As founder of the first acting “System”, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre (1897- ), and an eminent practitioner of the naturalist school of thought, Konstantin Stanislavski unequivocally challenged traditional notions of the dramatic process, establishing himself as one of the most pioneering thinkers in modern theatre. Stanislavski coined phrases such as “stage direction”, laid the foundations of modern opera and gave instant renown to the works of such talented writers and playwrights as Maksim Gorki and Anton Chekhov. His process of character development, the “Stanislavski Method”, was the catalyst for method acting- arguably the most influential acting system on the modern stage and screen. Such renowned schools of acting and directing as the Group Theatre (1931- 1941) and The Actors Studio (1947- ) are a legacy of Stanislavski’s pioneering vision. He created a performance technique that had an enormous effect on contemporary American acting, and he developed a system of actor training that became widely accepted throughout the world. Stanislavski decided that a technique was needed that would guide the actor and create a “favourable condition for the appearance of inspiration.” His system does not consist of a fixed set of rules but of practical approaches to the physical and mental preparation of the actor and to the creation of a character.
The most fundamental principle of Stanislavski’s teaching is that the actor must live the life of the character that he is portraying, he must learn to think like the character and behave as the character would, therefore the portrayal is not confined to the performance but will, to some degree, begin to overlap into the actor’s own life. This, he asserts, is the only way to achieve total realism. It is therefore necessary for the actor to approach the role from two levels, the external level being the more obvious. The way in which the character moves, speaks and behaves must be studied and practiced, but this performance will become mechanical unless it is guided by the inner belief in the characters- feelings and emotions which, although unseen by the audience, is the added factor which will ultimately lend conviction to the part that is being played. The actor should draw on his own experiences, wherever possible, to understand and interpret the emotions and events that the character will experience, and the wider the actor’s experience of life then the greater his insight and comprehension will be. However, although drawing on personal experiences is often the only way to achieve complete empathy with the role, it is essential that these emotions and reactions become absorbed in the fictitious world of the character itself, and are not just reproduced mechanically; otherwise the illusion of reality will be lost. Stanislavski’s techniques include Relaxation.
Learning to relax the muscles and eliminate physical tension while performing; letting the behaviour of the character come through effortlessly. Concentration and Observation is learning to think like an actor and to respond to one’s own imagination. Stanislavski referred to the extent or range of concentration as a circle of attention. The performer should begin with the idea that it is a small, tight, circle including only himself or herself and perhaps one other person or one piece of furniture. When the performer has established a strong circle of attention, he or she can enlarge the circle outward to include the entire stage area. In this way performers will stop worrying about the audience and lose their self-consciousness. Another technique Stanislavski called “spheres of attention” which is discovering the sensory base of the work: learning to memorize and recall sensations, often called “sense memory” and /or “affective memory”; learning to work from a small sensation and expand it. An emphasis on concrete details wherein a performer should never try to act in general and should never try to convey a feeling such as fear or love in some vague, amorphous way. The performer must also conceive of the situation in which a character exists (which Stanislavski referred to as the given circumstances) in term of specifics. In what kind of space does an event take place: formal, informal, public, domestic?
How does it feel? What has gone on just before? What is expected in the moments ahead? Again, those questions must be answered in concrete terms. An innovative aspect of Stanislavski’s system has to do with inner truth, which deals with the internal or subjective world of characters – that is, their thoughts and emotions; learning to tell the difference between the organic and the artificial. Stanislavski believed that there were natural laws of acting, which were to be obeyed. According to Stanislavski- If -is a word which can transform ones thoughts; through it, imagination is virtual in any situation. It is a powerful lever for the mind; it can lift out and give a sense of absolute certainty about imaginary circumstances. An important principle of Stanislavski’s system is that all action onstage must have a purpose. This means that the performer’s attention must always be focused on a series of physical actions linked together by the circumstances of the play. These physical actions, which occur from moment to moment in a performance, are in turn governed by the character’s overall objective in the play. According to Stanislavski, in order to develop continuity in a part, the actor or actress should find the super objective of a character. What is it, above all else, that the character wants during the course of a play? What is the character’s driving force? If a goal can be established toward which the character strives, it will give the performer an overall objective.
Learning to divide the role into sensible units that can be worked on individually, and developing the ability to define each unit of the role by an active goal desired by the character rather than as an entirely literary idea. Except in one-person shows, performers do not act alone; they interact with other people. Stanislavski was aware that many performers tend to “stop acting,” or lose their concentration, when they are not the main characters in a scene or when someone else is talking. Such performers make a great effort when they are speaking but not when they are listening. This tendency destroys the through line and causes the performer to move into and out of a role. That, in turn, weakens the sense of the ensemble – developing the ability to interact with other performers spontaneously; the playing together of all the performers. Stanislavski look more and more at purposeful action or what he called the Psychophysical Action – A character’s actions will lead to his / her emotions, the creative state of mind; an automatic culmination of all the previous steps.
The first significant performance work drawing on Stanislavski’s ideas was carried out by the Group Theatre, formed in New York in 1931. The Group did not last beyond the 1930s, but its influence continued in Hollywood and through the formation of the Actors Studio. Some students of Stanislavski became teachers like Lee Strasburg who was an American theatre director, actor and teacher who created the acting technique known as “The Method” based on Stanislavski’s theories of acting. He was born in the Ukraine in 1901 and emigrated to the United States of America in 1909. He is most famous for teaching his emotion-based acting technique to actors all across America and the world and was considered the father of “The Method” in America, because once actors became members of the Actors Studio, he was their mentor. Characters were thus shown to have an interior life; rather than being stereotyped figures representing a single concept (the villain, the heroine), they could become complex human beings with multiple and contradictory feelings and desires. It was the ability to convey the complexity-indeed the confusion of inner feelings that made the Actors Studio-trained Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean such emblematic figures for the Post war era. A lot of personality actors who are stars of today because of what the Stanislavski system have brought; and then Al Pacino, Kate Blanchette, Robert DeNiro, Kathy Bates, Ed Harris, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep and others who disappear into the characters they portray. The Method was the vehicle to bring out personal choices. Ones personality would make a performer unique.