There’s a reason that the “method” is so revered, utilised and taught in studios, stages, sets and institutions around the world. The Stanislavski method is, in its essence, the amalgamation of every piece of acting wisdom that Konstantin Stanislavski knew of and hunted down, and because of that, it is long in scope and immense in breadth. What Stanislavski did was take all of the best bits of acting advice and methodology from practitioners and teachers alike that he could, and funnel it into what he believed, and what many others do too, to be the core fundamentals of acting, and a rock-solid method. I studied predominantly the Stanislavski method rigorously for three years and I’m still learning, still honing, and finding things in it, and continue to do so. Given that the method is, let’s face it, gargantuan in scope, this article will hopefully outline some of the most key principles of it so that you can dive deep into everything he gave to us.
Stanislavski Acting Training
When it came to acting training, Stanislavski aspired for actors to be highly skilled blank canvases. The whole idea was to be open and free so that when presented with a quality piece of text the body, mind and spirit were all prepared to run wild, but with fine craft.
The key principles behind Stanislavski’s thoughts on acting training are these:
The most basic premise of PSYCHO-PHYSICALITY is that your mind and imagination are connected and rooted to your physical body and vice versa. When one goes this way the other goes the same and so on and so forth. This is one of the key principles in my own acting practice, and as far as I’m concerned one of the most valuable tools in the kit. When your mind and body are connected there is a sense of flow to your acting and when your craft is honed enough you can simply follow your imagination wherever it wants to go.
In brief, what Stanislavski meant by DISCIPLINE was that you need psychological discipline to help you determine the differences and similarities between yours and the characters’ minds, you need physical discipline to train your body rigorously, you need imaginative discipline to colour your skill with your imaginings, and you need a sense of collective responsibility for you and your fellow castmates so no one ends up with a sword in their eye. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.
#3 Stage Ethics
This one is pretty self-explanatory. How do you behave in and out of the theatre, and your relationships to your other creatives. It’s pretty simple really. Stanislavski believed that you had a responsibility not only to yourself but to everyone around you to show up prepared, do your work, and be respectful of everyone involved. This isn’t just about being dictatorial, it was about how it affects the performance.
“If one person is late, it upsets all the others. And if all are late your working hours will be frittered away in waiting instead of being applied to your job, that makes an actor wild and puts them in a condition where they are incapable of work”
#4 Relaxation & Breathing
This is the first hands-on physical tool Stanislavski’s method employs. Once the body and mind are relaxed, we can be more open and allow us to enter what he called the “Inner Creative State”. More on that later. The point is if you’re not breathing and in a state of relaxation, one, you’ll die, and two, your “Blank Canvas” will be filled with holes before you even stick it on the easel. Now when I say relaxation, that will probably mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but let’s explore that.
For more about relaxtion and tension, check out Actor’s Worst Enemy: Tension
#5 Concentration and Attention
Now when we are in the relaxed state that doesn’t mean we float off into LaLaLand ©. It means that when it comes time to pinpoint our focus we are ready and not thinking about if we do or do not want pickles on our sandwich for lunch. The basic principle is that you can’t work from a state of tension, be it physical or mental.
Stanislavski’s Four Conditions of Acting Practice
Stanislavski had, or has I should say, four conditions of acting practice which he believed made way and allowed for the best possible outcome from the production, the page, and the performer.
The first of our four conditions is INSPIRATION. You know when you get your hands on a script for the first time and your imagination just runs completely unimpeded and wild? That is what we’re looking for when we talk about inspiration. What gets your creative juices flowing? What lights up your mind? This will be what drives you from the first read to closing night
For more on: Finding Creative Inspiration.
The second is SPIRITUALITY. A close cousin to inspiration, spirituality is yet another part of what makes a performance whole. Really what Stanislavski was getting at with spirituality was his own way of saying what most practitioners have said and continue to say, and that is that you must be alive, right here and right now, to bring a life onto stage. And how can you explore the soul of a character if you haven’t explored your own? I think the man himself puts it quite well here:
“An artist must have full use of their own spiritual, human material because that is the only stuff from which they can fashion a living soul for their part”
Okay, when I talk about a CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT you probably already have a pretty clear idea in your mind of what that is like for you right? For me, it’s an open and safe environment where you can play, explore and dig deep into whatever work you’re doing. That’s in a sense what Stanislavski was getting at too. If your rehearsal environment is busted your performance will be busted. So I’m going to use this idea to best explain the INNER CREATIVE STATE. There’s a lot of reading to be done on the inner creative state, and it’s something I myself am still trying my best to hone, but what it basically is, is creating a ‘creative environment’ inside of yourself. We talked about how our creative environment should be safe, playful and open and free right? Well, that’s the environment we should be trying to create within ourselves! This allows us the opportunity as I’ve harped on about already to play and explore with an open mind, body and heart and deliver the best performance possible.
The Stanislavski Rehearsal Process
Mining the Text
What MINING THE TEXT means is diving deep into whatever text it is you happen to be working on and figuring out what’s going on. And there are a number of tools in the method used to do just that. This usually begins I would hope, with the first read. The first read really should be kind of sacred. Even if you’re not going to light candles, dance around the script and/or sacrifice something, there needs to be given some level of levity and respect to the first time you read a script. Not just getting in a few of the first scenes on your lunch break or chipping away at it on the train. However, I understand that’s not always possible. Particularly with the kind of schedule actors tend to lead, but it’s something to think about. For me it’s as simple as making sure I’ve got enough time to give it a full read, a bit of time afterwards to let my imagination drift and time to jot down any initial thoughts (first impressions matter). Then it’s just a matter of making as big a pot of coffee as I can muster and sitting down with the thing.
Check out this article if you want to learn more about How to Break Down a Scene.
Mining the text also means figuring out what the given circumstances are. To answer that, we consult the almighty SIX FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS. Let’s check them out.
Who: Is in the scene
When: Does it happen
Where: Does it happen
Why: Does it happen (Takes you into structure and objective)
For what reason: Does it Happen (Leads you deeper into imagination and justification)
How: Does it happen (Will ultimately become clear on the floor)You’ll also be looking for OBJECTIVES and COUNTER-OBJECTIVES as well as breaking down the actual structure of the piece such as how many scenes and acts are there, all the way down to beats, pauses, and even punctuation. There is a lot to discover in the text alone. Playwrights (most of the time) don’t just chuck a play together and hope for the best, there is a reason for everything and ultimately, you can always discover more. Particularly when you’re working with a quality piece of text.
Uta Hagen does a lot of work on Given Circumstances. You can read an article about her approach here: What Are Given Circumstances?: Uta Hagen.
Embodying the Role
Having mined the text for all that we can, the next part of the rehearsal process focuses on, you guessed it, embodying that role. This is where we’re gonna take everything in our minds and let it flow through us to create a living, breathing character. There’s a myriad of tools Stanislavksi gives us to do just that. I’m gonna try and break them down to their most basic principles.
So to start, the first thing we want to do is start to build a sense of TRUTH. Now truth does not necessarily mean absolute naturalism in this school of thought. While Stanislavski paved part of the path to our more modern and naturalistic style of acting, what he prescribed and taught was seeking a sense of scenic truth. Scenic truth is a fine balance of experiencing what the character is experiencing and applying fine craft to make it understandable and watchable. To do this we go back to our imagination, we use the power of observation in the world around us, and Stanislavski’s MAGIC IF.
Now I think the Magic If deserves a little explanation as it’s a pretty important tool. The Magic If is not substitution. You are not using your own memories to connect to what you’re doing but rather, once again, your imagination. What would I do IF my dog started talking to me? What would I do IF I’d just lost my job. What would I do IF I ran out of examples to give in my article on Stanislavski? This will give you a real and tangible idea that will propel you into the mind of the character.
You can learn more about the ‘Magic If’ in our article about Emotional Recall vs Sense Memory.
Each of these tools is used inherently to find an inner, and outer sense of truth, once we’ve achieved that, we look to bring alive our Psycho-Physical senses.
The first of which is ACTION. What action is in its simplest form is how you go about obtaining your objective. Your how is the means to execute your why. If my objective is to seduce, then an example of my action coud be to place my hand on the other character’s hand, or to flirt, or even to tell a joke. The next tool we would use is TEMPO-RHYTHM. Stanislavski said:
“Wherever there is life there is action; wherever action, movement; where movement tempo; and where there is tempo there is rhythm…”
Tempo-Rhythm is an inherent part of life. How do you feel when you see a spider? How do you feel when you see a friend? These are examples of real-life Tempo-Rhythm. What it is essentially is the speed at which you execute your actions both inside and outside and they are not mutually exclusive. The way you feel inside might be vastly different to how you present on the outside. It’s important to identify how your character would be feeling and living in each moment, particularly if they differ.
The other way we build on our Psycho-Physicality is through exploring EMOTION and EMOTION-MEMORY. In brief, emotion memory is your storeroom as an actor and can be used to bridge the gap between being on the outside of your character looking in, to being one with your character. In a sense, it’s quite similar to the Magic If, however, you are looking inward to your own past experiences, not into the ether of imagination to propel you into a psycho-physical response.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the building blocks of embodying a role there a few more tools I want to mention briefly that tackle character and characterization. The first of which being INNER PSYCHOLOGICAL DRIVES.
“Three impelling movers in our psychic life, three masters who play on the instrument of our souls”
They are our thought-centre, our emotion-centre and our action-centre. Each of these drives us in a different way and has a different motive. They can kind of be thought of as anchors, either simultaneously pulling us in one direction or all over the shop at once. When we have differing Inner Psychological Drives we find ourselves in a state of HEROIC TENSION. Which is essentially finding the other side of the coin to your character. Everyone thinks of Hamlet as a brooding and melancholic figure but it is just as important to find his lighter side. Stanley Kowalski is a brutish figure, so you should try to find moments of softness and vulnerability.
There is also EMPLOI, which is what a character does with their time. If they have a job this will affect how they go about their day to day life, what they think about, and what drives them. It’s just as important to note if a character doesn’t have a job. Such as Marsha in Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’. If she or any character doesn’t have something that they spend their time doing this will affect how they feel, what they do, and how they do it.
Now, do you have a favourite coffee mug? A sentimental piece of jewellery? A phone that seems to be an extension of your hand at this point? Another thing to think about and utilise when you’re embodying a role is the physical OBJECTS your character surrounds themselves with. These all hold miniature relationships to the character and you should explore them. You should also identify when your surroundings and the objects around you are unfamiliar. This will all feed into creating a living, breathing soul of a character.
Now the last piece of this section requires some sense of levity. I’m going to briefly try to explain Stanislavski’s ideas surrounding the SUBCONSCIOUS but really, I think it’s something I can’t explain but rather should be experienced. When all of our prep is done and we feel raring and ready to go, one of the hardest things we have to do is let go. If we’ve done the work, spent the time, and really explored this character, when it comes time to get on the floor our subconscious should be able to take over. When we let go and let our subconscious take over it allows us total creative freedom. It is informed, but it’s completely free, and you’ll find yourself making choices and going places you never would have imagined.
Approaches to Rehearsal
Now, my friends, Constantin Stanislavski has a LOT of thoughts when it came to approaches to rehearsal, and as with the rest of this article, to really get a grasp of this system it would be a great idea to read the whole text, be it the originals or the modern translations/adaptations. Or both! But I’m going to list the many tools he gave us and also try and summarise how Stanislavski thought you should approach rehearsal holistically.
So with that being said, I think the most important thing to take from this section, if you take anything, is no matter how much prep you’ve done, no matter how much homework, you aren’t going to know what’s going to happen until you put it into a rehearsal, and you are bouncing off of the ideas of your director, your creatives, and your cast. This is paramount. We are always in collaboration, and it is the artists that you work with together that will really make the work shine. It’s just your responsibility to be ready.
Here are the tools that Stanislavski employed in the rehearsal room:
- Étude rehearsals
- ‘Here, today, now’
- Super objectives
- Through-line of action
- Verbal action
- The second level
- Inner monologue
- Moment of orientation
There are some arguments between scholars and practitioners alike as to whether there is actually any difference between THE METHOD OF PHYSICAL ACTIONS and ACTIVE ANALYSIS and I would implore you to explore them and decide for yourself. But here are the key differences. The method of physical actions is an exercise which should allow you to go from simple physical actions to a deep understanding of the characters emotional and psychological life and active analysis goes a little something like this.
- You read the scene
- You discuss the scene
- You improvise the scene without further reference to the script
- You discuss the improvisation before returning to the script
- You compare whatever happened in the improvisation with the text
Stanislavski Performance Practices
So you’ve gone through training, you’ve prepared as much as you can, and now it’s time to meet what I personally think is the most important part of any performance, the AUDIENCE.
Not all art requires an audience, and some would argue that acting doesn’t. But I’m of the opinion that they’re the most important part of any production, but that’s just my two-fifths of a nickel. But what did Stanislavski say about the audience? Well, Stanislavski had a great love and a huge amount of respect for the audience. And he believed that as much as you should strive to connect with your scene partner[s], you should be striving for that same connection with your audience.
“We are in relation with our partner, and simultaneously with the spectator. With the former our contact is direct and conscious, with the latter it is indirect and unconscious. The remarkable thing is that with both our relation is mutual”
Now when we talk about having two relationships coexisting on stage or in front of a camera we’d be up the creek if we didn’t talk about DUAL CONSCIOUSNESS. This is personally, one of my most utilised tools, and it’s at the center of my, I guess you would call it style? Practice? Method? And I’m willing to bet you use it too, whether you know it or not. Dual Consciousness is essentially splitting your creative mind in twain. One is deeply invested in what’s happening on stage and living the life of the character, and the other is focused solely in the real world. It’s focused on the lights, your marks, and of course, the audience. This is what I meant when I talked about a fine balance between living the life of the character while executing a fine craft. There should always be a balance between the two, and it’s entirely possible for that pendulum to get out of whack. I’ve felt it happened a number of times before. The key is to always be seeking a balance between the two in your performance and not letting one overtake the other.
Another practitioner that spends a lot of time exploring the concept of dual consciousness is Yoshi Oida. Check out our article on his work: Why ‘The Invisible Actor’ is my Ride or Die Acting Book.
Now we’re getting to the very sharp point of the blade here when we talk about your CREATIVE INDIVIDUALITY. And really in its most basic sense that is what you, that’s right you, bring to the character my friend. That’s something that no one else can bring to the table. So whenever you doubt your choices, or you don’t feel good enough, remember that no one can do this as you can, and you’ll be fired up once again.
One last thing that Stanislavski talked about when it came to performance practices was INNER CREATIVE MOOD. And what that is, is essentially the on-stage version of the inner creative state. It’s when you’re centred, and flowing and totally fired up. It allows you to let yourself fly.
While there may be no one perfect system, Constantin Stanislavski certainly did his best to try and create one. His achievements in the art and scholarship of theatre and acting were immense, and he certainly had a hand in the way we act today. With that being said, not every system will work for everyone, and maybe there will be bits and pieces to you which are gold and others that don’t light your fire. The point of any system of acting is to produce the best performance possible, and how you get there is up to you.