By observing himself as an actor as well as the other actors with whom
he worked, and more especially by studying the great dramatic artists in
Russia and abroad, Stanislavski developed an approach to the teaching of
acting that became known as the “Stanislavski system.” The effects of his
teaching were felt in America in the 1920 s when Richard Boleslavsky and
Maria Ouspenskaya, both alumni of the Moscow Art Theatre school, emigrated
to America and established The American Laboratory Theatre.
Stanislavski investigated and charted the acting process that good actors used intuitively. He systematized that process so that it could be studied and developed consciously. He was interested in how to maintain a consistent performance and how to be a conscious human being on stage. The Method is a pragmatic way of working to create both the interior life and the logical behavior of a character, a way that can be taught, practiced, monitored, and corrected.
According to Stanislavski, an important aspect of building a character pertains to the subtext. The subtext is the meaning behind the words of the text. For Stanislavski, the subtext is the inward “life of a human spirit. . .” that constantly flows under the words of a role. Words are only a part of a given moment on stage, and are related to thoughts, bodily expressions, and images. Actors need to see images and transmit those images to the acting partner. Images need to grow in detail and become richer.
Questions are asked by the actor. Why did the playwright write these words at this time in the play? To make the playwright’s words his own the actor needs to know why the author gave these lines to the character: what is my purpose in saying these lines? How do I make that purpose known? Under what conditions would I think, behave, do, and perceive as this character does? As the actor I must be willing to submerge myself in the life of the character.
Some of the tenets of Method Acting are: verisimilitude, seeking logical character behavior, justification and super-objective, expression of true emotion, drawing on the self, ensemble acting, improvisation, and use of objects.
1. The actor’s essential task is to reproduce a credible reality—verisimilitude—on
stage or screen, founded on acute observations of the world. Method teachers
do not hold that this restricts actors to any one style of production,
but this task does closely link the Method with American naturalism, which
has the same aim.
2. The Method justifies all stage behavior by establishing its psychological soundness. To provide a unifying motivation for this behavior, the actor determines a single overall purpose for the character. This is commonly known as a “super-objective,” or “throughline,” or “spine.” This larger purpose is divided into smaller, actable units called “objectives” or “actions.”
3. Great value is placed on the expression of genuine emotion, which may be evoked through a technique called “affective memory.”2 (Affective memory has become an extremely controversial device that has, in its most popular version, “emotional recall,” split the community of Method teachers.)
3(a) The central purpose of the creative actor’s work is the cultivation of “life of our inner feelings.” According to Boleslavsky, this involves the development and use of the actor’s “affective memory”: the recalling and re-experiencing of previously felt emotions.
________Stanislavski developed exercises with which the actor, by recalling the sensory details that accompanied an emotional experience, could entice the emotion from his subconscious and re-experience it. Madame Ouspenskaya used to call the actor’s affective memories “golden keys,” which unlocked some of the greatest moments in acting.
________In the last four pages of the “Overture, section of SWANN’S WAY, Marcel Proust describes a perfect example of the affective-memory phenomenon and how it is linked to particular sensory keys that can unlock long-forgotten feelings.3 The novel’s narrator recalls how his mother served him some tea with “those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines.’” He takes a sip of the tea into which he has dipped a piece of Madeleine and suddenly experiences an exquisite sense of joy. He tries another sip of the tea and cake and then another, but the sensation seems to diminish. He considers for a moment, then concentrates on the sense memory of the taste of “the crumb of Madeleine soaked in a decoction of lime-flowers,” and immediately a flood of reminiscences is released: he remembers the Sunday mornings at Combray, when as a child, his aunt Leonie gave him a piece of the Madeleine she had dipped in her own cup of lime-flower tea, the re-experiencing of which unfolds in the complex of recollections that becomes REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST.
________There are many examples in theatre history of performers making unconscious use of their affective memories. For example, Edmund Kean was truly emotionally moved when he picked up the skull of Yorick in the gravediggers, scene in HAMLET. It seems each time he held Yorick’s skull he would be reminded of a beloved uncle who had given him his first lessons in acting and who had introduced him to Shakespeare. By this example we see that the actor had a real emotional response that came from his connection with the play and the character.
________Specific acting exercises are used only as a last resort. The given circumstances of the play, character, and action are of primary importance. After the performer analyzes his part to see what feeling or emotion is necessary at a given moment in a scene, he searches his own life for a remembered feeling or emotion that parallels the former. Using sensory exercises the actor retrieves the parallel emotion from his affective memory. The actor is not to be concerned with how the emotion will manifest itself, only with finding it and creating the sensory realities that will unlock the memory. When the affective memory is tapped, the mental processes set in motion do cause psycho physical responses. They stimulate the player’s physical and mental being with remembered sensations and emotions that color his or her behavior and vocal expression in ways that both the actor and the audience experience as real and exciting. This is what gives fine acting its “aliveness” and verisimilitude.
________The Method teacher Robert Lewis has this definition of affective memory:4
________The theory is that if, quietly relaxed, you think back over a certain incident in your life which moved you strongly at the time, and if you can remember and recreate in your mind the physical circumstances of that moment (where you were, who was there, what happened, the time of day, the place, surroundings) and start reliving it . . . it is possible that a feeling similar to what you felt at that time will recur.
4. Each actor’s own personality is not only the model for the creation of character, but the source from which all psychological truth must be distilled. Here’s what Brando has to say about “use of self”.5
________People often say that an actor “plays” a character well but that’s an amateurish notion. Developing a characterization is not merely a matter of putting on makeup and a costume and stuffing Kleenex in your mouth. That’s what actors used to do, and then called it characterization. In acting everything comes out of what you are or some aspect of who you are. Everything is a part of your experience. We all have a spectrum of emotions in us. It is a broad one, and it is the actor’s job to reach into this assortment of emotions and experience for the ones that are appropriate for his character and the story. Through practice and experience, I learned how to put myself into different moods and states of mind by thinking about things that made me laugh or be angry, sad, or outraged; I developed a mental technique that allowed me to address certain parts of myself, select an emotion, and send something akin to an electrical impulse from my brain to my body that enabled me to experience the emotion. If I had to feel worried, I’d think about something that worried me; if I was supposed to laugh, I thought about something that was hilarious.
5. Improvisation is encouraged as a rehearsal aid, and even in some cases as part of performance, in an effort to keep the acting spontaneous, and thus lifelike.
6. The Method promotes intimate communication between actors in a scene, thus striving toward the performance ideal of true, unified ensemble acting. Some acting exercises developed for this purpose are: the mirror, group use of imaginary objects, group movement exercises, and improvisations.
________Ensemble acting does mean more than just consistently good acting by all cast members. It generally implies that everyone on stage is acting in exactly the same style, and it requires concentrated group scenes. Unfortunately, the history of American drama and film contains few examples of it. It may be the sad case that for American actors, who strive to create theater in a highly commercial context that supports the star system, moments of intimate connection between individuals are often the closest they come to ensemble acting.6
7. The use of objects is stressed both for their symbolic value and as reminders of the solid, material world.