"... the System is not a hand me down suit that you can put on and walk off in, or a cook book where all you need is to find the page and there is you recipe. No, the System is a whole way of life...".
-Konstantin Sergeievich Alexeiev (Stanislavski) - Building a Character Chapter XVI
Stanislavski used his life in order to formulate and document the ultimate guide to acting - he called it his System. It enables an actor not just to get on stage and pretend but to truly become their character, and his teachings lead to the now legendary style of Method Acting which caused such a stir in America in the early half of the 20th century. The System has traditionally been given the highest status in Western theatre but more than that is owed to the man; he is the practitioner who is almost solely responsible for the style of acting seen today in the majority of contemporary theatre, television and film. Due to the complexity and intricacy of Stanislavski's System it is important that we must first understand the background of Russian theatre and the circumstances and tradition of it which surrounded and confronted Stanislavski during his remarkable career.
A brief biography
Russian theatre began to flourish during the beginning of the 19th century and was at that time under strict censorship and put within the jurisdiction of the police. In the early years Moscow and St. Petersburg were the only cities to sustain companies of any repute, while in the provinces theatre was little regarded or even known. Things began to change by the middle of the century more or less due to the influence of a few dramatists who delivered scathing attacks on authority cleverly disguised as social comedies. One such playwright was Gogol who, among many other plays, wrote The Government Inspector, a portrait of a corrupt small-town life which still continues to entertain and amuse audiences almost a century and a half later. Gogol is particularly important because of his relationship with the actor Schepkin. Together they succeeded, albeit temporarily, to impose a disciplined and professional approach to a craft which was in dire need of guidance. It was the complementary efforts of these two men to prevailing methods which made them of such special interest to Stanislavski as he worked towards creating a soundly based practice.
By the time Stanislavski came to work in professional theatre standards, however, were as arbitrary as they had ever been. His early career as a director was often taken up with such mundane matters as punctuality, drunkenness backstage and in certain cases real squalor. I am sure any director of amateur dramatics could sympathise. Staging methods were haphazard to say the least. Rehearsals were often conducted in the most perfunctory manner. Experienced actors would often simply inhabit a stage as they saw fit and deliver their lines downstage centre and out front. There was no accepted convention that actors should even address each other directly. Many thespians would only leave the theatre bar to see their favourite actor and then return to their drinking. The sets were usually drawn from stock; doors and windows being placed conveniently, with no reference to reality. Costumes were more often than not what the actor could provide or were chosen simply because the theatre had them in store. Stanislavski's overseas perambulations in order to do research and buy props and fabrics for costumes were unheard-of.
It must be remembered that Stanislavski's life was strongly set in the theatre from its beginnings. He grew up performing in amateur family theatricals, indulged and supported by his father and it was as a direct result of this that he became such an innovative actor and director. Not only was there an auditorium in his family home in Moscow but also one at their country home, where during the Summer months they could put on plays for family and relations. From this undoubtedly privileged background as an outsider he was in a particularly favourable position to view the work of the contemporary professional theatre. It was his influence and wealth that enabled him to create the first alternatives to such a theatre with the founding of the Society of Art and Literature in 1888. So began his assault on what he considered an outdated and outmoded practice.
Throughout his life he insisted on experimentation, both for the actor and the texts he chose to work from. His close relationship with Chekhov is crucial here, but he was brave to work with such authors as Maeterlinck and later Bulgakov. In the case of the former he was often in the face of incomprehension, in the latter fierce and dangerous official disapproval. It was Stanislavski's quest for knowledge and his desire for perfection which led him from the closed world of the semi-private companies into the national, and eventually international, world of professional theatre. With little training he embarked on a quest for truth in his art and devoted his life to that hard journey.
was a system of approaching the inexact science
. He tried in a sympathetic way to lay down ground rules
for approaching a character
and for how an actor might employ his body
in such a creation. Stanislavski has been and remains enormously influential as both a teacher
and a guide
; he has also been much written about, argued about and interpreted
by his disciples. For his system to have any meaning, however, it must be practice
d and during this process is sure to be challenged and re-interpreted for more than sixty years after his death
Theory and Practice
The Moscow Art Theatre
By 1897 Stanislavski was becoming disenchanted with the life of an amateur part-time actor, but when he was approached by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, an acting teacher at the Philarmonic School, things began to change. A meeting was soon arranged. It so happened that in 1897 Nemirovich has a particularly talented group of actors, who would make the ideal basis for a new company. Among them was Olga Knipper (later to become Chekhov's wife), and Meyerhold, both of whom were destined to become founding members of the new theatre and Stanislavski's lifelong friends. The meeting with Nemirovich lasted 18 hours, but by the end they had, in all but detail, laid the foundations for the policy of the theatre. They went as far as discussing individuals, and not for the last time, Stanislavski used the phrase when vetoing an actor: "She is a good actress but not for us... She does not love art, but herself in art". As Stanislavski records, he was to be predominantly responsible for artistic matters, such as devising the production plans and some directing, and would also continue as an actor. Nemirovich would look after literary matters, such as choosing the repertoire, and would also direct.
Benedetti, in his biography, highlights five separate qualities that at this time which concerned Stanislavski:
Fine sentiments, and built by Stanislavski on the foundations of the work and ethos of the great 19th century actor Schepkin, whom he quotes in My Life in Art "Seek your examples in life". In other words the actor had to go no further in his quest for truth than to base his art on his cumulative experience of the world around him, mediated and enhanced by the director's interpretation and the rehearsal process.
It took some time to acquire suitable premises and it wasn't until their fifth season that they moved into what became the Moscow Art Theatre. The stage was to be functional, the orchestra pit abolished, and the most up-to-date technical and lighting equipment installed. Above all, the two men sought to bring unity and freshness to all aspects of production and presentation. It was this vital philosophy that distinguished their work from the tired old ideals still so readily evident in the work of their rivals. It was to be a truly coherent company and it was to be based on the ethics and beliefs of the best of the past and present.
They sought to achieve the following:
- Choose plays from a classical repertoire, but also encourage new writing.
- Treat actors with proper respect. They in turn would be expected to respond with total dedication to the new discipline.
- Rehearse all plays for an agreed amount of time and mount all productions with new designs and costumes.
Realism and Naturalism
There is absolutely no doubt on Stanislavski's position on Realism. He made the concepts embodied in it the guiding principles of his life and work and was totally opposed to what he saw as the meaningless experiments of the avant-garde. Though he was noted for groundbreaking productions in new styles, such as The Bluebird (1908), he totally failed to appreciate Gordon Craig's point of view when discussing their production of Hamlet.
We need to be clear about the meaning of Realism, however, since there are as many definitions as there are contexts and the Moscow Art Theatre was no exception. Since Realism is often seen as synonymous with Naturalism, and since the term Realism is used frequently by Stanislavski, we must make a clear distinction between the two.
Naturalism as a movement in literature and drama was associated with the work of the French novelist Emile Zola. In the preface of his novel Thérèse Raquin he clearly explains:
"While I was writing Thérèse Raquin I was lost to the world, completely engrossed in my exact and meticulous copying of real life, and my analysis of the human mechanism"
This obsession with exposing a "slice of life" was for a time very influential, and before the term was eventually subsumed into Realism there were some noted practitioners. For example, Strindberg applied the same characters in his Miss Julie (1888) and, like Zola, wrote in his introduction an explanation of his intentions:
"So I do not believe in "theatrical characters". And these summary judgments that authors pronounce upon people - "He is stupid, he is brutal, he is jealous, he is mean", etc. - ought to be challenged by naturalists, who know how richly complex a human soul is..."
It was and remains an extremely influential document, calling into question the one-dimensional characters of 19th century playwriting. It also questions the actor's insistence on facing the audience at all times. However, one of the problems for us as readers is that Strindberg, even when writing this thesis, used the terms Realism and Naturalism as interchangeable.
The term Naturalism applied to these two writers' work and began to imply a concern with the suffering and degradation of the servant and working class and an obsession with love, death and moral decay. Realism had evolved from Naturalism and began to supercede it as the desire for an indiscriminate reproduction of lower class life in all its squalor ceased to fascinate the public. The majority of Stanislavski's plays were peopled by characters who reflected the lives of the bourgeois audience who would watch them (the only notable exception being Gorki's Lower Depths). Realism now involved the selection and distillation of the detailed observation of everyday life - not, as with Naturalism, the life itself. While there is an important discrimination to be made both words were used fairly interchangeably by practitioners at the time, including Stanislavski. However, while Stanislavski desired to work towards the idea of Realism, in practice he was smothering the real in the detail of Naturalism. A poignant example of this was Stanislavski's over-detailed naturalistic set design which he would later fall out with Chekhov over. Stanislavski wanted the highest standard of representation for each new production resulting in a stage picture which left nothing to the imagination.
Realism, as a method, stands apart because of its emphasis on the subtext of a play; text was no longer a matter of surface meaning and characters said things with hidden agendas and intentions. It was on the way towards an understanding of this and how it could be communicated with feeling that many aspects of the System were devised.
Subtext - literally "under the text" - is the unspoken nuance recognised by the audience, which gives the character more depth and therefore more realism. Part of the pleasure derived from watching a scene is the fact that we as an audience can recognise the sense behind the words, giving us an insight into the characters' motivations usually denied to the characters themselves. It goes without saying that the actors must also acknowledge and understand the subtext as well. The principles of subtext are embodied in such playwrights as Ibsen in Europe and Chekhov in Russia. It was through working with the latter and Gorki which forced Stanislavski to tackle the subject.
Beginnings of the System
The System was developed by Stanislavski over a period of about 30 years and from the very beginning he kept notebooks, annotating and evaluating all of his performances and the processes which lead to them. It was these records that enabled him to formulate the theatrical objectives of his teaching. Three poignant occasions, as suggested by Benedetti, show how Stanislavski was forced to evaluate his work.
The Society of Art and Literature
In 1888 Stanislavski along with Komisarjevski and Fedotov founded The Society of Art and Literature (a well documented account can be found in My Life In Art). Stanislavski took his first professional role in Pushkin's The Miser Knight and he found the process of rehearsing and performing long and painful. However, this daunting experience was much helped by Fedotov who, in an effort to help, cut away all Stanislavski's extraneous mannerisms. This meant that the character was almost entirely imitated and although being a qualified success did not advance his previous work. The same season Molière's Georges Dandin was performed. Stanislavski imported a kind of overblown extravagance of manner inappropriately based on his first-hand knowledge of Molière from visits to the Comédie Français the previous summer. Fedotov once again was forced to resort to demonstration and Stanislavski noticed that this entirely eliminated the process. He did, however learn something: the "accidental touch of the make-up brush" animated what would otherwise have been a mere carbon copy. Stanislavski realised that external details help to animate the part.
In 1895, while on the verge of the creation of the Art Theatre, Stanislavski produced and starred in Othello. As part of his plan for preparation he visited Venice to research locations and buy fabrics, furniture and props, the idea being that his detailed production plan would bring life to the text. It was his intention from the first to reproduce as much of the reality of the play as possible, heavily influenced by the Meiningen tradition, and to his delight while away he also found his role model for the Moor:
"In one of the summer restaurants of Paris I met a handsome Arab in his national costume... With the help of the waiter we made the designs of the costume. I learned several bodily poses which seemed to me to be characteristic"
Stanislavski - My Life in Art
The production was a great success and every aspect focused on the objective: to create overwhelming psychological Realism.
By the time Chekhov's The Seagull was performed in 1898, Stanislavski was already joint-director at the Moscow Art Theatre. For the task of constructing the mise-en-scène, he by now what was the regular practice of heavily annotating the text with both visual:
"The Seagull notebook is full of stage designs, descriptions of settings, diagrams of movement of grouping, plus hundreds of notes on blocking, picturization, and visual rhythms..."
and auditory elements:
"...notes about vocal rhythms, tempo, timbres, phrasings, sound effects, pauses..."
Despite his best intentions, Stanislavski produced imagery which almost swamped the text and he was taken to task by Nemirovich for too much emphasis on the excesses of Naturalism. However, this time the detail paid off; the critics agreed that the "sound score" (balance of sounds on and offstage) produced "heart wrenching moments of drama, as silence was juxtaposed with sudden bursts of half-heard sounds". The emotional motivation of the characters bad been revealed through an acknowledgement of understanding of the subtext, and altogether the production confirmed a company working at the height of its potential.
End of Beginnings
After the company's triumphant European tour in 1906 Stanislavski took a much deserved holiday to Finland where he reflected upon his life and work. After years of recording the agony of creation in his notebooks, he steadily began to sift through his writings and over the next two years began to identify what would be know as the System.
Stanislavski used the company as guinea pigs and in 1909 his production of A Month in the Country became the first play performed using the System in all its glory. The cast were baffled and full of personal anxiety at the strange new rehearsal process. For the first time such exercises that would later be known as Units and Objectives, Subtext, the Through-line of Action and the Super-objective were used.
The System had truly become a way of life
The System in Detail
The key text used for explaining the System below is An Actor Prepares supplemented by Building a Character, which contains further explanations and modifications. My Life in Art has been referred to but it is an autobiographical record and is therefore vague and occasionally imprecise.
For Stanislavski actionis one of the most important elements of the System. He conceived it to be concerned with meaningful and purposeful activity of an onstage actor - from the start a distinction must be made between action for action's sake, as an outward and physical form, and action that can be seen as action because of concentrated stillness onstage - which he calls "inner intensity".
Objective: To demonstrate that there is never a point when the actor is not engaged in the process of enactment, but at the same time the enactment must have a purpose:
"Do not run for the sake of running, or suffer for the sake of suffering. Don't act "in general", for the sake of action, always act with a purpose."
- An Actor Prepares, Chapter III
In other words it must always have a "why". Why am I coming through the door? What is the purpose of it? What might be behind it? How might I approach it? Why am I talking to myself?
Stanislavski uses the example, which he frequently refers to throughout his exercises, of a madman behind a door.
door = dilemma
Do I open it or not?
THE MAGIC IF
The magic if opens up possibilities for the actor of "creating a whole new life", of stimulating emotions. What would happen if...?
What would happen if the actress standing next to me was really my mother? What would happen if the print on the canvas was not really just a representation but a real place?
The magic if is really just an advanced form of make-believe. The actor must "sincerely believe in the possibility of what you are called to do on stage", or what Stanislavski later calls the "the imaginative fiction of another person". However it is not just "another person" but the circumstances in which that person can and will function.
The magic if can only be sustained within the context of...
THE GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCE
Given circumstances are the basis for an actor and his role, they are created by the playwright, the director and the designer and form the context in which the actor can ask can ask: what if...?
Stanislavski lists the circumstances:
- the story of the play
- its, facts, events, epoch, time and place of action
- conditions of life
- the actor's and regisseur's interpretation
- the production, the sets, the costumes, the props
- lighting and sound effects
The actor must believe in the given circumstances; through this belief he will be able to function at a high level of involvement. The goal throughout is a quest for truth:
"... it is necessary for the actor to develop to the highest degree his imagination, a childlike naïvete and trustfulness, an artistic sensitivity to truth abd the truthful in his soul and body."
- My Life in Art
"... when you begin to study each role you should first gather all the materials that have a bearing on it, and supplement them with more and more imagination..."
- An Actor Prepares
Stanislavski's teaching here relies very much on visual stimulus for the development of this faculty. The chapter contains more than one exercise that demands the actor to undergo a visualised journey.
"If you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically, without fully realising who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without your imagination."
- An Actor Prepares
One of the suggested exercises is to take a photograph or a painting and construct a character study from the picture - create an imaginary life.
CIRCLES OF ATTENTION
During much of Stanislavski's early career he was concerned with his perceived inability to relax onstage and he therefore examined ways to help an actor relax and focus.
He uses a device that he calls Circles of Attention to illustrate his point. Its prime purpose is in giving the actor a focus for his attention. Like ripples on a pond, these circles radiate from the centre of attention (the actor) and in ever increasing circumferences embrace the whole stage.
In the smallest circle the actor creates "Solitude in Public", a condition which focuses the actor within himself. By increasing the focus an actor can begin to take in further objects and gradually, by concentration, the whole of the stage/imagined world is brought into focus.
UNITS AND OBJECTIVES
Like so many other aspects of the System these two elements are inextricably entwined. In essence, the idea of Units is common sense; a play can be broken down not just into acts or scenes by the author, but by the director or actor into units of action.
These units are dominated and controlled by the objectives within them; while it is useful to work on a small manageable chunks, each chunk will have its own in-built objective. A unit ends with the end of the objective.
Stanislavski was against the creation of too many units: "The part and the play must not remain in fragments". Using a seagoing metaphor he likens the units to buoys in a channel, as guides for the actor in his voyage.
One of the most important features of the objectives contained within the units is that they are active, driving the text forward. For that reason Stanislavski insists on describing them with a verb rather than a noun. He uses the example of the noun "power". Simply by placing the words "I wish to..." in front he begins the process whereby an actor can actively free the objective: "I wish to obtain power over...". Immediately, with a qualifying verb, "power" becomes an active, less generalised, objective. As an example of an active objective we might examine what Stanislavski calls "the right objective" and the example he gives (AAP, p.120). Here he suggests that the act of shaking hands with a person to whom you wish to apologise to is not a simple act. It requires thought and the psychological exploration of many conflicting emotions. The active element is "I wish to make an apology...", while the emotional subtext is dependent on the circumstance of the act within the action of the play.
THE SUPER-OBJECTIVE AND THROUGH-LINE OF ACTION
Stanislavski emphasises firstly how important it is to identify an over-arching objective within a play. For example, Hamlet is about a man who wants to find a way through the muddle of his life so that he can make up his mind. Secondly, the through-line can be described as the main current that " galvanises all the small units and objectives". There are some useful diagrams, on page 276 in An Actor Prepares, that illustrate his point which are unfortunately well beyond my ASCII skills.
"Just as your visual memory can reconstruct an inner image of some forgotten thing, place or person, your emotion memory can bring back feelings you have already experienced".
- An Actor Prepares
Emotion memory is the most controversial of all the aspects of the System because of its adoption by by practitioners of the American "Method" in the late 40s and 50s. Stanislavski later rebuked the entire concept because of both its limitations and the fact that it led to self-reflective and introspective performances that failed to communicate.
Stanislavski's starting was Ribot's Problèmes de Psychologie Affective, which dealt with memory of feelings and emotions. It was Ribot's contention that the nervous system bore the marks of previous experiences, which could be recalled by a stimulus, such as sound, smell or touch, in a similar way to the sensation of déjà vu.
Stanislavski believed that it was an actor's duty to stimulate his emotion memory by making a conscious effort to broaden his range of experience: to create, as it were, a reservoir of memory from which to draw and on which to build. The memory could then be tapped into when the actor was working towards the creation of a character. Equally, as Stanislavski found, it could be used to re-invent emotions that had been fixed in rehearsal and that needed reproduction in performance from night to night.
"Always and for ever, when you are on stage, you must play yourself. But it will be in an infinite variety of combinations of objectives, and given circumstances which you have prepared for your part, and which have been smelted in the furnace of you emotion memory".
- An Actor Prepares
TEMPO-RHYTHM IN MOVEMENT
Stanislavski's later preoccupation with this aspect of the System marks a significant move away from the internalised work of Emotion Memory. Through his study of yoga and the work of eurythmics advocated by Dalcroze, Stanislavski goes to great lengths to explain his ideas:
"Wherever there is life there is action; wherever action, movement; where movement, tempo; and where there is tempo there is rhythm".
- Building a Character
Imagine a number of metronomes are set ticking with different beats and you have something close to Stanislavski's idea. This shows how an actor must find his own rhythm (inner) while at the same time being surrounded by other actors, all of whom have their own distinct rhythm (outer).
Thus an actor who might be frantic with worry (inner rhythm) may be acting in a scene where everyone else is discussing something as mundane as the weather (outer rhythm). An inner turmoil could be identified through its outward manifestation, or concealed (in this case) by a show of calm. Two rhythms are created, the one contradicting the other, leading to interesting dramatic tensions within the performance.
It is important that rhythms are kept distinct. All too easily a group of actors can pick up each other's rhythms, creating a generalised beat, which is all too often the slowest. A well-rehearsed rhythm can drive the play forward, with an imaginary conductor keeping all the rhythms intact.
"You must get accustomed to disentangling and searching out your own rhythm from the general, organised chaos of speed and slowness going on around you on the stage".
- Building a Character
Stanislavski also tackles the way two different external, physical tempo-rhythms can affect the atmosphere of a particular text, for example a slow rhythm suggesting a ceremonial or a faster rhythm leading to a more chaotic scenario. He draws attention to the strength of stillness, which in itself is a tempo-rhythm, and how that can be contrasted with rapid movement by other characters in the same scene.
THE METHOD OF PHYSICAL ACTION
Towards the end of his life, with An Actor Prepares all but published, it was through the physical, "the doing", that the actor might find "solidity and depth". What this boiled down to was more emphasis on improvisation as a way of unlocking aspects of both text and the role. Even in the last stages of revision of his teaching he continued to refine and draw together the rehearsal process.
There is no doubt that Stanislavski's System will be used, dissected, discussed and argued over as long as there is theatre. Among all practitioners Stanislavski is the one who has dominated the 20th Century and is still the most widely recognised in the 21st.
Stanislavski's legacy was a System that sought to present a methodical approach to the art of acting and directing. It was an enormous task, but it sprang from his own need to understand and wrestle with his own shortcomings.
The cast would like to thank:
An Actor Prepares - Stanislavski
Building a Character - Stanislavski
Creating a Role - Stanislavski
Stanislavski, A Biography - Benedetti, J.
Stanislavski, An Introduction - Benedetti, J.
The Director and the Stage - Braun, E.
Actors on Acting - Cole, T. and Chinoy, H.
Thérese Raquin - Zola, Emile (trans. Rothwell, A.)
Miss Julie - Strindberg, August (trans. Meyer, M.)
Plays - Chekhov, Anton (trans. Frayn, M)
Great Directors at Work - Jones, D.R.