAUREN GOLDENBERG: The Method is many things. Your book covers a lot of ground, including the fact that this is a story of many egos and personalities. So, I wanted to start at the beginning, perhaps with the most significant ego and character of them all, and ask, who is Stanislavski and what led him to “the system”?
ISAAC BUTLER: Konstantin Stanislavski, whose real name was Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexiev, was a Russian actor and director and producer and theorist. He also was a wealthy merchant industrialist, and scion of an important family. He was like if John Rockefeller was also Steven Spielberg, kind of. He was an already important and popular actor in Moscow when he co-founded, with a man named Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the Moscow Art Theatre.
The Moscow Art Theatre was founded to essentially lead a revolution that would elevate the standards of theater in Moscow, and Russia in general, and make it a high art worthy of the important plays they were doing. It was founded in the late 1890s and was a surprisingly huge success. A few years into the life of that theater, in 1905, 1906, Stanislavski had one of any number of crises he had throughout his life. This one happened when he was acting, playing Stockman in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in Europe on tour, so it’s called the Stockman crisis, and he delivered what to him was a mechanical, lifeless performance. The inspiration was just gone, he had a cold spell, actors have this all the time. From that crisis, he decided to try to create a series of techniques that would prevent that from happening ever again, so that you would be able to give an inspired performance on demand. That gave birth to “the system,” which was the first, I think, at least in the West, system of acting technique that focused on the actor’s interior mechanism, that believed that the interior creative life of the actor could in fact be trained and developed through exercises. He spent the entire rest of his life working on that system, revising it constantly. He styled it, as I’m sure you will when this appears in print, all in lowercase, with quotation marks around it, because he never wanted it to be finished or codified.