If you are going to study drama and acting at any level sooner or later you will encounter the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski
Stanislavski was the first theatre practitioner who revoluntionised the modern world’s ideas about acting and more importantly wrote those ideas down.
Those ideas still form the foundation of acting training throughout the Western world today and although they were designed for theatre actors many of the exercises he created also underpin acting training for screen actors. Some of Stanislavski's ideas have over the years been misinterpreted and Stanislavski by his own admission adapted his acting system as he continually allowed his work to evolve throughout his lifetime.
Stanislavski created a system of acting, although he didn’t want that system to be a rigid set of rules, he created his acting exercises and reflections after a lifelong involvement in theatre as both an actor and director. He was particularly interested in bringing characters to life, with a focus on naturalism.
As a child Stanislavski had been involved in a playing a character called Winter, in a show about the Four Seasons. He remembered feeling awkward and self-conscious and not knowing what to do with his hands, how to approach engaging the audience or indeed where to look. He was told by others in the production to place a wooden stick close to a candle and just to make it look real but not to worry about this, as it was after all just make believe. However Stanislavski decided to actually do it for real and as a result created a fire on stage. He charts this as being the moment that he realised that actors always need a purpose within any scene or role, they need to understand why they are doing what they are doing, in terms of character. He believed if an actor doesn’t have purpose within a scene they will feel awkward.
Born in 1863 in Moscow, Stanislavski was fortunate to belong to a wealthy family, allowing him the time and opportunity to explore the world of the theatre. He was particularly interested in opera, the circus and theatre stage shows. He often performed circus shows at home with his siblings. His desire to put on a good show and to take stage craft seriously, was evident even within these early performances.
His family formed their own amateur theatre group called the 'Alekseyev Circle'. This was the family name, with Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexseyev, taking on the stage name of Stanislavski years later. Over the next few years he kept a diary of his performances and noted that the audiences were always critical of his acting, accusing him of being over the top and effectively over acting. So he tried a new approach and restrained his acting, where he learned to control himself from the excitement that being onstage gave him. He called this method ‘a feeling of true measure’. Unfortunately audiences did not like this method either and regularly fell asleep when they watched him perform.
The audiences complained that the acting was too quiet, so he became louder, then they complained that he was shouting. Visitors told him to speed up the play as the pacing was too slow and laboured and so Stanislavski moved to cut his plays and performances to be shorter in length. Unfortunately the new speed of acting meant that the audience complained that they couldn’t grasp what was going on and that the dialogue was now too quick to understand. After painstakingly making changes, things did begin to improve and his speech improved and actions on stage more clearly understood, but there was still something missing. The acting was very similar to the idea of painting by numbers and the acting was just representing a character, rather like a cardboard cut out.
Stanislavski and the other actors he was working with began experimenting with the idea of staying in character and becoming the character. Thus began the seeds of what we have come to know today as 'Method Acting', although we would describe Stanislavski as being the forefather of the method, with American acting teachers coining that term
During rehearsals at The Moscow Art Theatre , Stanislavksi and other actors would go into town dressed as beggars and drunks and try to scare people at the train station. During the rehearsal of a show he and the other actors would attempt to spend a day in the life of their character. Soon he began to realise that he must experience the character’s life on stage, rather than just enjoying an opportunity to personally show off. He also realised that his own vanity and how he presented himself on stage, had been his primary concern. Once he realised that how he was perceived was not important but how the character was perceived, a major breakthrough began. One of Stanislavski’s core principles, challenging actor’s vanity, later became “ Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art”
In 1885 Stanislavski attended a drama school, he dropped out after only three weeks. His main complaint was that the teachers focused on the end result, how things should be performed, but that they offered no insight into how to achieve these results.
He was concerned that being told to act just like another successful actor was not enough and it simply made him focus on the external and not on the internal world of the character. He believed actors needed a clear system to achieve this result but that such a system didn’t exist. Stanislavski began to reflect upon what that system could be and began to write down his acting ideas, which would later be published into teaching manuals.