Leadership lessons from method acting

June 11, 2012 by Joshua
in Art, Blog, Leadership

Leadership and acting have a lot in common. Both crafts require practitioners to be aware of and to manage their emotions and those of people around them. They evoke different emotions — leaders generally don’t try to get people to cry and actors generally don’t get people to work weekends — but their crafts overlap nonetheless.

I’ve linked to Inside the Actors Studio before and I’ll keep linking to them. I’m in the middle of watching the host, James Lipton, interviewed by the great comedian (and apparently friend), David Chappelle for the 200th episode of the show.

I’m only half through the episode and I’m already seeing the parallels and learning from them. They show some deeply personal clips of the emotions and techniques to evoke them actors, especially method actors, go through for their craft.

The method and leadership

I’m fascinated by acting and the method Stanislovsky started and Adler, Strasberg, and others continued and how it relates to leadership. Regular readers of this blog will see me explore this relationship in upcoming posts.

This description, posed by a video of Will Smith asking Lipton about method acting, talks about looking internally, evoking genuine, real emotions, truth, and experience supplanting self-consciousness, self-reference, and self-reverence.

American-style leadership — business, politics, etc — would benefit from the transformation acting went through a century ago, as I see it. I’d love to see leadership transform into a deeply personal experience, not just the result of being promoted or wanting to make more money. I’d love to see leaders trained through rigorous but effective training like actors go through. Business school leadership classes taught me a lot, but focused on corporate-style business leadership. I don’t know where political or non-corporate business leaders can hone their skills or for leaders-to-be can learn their craft from the start.

I can tell by reading the paper most of the current crop of people in leadership positions haven’t learned their leadership skills through anything remotely like what our greatest actors go through. Though exceptions exist, I see little leadership through self-awareness and emotional intelligence and tons of drive for personal gain.

Okay, let’s read Lipton’s words.

James Lipton: I won’t go into it in any length because the students here live with it night and day, but briefly, at the end of the nineteenth century, a man named Constantin Stanislovsky rebelled against the kind of presentational hortatory [I looked it up so you don’t have to: urging to some course of conduct or action; exhorting; encouraging: a hortatory speech], self-conscious, self-referential, often self-reverential acting that was the norm.

Stanislovsky developed a system of acting and of exercises, of training, of rehearsal, and of performance that went from a theater that was meant to impress to the theater that was meant to express. And suddenly, everything that was external — the fine form, the perfectly articulated vowels, the piercing consonants, the thick make-up, everything that was posed and disbelieved by the actor — god forbid that the actor should cry and mess up his make-up… this was the way acting was taught and the way acting was done until the beginning of the twentieth century.

But Stanislovsky changed all that. The Moscow Art Theater came to New York and everything changed in America forever. These young people — Stella Adler, Herald Clurman, Lee Strasburg — they went and saw this theater and it wasn’t like anything they’d seen before. These people really believed what they were saying. They were expressing something that was truthful to them and therefore truthful to the audience. It was an extraordinary experience.

It wasn’t declaimed [to speak rhetorically; specifically : to recite something as an exercise in elocution]. It wasn’t recited. It hadn’t been rehearsed in front of a mirror. It wasn’t perfect.

It was real.

All of you who are in our school are the inheritors of that legacy.

David Chappelle: It’s absolutely true though. It was funny because I went to an arts high school and the girl who was the valedictorian of our class, they were doing the Miracle Worker. She was big on Stanislovsky. She used to lock herself in the closet before she played Hellen Keller and, you know, I’m like a slacker so I’d be like “Why are you taking this shit so seriously? Like, get out of the closet and have some dinner.” And you know she would be like “I need to understand that type of isolation. The realism of it.”

I think the average person that is not an artist will spend most of their life trying to avoid a real emotion. I mean, we have plenty of opiates.

JL: We’re taught to avoid it.

I’d watch the whole video, but the part I just quoted is at around 27:50, followed be several of the great actors of our times talking about the emotional investment they put into their craft. Can you imagine your boss, Senator, or President investing so much? Personally, I think they’d do better if they understood themselves and the human emotional system as well as these actors do.

EDIT: Youtube took the video down, but the important part is here.

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1 response to “Leadership lessons from method acting

  1. Pingback: A leadership dream » Joshua Spodek

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