stanislavsky method

 

Constantin Stanislavski

Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski (17 January 1863 – 7 August 1938), was a Russian actor and theatre director. His innovative contribution to modern European and American realistic acting has remained at the core of mainstream western performance training for much of the last century. Building on the directorially-unified aesthetic and ensemble playing of the Meiningen company and the naturalistic staging of Antoine and the independent theatre movement, Stanislavski organized his realistic techniques into a coherent and usable system. Thanks to its promotion and development by acting teachers who were former students and the many translations of his theoretical writings, Stanislavski's system acquired an unprecedented ability to cross cultural boundaries and developed an international reach, dominating scholarship about acting in the West. That many of the precepts of his system seem to be common sense and self-evident testifies to its success. The pedigrees of many acting teachers in America, including Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen can be traced to Stanislavski, his theories and/or his disciples.

Stanislavski treated theatre-making as a serious endeavour, requiring dedication, discipline and integrity, and the work of the actor as an artistic undertaking. Throughout his life, he subjected his own acting to a process of rigorous artistic self-analysis and reflection. His system resulted from a persistent struggle to remove the blocks he encountered. His development of a theorized praxis—in which practice is used as a mode of inquiry and theory as a catalyst for creative development—identifies him as the first great theatre practitioner.

Stanislavski's work was as important to the development of socialist realism in the USSR as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States. Many actors routinely identify his system with the American Method, although the latter's exclusively psychological techniques contrast sharply with Stanislavski's multivariant, holistic and psychophysical approach, which explores character and action both from the 'inside out' and the 'outside in'. Stanislavski's work draws on a wide range of influences and ideas, including his study of the modernist and avant-garde developments of his time (naturalism, symbolism and Meyerhold's constructivism), Russian formalism, Yoga, Pavlovian behaviourist psychology, James-Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy. He described his approach as 'spiritual Realism'.

Stanislavski wrote several works. Those available in English translation include An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, Creating a Role, and the autobiography My Life in Art.


Biography

Stanislavski had a privileged youth, growing up in one of the richest families in Russia, the Alekseievs; he was born Constantin Sergeyevich Alexeiev—"Stanislavski" was a stage name that he adopted in 1884 in order to keep his performance activities secret from his parents. The prospect of becoming a professional actor was considered beneath someone of his social class; actors had an even lower social status in Russia than in the rest of Europe, having only recently been serfs and the property of the nobility. The Alexeievs were a prosperous, bourgeois family, whose factories manufactured gold and silver braiding for military decorations and uniforms. Up until the communist revolution in 1917, Stanislavski often used his inherited wealth to fund his theatrical experiments in acting and directing. His family's disapproval meant that he appeared only as an amateur onstage and as a director until 1896.

As a child, Stanislavski was exposed to a rich cultural life; his interests included the circus, the ballet, and puppetry. His father, Sergei Vladimirovich Alekseiev, was elected head of the merchant class in Moscow (one of the most important and influential positions in the city) in 1877; that same year, he had a fully-equipped theatre on his estate at Liubimovka built for the entertainment of his family and friends, providing a forum for Stanislavski's adolescent theatrical impulses. Stanislavski started, after his début performance there, what would become a life-long series of notebooks filled with critical observations on his acting, aphorisms, and problems. It was from this habit of self-analysis and critique that Stanislavski's system later emerged A second family theatre was added in 1881 to their mansion at Red Gates, on Sadovaia Street in Moscow (where Stanislavski lived from 1863 to 1903); their house became a focus for the artistic and cultural life of the city. Stanislavski chose not to attend university, preferring to work in the family business.

Early influences

Increasingly interested in "living the part," Stanislavski experimented with the ability to maintain a characterization in real life, disguising himself as a tramp or drunk and visiting the railway station, or disguising himself as a fortune-telling gypsy; he extended the experiment to the rest of the cast of a short comedy in which he performed in 1883, and as late as 1900 he amused holiday-makers in Yalta by taking a walk each morning "in character". In 1884, he began vocal training under Fiodor Komissarzhevski, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and leading tenor of the Bolshoi (and father of the famous actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya), with whom he also explored the co-ordination of voice and body. Together they devised exercises in rhythmical movement, which anticipated Stanislavski's later use of physical rhythm when teaching his system to opera singers. Komissarzhevski provided one of the models (the other was Stanislavski himself) for the character of Tortsov in his actor's manual An Actor's Work (1938). A year later, in 1885, Stanislavski briefly studied at the Moscow Theatre School, where students were encouraged to mimic the theatrical tricks and conventions of their tutors. Disappointed by this approach, he left after little more than two weeks.

Instead, Stanislavski devoted particular attention to the performances of the Maly Theatre, the home of psychological realism in Russia. Psychological realism had been developed here by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Shchepkin. In 1823, Pushkin had concluded that what united the diverse classical authors—Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille and Calderón—was their common concern for truth of character and situation, understood as credible behaviour in believable circumstances:

Gogol, meanwhile, campaigned against overblown, effect-seeking acting. In an article of 1846, he advises a modest, dignified mode of comic performance in which the actor seeks to grasp "what is dominant in the role" and considers "the character's main concern, which consumes his life, the constant object of his thought, the 'bee in his bonnet.'" This inner desire forms the "heart of the role," to which the "tiny quirks and tiny external details" are added as embellishment. The Maly soon became known as the House of Shchepkin, the father of Russian realistic acting who, in 1848, promoted the idea of an "actor of feeling." This actor would "become the character" and identify with his thoughts and feelings: he would "walk, talk, think, feel, cry, laugh as the author wants him to." A copy of Shchepkin's Memoirs of a Serf-Actor, in which the actor describes his struggle to achieve a naturalness of style, was heavily annotated by Stanislavski. Shchepkin's student, Glikeriya Fedotova, was Stanislavski's teacher (she was responsible for instilling the rejection of inspiration as the basis of the actor's art, along with the stress on the importance of training and discipline, and the practice of responsive interaction with other actors that Stanislavski came to call "communication"). Shchepkin's legacy included the emphasis on a disciplined, ensemble approach, the importance of extensive rehearsals, and the use of careful observation, self-knowledge, imagination and emotion as the cornerstones of the craft.

As well as the artists of the Maly company, performances given by foreign star actors—who would often come to Moscow during Lent (when Russian actors were prohibited from appearing)—also influenced Stanislavski. The effortless, emotive and clear playing of the Italian actor Ernesto Rossi, who performed major Shakespearean tragic protagonists in Moscow in 1877, particularly impressed Stanislavski. So too did Tommaso Salvini's 1882 performance of Othello. Years later, Stanislavski wrote that Salvini was the "finest representative" of the "art of experiencing" approach to acting.

The Society of Art and Literature


Stanislavski with his soon-to-be wife Maria Lilina, playing Ferdinand and Louise in The Society of Art and Literature's production of Schiller's Intrigue and Love in 1889.

By the age of twenty-five, Stanislavski was well-known as an amateur actor. He made a proposal to Fyodor Sologub and Aleksandr Fedotov (a theatre director and estranged husband of Glikeriya Fedotova) to establish a society that would unite amateur and professional actors and artists. The profits from his family's factory were particularly high in 1887-1888; Stanislavski decided to use the surplus 25,000-30,000 roubles to form the Society of Art and Literature, for which he had the Ginzburg House on Tverskaia Street converted into a luxurious clubhouse with its own large stage and exhibition rooms. Fedotov became head of the dramatic section, Komissarzhevski was the head of the operatic and musical section, while Sologub was appointed head of the graphic arts section; the drama and opera sections each had a school. To research the curriculum of the society's drama school, Stanislavski spent the summer of 1888 studying the classes and performances of the Comédie-Française in Paris. The society's school was to offer classes in dramatic art, the history of costume, make-up, drama, Russian literature, aesthetics, fencing and dancing. The school opened on 8 October 1888 while the society itself was officially inaugurated on 3 November. Under the auspices of the society, Stanislavski performed in plays by Molière, Schiller, Pushkin, and Ostrovsky, as well as gaining his first experiences as a director.  With the guidance of Fedotov and Sologub, Stanislavski finally abandoned the operatic conventions and theatrical clichés in his acting that he had mimicked from other actors' performances. He also became interested in the aesthetic theories of Vissarion Belinsky. From Belinsky he took his conception of the role of the artist, on which he based a moral justification for his desire to perform that accorded with his family's sense of social responsibility and ethics. At this time Stanislavski warned in his diary:

On 5 July 1889, Stanislavski married Maria Lilina (the stage name of Maria Petrovna Perevostchikova), with whom he had just performed in Intrigue and Love. Their first child, Xenia, died of pneumonia in May 1890 less than two months after she was born.Their second daughter, Kira, was born on 21 July 1891. In January 1893, Stanislavski's father died. Their son Igor was born 14 September 1894.

In 1889 in the society's production of Aleksey Pisemsky's historical play Men Above The Law, Stanislavski discovered his "principle of opposites," as expressed in his aphoristic advice to the actor: "When you play a good man, try to find out where he is bad, and when you play a villain, try to find where he is good." Stanislavski insisted that the actors learnt their parts thoroughly, almost entirely removing the prompter from the society's productions.

Stanislavski described his production of Leo Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment in February 1891 as his first fully-independent directorial work. His directorial methods at this time were closely modeled on the disciplined, autocratic approach of Ludwig Chronegk, the director of the Meiningen Ensemble, whose productions of Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, as well as a number of plays by Schiller, Stanislavski had studied enthusiastically during their second visit to Moscow in 1890. The Ensemble's general approach included historical accuracy in set, props and costumes and complex crowd effects achieved through a tightly-drilled rehearsal process. Its use of off-stage sound to produce the illusion of a reality beyond the visible stage particularly impressed Stanislavski. Their productions demonstrated a model for artistic achievement with relatively unskilled actors that Stanislavski was to adopt for the early part of his career as a director. By means of a rigid and detailed control of the mise-en-scène, including the strict choreography of the actors' every gesture, in Stanislavski's words "the inner kernel of the play was revealed by itself." Whereas the Ensemble's effects tended toward the grandiose, however, Stanislavski introduced lyrical elaborations through the mise-en-scène that dramatised more mundane and ordinary elements of life, in keeping with Belinsky's ideas about the "poetry of the real":

Stanislavski uses the theatre and its technical possibilities as an instrument of expression, a language, in its own right. The dramatic meaning is in the staging itself. [...] He went through the whole play in a completely different way, not relying on the text as such, with quotes from important speeches, not providing a 'literary' explanation, but speaking in terms of the play's dynamic, its action, the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, the world in which they lived. His account flowed uninterruptedly from moment to moment.

Writing years later in his autobiography My Life in Art (1925), Stanislavski described Chronegk's approach as one in which the director is "forced to work without the help of the actor." Jean Benedetti suggests that

anislavski's task at this stage was to unite the realistic tradition of the creative actor inherited from Shchepkin and Gogol with the director-centered, organically unified naturalistic aesthetic of the Ensemble's approach.

It was at this time that Stanislavski first met Leo Tolstoy.Tolstoy re-wrote the fourth act of his The Power of Darkness along the lines of Stanislavski's suggestions in 1896. Tolstoy was another important influence on the development of Stanislavski's thought; his What Is Art? (1898) promoted immediate intelligibility and transparency as an aesthetic principle. On the eve of creating the Moscow Art Theatre, Stanislavski wrote of the importance of simplicity, directness and accessibility in art.

From 1894 onwards, as part of his painstaking rehearsals for Karl Gutzkow's melodrama Uriel Acosta and Shakespeare's Othello, Stanislavski began to assemble detailed prompt-books that included a directorial commentary on the entire play and from which not even the smallest detail was allowed to deviate in rehearsals. Stanislavski's Othello (1896) made a strong impression on the twenty-two year old Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was later to work with him before becoming an important director and theatre practitioner in his own right. "The task of our generation," Stanislavski wrote at this time, is "to liberate art from outmoded tradition, from tired cliché and to give greater freedom to imagination and creative ability."

The Moscow Art Theatre

In 1896 Stanislavski discussed with Nikolai Efros his ideas for a scheme to establish a network of touring theatre companies that would bring high-quality drama to the surrounding area of selected towns. He proposed to call them "open" or "accessible" theatres, in a bid to avoid alarming the authorities with their connection to the dangerously democratizing "popular theatre" movement that was spreading across Europe, spearheaded by Romain Rolland. In February 1897 Stanislavski joined Anton Chekhov, whom he had met on 15 February at a literary-musical evening, in an open public discussion on the creation of a popular theatre that was reported in the press. At this time he also helped to organise the first all-Russian conference on the theatre, whose keynote speaker, Yevtikhiy Karpov, urged the creation of a "Russian people's theatre."

It was Stanislavski's meeting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko on 22 June 1897, however, that would create what was called initially the "Moscow Public-Accessible Theatre" but which came to be known as the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT). Their eighteen-hour discussion—lasting from lunch at 2 p.m. in a private room in the Slavic Bazaar restaurant to 8 a.m. the following morning over breakfast at Stanislavski's family estate at Liubimovka—has acquired a legendary status in the history of theatre.Nemirovich, a successful playwright, critic, theatre director and acting teacher at the Moscow Philharmonic School of Music and Drama, was also committed to the idea of a popular theatre.Their abilities complemented one another: Nemirovich needed Stanislavski's directorial talent for creating vivid stage images and selecting significant details, while Stanislavski needed Nemirovich's talent for dramatic and literary analysis, his professional expertise and his ability to manage a theatre. Stanislavski later compared their discussions to the Treaty of Versailles, their scope was so wide-ranging; they agreed on the conventional practices they wished to abandon and, on the basis of the working method they found they had in common, they worked out the policy of their new theatre. Together they would forge a professional company with an ensemble ethos that discouraged individual vanity, selecting actors from Nemirovich's class at the Philharmonic school and Stanislavski's amateur Society of Art and Literature group, along with other professional actors; they would create a realistic theatre of international renown, with popular prices for seats, whose organically-unified aesthetic would bring together the techniques of the Meiningen Ensemble and those of André Antoine's Théâtre Libre (which Stanislavski had seen during trips to Paris). Responsibility was to be shared between them on the basis of their individual strengths, with Stanislavski overseeing production and Nemirovich in charge of the repertoire and literary decisions; each had a veto.

Given that Stanislavski's family's assets amounted to some 8 million roubles at the time, Nemirovich assumed initially that Stanislavski would fund the theatre as a privately-owned business, but Stanislavski insisted on a limited, joint stock company. Stanislavski would only ever invest an initial 10,000 roubles in the MAT. To raise the rest of the theatre's 28,000 roubles launch capital, Nemirovich persuaded some of the directors of the Philharmonic Society to contribute. Members of the board of the Society of Art and Literature also invested, but the theatre's principal shareholder was to be Savva Timofeievich Morozov, who invested 10,000 roubles. The company had 13 shareholders, who signed an agreement on 10 April 1898. With an annual salary of 4,200 roubles each, Stanislavski and Nemirovich were to represent the interests of the acting company in the business, though with the aim of transferring control to the actors eventually. The company consisted of 39 actors, 23 men and 16 women, 30% of whom came from Nemirovich's Phiharmonic class and 35% of whom came with Stanislavski from the Society of Art and Literature, with a total staff numbering 323. Viktor Simov, whom Stanislavski had met in 1896, was engaged as the company's principal designer.

For want of suitable rehearsal space in Moscow, the company met in Pushkino, 50 miles from the city. In his opening speech on the first day of rehearsals, 14 June 1898, Stanislavski stressed the "social character" of their collective undertaking: "We are striving to create the first rational, moral, and public-accessible theatre," he said, "and we dedicate our lives to this high goal."  In an atmosphere more like a university than a theatre, as Stanislavski described it, the company was introduced to his working method of extensive reading and research and detailed rehearsals in which the action was defined at the table before being explored physically. Throughout June and July the company rehearsed productions of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Sophocles' Antigone, Hauptmann's Hannele, Pisemsky's Men Above The Law, Lenz's The Tutor and Alexei Tolstoy's Tsar Fiodor Ioannovich. It was at these rehearsals that Stanislavski's life-long relationship with Vsevolod Meyerhold began; by the end of June, Meyerhold was so impressed with Stanislavski's directorial skills that he declared him a genius.] On his death-bed Stanislavski was to declare Meyerhold "my sole heir in the theatre—here or anywhere else."

Anton Chekhov's The Seagull was performed. Initially Chekhov did not grant Danchenko's request to perform the play because he wanted a more experienced troupe to perform it. Stanislavski beautified and innovated Chekov's script, and it created shock in the audiences. According to The Stanislavski Technique: Russia, by Mel Gordon, "his detailed realism transformed the most commonplace scene into an orchestrated display of minute effects... something modern had been born." The MAT had created what became known as psychological realism. Psychological realism exposed hidden conflicts within relationships, that are so embedded in everyday life. Chekhov never liked the rendition of his play, but the rest of the audience, and the rest of the world, started to like the work of the MAT. It was then that the MAT became known as the House of Chekhov as they produced Chekhov's melancholic plays like Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. The MAT opened up classes in dance, voice and fencing. During the Russo-Japanese War, the group traveled to Germany and Eastern Europe, where they were so admired that one German playwright called them "artistic divinities," and parades were made in their honor.

Upon returning to Russia, Stanislavski fell into an artistic crisis, where his acting and directing became erratic, as he professed his lack of fulfillment and inspiration. He went to Finland with his wife on vacation. The company under the direction of Stanislavski only toured the United States once in 1922-1923. Although they performed in Russian, the verisimilitude of the acting and the ensemble work impressed all who saw them, particularly a number of young actors starting their careers in the commercial theater in New York. Two former members of the company, Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya, began teaching the System at the American Laboratory Theater. Their students included Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg.

Stanislavski's system

Stanislavski's system was a systematic approach to training actors. He developed principles and sets of exercises to help actors develop their acting techniques. Areas of study included concentration, voice, physical skills, emotion memory, observation, harmony, analysis, creativity and personalisation. Stanislavski thought of his system as if it were a table of contents for a large book, which dealt with all aspects of acting.

Stanislavski's system focused on the development of artistic truth onstage by teaching actors to "live the part" during performance. Stanislavski developed the system to be applied to all forms of theater, including melodrama, vaudeville, and opera. In order to create an ensemble of actors all working together as an artistic unit, he began organizing a series of studios in which young actors were trained in his system. At the First Studio of MAT, actors were instructed to use their own memories in order to naturally express emotions.

Stanislavski soon observed that some of the actors using or abusing Affective Memory were given to hysteria. Although he never disavowed Emotional Memory as an essential tool in the actor's kit, he began searching for less draining ways of accessing emotion, eventually emphasizing the actor's use of imagination and belief in the given circumstances of the text rather than her/his private and often painful memories.

The Method of Physical Actions

In the beginning, Stanislavski proposed that actors study and experience subjective emotions and feelings and manifest them to audiences by physical and vocal means using Theatre language. While his system focused on creating truthful emotions and then embodying them, he later worked on the Method of Physical Actions. This was developed at the Opera Dramatic Studio from the early 1930s, and worked like Emotion Memory in reverse. The focus was on the physical actions inspiring truthful emotion, and involved improvisation and discussion. The focus remained on reaching the subconscious through the conscious.

Legacy


Stanislavski had different pupils during each of the phases of discovering and experimenting with his system of acting. One student, Richard Boleslavsky, founded the American Laboratory Theatre in 1925. One of Boleslavsky's students, Lee Strasberg, went on to co-found the Group Theatre (1931-1940) with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, which was the first American acting company to put Stanislavski's initial discoveries into practice. Clurman and Strasberg had a profound influence on American acting, both on stage and film, as did Stella Adler, who had studied directly with Stanislavsky and quarreled with Strasberg's approach to the work, and as did Uta Hagen (author of Respect for Acting) whose teaching sprung from Clurman's influence on her. In fact, almost every significant method of training in America derived, either by first-hand or second-hand knowledge or hearsay, from the work of Stanislavsky, and the so-called "Method" was a distillation of his system.

Among the actors who have employed Stanislavski's system in some form are Jack   Nicholson, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Harvey Keitel, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Robert Duvall, Johnny Depp, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Jessica Lange, William Hurt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio del Toro, Mark Ruffalo, Vincent D'Onofrio, Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet, Adrien Brody, Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor, Hilary Swank, Anthony Hopkins, John Alexander and Sean Penn.

Stanislavski uses the theatre and its technical possibilities as an instrument of expression, a language, in its own right. The dramatic meaning is in the staging itself. [...] He went through the whole play in a completely different way, not relying on the text as such, with quotes from important speeches, not providing a 'literary' explanation, but speaking in terms of the play's dynamic, its action, the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, the world in which they lived. His account flowed uninterruptedly from moment to moment.

Sir John Gielgud said, "This director found time to explain a thousand things that have always troubled actors and fascinated students." Gielgud is also quoted as saying, "Stanislavski's now famous book is a contribution to the Theatre and its students all over the world."

Stanislavski's goal was to find a universally applicable approach that could be of service to all actors. Yet he said of his system: "Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you."

Stanislavski's aim was to have characters performed as "truthfully" as possible, relying on full commitment to objectives and physical actions, rather than artificial reproduction of emotion.