Exploring Different Styles of Acting: Naturalism, Expressionism, and Beyond
We’ve spoken in past blogs about different methods or techniques of acting such as the Meisner Technique and Practical Aesthetics.
However, before the development of many of these, there existed some well-recognised performance types and styles.
Most well-known or recognised acting techniques incorporate elements of these different styles or closely adhere to one of these more than another.
In this guide, we’ll look at these foundational theatrical styles, their origins, features and whether they are still actively in use today.
Let’s get to it.
Why Understanding Different Theatrical Styles In Acting Matters
No matter how experienced you are as an actor, or which technique you study, understanding the theatrical styles that have influenced the progression of this artfrom is essential.
How actors tell a story, create meaning, entertain and educate their audiences has evolved significantly over time in response to a variety of factors. Not only about what appeals to audiences, these styles have been used to push boundaries, make statements and explore ideas.
While some of these styles remain popular and underpin modern teaching methods and techniques, some have fallen out of favour or appear infrequently.
Familiarity with these core styles can help you recognise their presence, understand their purpose and expand your creative horizons.
Eight Key Theatrical Styles & Forms
Intended to emulate authentic and natural human behaviour, realism gained popularity in the latter half of the 19th century.
Seen more useful to society than melodramatic, disaster-laden or vaudevillian storytelling, it focused on the truthful interactions, real problems and concerns of everyday people.
Almost like holding a mirror up to society and allowing it to reflect on itself, it was initially deemed confronting and inflammatory.
Despite this, realism remains one of the most dominant approaches to acting and is incorporated into most methods and techniques taught today.
Focused on creating a believable reality for audiences, naturalism first emerged in the late 19th century and continued to be developed into the early 20th century. It is closely related to realism and is the basis of Stanislavski’s System.
Following rules outlined by Greek philosopher Aristotle, naturalism focuses on the three unities of time, place and action.
Naturalism never breaks the fourth wall, instead, stories remain ensconced in realistic scenarios and situations acted out by well-developed, truth-anchored characters following a genuine timeline.
Principally developed in Germany in the early 20th century before making its way to America, expressionism introduced a more subjective perspective.
In conflict with naturalism and realism, expressionism approaches stories as being externally distorted, with the real truth hidden within its complex characters.
In expressionism, speech and delivery of dialogue are heightened, incorporating expansive rhetoric alongside more clipped direct expression. Physically, gestures are also very intense, urgent and energetic, making characters appear violent or tormented.
This style largely fell out of favour in the post-war period.
A huge departure from the familiarity of naturalism or the intensity of expressionism, absurdity emerged in post-war Europe towards the end of the 1950’s.
Absurdity embraced myth and magic and was largely the brainchild of playwright Antonin Artaud. Believing that more traditional approaches such as realism were no longer convincing, absurdity instead incorporated nonsensical, plotless dialogue with no conflicts. It ultimately questions the meaninglessness and ridiculousness of existence.
Essentially ‘anti-theatre’ or any traditional approach to storytelling, audiences initially rejected absurdity as incomprehensible nonsense. However, absurdity is still valued for its ability to create inner conflict and provoke thought in an audience.
Often confused as being akin to absurdity, surrealism came before the absurdist movement and was first introduced in France in the mid-1920’s. While they do share some elements, they are rooted in different philosophies.
Where absurdity relies heavily on dark humour and physical scenarios, surrealism is about disconnecting from the physicality and exploring the imagination. Through vaguely recognisable ideas and characters, it seeks to expose truths hidden within a common reality.
Bending the widely accepted rules of existence and suspending reality, surrealism typically incorporates elements of fantasy, irrational juxtaposition and dreamlike sequences.
In practice, this looks like:
- Incomplete or unmotivated characters
- Nonsensical dialogue and experimental use of language
- A disturbing atmosphere
- Robotic or puppet-like movements
- Heavy use of satire and cliches
Surrealism is infrequently referred to in modern theatre or film, however, surrealist elements, such as dream sequences, are often still incorporated as part of overall storytelling.
Originating in Europe and popular in Britain between the 5th and 16th centuries, classical acting, also known as Shakespearean acting, is all about control and precision.
Action, rather than emotion-oriented classical acting almost totally eschews realism or naturalism.
Instead, character creation is performed almost entirely through a clear, strong voice and physical movement. This may include sword fights, singing, performing in elaborate costumes, dancing, powerful monologues and more.
Classical training for actors is still in practice today but is primarily for those working on stage rather than film or television.
A much broader term also used to refer to the development of various art forms in the late 19th and early 20th century, modernism in theatre seeks to reflect on life more critically.
Experimental, modernism introduced new ideas, forms and techniques that created a detachment of theatre from real life and encouraged more free expression.
Largely rejecting history and tradition, modernism centred on the belief that our fundamental understanding of the world between WWI and WWII must be rethought.
Dialogues involved a lot of scepticism and created a sense of crisis. Storytelling was frequently non-linear instead jumping back and forth while involving dream sequences and psychological exploration.
All of this was a direct rejection of the conventions of realism and naturalism, instead, elements of expressionism and surrealism were regularly incorporated.
Rejecting accepted conventions and practices, postmodernism teaches that there can be multiple meanings in a story and that meaning is what you create not what just is.
It is self-aware, actively acknowledges the artificiality of theatre, is ironic and seeks to challenge audiences and their preconceived notions about reality.
Building on the modernist theatre movement, it uses similar storytelling techniques while also including audience interaction to create meaning alongside improvisation and various multimedia elements.
Where Does The Meisner Technique Fit In?
Developed by Sanford Meisner, the Meisner Technique is based on the realism style of acting.
Maintaining its appeal since its inception, realism and the Meisner Technique as a follow-on from this is one of the most well-known and favourably viewed approaches to acting.
Meisner felt that by finding things within ourselves that are universal to all humans, strong, truthful and believable performances would become second nature. This is at its heart realism at its best and a practice proven to build confident, accomplished actors.
Explore The Depths Of Acting With The Actors Pulse
At The Actors Pulse, we are passionate about educating our students holistically and equipping them with the skills needed to become successful actors.
The leading school for the Meisner Technique in the Southern Hemisphere, we support the development of a natural approach to acting guided by your intuition. Through our classes, both full-time and part-time, our students learn to create real, moving and authentic performances.
Whether your goal is to work on stage, film or television, our highly qualified team can help you to achieve this.
Embracing Meisner’s teaching and delivering them in an innovative and engaging format, we ensure our classes are both effective and fun.
Call today at 0414 475 515 to learn more or to enrol in one of our sought-after sessions.
Learn more about The Actors Pulse, the Meisner Technique and our classes.
Billy Milionis is one of the few Australians to have ever studied under the legendary master teacher, the late Sanford Meisner. Billy has also studied story structure and scene analysis techniques with John Truby and later at UCLA. He has also spent several years doing improvisation in Hollywood with the L.A. Connection. In addition, he trained in the technique of Stella Adler, Practical Aesthetics and Lee Strasberg’s method.