No matter what acting methods and techniques you use today, they either have their roots in Stanislavski techniques, or were designed to specifically deviate from them. That’s because he was the first actor to focus on training and development as an actor. Before his time, actors weren’t concerned about realism in the portrayal of roles. Instead, they delivered deliberately exaggerated performances accompanied by equally exaggerated gestures and body language.
To expand on this, we’ll explore the Stanislavski acting techniques, their origin, their evolution over time, and the ways in which they influenced the acting methods and techniques that were to follow.
Who Was Konstantin Stanislavski?
Konstantin Stanislavski, born Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev in 1888 was a man who was born to tread the boards. His family had founded a dramatic company, the Alekseyev Circle, and Konstantin began his acting career at the age of just fourteen.
However, he was dissatisfied with himself as an actor, feeling that his voice and physical movements were weak and awkward. He also disliked the lack of believability that was commonly accepted in actors and acting at the time, and embarked on a process of self-improvement. His journey included an analysis of human behaviour and its portrayal through acting which he documented in detail throughout his life.
Aged 23, he adopted the stage name “Stanislavski,” the name by which he and his work are still known today, and went on to found the Moscow Art Theatre where he taught early followers from around the world his techniques. Turning the rehearsal room into a laboratory for testing new exercises and techniques, he can be credited with adding an element of science into the art of acting as we know it today.
The Origins and Progression of the Stanislavski Technique
The late 19th century saw a change in the type of material that actors interpreted that would prove influential in the development of Stanislavski’s acting methods. Whereas earlier works dealt with gods, kings, and mythical beings, a new realism in playwriting called for an increased focus on believability in acting. Instead of impressing audiences with the grandiose, actors were now required to draw them into the stories of ordinary people.
It was fertile ground for Stanislavski and his ever-developing philosophies and methods. Through his training techniques and acting methodology, he aimed to help creators to portray characters in a believable way, reflecting not only their actions, but also their inner motivations.
His early work had a greater inward focus and was later built upon by Lee Strasberg, while his later work strove to develop a balance between inward focus and external preparation and was later developed further by Stella Adler. Both of these contributions were based on their proponents’ training under Stanislavski.
Stanislavski’s Principles of Acting
In Stanislavski’s quest for realism in acting, several principles became central to his methods.
The Magic “If”: Stanislavski wanted realism, but he didn’t believe it would be healthy for actors to see the events they portrayed as “real.” Instead, he asked them to consider what they would do and how they would act “if” they were their character and were faced with a particular situation.
Given Circumstances: Stanislavski rightly believed that it would be impossible to portray a character realistically if one failed to consider the known circumstances surrounding the character. This could include any “facts” surrounding characters and their backgrounds.
Super-Objective: In defining each character’s super-objective, Stanislavski calls on actors to consider what matters most to the character they portray: the primary motivation that governs their actions.
Objective: Governed by the super-objective, but specific to the events to be portrayed, Stanislavski asks actors to identify what their characters want and how that translates into action on-stage.
Physical Action: Physical action forms part of behaviour, and Stanislavski wanted to see realism here too with both the interpretation of the script and the actors’ body language and movements contributing to the realism of the play.
Communion: In drama, only the world of the stage is part of the scene. Stanislavski believed that players should play to the other actors in each scene rather than to the audience.
Emotional Memory: Real, remembered emotions can be used by actors to recreate similar emotional reactions when acting a role. Stanislavski acting requires players to use emotional recall to deliver realistic performances.
Subtext: As Stanislavski points out, anyone can read a play without going to the theatre. The subtext affects how a role is portrayed because it refers to the reasons why characters speak and behave in a certain way. To achieve realism, it must be implied through the actors’ interpretation.
Techniques Inspired by Stanislavski
Stanislavski has been extremely influential in the world of acting and remains so to this day. Other approaches to acting can all be said to have their roots in Stanislavski’s thinking and they all share his aim of realistic portrayal of characters in specific situations. For example, method acting is Stanislavski taken to the next level. While he was a proponent of empathy for the character being portrayed, method acting calls on you to “become” that person as far as possible.
In a sense, it could be said that Stanislavski was in the right place at the right time as drama progressed from spectacle to portrayal and from the grandiose to the intimate during his time as an actor and teacher. His logic is sound, and his observation of human behaviour was so precise that he has even been equated to the fathers of the science of psychology.
Many of the exercises you will encounter in acting classes have their roots in Stansilavski’s methods, and his fundamental approach to acting as an art that should be believable to audiences forms the foundations of the art of acting to this day.
One of the only areas of his work that remains controversial is the concept of “emotional memory.” In a sense, it contradicts the “as if” principle, because it could be said to introduce too great a level of realism into acting. By involving real emotions, actors can all-too-easily be consumed by the characters they’re playing, finding it hard to return to normal when they leave the stage or scene.
Needless to say, this can make actors who play disturbed or eccentric roles difficult to work with and can cause psychological disturbances with far-reaching implications for the actors themselves. As Lawrence Olivier famously suggested to an actor trying to “live” a role: “Why don’t you just try acting?”
Stanislavski: Learn More in Practise
While it would surely have been wonderful to be among the pioneering actors who studied under Stanislavski himself, you can still encounter his teachings in acting schools and short courses. If you happen to live in London, you’ll have many opportunities to learn and practise techniques that have their foundations in his approach to acting.
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