The Seven Pillars Acting Technique
by Sonya Cooke
“Acting is Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances” --- Sanford Meisner
This is all the actor ever has to do. As long as he 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 his own body, mind, and spirit but IN the circumstances of his character.
The Seven Pillars are 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 of Acting Technique aims to achieve this precious, alchemical state and physical ease by guiding the actor through seven essential steps: Contact, Circumstance, Meaning, Emotional Life, Objective, Action, and Plastiques. 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 his own thoughts and feelings. 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 his circumstances and the point at which the actor clarifies whether he relates or not, 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 his objective. The last pillar, Plastiques, loosely based on Grotowski’s exercises of the same name, deals with physical forms, drills and archetypes to help activate the actor’s imagination.
The Pillars are deeply rooted in ideologies and techniques from the great acting teachers and theologians of the past and present. They incorporate lessons from Stanislavsky, Meisner, Declan Donnellan, Grotowski. and my brilliant mentors and instructors: Vicki Hart, Louis Scheeder, Robert Cohen, Jo Spiller, and Richard Brestoff, to name a few; however, these truths have passed through the hands and hearts of numberless teachers, actors and innovators, too many to be named, though every effort will be made to give credit where it is due.
The Pillars' unique innovation is the particular structure of the lessons, as well as the finer details and exercises within them. The Pillars give the actor a dependable set of steps from which to work, which is generally lacking from other techniques. Actors need structure and order. All successful and prodigious art forms are founded on this principle. Of course, a rule is as good as its exception, so, therefore, the Pillars are meant to be learned rigorously and then broken gloriously. Without the structure, the actor has no ground to spring from.
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 his humanity to then offer to the character at hand. The easeful actor has tremendous stage presence; he belongs there because he is authentically living within the circumstances. Art imitates life, and life is enriched by art, so there is a wonderful ricochet effect where the actor’s life is bettered by his craft. The Pillars, which emphasize a strong belief in imaginary circumstances, teaches that life’s circumstances aren’t fastened so tightly to the soul within them. Life is to be made and remade, questioned, felt, and let go of at will.