They say that Stanislavski’s favorite words to his acting pupils were “I don’t believe you, you don’t convince me.” His way of seeing and understanding how theater artists should act was demanding but also meticulous. So much so that it became its own method: the Stanislavski system.
His systematic approach to acting not only revolutionized the way people acted in the Russia of his time, but he also managed to cross borders by changing the direction of Western theater.
This method has been crucial to making plays, series, and movies as we know them today, and then we’ll find out why.
What is the Stanislavski system?
Konstantin Sergeevich Alekseyev (Moscow 1863 – 1938), better known as Stanislavski, was a prolific Russian actor, stage director, and theater educator Known for being the author of one of the most important methods for the history of the performing arts: the Stanislavski system. The product of many years of effort, his method was intended to enable actors to control the most intangible and uncontrollable aspects of human behavior while on stage, such as emotions and artistic inspiration.
Stanislavski studied what actors did who, naturally, managed to get into character. Based on his observations and experiences, this Russian director created a system that every actor, both new and veteran in the profession, could apply in their works, achieving a cleaner, more real and natural performance. This method was so revolutionary at the time of its appearance that it marked a before and after in the world of acting, establishing standards that delimited the line between a convincing performance of an artificial and poorly represented.
This method was formulated at a time when the performing arts of his homeland, Russia, were characterized by conventional and stereotyped cliches. The actors acted artificially, even histrionic. The plays were bathed in an aura of false emotionality and little preparation on the part of the actors, so little that they even found out what they had to say when they were already on stage. Little or nothing was looked at the scripts where what they should have memorized came out.
Stanislavski carried out meticulous research to make his actors work from the beginning with something that they perceived as real., people, elements and objects seen not as mere elements of a scene, but parts of a real, mundane scene, part of life itself. People are not actors in our lives, but we are part of them, we live them more than act them.
To get the actor to enter the scene he is representing, Stanislavski defends the use of emotional memory. The actor or actress must remember a personal experience similar to the one they are trying to represent, helping them feel more immersed and involved in what they are trying to represent on stage. You should look for a situation in your life history in which you felt an emotion similar to that of your character.
But this is not achieved solely by evoking sincere emotion. It is also necessary a little external support, modify our appearance and behavior in order to give life to the character that it is intended to represent or, rather, bring to life. Make up, dress, walk, in short behave like the character since external physical acts help to trigger the emotion sought, following the principle that if you start crying, you end up being sad.
The principles of the Stanislavski system
The Stanislavski system is quite complex and cannot be said to be static precisely because of how much it has evolved since it was conceptualized in the early 20th century. However, it is possible to highlight some of its most important principles, which have contributed to mark a before and after in the way in which theater artists and, later, films and series represented their characters:
1. Concentration on the character
The actor must respond to the imagination learning to think like the character, concentrating on being what he is playing.
2. Sense of truth
With a sense of truth we could say that one of the ideas of this method is to differentiate between the organic and the artificial. Stanislavski was a firm believer that there were natural laws to be followed in the performing arts, which, if respected, differentiated a good, natural and harmonious work, from a bad, contrived and overreacted.
3. Act according to the given circumstances
The actor must be skillful in the use and handling of the circumstances that are given in the text, but by means of the truth and resorting to organic means. Is about sticking to the script but freeing yourself by representing your emotionality, staying true to what appears in the script but making the performance have personality and naturalness.
4. The physical method
Stanislavski saw that many of his pupils had deep emotional tensions and mental problems. Through his method, he was able to help remove physical and emotional tension from actors, causing them to relax their muscles while performing, and act in a much more liberated way.
Added to this, the Russian director attached extraordinary importance to the physical factor that not only served to relax but also to stage more accurately. It is because of this that your system has also been known as physical action method due to its great emphasis on relaxing the muscles while performing the performance.
5. Areas of focus
The spheres of attention is what Stanislavski meant by working on sensations. The actor must discover the sensory basis of the work. His task is to learn to memorize and remember the sensations that his character feels, sensations that modulate his mood and his way of behaving with the other characters in the play and with the audience.
6. Communication and contact
The actor must be able to interact with other characters in a spontaneous way, without violating the content of the book but that does not seem something forced or artificially prepared. Communication and contact with the other actors is essential during the rehearsals and final performances.
7. Roles segmented into units and objectives
Artists must learn to divide the role or role of their protagonists into sensible units that can work separately. It is the task of the actor and actress to define each unit of the role, feeling it as their own desire. rather than understand it as a literary idea that arises from the director’s libretto.
8. Creativity in acting and thinking
You can’t be an actor without being creative. The creativity manifests both in a creative state of mind and in the way of acting.
9. Work with the text of the script
This principle may sound obvious, since it is difficult to represent a work reliably while completely ignoring what it says in the libretto. However, in Russia at the beginning of the last century this was not so taken for granted by some Russian artists, since on many occasions it happened that the librettos were not read and they trusted that they would tell them their phrases while they performed.
The actor must respect what he puts in the script, memorizing and internalizing his lines, but not learning it to “vomit” it at the time of the play. The actor must discover the social, political and artistic meaning of the text, understand the ideas that the director has immortalized in the script of the play. As an artist, the actor or actress must serve as a means to entrust these values and visions to the public that has come to see the work.
The importance of the Stanislavski system today
The Stanislavski system has evolved over time. At the beginning, what the actors and actresses had to do was find the truth about the character, treat it as a real entity. However, with the passage of time the practice of finding in his own experience the resources that allow him to feel what his character feels was incorporated in any situation.
Today it is understood that the actor must not only understand what happens to his character within the play, but also must know the vital situation in which he finds himself and what circumstances surround him. Knowing this and living it in his own flesh, the actor will be able to react in the same way to how his character would be expected to do it, making the performance as natural as possible.
This has gone quite a bit further, reaching the current fact that many artists live in their day to day as they think their character would. for example, that his character is a farmer who lives in the country, because then the actor goes to a farm for a season and lives as if that were his profession in real life. As the years went by, different acting schools added certain practices to the Stanislavski system, becoming over time what is known in the acting world as “the method.”