Acting is a strange thing to do, because all you are really doing is “being”, and shouldn’t “being” be easy? Well, no, it can be the hardest thing to do, (well, for me at least! Maybe you’d get a different answer from Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro). That’s where books, resources, and outside expertise comes in. ‘An Actor Prepares’ is one of the ground-breaking texts by Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theatre practitioner responsible for the naturalistic “method” acting technique.
‘An Actor Prepares’ takes an interesting form. It’s written like a fictional story, from the perspective of a young actor undergoing acting training. The “character” Stanislavski takes is the director, Tortsov. I like this format because it means the reader can place the relevance of each idea and theory into practical, attainable narratives that we can attribute to our own lives. Just as these students are learning through rehearsal, I too, am learning through rehearsal. When Tortsov rambles off a long yet poignant and eye-opening theory, the “characters” in the book process it in terms of their own acting journey, which acts as a parallel, or a guideline for the readers’ own journey.
In the chapter “When Acting is an Art”, Tortsov speaks to the students about what is truly required of an actor, in terms of their experience as the character and how to express it by using both technique and allowing natural instincts to flow freely. He talks of the relationship between the conscious and the sub-conscious when creating a character, which I find fascinating, as it presents so many obstacles and issues! Learning to release the subconscious while controlling the conscious is a daunting yet fascinating prospect as an actor. I have felt at times, while on stage, the feeling that my subconscious has completely gone and self-awareness has taken over, completely killing the truth of my scene. These are scary moments on stage, so Stanislavski’s ideas are much needed.
One phrase that sums up the chapter quite well is:
“To rouse your subconscious to creative work there is a special technique. We must leave all that is in the fullest sense subconscious to nature, and address ourselves to what is in our reach. When the subconscious, when intuition enters into our work we must know how not to interfere”. (p14)
In fact, this sums up the essence of the book. ‘An Actor Prepares’ treats acting with such reverence and passion, and acknowledges the fact that some things are out of an actors’ hands, and all in his/her heart. Stanislavski explores the fine line between intricate, deliberate technique and instinctual, organic feeling.
I find the narrative style of the book to be informative not only as an actor, but as a teacher. By presenting his ideas in the form of fictional “lessons”, Stanislavski offers some amazing tips for teachers when working with young actors. In the chapter “Action”, Tortsov gets the actors to individually sit on the stage. Simply, sit. Do nothing, just be there. The actors find themselves “acting”, or trying to “act” because they are in front of an audience, with awkward and uncomfortable results. Tortsov punctuates the lesson with the simple, yet crucial point, “Whatever happens on the stage must be for a purpose” (p35). By explaining how he gets to certain ideas through the students’ experiences, the points he makes are much easier to digest and any actor reading can identify with these experiences. A teacher or tutor could steal many lessons and demonstrations from this book in order to communicate certain complicated points.
Reading about acting for long periods of time can be a bit mind-boggling, as there are so many things to consider, and to try to get your head around. ‘An Actor Prepares’ is no exception. As it’s so densely filled with “lightbulb” moments, I think it might be better off read in chunks, or when you need specific inspiration or help with certain things.
Stanislavsky navigates the complexities of acting “simple” activities thoroughly in the chapter “Concentration of attention”. The students are asked to examine a piece of cloth. What do they do? They stare at it intently, but without actually examining it. They represent the act of examining, without truly doing it. This is the catch with acting. It’s easy to represent an action, thought, or feeling, but it’s eternally difficult to actually do it truthfully. This chapter is resonant with me, because I am a representational actor, continuously trying to achieve truth on stage.
A notable tip from this chapter is:
‘A chattering tongue or mechanically moving hands and feet cannot take the place of the comprehending eye. The eye of an actor which looks and sees an object attracts the attention of the spectator…Conversely, a blank eye lets the attention of the spectator wander away from the stage’ (p78).
I could go through each chapter of this book, but it would make for a very long read. So, I will skip to one of the iconic chapters;” Emotion Memory”. Like every idea in the book, emotion memory (one of the cornerstones of “method acting”) is outlined in this chapter through the form of a lesson. This is a poignant chapter for me, as emotion memory is quite a slippery technique at times, when there are barriers in the mind that force you (me!) to act mechanically or representationally rather than with true instinct and recaptured experience.
Stanislavsky points to classic plays such as Chekhov’s Ivanov and Sophocles’ Oedipus to demonstrate the need for emotion memory of each of our senses. Ivanov is used to show that memory of taste, Oedipus, the memory of touch.
Some people consider the idea of emotion memory to be dangerous and unnecessary. They think it’s unwise for an actor to continuously relive past pain and trauma for the sake of a truthful performance. Stanislavsky offers a good come back to this:
“Time is a splendid filter for our remembered feelings – besides it is a great artist. It not only purifies, it also transmutes even painfully realistic memories into poetry.” (p173).
This is something to think about. To me, it seems to allow the actor to extract the essence of a memory, and how the original experience altered or influenced their physical, mental and emotional state, so they can experience it again in the context of the play and the part. As opposed to trying to relive that same painful time in the same way.
Another fascinating quote from this chapter is this:
“Never lose yourself on stage. Always act in your own person, as an artist. You can never get away from yourself. The moment you lose yourself on stage marks the departure from truly living your part and the beginning of exaggerated false acting…Always and forever, when you are on stage, you must play yourself. But it will be an infinite variety of combinations of objectives, and given circumstances which you have prepared for your part, and which have been smelted in the furnace of emotion memory.” (p177).
This is interesting when considering the fact that people assume method acting is “being the character” and completely discarding yourself. It’s possible to get very confused here! But it does make sense as the author carries on with his explanation. Stanislavsky goes on to explain to the students that within each person are the full range of human qualities, whether good or bad. Within each actor, the “seed” of any quality a character requires is present. Emotion memory and the use of one’s own experiences as themselves is the key to extracting and “living” these qualities on stage.
I think this is a really fascinating point to take away from this chapter, and this book, that actors can draw upon themselves to portray an “infinite variety of combinations…”. This gives the actor license to use his or her own self in order to access a character, and takes away the pressure to fully “immerse” and “be” another person, as we can sometimes get caught up in. It underlines the fact that we humans have a whole spectrum of experience and possibility inside of us, and it’s the actors’ job to access this and portray it artistically on stage or screen.
“An Actor Prepares” is a classic for a reason. It provides in depth, detailed, thoughtful and passionate ideas regarding the art of acting. As we learn through the eyes of other learners, the pitfalls, questions, barriers and failures are laid out before us, with the keys by which to solve them. I like this format. Instead of just being told the ideas and the techniques in the form of a guidebook or lecture-style text, the ideas come to life and can be easily translated into the experience of actors everywhere, including myself.
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