“All of our acts, even the simplest, which are so familiar to us in everyday life, become strained when we appear behind the footlights before a public of a thousand people. That is why it is necessary to correct ourselves and learn again how to walk, sit, or lie down. It is essential to re-educate ourselves to look and see, on the stage, to listen and to hear.”
– Stanislavski (Konstantin Stanislavski quotes)
“Realistic” drama was said to be born in the late 1800s, however before that, no director or actor trainer had succeeded in creating a method in order to instil believability in a character through the actor. There were some actors and actresses that used their own individual talent to achieve this, but there was not a developed system or method that one could teach or even pass on to the future generation of actors. In the midst of this thirst of authenticity, Konstantin Stanislavski – actor and director extraordinaire – developed his own system over a lifetime.
“When we are on stage, we are in the here and now”
– Stanislavski (Konstantin Stanislavski quotes)
Due to the fact that he was born into a wealthy family of merchants, Konstantin Sergeievich Alekseiv, had to begin his service to the family business, but soon realized that nothing could overpower his love for theatre. His family too shared some of his enjoyment for theatre and built him an amateur theatre in which he had his first stage appearances. His family also funded expensive vocal and stage movement lessons from Moscow’s best teachers. However, his love for theatre intensified to such an extent that in 1884, he was forced to adopt ‘Konstantin Stanislavski’ as a stage name for his first public debut in order to hide his theatre aspirations from his family. In 1888, although he was still being forced to work in the family business, he co-founded the Moscow Society of Arts and Literature.
Being the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre helped Stanislavski set up a basis for his own system of training actors. This unique system required actors to research the situation provided by the script according to the characters motivations, create a subtext to their script whereby they show the meaning or the imagination beneath the text their script, and bring to mind their own experiences so that they may use the emotions from their own experiences as emotions for their character in order to make their character more believable.
“Love art in yourself, not yourself in art.”
– Stanislavski (Konstantin Stanislavski quotes)
These requirements forced the actors to perform the actions and reactions of their character based, not only on the actor’s motivation, but also on the actor’s personal experiences. It also allowed the actor to match his motivation’s to that of the character in the script. After having already identified the character’s motivations, the actor can recall his emotions and experiences whilst playing the character on stage in order to give a more authentic and convincing performance.
His new proposed system for acting had eight questions that the actor must answer in order to build and establish the character. These included:
VII. What do I need to overcome?
VIII. Before time?
(Stanislavski for Beginners)
These questions helped the actor recognize the character’s purpose and establish the actor’s own movement on stage so that they may be able to project the characters purpose to the audience. Stanislavski developed a number of techniques and principles that he considered fundamental in helping the actor achieve a believable character on stage. Stanislavski felt that most actors assumed that believable acting was derived from simply being natural on stage. However, from his observations, Stanislavski concluded that realistic acting on stage was extremely difficult and can sometimes come across as artificial.
“Bring yourself to the part of taking hold of a role, as if it were your own life. Speak for your character in your own person. When you sense this real kinship to your part, your newly created being will become soul of your soul, flesh of your flesh.”
– Stanislavski (Konstantin Stanislavski quotes)
After having memorized my monologue I figured I knew my character quite well – she was a young girl who was sad because her best friend just died. I didn’t think I needed to know any more than that in order to deliver a good monologue. However, when the time came to answer the questions above for my character, I resented it and I didn’t think it would help in any way. I decided that I would perform my monologue for a class mate before and after answering the questions in order to prove my point. The first thing I realized was that answering those questions was no easy feat for me, which proved how much I didn’t know my character.
After much use of my imagination, I finally managed to answer the questions in depth. Whilst answering the questions I found out things that never even occurred to me about my character. I felt like I was talking about a real life person who had a past, a present, and even a future. Needless to say, the real impact of what I found out about my character did not hit until I performed my monologue post-questions. I found myself really feeling and actually believing that I was that character and not just impersonating someone. After performing my monologue I honestly felt like I had given birth to an actually human being Undoubtedly, I received the most positive feedback about my monologue post-questions.
Some of the principles of the Stanislavski System included:
* The actor is aware that the play is fiction, but he must question himself about how he would behave if the situation was real. This helps the actor transform the play as if it were real.
* The actor must question himself about his character and must understand not only what, but why he is saying what he is saying and doing what he is doing.
* The actor must not get distracted by the audience and must concentrate on what is happening on stage.
* The actor must learn how to rid his body of muscle tensions and relax himself so that he may call upon his actions with ease in order to reach his goal as the character.
The relaxation and observation exercise was quite an experience for me because I was able to tap into emotions so deep that at times I virtually forgot that I was in Drama class. When Ms. Kennedy was declaring the emotions that we had to feel, experiences that never occurred to me popped up in my head. For instance, when Ms. Kennedy declared that we were to feel jealous, an incident that popped up in my mind was one of which I was unaware that I felt jealous at that moment!
I presume that it was my mind reminding me that I was subconsciously jealous at that moment. With every emotion that Ms. Kennedy declared, I found my body subtly changing. This change occurred from the tilt of my head to the direction of my toes. What amazed me the most was that it felt as though my body was changing by itself. The changes were so subtle and gradual at first, and then when they got to be a little more intense was when I realized that I was tapping my toes or holding my breath. I presume that it is these subtle movements and actions that make acting more believable on stage.
* The actor must consciously perform the small physical actions that people perform unconsciously do in real like in order to make his character look realistic.
When Ms. Kennedy told us to stand up and imitate the actions of the members of my ensemble, I realized how unconsciously we perform little actions that make us who we are. For instance, I am constantly running my hand through my hair because of my fringe that comes in my eyes. I am so used to this action that I do it without being aware of what I am doing. When I did so during this exercise I was taken aback when my ensemble started imitating me and I thought to myself, “Did I just do that?”. I saw similar reactions from the members of my ensemble. Through these exercises I learnt that it is the little actions that make us unique.
* The actor must recall his emotional experiences from his emotional memory. This will bring truth to his character.
* The actor must establish good communication with his ensemble (i.e. the other actors on stage) by listening to what they are saying and by looking directly at them, unless when the script requires them not to do so.
* It is vital for the actor to understand the play and perform his part with determination. He must also feel for his part to such an extent that his portrayal of the character looks nothing but authentic and convincing on stage.
* In order to convince the audience, the actor must use the techniques to call upon memories that help him react to other characters in the play as well as act. This makes his character more believable.
(The Stanislavski System)
Some techniques of the Stanislavski System include:
* Objective Words
o The actor must understand the objectives of the character behind each and every line that they say.
I used this method to first indentify the intentions of my character behind every line, and then match those intentions with an action. This gave every action behind every line a purpose and made it easier for me to recall my emotional memory when I needed it.
* Magic If
The actor must connect with the character by asking how he would behave if his characters situation was real and was actually happening to him. This helps the actor think like the character and not just impersonate him.
Stanislavskis’ ‘Magic If’ and ‘As If’ has really helped me in my monologue as I have to imagine that I am speaking to a corpse of my best friend. Throughout the monologue, I really enjoy that I am forced to use my imagination and make-believe that a table is a casket and boxes are a deceased human being. Although I don’t find it that hard pretending that I am speaking to my deceased friend, I really enjoy the challenge of making my audience believe and see what I am seeing. With more practice and more rehearsal of my monologue, I will be able to make my audience feel not only the pain of losing a friend, but also the pain of my own personal experience that I drew out to play this part.
* As If
o The actor should get in role and as himself what he would do if here was to be in his character’s situation. This brings about convincing actions and reactions for the character.
Before I first practiced this technique, I immediately told myself that I would imagine that I was at the funeral of my best friend. However, this will be hard to improvise because I just simply cannot imagine my best friend dying. It is unthinkable. Thus, I decided that I would bring back the memory of when I was at my uncle’s funeral and use those emotions in the context of my monologue. This helped my monologue significantly as it was easier to bring back emotions of things that have already happened.
While I was performing my monologue, I really felt as though I was back at my uncle’s funeral and I was able to use the emotions I felt then to emphasize the lines of my monologue. Although my uncle’s funeral was some 5 years ago, this technique helped me realize that those feelings are still alive. Although this technique benefited my monologue, it also benefited my life as when I brought those emotions back I felt that I was able to deal with them better than I did those 5 years ago.
o The actor must know the emotion and meaning that lays underneath his characters lines. The actor does not speak this, but portrays this though choice of action, gestures, posture, pauses etc. Subtext generally increases the audience’s involvement in the play as it acts as a secret between the audience and the character with the subtext as opposed to the other characters present on stage.
o Inner Monologue
* The actor must know all the thoughts that are going through the character’s mind not only while he is speaking his dialogue, but also while he is listening to the other characters on stage.
o Mental Images
* The actor must bring together all the pictures that he sees in his mind as the character and communicate this to the other actors on stage.
This method really taught me how to break down the text of a script and read in between the lines in order to fully understand my character. After I had determined what was going through my character’s mind at every line in the play,
* Given Circumstances
o Whilst building his character, the actor must take into account all the information the playwright has given the actor through the script.
This technique helped me exert all the circumstances that my playwright had given me, and with this information I was able to establish my character and her personality more. This technique also taught me how to apply the emotions that I derived from the previous techniques like “As If”.
o The actor must work really hard in order to use imagination to fill in the gaps of his character’s life where the playwright hasn’t given enough information.
Imagination was my key component in any Stanislavski technique that I attempted and applied to my monologue. However, Imagination was most useful to me when I first began creating my character and her personality. I used my imagination to first answer my WHERE, WHEN, WHAT, WHY, WHENCE, BEFORE TIME questions which in turn helped me create a really descriptive and in-depth character analysis. Imagination also helped me be less mechanic and more authentic on stage. I used imagination to give life to the words on paper and give life to a real character. This process is really similar to giving birth.
* Circles of Attention
o Although they are in public and in front of an audience, the actor must feel as though they are alone on stage and they must throw circles of attention on their actions in order to really concentrate. The actor must be able to draw into a small circle of attention, if they need arises, even though he may be performing in front of thousands. It is difficult for the actor to take in whole spaces at once and therefore must focus on the space bit by bit. This will increase the actors attention because as one could have a small, medium or large circle of attention. As the circle grows larger and larger, your concentration it tested at its limits. Thus it is recommended for actors to withdraw to a small circle of attention if they find their attention wavering in order to rebuild into their larger circle of attention.
o Perspective requires the actor to see their role as a whole. It requires them to sustain their concentration, focus on their objectives and also watch for any problems that could possibly occur on stage. They must develop a pace for their acting as the play unfolds on stage.
Funnily enough, Perspective really helped me develop my costume and what message I was wanted to portray with my costume. I was debating to either wear boyish clothes that showed off my characters tom boyishness and establish her to the audience in that manner or to wear girly clothes and emphasize my characters uncomfortable feeling. I chose to go with the second choice to really show how isolated and uncomfortable my character feels in the situation that life thrust her in. For my costume I decided on an off-white skirt with black flower embroidery, topped with a black t-shirt-like blouse and black boots.
Although my character hates skirts and anything girly, I am wearing a girly outfit to show that my character is uncomfortable with not only what she is wearing, but where she is, what she is about to do and the situation as a whole. My costume consists mainly of the color black because she is attending a funeral and black is the code mourning color. I am accompanying my outfit with boots to show that my character, although caved in into wearing a skirt and blouse, refused completely to wear high heels or sandals. The boots keep some of my characters personality alive.
* Actors must realize that every action that they have planned will take time and they can either chose to decelerate the tempo whereby they will be giving themselves more time to speak and perform or to accelerate the tempo which would have the opposite effect.
* The actor must know how and what to stress while he is on stage in order to portray the message that he is trying to portray.
(The Stanislavski System Growth and Methodology)
These techniques and principles of the Stanislavski System helps the actor develop an interior monologue for the character, so that each action that the actor takes as the character comes across as spontaneous to the audience. In addition, Stanislavski also believed highly on the use of costumes, sets and props contributing to the realism of the character. He believed that every prop must serve a purpose, and if a prop was placed on stage, then the actor must know the history of the prop in relation to the play (where it was bought, who it was bought by and how it came to be in this particular location).
Stanislavski also worked on something called The Method of Physical Actions whereby he focused on physical action encouraging truthful emotion. The main aim was to reach the subconscious mind through the conscious mind. (Method Acting)
Due to the fact that the theatre held great social and educational significance for Stanislavski, he found it difficult to separate the social context that was attached to his theatre. He was known to use the stage to reflect the social issues that were occurring during the civil unrest that lead to the Russian Revolution in 1905 and the Soviet Union being established. However, even though he responded to criticism saying that he never staged contemporary Communist plays by directing several plays of revolutionary significance, he was still criticised for catering to “progressive middleclass” audiences.
Thus he refused his company to produce plays that were undeserving of its traditions and high standards in order to maintain his integrity and dignity. Fortunately for Stanislavski, he was caught in the midst of the violence of the revolution and needed to be protected by Lenin from being eradicated alongside the Czar Dom. The communists had elected his system and made the Moscow Art Theatre “the fountainhead of social realism”. (Stanislavski, Konstantin) His theatre quickly began producing Soviet propaganda due to an allegiance that was being maintained between the USSR and Stanislavskis’ socially conscious method of production. Needless to say, Stanislavski survived both Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
The Stanislavski System is known to only be as good as the person who uses it. It is not something that will immediately turn a bad actor into a good one, nor will it guarantee success. The Stanislavski System is simply a serious of developments, techniques and ideologies that help the actor make use and develop his skills and talents and to gain control of his gift in order to become a better actor. Using the ‘system’ requires time and understanding that are not so easily summoned up these days.
However, who so ever have studied and have been trained in the Stanislavski System know that it is a diligent method that requires a lot of work, but also makes seem more effortless and believable. Stanislavski always told his actors to “leave your ego at the stage door as you come in” and those who intend to follow the Stanislavski System must know that it is not solely based on the actor himself. The actor must not only develop his own talent, but must also develop a bond with his ensemble and know that a performance can only be put on when there is trust and dependence among the actors. (Stanislavski and the Actor, 149)
Thus I will end with a quote from the master himself, “In the creative process there is the father, the author of the play; the mother, the actor pregnant with the part; and the child, the role to be born.” (Konstantin Stanislavsky quotes) and say that one must commence on the journey that is the creative process in order to realize the true value of Stanislavski’s teachings.
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