Stanislavski's system is a progression of techniques used to train actors and actresses to draw believable emotions to their performances. The method that was originally created and used by Constantin Stanislavski from 1911 to 1916 was based on the concept of emotional memory for which an actor focuses internally to portray a character's emotions onstage. Later, between 1934 and 1938, this technique evolved to a method of physical actions in which emotions are produced through the use of actions.The latter technique is referred to as Stanislavski's system. This approach was developed by Constantin Stanislavski (1863–1938), a Russian actor, director, and theatre administrator at the Moscow Art Theatre (founded 1897). The system is the result of Stanislavski's many years of efforts to determine how someone can control in performance the most intangible and uncontrollable aspects of human behavior, such as emotions and art inspiration. The most influential acting teachers, including Richard Boleslavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Ion Cojar, Andrey Vasilyev and Ivana Chubbuck all traced their pedigrees to Stanislavski, his theories and/or his disciples.
Stanislavski's initial choice to call his acting idea his System struck him as dogmatic, so he preferred to write it without the capital letter and in quotation marks (stylized as his "system") in order to indicate the provisional nature of the results of his investigations.
The system arose as a result of questions that Stanislavski had in regard to great actors he admired, such as the tragedians Maria Yermolova and Tommaso Salvini. To him, these actors seemed to operate under different rules from other actors of the time, but their performances were still susceptible on some nights to flashes of inspiration, or completely "being a role", while on some nights their performances were good or merely accurate.
Although Stanislavski was not the first to codify a system of acting, he was the first to take questions and problems of psychological significance and directly link them to acting practices. When psychology was formalized, it influenced Stanislavski's system. Stanislavski attempted to create a system before psychology was widely understood and formalized as a discipline.
As a result, Stanislavski began developing a grammar of acting in 1906. In 1909, he began creating his first draft of the system. This draft was based on his personal experiences onstage as well as his observations of other actors in the Moscow Art Theatre. By finding similarities among the talented actors and their performances, Stanislavski began to create techniques that could be applied to the training of other actors to develop similar stage performances. By 1911, he was able to experiment with his new methods. He trained willing actors using his new techniques as he continued to work and alter his techniques as he saw fit, in order to develop the most effective technique for actors. Though his approach changed throughout his life, he never lost sight of his ideals of truth in performance and love of art.
At times, Stanislavski's methodological rigor bordered on opacity: see, for instance, the chart of the Stanislavski "system" included as a fold-out in editions of Robert Lewis' book Method or Madness a series of lectures. The chart, made by Adler, lists all aspects of the actor and of performance that Stanislavski thought pertinent at the time. His dedication to completeness and accuracy often conflicted with his goal of creating a workable system that actors would actually like to use. Most of today's actors on stage, television, and film owe much to Stanislavski's system.
Approach to acting
There is a story of an actress who had once been in a play directed by Stanislavski. She came to him years after the performances and informed him that she had taken very copious notes on him and his technical approach during rehearsals and wanted to know what to do with them. He replied, "Burn them all". The anecdote, whether true or not, is illustrative of Stanislavski and his approach.
Stanislavski believed, throughout his life, the dictum that an actor should approach a role as directly as possible and then see if it "lives." If the actor connects with the role and the role is brought to life, then no technique or system is necessary. In this sense, the actor does not so much become someone else as he becomes himself. This achievement in acting may only happen once or twice in one's life, so the remainder of one's performances require technique. Each individual actor, however, must decide whether or not an approach or technique to their acting "works" for them in their performance. In essence, his constant goal in life was to formulate some codified, systematic approach that might impart to any given actor with some grip on his "instrument", that is, himself.
Stanislavski was a great believer in formal (and rigorous) training for the actor. His interest in deeply analyzing the qualities of human behavior were meant to give the actor an awareness of such human behavior, and how easily falsehoods, or aspects of behaviour that an audience can detect, are assumed by an untrained or inexperienced actor in performance. Stanislavski once insisted that all actions that a person must enact, such as walking, talking, even sitting on stage, must be broken down and re-learned. For example, his book, translated into English as Building a Character, describes the correct way of walking on stage. He wanted actors to concentrate more on such rigors of re-learning.
Progression of the system
Stanislavski's system is a method that actors use to produce realistic characters on stage. His original studies of techniques led to the use of emotional memory that required actors to trigger the emotions of their characters internally. This technique was based from a French psychologist Theodule Ribot's concept of 'Affective Memory'. Later in his life, Stanislavski realized that a shift in technique was needed for actors to produce more realistic emotions before audiences but he never discredited the use of emotional memory if used cautiously. This was underscored when his talented protégé Michael Chekhov experimented with emotional memory and had a nervous breakdown. A few months before his death he told his assistants that the path to glory can be found by working from the internal (the inside out) as well as the external (the outside in). This led to the 'Method of Physical Action'. The shift between concepts was a result of various observations made by Stanislavski. He observed that actors' mental preparations for their roles did not coincide with their physical performances on stage. They had spent most of their time reviewing their scripts and rehearsing their characters through internal and mental stationaries, but their character performances were lacking physical and emotional believability.
The method of physical action
Stanislavski developed the "method of physical actions," to solve the dilemma of spontaneous emotion in a created environment. In this technique, the actor performs a physical motion or a series of physical activities to create the desired emotional response for the character. Emotions from the subconscious, so this technique lets the actor consciously target and control subconscious emotions through movement. For instance, if an actor needed to weep, he could sigh and hold his head in his hands, a physical action that many who are crying instinctively do.
On stage, if an actor experiences only internal feelings or only physical actions, then the performance is dead. The reasoning behind this goes back to the union of the psychological and physical. The two go hand-in-hand. If an actor attempts to portray a character by employing one aspect of the union without the other, then they are performing incompletely. Internal experiences and their physical expression are unbreakably united. Whether it is through a facial expression or the tapping of a foot, everything a human experiences psychologically is displayed through physical means. This is termed a psycho-physical union.
The correct physical action does not come automatically for every psychological response nor do they stimulate identical responses for every individual. Many times, actors need to experiment until they determine what best works for them and for the character they are trying to portray. The best way to experiment with this is through improvisation. The best improvisers are those who can intuitively act and behave onstage as though they are in a real situation.
Through his work, Stanislavski reversed the human reaction system, in which an emotion allocates an action. Method actors use actions to control their emotions. This allows actors to "live" in silences or pauses in the dialogue of the script and not only in the words. They are able to remain in character. Reacting is essentially emoting and includes allowing the body to outwardly express what the mind is inwardly experiencing.
Sections of the system
Stanislavski believed that if an actor completes the system, the desired emotion should be created and experienced. One earlier technique used for the system involved a "round the table analysis," a process in which the actors and director literally sit around a table and put forward their thoughts on the script and the characters until a clear understanding is formed. This technique involved breaking the script into sections. For the system to work, the structure of the script should be analyzed and sectioned based on the different characters of the play. Later, this technique was changed to instead immediately begin rehearsals after the main idea of the play had been discussed, but the sections are still evolved even through this practice.
Stanislavski believed that the truth that occurred onstage was different than that of real life, but that a 'scenic truth' could be achieved onstage. A performance should be believable for an audience so that they may appear to the audience as truth. One of Stanislavski's methods for achieving the truthful pursuit of a character's emotion was his 'magic if.' Actors were required to ask many questions of their characters and themselves. Through the 'magic if,' actors were able to satisfy themselves and their characters' positions of the plot. One of the first questions they had to ask was, "What if I were in the same situation as my character?" Another variation on this is "What would I do if I found myself in this (the character's) circumstance?" The "magic if" allowed actors to transcend the confinements of realism by asking them what would occur "if" circumstances were different, or "if" the circumstances were to happen to them. By answering these questions as the character, the theatrical actions of the actors would be believable and therefore 'truthful.'
Through the use of system, an actor must analyze their character's motivations. Stanislavski believed that an actor was influenced by either their mind or their emotion to stimulate their actions, and the actor's motivation was their subconscious will to perform those actions. Therefore, motivation has been described as looking to the past actions of the character to determine why they completed physical actions in a script.
The objective is a goal that a character wants to achieve. This is often worded in a question form as "What do I want?" An objective should be action-oriented, as opposed to an internal goal, to encourage character interaction onstage. The character doesn't necessarily have to achieve the objective, and the objective can be as simple as the script permits. For example, an objective for a particular character may simply be 'to pour a mug of tea.' For each scene, the actor must discover the character's objective. Every objective is different for each actor involved because they are based on the characters of the script.
Units and bits are the division of the script into smaller objectives. For example, the entire section of a scene during which the character searches for a tea bag would be a unit. When he decides to call on a neighbour is called a bit. The purpose of units is that they are used as reference points for the actor because every individual unit should contain a specific motive for the character.
A super-objective, in contrast, focuses on the entire play as a whole. A super-objective can direct and connect an actor's choice of objectives from scene to scene. The super-objective serves as the final goal that a character wishes to achieve within the script.
Obstacles are the aspects that stop, hinder or pause a character from achieving an individual objective. For example, while the character searches for tea bags to make the mug of tea, they find there are no teabags in the tin.
Tools or methods are the different techniques a character uses to surpass obstacles and achieve an objective. For example, the character searches around the kitchen, they walk to the shops, or they call on the neighbour so they can make the tea.
Actions are referred to as how the character is going to say or do something. More specifically, it as an objective for each line. Actions are how a character is going to achieve their objective. For example, a line in the script may read, '(whilst on the phone) "Hello, Sally. It's Bill from next door. You wouldn't happen to have any spare tea bags, would you? I know how well-organized you are." The Action for this line may be 'to flatter' in order to achieve the Objective of collecting the tea bags. Actions are different for every actor, based on their character choices.
The system versus the Method
Often, Stanislavski's system is associated with Method acting. The latter is an outgrowth of the American theatre scene, particularly in New York, in the 1930s and 40s. Method acting appeared when actors and directors like Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, Lee Strasberg, first in the Group Theatre and later in the Actors Studio, applied the Emotional Memory technique from Stanislavski's system. This technique made its way in American theatres because it was taught to Strasberg at the American Laboratory Theatre in the 1920s to the particular psychological needs of the American actor of their time. It has been suggested that Strasberg had access at that time only to An Actor Prepares and that if he had perhaps waited until he had also read Building A Character, which was published much later, then he might not have developed such an extreme 'method'. Other American actors, however, did not follow Strasberg's Method, like Stella Adler who visited and was taught by Stanislavski himself.
The 'system' and the Method are often confused because one technique of the Method is similar to and uses Stanislavski's 1911 concept of Emotional Memory in acting. The most controversial technique of The Method teaches drawing emotions for a character from past experiences and remembrances of the actor. Strasberg renamed Stanislavski's earlier technique to 'Affective Memory' and continued to teach it as a proper acting method long after Stanislavki discredited it as a useful acting method. Possibly the main difference between the Method and the system arose as Stanislavsky's ideas changed over his life, and Strasberg didn't necessarily incorporate these changes. To illustrate the difference between the two methods, Stanislavski has the actor ask himself, "What would I do if I were in this circumstance" while Strasberg adopted a modification, "What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?" Strasberg asks actors to replace the play's circumstances with their own, called a "substitution." Stanislavski had, throughout his life, no single focused project. Instead, he thought of his system as a table of contents from which the working actor can constantly draw, depending on what problems might occur from play to play.
Stanislavski's emphasis on life within moments, on psychological realism, and on emotional authenticity, seemed to attract these actors and thinkers. While much work was done with the works of playwrights like Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, the Method was eventually applied to older works like those of William Shakespeare. Indeed, controversy remains contesting the appropriateness of a Method approach to pre-Modernist plays, for while the system and Method share many characteristics, they differ immensely.
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- ---. 1999. Stanislavski: His Life and Art. Revised edition. Original edition published in 1988. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-52520-1.
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- Carnicke, Sharon. Stanislavsky in Focus: An Acting Master for the Twenty-First Century. Routledge Theatre Classics, 2008, p. 153
- Carnicke, Sharon. Stanislavsky in Focus: An Acting Master for the Twenty-First Century. Routle Theatre Classics, 2008, p. 221