Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Six

Now that we've spent some time defining some of the more popular approaches to training, I think we should go back to the beginning, so that we can discuss some of the things that the craft of acting was intended to address. 

**The reason that this seems particularly relevant is because of the fact that many American academic and conservatory-based programs profess to uphold many of Stanislavski's teachings.**

STANISLAVSKI'S SYSTEM
First of all, "The System" is a shortened version of the larger phrase, written by Stanislavski:  "A system of things for the actor to do when in a difficult spot."  Strasberg used to say, "Stanislavki invented nothing new.  He went about understanding what we all do on the days that our imaginations engage and everything comes to life for us onstage."

He had noticed that even great actors were wildly inconsistent, and went about understanding what great actors seemed to be doing in moments of great inspiration as opposed to off-nights.  He would then interview actors to get a sense of how they felt about their work.

To Stanislavski, great actors seemed to be (and to refer to feeling) relaxed on the stage and had greater concentration on the good nights.  He also read the journals of many great actors for before his day, who would try to do the same thing every night - and yet were achieving different results.

He made a great deal of contributions to world theatre.  He developed a manner of breaking down scripts, so that an actor could discern between different elements of human behavior and pick appropriate emotional work that would put that actor in the same state as the character.  He also created all sorts of exercises that helped actors build concentration, spontaneity, and focus. 

As his work evolved, his exercises and philosophies changed throughout his lifetime.  He was initially very intrigued by Naturalism, but soon developed the idea of Spiritual Realism (aka Psychological Realism): exposing the hidden aspects of relationships between people and of revealing the repressed elements of everyday life.   He began to believe that it was important for an actor to "live" through a role without falling into the trap of 100% belief.  In that way, the actor could keep a small piece of attention on keeping the actors' instrument tuned.

Most programs that follow Stanislavski's teachings center their semesters/years around his books.  At the Moscow Art Theatre School, they follow An Actor Prepares for the first year, working on "Etudes" (from the French word for "study"), which is usually applied to difficult pieces of music, created specifically to hone technical aspects of musicianship.  In this case, it consisted of exercises for the actor's instrument, including objects, animals, observation, parodies, silence etudes, and affective memory.  The second year is centered around Building a Character, which consists of teaching practical dramaturgy to students, so that they are able to discern scripts and begin to build their abilities to execute those understandings in scenework.  The third year is centered around Creating a Role, and students generally work on roles in acts from different genres of plays together and for a sustained amount of time.

It can be very daunting to pick up one of Stanislavski's books.  They are so dense that, I know it took me a full year, simply to digest An Actor Prepares as I read through it.  Fran Gercke, my friend and first acting teacher, used to suggest that people could go ahead and skip straight to Creating a Role, because Stanislavski's work was cumulative and built upon itself, so he was constantly redefining from book to book.  I do not mean to suggest that the first two books are unimportant.  They are all good reads.  But we can't learn ourselves from a book.  We need an outside eye.  We need guidance.  If you're interested in programs that center around the teachings of The Moscow Art Theatre, then the best book to read for a basic intellectual understanding is Creating a Role.

That said, be wary of "Stanislavski Based" programs.  The phrase doesn't mean anything - because all acting training is Stanislavski based.  Usually, what that means is that the teachings don't adhere to any one viewpoint.  And though many people seem to like that in our society, keep in mind that you're not trying to learn the tricks of the trade from Stanislavski or Meisner or Strasberg or Adler or Lewis or Hagen or their progeny or whoever the hell else.  You are trying to learn yourself.

Stanislavski has been overquoted to say, "Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you!"  But in order for us all to do that, we have to first learn ourselves.  By keeping our attention on the teachers and their teachings, we do exactly what Stanislavski warned us against.  We, instead, have to take their teachings and time-tested understandings of human behavior and use them to discover ourselves.



Please stay tuned for Parts Seven and Eight, which will conclude this series.  Now that we've discussed the major teachers, their teachings, and the historical background of the craft of acting, we'll go into some of the newer ideas on acting that have evolved from this base, the new concepts that are currently being taught, and the teachers that teach them.

Please do take a few minutes to share your thoughts and experiences with us below.  This is also a great opportunity for questions, clarifications, and requests for future posts.

To read other parts of this series, click here:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

15 comments:

  1. I agree that we need to have explored ourselves and the craft in order to determine what actually works for us. I'm excited to read the conclusion to the series.

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  2. .....'course there's many acting aphorism's that apply....poss. best "bridge" 'tween s/lavsky 'n strasberg, was the formers protege, vaktangov, "acting is turning psychology into behaviour", this also marries meisner's "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances"..but either way, avoid the danger of dogma, 'n turnin' mere people into guru's..ultimately, craft should set one free, being the predicate for flight, as'twere..this, ultimately, is one's own, not another's borrowed learning...also, remember s/lavski's precurser, hamlet, 'n advice to players.."speak the speech..." all this me humble opinion.. :=/

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  3. ...although, an interesting addendum to mr. hamlets advise, "um, nice advise, sir,..but, ah..in regard to th' speakin' trippingly on th' tongue....your advise is rendered in prose, how does/would manifest in verse?.." <<<cheeky bugger! :=/

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  4. ...so, i guess..the answer, as w/ most things, is be socratic, even w/ socrates, as in my aphorism/axiom,
    "the more man knows,
    the more man knows,
    man doesn't know".
    ..manifest in a conflation of that most socratic character, the afore-mentioned messr hamlet, "by thinking too finely upon th' point, we lose th' name of action"..k, i'll stop now (says he to voices in head" :))

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Bruce! It's great to hear your perspective - thanks for bringing your training and experience into the conversation!

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  5. I loved these replies. Yes I agree erin you have to find yourself. I once spoke to a broadway actress who had just come off a national tour and she told me (she was also a meisner trained actor as I am) that technique from different schools help but sooner or later you have to come up with your own technique or you will not thrive.Mr nicholls is absolutely right craft should set one free and why should one get caught up in a guru mentallity. Anybody who can quote aristotle has got my attention. And thanks for describing your challenges with stanislavski because I tried reading an actor prepares and it was quite a challenge for me. But after reading your 5th piece I am inspired to give it the old fashioned college try one more time.

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    1. For me, I think that technique is something that we anchor to when we need it, but still have the freedom to explore and expand when needed. I think that a solid foundation in one technique gives us the ability to feel free while still giving us the needed structure.

      And... I also had a hard time with An Actor Prepares. :-/

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  6. Thanks for the great series on acting techniques. It makes me want to learn more about the various approaches that have been developed. Having studied primarily at HB Studio, I am most familiar with Hagen’s work and use it the most. However, for good or bad, as I am introduced to them I find myself picking up bits and pieces of other techniques that I think are useful to me. The thing that I have noticed most are the similarities between many of these techniques, often using different terms for similar concepts and placing emphasis on different aspects of training.
    I once told a non-actor friend that the reason I love acting is because it engages me totally – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically. The overview presented through this series touches on all these aspects of human existence.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed it- thanks for commenting!

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  7. What a well-thought out series! I am working on a more detailed response as I started responding only to find that I was composing a mini-blog myself. So much to talk about with this and I value you starting the discussion! I'll let you know when my full response is ready. Cheers!

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    1. This is amazing! Can't wait to read it.

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  8. Wow, Stanislavski is (was) the man! I still reference my battered 'An Actor Prepares' when breaking down scripts and navigating through objectives. However, I always have to be careful not to get too analytical...it is easy to find mucho objectives and then my brain becomes clogged and instead of being human onstage, I'm a puppet in the hands of my own pre-meditation. The objective work really is great for me and how I approach my work, but now I try to keep my guideposts to a minimum, and remember that many objectives are actually subconscious, and to acknowledge those briefly, then hope that they will remain once identified.

    It seems like a major thread through the blogs has been RELAXATION. When we're relaxed, that's when the subconscious can play! And if we've done our homework during rehearsals (but not too much!) our subconscious will have a foundation from which to build. Brandon, what are relaxation exercises that work for you?

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    1. I feel the same way about relaxation. There were times when we were doing CLOSER that I'd be sitting alone in my scene on stage in the last scene of Act I (it's the split scene with Anna/Larry & Alice/Dan.) Larry would be off stage and I'd be alone in my thoughts, even though there were other characters living through their circumstances on the other side of the stage. Staying within my own reality was hard, particularly because my character was at the height of crisis. There were some nights when I was having trouble keeping my focus on my work. But every time, without fail, if I relaxed my body it allowed what I was feeling to be fully expressed, and by the time the actor playing Larry reentered the scene, I was fully in my reality. Relaxation was everything for me.

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  9. My full response to this well-timed blog series can be found here: http://benhodgestudios.blogspot.com/2012/05/acting-theory-sidetrack-i.html
    Thanks to Erin and Brandon for starting the conversation! Cheers.

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    1. Thank you so much, Ben! I just left my thoughts for you on the blog. I hope everyone gets a chance to stop by! :)

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