- Acting: The Gister Method by Joseph Alberti
Earle Gister was one of most influential American acting teachers during the latter half of the twentieth century. His notable faculty positions were: chair of the Carnegie Mellon (CMU) Drama Department (1960s and ’70s); acting teacher at City University of New York (1970s and ’80s); chair of the Yale School of Drama’s MFA acting program (1980s–97); and master teacher of acting at the Actors Center in New York (late 1990s–2012). His students are some of America’s most distinguished actors (Sigourney Weaver, Liev Schreiber, and Angela Bassett, among others), and upon his death in 2012 an outpouring of appreciation attested to his influence. (A memorial service at the Actors Center in April 2012 and a Facebook page, “Friends of Earle Gister,” elicited hundreds of superlative comments.) Less well-known than Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Uta Hagen, Gister nevertheless trained as many excellent, reputable actors as they did. His training methods combined Stanislavski’s technique with text analysis, and he was greatly influenced by American acting teacher Paul Mann. I studied acting with him at CMU during 1970–74; he introduced me to Mann and recommended that I study with him upon graduation.
Joseph Alberti’s Acting: The Gister Method, based on his dissertation, attempts to collate, systematize, and define “the Gister acting method” by illuminating his philosophy, exercises, and primarily his astute dramaturgical analyses. Alberti researched Gister at Yale during the late 1980s through mid-1990s, chronicling and recording his procedures and practices. Alberti showcases Gister’s dramaturgical ability to synthesize his observations into a workmanlike vocabulary and tool for the actor. His admiration for Chekhov’s plays is especially emphasized throughout this book, demonstrating Gister’s keen analysis of Chekhovian roles and how to perform them. Chapter 5 is the longest and by far Alberti’s best. Here, the author specifically dissects each character in Chekhov’s The Seagull—similar to Stanislavski’s famous production book of the same play—defining objectives, actions, relationships, emotional justification, and detailed characterizations. One of Gister’s key ideas that Alberti captures nicely is “sending” your action to the other actor so that you attempt to change or persuade him or her emotionally. Alberti calls attention to this when he says that “this [Gister] approach to action differs from most in that it is wholly concerned with the actor, as a character, evoking feeling in another actor as a character, or in an image, or in a thing” (65). He adds that “[y]ou will find that the act of fully attempting to make someone or something feel an emotion can trigger an emotion in yourself as well” (70).
Gister, following Mann, was an acting teacher who combined the passionate study of characterization in dramatic texts with the importance of developing the actor’s emotion and sense memory. Unlike many acting teachers who emphasized an either/or theory (study the character or study yourself), Gister stressed both areas of training. While Alberti generally acknowledges Gister’s craft as a teacher, the book occasionally gets tangled in contradictions and can, at times, be unclear precisely where Gister departs from other standard-issue acting teachers. For instance, Alberti often overstates good though obvious points, such as saying that “[b]efore choosing your action for a scene, first you must determine your objective” (69). This is a boilerplate insight stressed by many others. Alberti incorrectly notes that Stanislavski had “discarded sense-memory late in his career, deciding that it distanced the actor from the imaginary circumstances of the play” (3), suggesting that Gister did the same. Yet Alberti draws on sense memory throughout as examples of Gister’s teaching; for example, “[i]magine walking towards the lapping waves at water’s edge, seeing the color of the sky and water, tasting the salt in the air, smelling the ocean, hearing the surf, and feeling the warmth and unevenness of the sand [End Page 111] under foot” (12–13); “some actors are particularly attuned to sounds, while others connect to touch, and...