Illuminating a play’s text for the audience remains the primary task for actors, which they accomplish according to the nature of the literature they are called on to perform. A fiery melodrama with stock characters, for example, requires broad gestures and declamatory speech, whereas a realistic play with complex characterization necessitates a more lifelike approach. At the same time, actors, as the principal instruments of drama, reflect, as all artists do, the values, tastes, and fashions of the society in which they perform. Because a theater audience registers its approval or disapproval at the moment of artistic “creation” (in the sense that all stage plays are fully created only when performed), the actor remains one of the few artists who immediately respond to the demands of the public. Theater represents the most immediate of art forms, reflecting societal moods and anticipating change; thus, as society evolves, it creates new trends in dramatic literature, with acting styles reflecting those changes. A twenty-first century American audience viewing a nineteenth century melodrama would find the broad gestures and declamatory speech laughable; conversely, the nineteenth century audience would be bored and confused by the stark realism of twenty-first century American stage.
Actors are their own instruments. Whereas sculptors have clay with which to mold their art, actors use their voices, bodies, and individual characteristics as their clay. Actors’ methodology—how they create a role—lies at the center of a debate that has raged for centuries. One theory holds that actors should create the role through mechanical means; that is, they should not experience the emotion of the character but should simulate it through logical and deliberate choice of gesture and vocal inflection. In contrast, the creative or psychological approach insists that actors should create from the inside, emphasizing motivation and emotion. The first theory, or external approach, presupposes the importance of characterization over the personality of the actor, whereas the second, or internal approach, emphasizes the importance of the actor’s emotions projected through the character. In the early 1900’s, the great Russian actor-teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky fused the two theories into one system.