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2.3: The Stanislavsky Revolution

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  • One person who was determined to overturn mechanical and unrealistic performance styles was the Russian actor and director Konstantine Stanislavsky. His ongoing “system” of techniques would go on to revolutionize twentieth-eentury acting. Today, most Western training is based, wholly or in part, on his innovations.
    Born in 1863, Konstantine Sergeyevich Alekseyev was the second of nine children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer who liked theatre, opera, circus, and ballet. In order to entertain guests with his children’s performances, he converted a room in their country house into a theatre and eventually, a family theatre troupe was born. However, instead of embracing the amateur nature of their efforts, a fourteen-year-old Konstantine kept notebooks filled with serious questions about the acting process. He would spend hours in front of a mirror practicing his role and agonizing over his costumes. In his twenties, he became determined to pursue a theatrical career but was concerned about his family’s reputation. Therefore, he adopted the stage name Stanislavsky and appeared in risqué amateur shows in Moscow until his parents showed up at one of his performances. His father demanded that if he was to be an actor, he should work with professionals and apply himself to reputable material.

    In 1888, Stanislavsky formed and financed a group called the Society of Art and Literature. Rejecting the “star system,” where prominent actors received much attention when preparing a production while actors with small parts received almost no direction, the society strove for a sense of ensemble. Stanislavsky was a strong believer in the adage “There are no small parts, only small actors,” and every actor on stage was expected to have an inner life. For Stanislavsky the director, his highly detailed productions received positive attention, but as an actor, he continued to struggle to find truth in his own performances. In Г897, he came under the notice of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a critic and playwright, who requested a meeting. After an eighteen-hour conversation, the two men decided to create a new professional troupe that would overturn the artificiality of Russian theatre. It came to be known as the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT).

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    The entrance to the Moscow Art Theatre, where visitors are greeted by a photo of playwright Anton Chekhov. Photo by Pablo Sanchez.

    The first great success of this new theatre was The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. A doctor and short story writer, Chekhov pioneered a new kind of play that had none of the heroes and villains found in the melodramas of the time. Instead, his characters are flawed human beings struggling for personal happiness. Despite his complaints that Stanislavsky’s direction of The Seagull was too serious and theatrical, Chekhov allowed him to produce his subsequent plays, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry’ Orchard. Engaging with this new style of writing led Stanislavsky to consider a new approach —creating a role from the inside out rather than the false external physical means he had always relied upon.

    Eventually, Stanislavsky’s concerns about his own acting reached a crisis point. At the time, it was common for theatres to present plays in repertory, that is, showing the same plays in rotation for a number of years. Over time, it was easy for a part to feel lifeless. Stanislavsky believed his work was still full of bad theatrical habits and tricks and was desperate to save his roles from what he called “spiritual petrification.” What made his situation worse was that the other actors felt his situation too common to be a concern. Reflecting on the performances of his past, Stanislavsky realized that when he played the same role for a period of time, his most inspired performances came when he entered something he called “the creative mood” or “creative state of mind.” He wondered if there were systematic, technical means by which to make it appear and began to develop a series of exercises.

    Years later, while directing nonrealistic drama, he began to put new ideas about this creative mood into practice during rehearsals and studio acting classes held at the MAT. Although the actors resisted at first, his approach soon became adopted as the theatre’s primary training method. From Г909 until his death in 1938, he continued to develop his system, often with the help of other members of the MAT. Hundreds of exercises were tried, rejected, or refined. Stanislavsky never stopped experimenting and scolded his pupils who published details about his early methods. Nevertheless, successful international MAT tours elevated Stanislavsky’s notoriety, and many actors became intensely curious about these new techniques. Soon, Russian actors who emigrated began teaching early versions of the system, creating a false impression of a fixed set of rules instead of the provisional nature he wished to convey.

    The culmination of his views on actor-training, An Actor’s Work on Himself, did not appear in print until 1938. In the American edition, the material was divided into three books, translated as An Actor Prepares (9936), Building a Character (9948), and Creating a Role (1961), which was created from his notes. All took the form of the fictitious diary of an actor reporting his experiences of being taught by a teacher much like Stanislavsky.

    The features of his early system centered on ways to inspire relaxation, concentration, naïveté, and imagination. Relaxation was meant to address muscular tension, which Stanislavsky believed blocked emotional truth and physical expression. Exercises in concentration developed an actor’s ability to focus on objects and sensations, allowing the actor to direct the focus away from the audience. Naïveté and imagination improvisations were meant to produce a childlike state that would allow actors to believe in the imaginary circumstances of the play.

    What would later become the most controversial technique was called affective memory. It was designed to produce emotional states appropriate to a scene; actors were asked to recall details about a strong emotional moment in their lives such as fear, sadness, anger, love, or joy. Emotions were not meant to be accessed directly. Instead, actors would recall sensory details about the people and places involved. Although this method was at the heart of Stanislavsky’s program for some time, he later would consider it only as a last resort.

    What eventually displaced affective memory in his system was an approach he called the method of physical actions. Stanislavsky believed that the link between the mind and body is inseparable. Therefore, if an actor pursued an action, the emotional life connected to that action would follow. Based on the given circumstances of the play, the actor would decide what his character wanted in the play overall (the super-objective) and then what he wanted in each scene (objective). All actions onstage would be in the service of these objectives. Acting would now be action-based rather than driven by emotion. Instead of trying to stir emotional states or copying the observed emotions of others, Stanislavsky would ask actors to practice what he called “the magic if.” Actors would ask themselves: “What would I do if I were this character? What actions would I take to reach my objectives?” Unfortunately, these later developments were not as widely disseminated. As used today, the label “method acting” applies to American teachers such as Lee Strasberg who emphasized affective memory techniques.

    Generations of teachers continue to build upon or refine Stanislavsky’s work with their own exercises and imagery to produce desired results. Some even define themselves in opposition to his approach, proof of its continued importance. Today, you can find a host of training techniques for body and voice that have been created for actors or adapted from other disciplines to help performers broaden their skills as well as prepare and sustain a role. Examples include two Stanislavsky protégés, Michael Chekhov and Vsevelod Meyerhold, who developed their own unique actor training techniques.

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    In the field of movement and body awareness, Rudolf Laban, Frederick Matthias Alexander, and Moshé Feldenkrais have had a great influence. For vocal training, important innovators include Kristin Linklater, Arthur Lessae, Catherine Fitzmau- riee, and Cicely Berry. Today, actors are usually exposed to a variety of different methods, eager to find the best tools to realize human truth on the stage and elsewhere.

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