American actor, director, acting teacher and writer director, Sarah Eigerman explains how she conceives the creative process of acting. She recalls her experience creating FACT in Paris and working at the Strasberg Institute in New York.
Sarah Eigerman has just opened the 26th school year of FACT, the French-American Organization for Cinema and Theatre. FACT combines a theater company and a bilingual training center for actors. Seated at the table of a nice cafe on the Place du Chatelet in Paris, she explains her views on acting.
Opening FACT in Paris
As Sarah Eigerman’s eyes drift back into the past, she recalls the creation of FACT. A quarter of a century ago, private acting schools were scarce in Paris. Aside from the municipal and national conservatories there were only “ten or twelve at the most”, she recalls. Périmony, Simon, Florent, and a few others.
Actors training in Paris at the time was grounded on the idea that theory was better than practice and led to mechanistic and ultimately boring acting. This clashed with her American ideal of “I’m going to get involved in the character’s life and just live“. Probably because of that, she says she had “a lot of students who were refugees from other acting classes”. Sarah Eigerman considers that theory comes out of practice: “The theory could be your first impulse in a creative process, but there’s nothing without exploration”, she comments, “creativity is holistic, it involves all of you”.
Stanislavski and “The Method”
Sarah Eigerman was inspired by Constantin Stanislavski, an actor, acting teacher and director from the end of the 19th century, mostly known for having developed an acting technique in which the actor should make something honest happen in him that should touch people. “Inner experiences must reach the spectator before the words are said,” comments Sonia Moore on the Stanislavski System. This naturalistic performance technique is also widely known as “The Method”. Approaches that follow his lead want actors to share the feelings of the character they stage. Rival methods aim for the projection of the idea of how the character should be, not for the search for inner experience.
Giving rise to different interpretations
Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner all claimed they inherited the Stanislavski’s system, but they were opposing ways of training actors. Lee Strasberg asked for emotional truth. “He wanted raw, true emotions”, Sarah Eigerman comments. “So that strong emotional breakdowns became the goal”. Stella Adler wanted actors to transform themselves to live in the world of the play thanks to research and imagination. But what lacked in her method, Sarah Eigerman reckons, was sensory classes. Sensory exercises as taught in the Strasberg Institute, an acting school founded by Lee Strasberg in New York, start with trying to imaginatively recreate everyday objects and get harder as the objects become more complex and numerous. Sanford Meisner devised exercises that helped actors relate to the moment and be spontaneous. He thought that actors should first become some kind of inhuman robots to reach a truly personal yet untainted immersion in the role. “There are a lot of American actors who study a bit of Sandy Meisner, then they go to Stella, then to Lee, because they want to put it on their resume. But what they’re really trying to do is finding the central focus”, Sarah says.
Working with Lee Strasberg
She then recalls the time she spent teaching at the Strasberg institute, before coming to France. Lee wanted the teachers to study with him before training students, so Sarah Eigerman got to watch a lot of his classes. Because he was an icon, he could point at his performance as Hyman Roth in God Father as an example of what he expected from his students. “At Lee Strasberg’s Institute, I saw that people really thought they were going to have some kind of epiphany if they just suffered enough” she recalls. Lee Strasberg could get angry very fast, and actors would get intimidated. They would feel unworthy of his teaching and be angry about it. Not at Lee Strasberg, the master, but at themselves.
Being aware of one’s emotions
Sarah Eigerman takes from each of those teachers’ legacy and applies it when teaching at FACT. She says she never asks her students “What makes you cry?”, but rather “What are you feeling.” “It isn’t about doing amateur psychoanalysis”, she muses. “It’s about knowing your instrument.” She argues that because of our training we have the habit of ignoring our emotions, and she helps her students unlearn this habit. She insists on the importance she sees in mixing theory and practice during her classes. “Because the imagination and the brain function pretty much the same way. So if I can imagine something, I can explore it sensorially and it will begin to have an effect on me”. She draws two complementary techniques: the transformation of oneself through sensory exploration and letting go.
The script is not the enemy, it’s a tool
Unlike Strasberg, Sarah Eigerman claims that she does not consider the script an enemy, but a source of information. She takes the stage directions out before distributing the scripts to her students, so they can figure out what is going on in the play. “I want them to say ‘I feel like sitting down here’”, she explains. “At a certain point I just say ‘Sit down after that line’, but I don’t want to say it the first week” She adds that if she could do a Shakespeare or a period play, she “would not like to add stage directions in the script”. But if she does not think that the script is an enemy, she hates to hear that people are saying a text. And period plays underline why Stella Adler’s emphasis on research is important. Speaking an Alexandrine, using an outdated vocabulary or syntax, or wearing old fashioned clothes that we do not wear anymore, form the given circumstances of a character. The actors have to learn about them to be able to live the reality of the play and to transmit it to the public. “Because you are your own instrument, your own raw material and you are the artist”, she says.
Acting to become more human
For Sarah Eigerman, everyone needs to be an artist in some way. Not to mention an actor should be able to live an imaginary experience, to live in someone else’s shoes in order to have the empathy and compassion that is lacking in the world. “Humanism is not possible without recognizing the creative spark in everybody”, she says.
If Sarah Eigerman dreams about the way acting could make this world a better place, she also indulges in daydreaming for FACT. “My dream for FACT was and still is, because it’s never been fully realized, cultural exchange on a one to one basis, in my little corner of the world”. She also wishes to open her own bilingual acting school in New York, and who knows, maybe elsewhere too.
Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the Thirties. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. Print.
Stanislavski System: The Professional Training of an Actor; Second Revised Edition
Zamir, Tzachi. Acts: Theater, Philosophy, and the Performing Self. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2014. Print.