The Stanislavski Method is an approach to acting that was created by Constantin Stanislavski in 19th Century Russia. It may sound ancient and irrelevant today, but Stanislavski’s method is the basis of most modern acting techniques in the United States, from Stella Adler to Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg.
Though it was born in the theater, where performances tend to be bigger and more exaggerated, the Stanislavski Method, also known as the Stanislavski System, was the beginning of real and natural performances, rooted in emotional truth.
When you hear that an Actor is a “Method Actor,” the core of what this Actor does to prepare for a role comes from Stanislavski’s teaching.
So what is a method of acting? Well, if you’re an Actor, whether it’s for film or for stage, once you get a script, you have to figure out how to take the character off the written page and bring it to life. This is the Actor’s job. Learning the lines is just a tiny piece of what an Actor does to make a performance believable and keep the audience interested and engaged.
One thing to bear in mind when you study Stanislavski, if you pick up one of his books – and I suggest you do, it’s terrific reading – pay attention to when the book was written.
There is an evolution of his teachings, as there is in many studies, but with Stanislavski, there is one particular part of his method called Emotional Memory that was essentially abandoned in his later teachings, even though some of his successors continued to teach it. I’ll speak more about it below.
First, we’ll explore several elements that are the backbone of the Stanislavski method:
- Analyzing the text
- Units and objectives
- The Magic If
- The body as an instrument
- Emotional memory
It all begins with the script. This is where an Actor finds information about who a character is.
Though an Actor uses his imagination to give shape to the character on the page, he must do this by using the written information, so Stanislavski required that an Actor look at the given circumstances to inform his choices. For example, one must determine where and when the story takes place, and decide how that affects character.
Before the Actor does any physical work he must break down the action and ask the questions “what, why and how.” Is the character married, working, or unemployed? Rich or poor?
The Actor’s job is to look for clues in the script about how a character may behave. Someone who is hungry will react differently to a meal than someone who has already stuffed his face.
The next step is to understand what the character wants. Characters do things in order to reach some sort of goal. Stanislavski liked to break the script down into units and objectives, which lead to what he called the super objective. The super objective is the overall objective of the character.
The super objective of a character may be to get a job, but each scene provides particular obstacles and smaller goals, which are called units and objectives, (sometimes called beats). When they are strung together, they get the character closer to his or her overall goal or super objective, the character’s driving force.
To use the example of a character that needs a job, perhaps there is a scene in which the character is at an employment agency and he doesn’t have a pen . . .Filling out the application, then, is going to be an obstacle, and the character will do certain things (that may or may not be in the script) to solve the problem.
Each time there is a shift in a scene, there might be a new objective – in this case, getting a hold of a pen to fill out that application. The next might be turning the application in.
The words “magic if ” are probably the most inspiring two words in the creative sphere. This is how the Actor fills in the blanks. Once the Actor has the circumstances – the character is unemployed and needs a job, he lives in a city, and he’s late with the rent payments – he must breathe life into the character with what is not on the page.
Stanislavski knew that whatever happened in a play (or in a motion picture nowadays), was not the truth. But the goal of the Actor is for the audience to believe it is true. This is why we laugh, cry, and identify with characters. What Stanislavski understood was that an Actor has to create the illusion of truth, so an Actor must believe in his or her imagination.
This can be done by going through the script and analyzing each moment to ask “what if,” to create a reality around the character and his or her circumstances. Some Actors interpret this as “what would I do in this situation?” But that’s not the best question to ask. Rather, it should be, “What would the character do?”
Each circumstance changes the way a character behaves, and an Actor has to take this into consideration and make choices. This can be by creating the backstory of a character (perhaps we don’t know how he or she became unemployed), or how the character physically moves. This is the way to explore behavior. When the character is angry, will he throw a soda can across the room in a rage or crush it in his hand? This is the fun of the magic if.
When Actors are parodied, they are often depicted, (usually tortured) asking the Director, “What’s my motivation?” Honestly, it’s a good question. That’s why a murder investigation must uncover motive before anyone can prosecute. But what does that look like for an Actor? Well, let’s go back to our unemployed friend.
We know his super objective is to get a job; we know his rent bills are piling up, but why does he need a job? What is important to him? Is it to win the love of his life or is it to get the inheritance that is due to him under the condition that he is employed? Each choice can make the character act in different ways.
An Actor will often ask a Director what his or her motivation is because if the choice he or she made isn’t working, a different motivation will give him or her clues to adjust the performance.
The subtext is the meaning beneath the line – the unspoken communication. The line may be, “It’s so good to see you!” But if this line is to the boss that fired our character, I bet there is some subtext.
A good exercise is to put words to the subtext, but subtext comes to life in the tone of the voice or body language. Is our character angry with the guy who fired him? Or is he secretly begging to be rehired? Each choice will precipitate different actions or tone, so finding the subtext of dialog helps an Actor make choices that will reflect in the way he moves and speaks.
Stanislavski believed that Actors should be keen observers. Through observation, Actors can understand experiences that they, themselves, may not have gone through. That’s why an Actor might do a ride along with a Police Officer or visit a prison.
He or she can get a feel for this experience by observing people going through it. They can pick up on body language and attitudes that they can use in their performance.
All of these things lead to the physical performance of an Actor. Actors must make choices about how a character speaks and moves physically. There are the overall physical embodiments of character – for example, a pregnant mother will walk a particular way.
But what she does when she feels threatened is another thing . . ..Does she hold her hand on her belly? Someone may have a strong and confident voice, but how does he speak when he is in a library, or talking about an uncomfortable subject? All these things are physical manifestations of the choices an Actor makes.
An Actor does not work alone. It is often said that acting is reacting because an Actor must be in communion with his fellow Actors. If we were to go back to the idea of units and objectives, an Actor must adapt to each situation – like finding a pen to fill out his job application.
But the Actor must also adapt to the choices other Actors make. If the Receptionist gives our character the stink eye when he asks for a pen, how does our character react? This is where rehearsals can get fun because you can play with the magic if.
Emotional memory is a controversial subject among Method Actors. The idea of the practice is for the Actor to explore his personal experiences to find a similar emotion to the one the character is experiencing and tap into that “emotional memory” — that is, the feelings associated with that memory, and use it during the performance.
Though some Method Actors embrace this idea, Stanislavski observed that it could have a negative psychological effect on Actors and they could lose control during a performance, which is counterproductive.
Though Stanislavski authored his books many moons ago, he is the father of natural performances and is still very accessible today. If you are looking for tools to build a strong and believable character, Stanislavski provides a strong foundation.