Seven Pillars Acting
Seven Pillars Acting is a comprehensive acting technique for actors to transform into character with ease and authenticity. Influenced by the methods of Konstantin Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, Jerzy Grotowski, and Declan Donnellan, actor, teacher, and scholar Sonya Cooke developed the technique to synthesize these well-known methods into a modern, approachable, and rigorous process for acting. The Seven Pillars refer to the inter-related skills that are considered essential to compelling acting. These skills are:
(4) Emotional Life
(7) Physical Life
The first four pillars are devoted to “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances," and the last three are focused on the "reality of doing," according to Sanford Meisner’s famous maxims.
Contact, the first and foundational pillar, is the exploration of connection to the actor’s scene partner while simultaneously remaining connected to self. Many exercises from this chapter are influenced by the work of Sanford Meisner. Circumstance, the second pillar, investigates the past, present, and imagined future from the character’s perspective. Exploring the Circumstance pillar never ceases—because what is happening to the character is limitless. These ongoing discoveries can make a world of difference in creating a believable performance.
Meaning, the third pillar, dives into the character’s interpretation of the circumstances and encourages the actor to take an inventory of whether they connect to those meanings. Emotional Life, the fourth pillar, explores the actor's access to their own emotions and personalization of the various meanings for a character, especially those to which the actor struggles to connect.
Objective, the fifth pillar, examines what the character needs or wants, as well as the opposing forces of aversion and obstacle. Action, the sixth pillar, looks at the strategies or tactics used to achieve the objective. It is also the container and conduit for emotional life in the form of transitive verbs. Physical Life, the seventh and final pillar, encourages the actor to physicalize and vocalize while acting so that characters are believably and healthfully embodied. This pillar runs through all the others and simultaneously stands on its own, as it can be taught in a myriad of ways based on the teacher’s movement and physical acting expertise.
Although the pillars are taught sequentially to organize and structure an actor's path to character, they are ultimately interchangeable. They engender confidence, ownership, and ease, three crucial elements in a performance, carving a clear path that leads to personal and artistic transformation. The easeful actor has tremendous presence; they belong in the world of the character because they are authentically living within the circumstances. The technique is taught at schools and colleges nationally; therefore, this article is penned by teachers of the technique who are implementing this work in their classrooms.
Introduction and History of Seven Pillars Acting Technique
Seven Pillars Acting came about from founder and author Sonya Cooke’s exploration of the craft of acting, both through her professional work and academic training, as well as through experimentation in the classroom with her students. Throughout her career, she has been drawn to healthy, creative, and specific processes for crafting and exploring character, which led to the development and formation of the Seven Pillars.
The principal source material comes from Sanford Meisner, as that was Cooke’s primary and most influential training. Other major contributors are Konstantin Stanislavski, Jerzy Grotowski, and Declan Donnellan, and Cooke’s teachers, Richard Brestoff, Ken Washington, and Annie Loui provided additional inspiration. The Pillars first started to come together in the early years of Cooke’s career. A young actor in New York, working in multiple mediums of performance, she struggled to understand how to synthesize and implement on-the-job all that she had learned at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Always a fierce advocate for the training she received during her undergraduate education, she was surprised to discover what she had been taught by her professors differed from the way she crafted a role. Cooke recorded her musings on acting technique in the form of an online blog, originally called “The Cooke Technique.” She understood that education evolved, and she sought to document how the craft was manifesting through her work and her students.
This eventually led her to University of California at Irvine’s (UCI) Master of Fine Arts acting program. While at UCI, Cooke trained with the exceptional faculty, including Robert Cohen (2013), author of Acting Power and numerous other books on acting. Richard Brestoff’s exercises in Personalization helped cement Cooke’s approach to circumstances and meanings, and it was the extensive training in movement and voice that compelled her to incorporate Physical Life as the seventh and final pillar. Cooke first introduced her curriculum for Seven Pillars Acting while she was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate acting class.
After completing her MFA in acting and relocating to Los Angeles, Cooke continued to develop and share Seven Pillars Acting. She took ownership of a small acting studio in Orange County, where she codified the curriculum and system of training, and soon after, she opened Seven Pillars Acting Studio in Los Angeles. During these years, Seven Pillars Acting reached thousands of professional and budding actors in the Southern California region. Cooke coached actors on set and in the classroom with the purpose of empowering them to craft character with authenticity, depth, specificity, and ease. Students of the technique have gone on to start professional acting careers in film, television, commercials, and theatre. Meanwhile, Cooke began training and certifying acting teachers in the technique to satisfy the demand for the training, which led to the development of an international and online teacher program for acting teachers to gain certification in Seven Pillars Acting.
The technique is now taught at institutions across the country as more and more institutions adopt the curriculum as its core acting training. UC-Irvine and Louisiana State University have implemented the technique. Numerous other institutions have used or are currently using Seven Pillars Acting, including University of South Dakota, Western Kentucky University, Ball State University, Loyola Marymount University, Hussian College Los Angeles, Cypress College, and the University of Lethbridge – Alberta, Canada.