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    Acting from Experience

    This past week I watched "The Incident" starring Walter Mathau. It was his return to TV after 20 years absence and it was a made-for-TV movie on CBS in 1990.

    In watching this film and Mathau's brilliant performance, I was reminded of my days as a student of acting.

    I looked up my old acting books and the three I found were "An Actor Prepares," "An Actor's Handbook" and "The Actor at Work." I got these books and others when I was a student of acting at U. of Indiana.

    Back when I was studying acting, the great name of Konstantin Stanislavski was constantly talked of – commonly known as "the Stanislavski system." His theory of acting used your own emotional history brought to the confines of whatever play you were acting.

    \In other words, as an actor you might not have first-hand knowledge in killing someone, as in "King Lear," however, you might have had an experience in your past that brought up rage which you could then use to portray this character. This is called "sense memory."

    Most of us think of Mathau as a comic actor, but in "The Incident" he certainly shows what he is made of for a dramatic portrayal of an attorney who must defend an accused Nazi killer from an American prisoner of war camp for Germans during WWII.

    Complicating this situation was the fact the murdered man was a personal friend of Mathau’s character and Mathau’s son had just been killed in action by the Germans.

    The townspeople were definitely not on the side of the accused killer either, of course, and this put Mathau in a very delicate position with his friends. At one point, he tells the local sheriff, “I may have to leave town if I defend him.” The judge in the proceedings, has his own political agenda, and tells Mathau he will be thrown in jail if he doesn’t defend the German.

    The judge is played by Henry Morgan of M*A*S*H fame, who also plays a very serious dramatic character as opposed to his usual comic part.

    When I was studying acting, we often were put together with a “scene partner” and given very difficult scenes which we were not able to pull from our own emotions or situations that pertained to us. We were assigned a scene partner by the teacher and there was no particular rime or reason who got matched with whom.

    Having had a musical theater background, this was quite a departure for me from the fluff of musical theater.

    I’m guessing Mathau and Morgan never had such dramatic memories as those they portrayed in the film, which is where “method acting” comes into play. This is what Stanilavski was known for. Lee Strasberg was the father of method acting.

    According to Wikipedia:
    The Method" was first popularized by the Group Theatre in New York City in the 1930s, and subsequently advanced by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in the 1940s and 50s. It was derived from Stanislavski's 'system', created by Konstantin Stanislavski, who pioneered similar ideas in his quest for "theatrical truth." This was done through friendships with Russia's leading actors, collaborations with playwright Anton Chekhov, as well as his teachings, writings, and acting at the Moscow Art Theater (founded in 1897). Strasberg's students included many of America's most famous actors of the latter half of the 20th century.

    By the way, I was talking to a friend from LA who lives here now and wa reminded the theatrical bookstore for actors and playwrights there was called “Samuel French” and was on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Man, that brought back a lotof memories! I mainly bought plays there, but Samuel French had everything for the theater arts.


    Kathryn Spira, a native of Cleveland who pursued an acting career in NYC and Los Angeles, now pursues free lance writing from Caroga Lake in Fulton County. Previous columns may be accessed at her web site www.kathrynskorner.com