Great Acting Teachers! Who is?…Constantin Stanislavski (1863 – 1938)

Written by Elizabeth Brendel Horn

April 11th, 2016

“In the language of an actor, to know is synonymous with to feel.”

“There are no small parts, only small actors.” You’ve surely heard this before, and though it’s difficult to trace the true origins of this theatre adage, many credit it to Constantin Stanislavski, the father of modern acting methodology and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavski’s career as an actor, director, and teacher was so expansive that at times his method seems to contradict itself, a reflection of the evolution of his thoughts over the years. Stanislavski’s system provides clear steps toward approaching a role, focusing on relaxation, concentration, sensory work, and honesty. Despite this system, Stanslavski himself was a consummate student, and advocated one’s own search for a personal acting method, saying, “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you!”

Due to the scope of Stanislavski’s career, his system influenced the work of famous acting teachers such as Stella Adler, Michael Chekhov, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Even this list of names reflects opposing approaches to the craft, as many of his successors connected with a portion of Stanislavski’s teachings, which they then expanded on in their own practice.

The System

Stanislavski’s approach is so influential that one would be hard-pressed to find a serious student who has not studied his approach, though the techniques are now so engrained in Western acting techniques that a teacher may not label them as such. For example, the now common practice of table work, where actors and the director begin the process seated at a table analyzing the text, was dubbed “round the table analysis” by Stanislavski. In fact, the groundwork for script analysis can all be credited to Stanislavski, including objective, superobjective, actions, subtext, and units or beats.

Emotional Memory

One of the largest shifts in Stanislavski’s methodology was in his use of emotional recall. Initially, he promoted an “inside out” approach to acting, stressing that an actor should use his own memories to connect with a characters’ emotions. Later, he moved away from this thinking, instead promoting the use of the “magic if,” where an actor lives imaginatively within the given circumstances of the play and responds as he would if he were in those circumstances himself. Though Stanislavski never fully discredited the use of emotional recall, he moved away from it and warned actors to exercise caution when using this approach. The tool was then adopted by Lee Strasberg, who further developed it into what we now know as Method Acting.

Method of Physical Acting

As Stanislavski honed his craft, he noticed that an overemphasis on mental preparation created actors who lacked physical and emotional believability on stage. He then modified his approach with the Method of Physical Acting, claiming that an actor could access a character from the “outside in.” This technique, which condensed the amount of time spent on table work and script analysis, encouraged an actor to establish physical movements that would ignite the emotions of her character.

High School Training

The mega trilogy of books by Stanislavski are An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, which span the scope of his career and provide a theoretical framework to his system. For a more digestible and practice-based book, consider Stanislavski in Practice by Nick O-Brien, a strong supplement to the original texts. And while most general acting courses will be grounded in Stanislavski’s system, the Yale Summer Conservatory for Actors boasts an emphasis on his methodology during its five-week program.

Elizabeth Brendel Horn is an assistant professor in Theatre for Young Audiences at the University of Central Florida.

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