Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art
Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski was a Russian actor, theatre director and theorist. His system of acting, which is the first of it’s kind, was built on the naturalistic movement and emotional memory and was inspired by the Meiningen Ensemble of Germany. His work is studied the world over, especially by actors and drama students.
He was born Constantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev in 1863. ‘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 such a taboo for someone of his social class. At that time 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. Until the Russian revolution in 1917, Stanislavski often used his inherited wealth to fund his theatrical experiments in acting and directing. His family’s discouragement meant that he appeared only as an amateur actor onstage and as a director until he was thirty-three years of age.
As a child, Stanislavski was exposed to the rich cultural life of his family. His interests growing up included the circus, the ballet, and puppetry. His father, Sergei Vladimirovich Alekseyev, was elected head of the merchant class in Moscow in 1877, at in the same year he had a fully equipped theatre built on his estate at Liubimovka, which providied a great forum for Stanislavski’s adolescent theatrical ideas.
The origins of his system
Stanislavski now started what would become a lifelong series of notebooks filled with critical observations on his acting, aphorisms, and problems. It was from this habit of self analysis and series of writings that his actoing theaory and system emerged. The family’s second theatre was added in 1881 to their mansion at Red Gates, on Sadovaya Street in Moscow, making their house a focus for the artistic and cultural life of the Moscow.
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.
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 popular places like the railway station, or disguising himself as a fortune-telling gypsy. He then 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 Fyodor Petrovich Komissarzhevsky, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and leading tenor of the Bolshoi, with whom he also explored the co-ordination of voice and body. Together they devised valuable exercises in moving and sitting stationary ‘rhythmically’, which anticipated Stanislavski’s later use of physical rhythm when teaching his ‘system’ to opera singers.
A year later, in 1885, Stanislavski very briefly studied at the Moscow Theatre School, where the 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. This obviously clashed with his own way of thinking.
What is important to me is not the truth outside myself, but the truth within myself.
Instead, Stanislavski devoted his attention to the performances of the Maly Theatre, the home of psychological realism in Russia. Psychological realism had been developed there by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Shchepkin. In 1823, Pushkin had concluded that what united the diverse classical authors like Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille and Calderón, was their common concern for ‘truth of character’ and the situation rather than the overblown, exaggerated, effect seeking acting style that was apparent at the time.
Stanislavski treated theatre-making as a serious endeavour, requiring a great deal of dedication, discipline and integrity. Throughout his life, Stanislavski subjected his own acting to a process of rigorous artistic self-analysis and reflection. His development of a theory – in which practice is used as a mode of inquiry and theory as a catalyst for creative development which identified him as the first great theatre practitioner of this kind.
The Stanislavski System
The language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul.
Stanislavski’s ‘system’ is a systematic approach to training actors. Stanislavski’s system is a progression of techniques used to train actors to draw believable emotions to their performances. Areas of study include voice, physical skills, concentration, emotion memory, observation, and dramatic analysis. His goal was to find a universally applicable approach that could be of service to all actors. But he advised actors to “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.”
Using the system for the modern actor
Stanislavski’s now famous book is a contribution to the Theatre and its students all over the world.
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 was as important to the development of socialist realism in the Soviet Union as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States. It 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 behavioural psychology, James-Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy. He described his approach as ‘Spiritual Realism’.
Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors.
Stanislavski wrote several works, including An Actor Prepares, An Actor’s Work on a Role, and his autobiography, My Life in Art. These books have been valuable reading for nearly every drama student and many great actors of our time. Lord Laurence Olivier wrote that Stanislavski’s My Life in Art was a source of great enlightenment” when he was a young actor.
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.”