Learn about the style of acting developed by Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky, who believed that an actor’s performance should evolve from inner emotion. Discover the connections between the Stanislavsky system and nineteenth century theater and literature.
The Stanislavsky System
‘There are no small parts, only small actors.’ For Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, there was no higher art than the actor’s self-expression. Stanislavksy developed an approach to stage craft, a style of training actors, that valued the artists’ embodiment of emotion first, and secondly his physical expression of those emotions. From this point of view, it didn’t matter how long an actor stood on stage or how many lines they had. As long as he expressed the emotional life of his character, the audience ceased to matter.
Stanislavsky is best known for developing the influential style of acting called The System, not to be confused with method acting that developed later out of his teachings. The Stanislavsky System encouraged actors to emulate their character’s inner emotion and thought, which is then projected outward in their performance. Writing in the first part of the 20th century, Stanislavsky drew on both psychological and spiritual work available at the time, including yoga and Pavlovian behavior research, to construct a hybrid method. His contribution to the theater world is widely recognized as the development of an actor’s craft.
Born in 1863 into a wealthy Russian family, Konstantin took on ‘Stanislavsky’ as a stage name. He spent the early part of his life trying to learn stage craft in anonymity, as theater and acting were looked down upon as professions by the upper class. As such, he did not officially begin his theatrical career until his 30s.
Inside Out and Outside In
If you ever get the chance to take Acting 101, Stanislavsky will be one of the first authors you read, along with works by Uta Hagen, Anne Bogart, Lee Strasberg, and Sanford Meisner. He authored a trilogy of books: An Actor Prepares, Building a character, and Creating a Role. Stanislavsky also penned an autobiography entitled My Life in Art. The trilogy presents the system, which is a praxis-based approach to stage craft. It combines theory and practice toward the goal of teaching actors how to get in touch with creativity, self expression, and intuition. He books are semi-autobiographical, philosophical, and practical explorations.
He proposed a method for acting and character development based on the science of psychology, and philosophy based on the actors’ expression of her own truth. The system teaches actors to begin with emotion and develop the inner life of the character. Only then can he stand on the stage and emote the feelings, desires, and beliefs of the character he is meant to portray.
Beginning with inner feelings, the system teaches actors to become aware of the connection between how they feel inside and they way those feelings manifest on the face and in the body. One lesson instructs the actor to watch herself in the mirror while practicing her lines. Actors are instructed to tap into the honesty of their character on emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical levels. To truly live in the shoes of your character, Stanislavsky instructs, you need to forget the difference between the emotion and its physical expression.
Stanislavsky developed his system as an intellectual method, inspired by the movement of psychological realism that developed in nineteenth-century Russia. Authors, poets, and artists such as Ibsen, Tolstoy and Chekhov valued subtlety and naturalness in response, or perhaps rejection of the overblown, exaggerated stage acting prominent at the time. The style of psychological realism, in theatrical plays and acting, is characterized by ordinary settings, everyday life, and middle class problems. These plays place more emphasis on character driven plots. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example, hinges on a woman’s decision whether or not to leave her husband.
Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky constructed The System of character development by drawing from nineteenth-century science, philosophy, and aesthetics. He was inspired by the style of psychological realism prominent in Russian theater and literature, which featured character driven plots and ordinary, middle class settings. Stanislavsky introduced a praxis-based system for actors to use to express their creativity, get in touch with their emotions, and convey the philosophical truth felt by the characters they were portraying on the stage. He authored a trilogy of books: An Actor Prepares, Building a character, and Creating a Role. Acting 101 would be incomplete without a chapter on Stanislavsky. His method has become foundational to acting style on stage and screen.