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.**
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
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five