Seven Pillars Acting
by Sonya Cooke
“Acting is Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances” --- Sanford Meisner
This is all the actor ever has to do. As long as she is living in the circumstances of the character, acting is easeful and effortless. This is our ideal: to train actors to live and breathe within their own bodies, minds, and spirits but IN the circumstances of the character.
Seven Pillars Acting is a concise yet flexible formula of acting technique aimed at helping actors to transform into character by living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. They strive to convey a path for the artist, but they do so with the utmost reverence for the pure spark of natural inspiration that occurs in every human being. The Seven Pillars do not replace that spark but coax it into a flame and, from there, into a hearth where the artist can call home. Through the study of acting craft, we are harnessing and rearing that creative spark that ignites in childhood and in early adulthood.
Transformation, in acting terms, is the unification of the actor with the character, a process which requires rigorous emotional and imaginative work. The result of which is tremendous ease and presence in the actor. The Seven Pillars Acting Technique aims to achieve this precious, alchemical state and physical ease by guiding the actor through seven essential concepts: Contact, Circumstance, Meaning, Emotional Life, Objective, Action, and Physical Life. Although the Pillars are ultimately interchangeable, they are taught sequentially to organize and structure an actor's path to character.
Contact pertains to the ever-changing relationship an actor/character has to the other person onstage. It is the foremost Pillar, in that all acting is dependent on the other. It is also the actor’s awareness of her own thoughts and feelings in the context of her partner. Circumstances are the past, present, and future facts as the character perceives them, which reveal the confines and contours of a character’s point of view. Meaning is the character's emotional response to her circumstances and the point at which the actor does an honest assessment of her connection, and Emotional Life bridges the gap between the character and the actor through imaginative and emotional exploration. Objectives are the needs and wants of the character, and Actions are the tactics the character uses to achieve her objective. The last Pillar, Physical Life, deals with how the body and voice experience ease in high stakes, activate the actor’s imagination, and contribute to characterization.
The Pillars are deeply rooted in ideologies and techniques from the great acting teachers and theologians of the past and present, Sanford Meisner being the primary source material. And yet, it is the international community of acting thought makers that contribute to the bedrock and budding flowers of the technique. These truths have passed through the hands and hearts of numberless teachers, actors, and innovators. The Pillars' unique innovation is the primacy of Sequence Circumstances in the actor's approach. How an actor utilizes circumstances leaves an indelible impression on the efficacy of all other tools in her arsenal. In addition, Seven Pillars Acting brings greater precision and detail to otherwise generalized and outmoded acting concepts. By expanding the practical use of each Pillar, students gain a deeper appreciation for all the ways they can interpret a role. The Pillars give the actor a dependable set of steps from which to work. Actors need structure and order; all art forms are founded on this principle. Of course, a rule is as good as its exception, so Seven Pillars Acting is meant to be rigorously learned and then gloriously broken.
The Pillars have another unique facet: the structure and organization of the technique mirrors the actor’s process in creating a role. In other words, the actor in training learns the Pillars One through Seven, and this same organization and structure works very well when an actor begins to work on a role. However, the actor, having learned the Pillars One through Seven, is free to enter into a role from any angle, as it is the individual’s inspiration that dictates process. This is why they are Pillars, not steps. The Pillars provide her a trusted path to fall back on if and when she prefers a more structured support system.
Ultimately, the Pillars engender confidence, ownership, and ease, three crucial elements in a performance. Particularly for the beginning actor, the Pillars carve a clear path that leads to personal and artistic transformation. It is this confidence that empowers the actor to make bolder choices and to plunge greater depths of her humanity to then offer to the character at hand. The easeful actor has tremendous presence; she belongs in the world of the character because she is authentically living within the circumstances.