Monday, November 3, 2014

Stanislavsky and the Art of the Actor

Stanislavsky and the Art of the Actor

Stanislavsky started his theatrical life as an actor in Moscow in the late 1880's. Like many European actors of his era, he struggled with trying to create realistic and moving performances but he also wrestled with how to achieve this consistently. In the early 1890's, he set out to create a system to help achieve and develop a realistic style of performance. This combined with his embracing of the use of naturalistic sets and costumes led to his development of acting methods which have become pivotal to actor training since his discoveries.

The Meiningen Company visited Moscow in the 1890's. Moscow audiences saw for the first time realistic costumes and sets, well-directed mob scenes, an orchestrated mise en scene and a disciplined realistic style. This helped Stanislavsky to reject the gestural histrionic style of acting in vogue in Russia during the 19th century and embraced Naturalism.
I did not miss a single one of their performances. I came not only to look but to study as well.”
(Stanislavsky in Braun 1986)

What appealed to Stanislavsky about the approaches he saw was not just the ensemble playing but that he saw that these methods could be applied to everything from tragedy to the native Russian tragi-comedy. His yearnings were also echoed by another one of his contemporaries, the Russian writer and dramaturg Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko.
Psychological development, various features of social environment, problems of morality, attempts to find ways of merging with the author, striving for simplicity and truthfulness, search for greater expressiveness of diction, mimicry, plastic pose, individual surprise, discoveries, fascination, infectious, daring confidence – these are some of the ingredients of exciting work.”
(Danchenko in Harwood 1985)

In the busy Slavic Bazaar restaurant in Moscow, the director and the dramaturg, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, met at 2pm for lunch to forge the ideas for a new theatre. They finished 18 hours later at 8am after breakfast at Stanislavsky's family estate, having discussed all the elements of a theatre ensemble and system which would change the face of theatre from specific actor training to directing and dramaturgy to artistic ideals, rehearsal structures, compilation of plays and seasons. They emerged with a system, approach and doctrine for a theatrical revolution.

There are no small parts, there are only small actors. One must love art, and not one's self in art. Today hamlet, tomorrow, a walk on, but even in a walk-on you must become an artist. The poet, the actor, the artist, the costumier, the stage-hand serve one goal, which is placed by the poet in the basis of his (sic) play.”
(Harwood 1985)

For Stanislavsky, the days of short two and three day rehearsal periods were numbered. In 1898, Stanislavsky and Danchenko founded the Moscow Arts Theatre. Like many late 19thCentury (and indeed modern theatre companies), the success of their work was dependent not only on their style and training methods but on their search for and their fostering of new playwrights. It must be remembered that it was Danchenko who procured plays for the company, read and 'discovered' playwrights and furnished the company with many of its production ideas.

Nemirovich-Danchenko must be given credit for the Moscow Arts Theatre's survival. His artistic vision, business acumen, dramaturgical skills and cultural diplomacy kept the company going through the optimistic years at the beginning of the 20th Century, WW1, the fall of the Tsar and the Russian Revolution and the early days of the Soviet Union. It was he who read and championed the plays of Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov's writing matched Stanislavsky's realistic style of production with its use of large cast ensembles, detailed sense of character and use of psychological tension. As he worked on the plays of playwrights like Chekhov, Stanislavsky came to place less importance on external naturalistic details and more importance on the actor's development of character, a focus that Stanislavsky maintained all of his life (except during a brief period in the 1920's when, encouraged by Soviet cultural policy, he flirted with Formalism). He talked to, studied and observed some of the greatest actors of his time and attempted to bring together his observations and knowledge into a system that could be used by actors and directors (Hagen 1973:6).

What began to evolve was a realism of performance dependent on the inner realism of character creation. Stanislavsky expected this to be developed through methods of training that would enable actors to react as the character would react rather than how they as actors would react. Stanislavsky's System started to map for the actor, an artistic journey from the Conscious to the Unconscious. Stanislavsky's early training methods were developed during this period and they are outlined in detail in his early books An Actor Prepares and Building a Character. He advocated actors using sensory and emotional stimuli to develop truthfulness in their role through reading the playtext in detail. The actor should initially concentrate on the physical action in the play and this in turn stimulates the human faculties of Feeling, Will and Intellect necessary for the development of the character. This made Stanislavsky's work a quest for truth and life in character interpretation (Brockett 1994).

Stanislavsky saw the major function of his system as maintaining the illusion of a real environment to convey the reality of the play (Johnston 1963: ) and he advocated training actors in Relaxation, Breathing, Voice, Speech, Language and its laws, Movement, dance, fencing and Physical Expressiveness. Although we may think of Stanislavsky as primarily concerned with actors, he has been a major influence on directors. He suggested that young directors should start with searching for a unifying metaphor in the whole play or part of the play. He also saw that directing problems can be solved by referring to the units of action in the play and searching for intentions and objectives.

The search for ways to create inner truth for the actor became Stanislavsky's quest. He saw the process of involved an Internal Theatrical State which is fed by an External Theatrical State. The most crucial aspects of the External Theatrical State became finding the Given Circumstances and the External Tempo-Rhythm of a character while Units, Objectives and Emotional Memory became the hallmarks of the creation of Stanislavsky's Internal Theatrical State. Early in his work, Stanislavsky maintained that each section of a play should be broken down by the actors into its Units of individual action. After this the actor was to concentrate on finding the wants or Objectives of the character. Stanislavsky encouraged his actors not to look for and play the emotions or character traits of a character but to attempt to isolate the Objectives of the character for each unit of action. He saw that by playing objectives on stage, emotions and reactions would flow as a result. On top of this Stanislavsky saw that the actor should ultimately attempt to discover the Super-Objective or central purpose of the character.

Around 1900, Stanislavsky started to add to his thesis of acting by advocating that the actor should be able to isolate Circles of Attention. He further explored his theories of inspiration and the function of imagination and maintained that feeling of truth and belief and internal tempo-rhythm are created by an actor's engagement with Emotional Memory and the actor's Communion with other actors. Stanislavsky's approach to and use of Emotional Memory became the part of his system most widely used by American practitioners such as Lee Strasberg and actors who trained at the Actor's Studio. Their approach became known as Method Acting. To briefly explain the difference between Stanislavsky's use of Emotional Memory and that of Method Acting would take hundreds of pages but simply Stanislavsky advocated that actors use their own emotional memories to imaginatively create an emotional life and memories for their character which the actor recreates or uses on stage whereas Method Acting requires the actor to conjure up their own relevant emotional memories and asks the actor to relive these emotional memories on stage when the actor plays the character.

The quest for truth meant that during before rehearsals and during rehearsals, Stanislavsky took copious notes. These notes were read to actors and discussed during rehearsal and this became the main directing method of the Stanislavsky as a director. This use of a director's production notebook became crucial to Stanislavsky during his directing of Chekhov'sThe Seagull.

Stanislavsky eventually came to search for a psychological realism. The search for inner truth was stimulated by his search to find precise ways to produce the plays of Chekhov. He was on the trail of something new, something deeper and more significant than the realism of Antoine and the historically authentic productions of the Meiningen.

It was while preparing to direct Gorky's The Lower Depths that Stanislavsky made a major discovery. He went to locale where the play was set and instead of making his usual detailed notes on buildings and objects, he found himself intensely studying and making notes on people. The people he observed made him suddenly aware of the inner meaning of the play. The observational techniques he developed from this became crucial to his system.

In his later life, Stanislavsky sought to unite his concepts of internal and external technique. He believed that each every play had a logic and coherence of its own and that the actor had to adapt his technique to this. He believed that plays should be staged with fidelity to external realism through the use of authentic objects and sounds but he felt that beyond external realism there is an inner truth to be discovered and expressed. He became increasingly concerned with finding the ruling idea of a play and projecting that ruling idea, finding that concentrating on the external realities sometimes obscured or prevented this from emerging.

Stanislavsky developed a systematic approach for actors to prepare for and build characters, he expanded the role of the director as teacher, trainer and visionary and through his books and training of actors and directors has had the most monumental influence on drama in the late 19th and 20th Century.


In training an actor the following is a list of aspects that are normally worked on in the Stanislavsky System:
                Physical Control
                Speech Versatility & Control
                Vocal Communication - Subtext

In an actor preparing for a role using the Stanislavsky system the following is a guideline of what an actor may take as an approach:
·               Research
·               Subtext - Units and Objectives
·               Subtext - Emotion Memory
·               Tempo-Rhythm - Another Useful Tool
·               Fine Tuning - Speech
·               Fine-Tuning - Group Sensitivity, Teamwork
·               The Actor in Performance

Here are some exercises to develop different aspects of realistic acting in the Stanislavsky System:
1. The teacher could begin the work on Belief with an exercise in which the students do not even realise they are participating. Come into the studio in a real flap and tell the students you've lost your wallet, car keys, glasses, register, notes on Stanislavski, whatever you like. Make sure it is something really important - without the lost item, you, or they, will be in real trouble - so that they are really looking everywhere.  It's up to you to keep the urgency going in any way you can. Keep it going as long as you can, constantly whipping up their concern and commitment to the task. Eventually you disclose that this is all an exercise and that you want them to repeat their search from the beginning, trying to remember how they felt, behaved, etc. Observe them carefully. How convincing are they? Do they believe in what they are doing? How can you tell? Comment on their 'performance' as fully as you can. The discussion will help to realise how difficult it is to re-create something as 'real' in performance. Another way of doing this is to let one or two students in on the secret at the beginning, giving them instructions to observe closely the differences in feeling, commitment and sincerity between the two searches. 

Central to Stanislavski's System is believing in what you are doing. Only if the actor believes will the audience believe. They are drawn in by the sincerity of what the actor is doing. Basically the whole System is the set of aids by which the actor is helped to believe he is the role he is creating. 
Despite the fact the whole System is working towards belief, I find it helpful to do some 'belief exercises with students early on, which can prove a number of important things, starting with the realisation that belief 'in limbo' is well-nigh impossible.

To summarise his system and the most fundamental parts:
Here are seven questions which an actor may want to work through with a character to develop a part in a Stanislavskian way:

1. Who am I?
2. Where am I?
3. When is it?
4. What do I want? (From others not myself)
5. Why do I want it?
6. How will I get it?
7. What do I need to overcome?

As a guide, always work from the script to decide on the characters:
1. Motivations
2. Needs and Desires
3. Situation
4. How they will react.

A useful way to work through the following steps:
1. Read the script and work out who the character is, what their situation is and what their character wants. 
2. Divide the scene into beats or units.
3. Use verbs or actions to help decide on the objective for each beat or unit.
4. Determine the character's motivation for the action.
5. Use the 'Magic If' to strengthen the intention of the speech or scene.
6. Determine the emotion for the action and use an 'emotional memory' to strengthen the communication of a specific moment and a specific emotion.
7. Use the sense to communicate the emotion and intention and decide on what and where the focus is.
8. Create an inner monologue for the character.
9. Create the outer circumstances and outer creation while keeping the inner creation and intentions.

Here are some exercises to help you:
1.. Sit in a circle. Teacher leads by passing a scrumpled up piece of paper around the circle and telling them it is a bird that has fallen out of its nest, fully feathered but not yet able to fly. The students must be very gentle. Keep talking about the bird, its colour, size, the brightness of its eyes, ' Look at its beak opening, perhaps it's hungry'; 'How its claws grip, don't they?' - you are trying to build up belief by building up visual facts to hang onto. 
When the bird returns to you, you can do a number of things. 
You can mash it in your hands - this cruelly tests belief - those who have begun to believe will be horrified. You could gently place it in a box, or take it outside. It is up to you. The seriousness with which you, the teacher, approach this gives the students a clue as to how seriously these actors' exercises should be taken.

2.. Acting is also about Belief and Intention. Still in the circle, pass round an envelope containing a blank piece of paper. If the intention is different or what we project upon other people or objects changes, then this changes the way we treat the person or object. Acting is re-acting.
Use the paper as:
                a love letter
                a coded message containing escape plans
                exam results
                a letter calling off the engagement
                news of the death of a rich old aunt from whom you are due to inherit
                the offer of a job
                news that your son has been killed in the war
                the letter has been given to you by mistake

3. Pass an object around and each person must use it in a different way convincingly. The object could just be a stick, or the biro you have in your pocket. It could be used as a comb, a dagger, a mobile phone, etc. 
Variation: scatter and use any object in the room as something it is not; retain the same object and change what you use it as at least twice more.

4. After this series of exercises discuss the difficulties. Some will have the quality of 'naivety' that allows them to lose themselves in the imagination quickly and easily. Whether they could sustain that quality with a number of distractions is another matter. Others will have found it difficult to do these exercises. These students may well be those who are most honest about 'feeling' and 'believing' themselves. Encourage this honesty. Encourage them to see the difference between 'pretending' and 'believing'. 

This is the same relationship that 'magic if and 'given circumstances' have to one another. 'If is the plunge that the imagination is taking - 'if this piece of paper were a bird that had fallen from its nest ' - the imagination then asks questions - what? why? how? etc., it needs more detail, more facts, more 'given circumstances' - beak, bright eyes, colour, etc. Each new fact acts as an aid, a kind of fixative, to the imagination.

5. Use a stick, a strip of stiff cardboard or similar. The stick is a knife. It is used in an exercise that in some way involves life and death: you are contemplating killing a rival, or freeing a condemned captive, or performing an operation under difficult circumstances in which the patient may die.

You will need to build up a whole scenario answering the questions who? why? when? where? how? etc. Each one of these invented facts, or circumstances, will help the process of belief and make it easier. It will be helpful to build up belief in the 'knife' by starting with a kind of meditation on the object. Concentrate totally on it till you see its shape, size, feel its weight, test its sharpness and so on. Only when you really believe in the knife should you complete the exercise and perform the scene.
After the exercise is finished, jot down how many elements of the System are used and interrelated here. Magic if, given circumstances, concentration, imagination. All the elements feed into one another.

6. Test the inter-relationship of imagination/magic if with given circumstances to aid belief in another series of exercises:
Find your own space. You are cooking. There is your stove in front of you, saucepans and so on. Now begin.

For a moment they will look flummoxed; this is because they have so little to go on. Then they'll begin. Let them all carry on in their own space for a little, then stop them and ask a few questions: who are they? where? etc. By the readiness of their answers you will know if they have already felt the need to do this process for themselves. Hopefully, some of them will have found it impossible to proceed without inventing circumstances.
Now start the exercise again, but give it a specific scenario:
                You are a busy chef in a popular restaurant at half past ten on a Saturday night. Orders are coming from all directions, it is hot, the noise level is terrific...
                You are preparing a supper for a boy/ girl friend, wanting very much to impress with your capability; your parents are out for the evening, your special visitor is due to arrive in half an hour...

7. Try some enter/exit exercises. Treat it as a game with volunteers performing from the following categories in turn. Others must guess, for instance, where they are coming from.
                where you are coming from
                what has happened offstage to affect mood [argument with boss, for instance]
                when - what time of day it is
                a letter calling off the engagement
                news of the death of a rich old aunt from whom you are due to inherit
                why you are entering [to look for lost purse, for instance]

                where you are going off to
                when - time of day
                why - the reason for going
                what you are feeling [ e.g. you are psyching himself up to face a dreaded interview with the headmaster]

Finish this section by setting a number of tasks for which the individual students must invent their own 'if and 'circumstances'. Remember that the 'if is 'magic' because it gives the imagination that stimulatory nudge which will excite the actor into action. The 'circumstances' which he will 'give' or invent for himself are the facts needed to give substance to that imagined person and situation. Take them through the process first by sending one student up on the stage. Tell him to sit and wait. Then tell him to invent a reason for sitting there. Next he must add as many details as he needs - who is he? where is he? why is he there? what is he feeling about it? [How does this feeling make him sit?] This latter question is verging on the over-analytical at this stage. Analysis is useful but after the event. 

At this analytical stage discuss, too, a] how much of the feeling was stimulated by the invention of detailed information and b] how much the expression of that feeling, i.e. body language, facial expression, came naturally out of the inner state. Were any of these physical signs consciously imposed?

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