Isaac ButlerFeb 1, 2022
How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act
“When I set out to write this book, I decided to approach it like a biography. After all, the Method had parents, obscure beginnings, fumbling toward its purpose, a spectacular rise, struggles as it reached the top, and an eventual decline.” This is how Isaac Butler articulates his project in The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act (Bloomsbury, February 2022). The Method tracks the origins of this transcontinental school of naturalistic acting and its many contradictions, including its emphasis on individualist achievement within communitarian organizations and the actorly tension between psychological interiority and external action when building a character. In following the life of this concept, Butler reveals the impossibly charming, ambitious, questionable cast of characters that have defined the terms of Western acting in the twentieth century. In the process, he clears up many of the public misunderstandings around Method as an approach and as a style.
In this discussion, Butler details his first career in the theater as a professional actor, explores how Constantin Stanislavski’s “system” of acting was the farthest thing from systematic, explains the difference between method and Method, and divulges the many rivalries and hostilities between American M/method practitioners and instructors at mid-century.
Isaac Butler is the coauthor (with Dan Kois) of The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, which NPR named one of the best books of 2018. Butler’s writing has appeared in New York magazine, Slate, the Guardian, American Theatre, and other publications. For Slate, he created and hosted Lend Me Your Ears, a podcast about Shakespeare and politics, and currently co-hosts Working, a podcast about the creative process. His work as a director has been seen on stages throughout the United States. He is the co-creator, with Darcy James Argue and Peter Nigrini, of Real Enemies, a multimedia exploration of conspiracy theories in the American psyche, which was named one of the best live events of 2015 by the New York Times and has been adapted into a feature-length film. Butler holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Minnesota and teaches theater history and performance at the New School and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.
Annie Berke is the Film Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022). Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, Public Books, Literary Hub, The Forward, and Camera Obscura.