What is the Stanislavski method?
Widely considered to be the influence for method acting, the Stanislavski method is a popular system designed to help actors get into character and deliver realistic performances. Read on to find out how it works and who invented it.
The Stanislavski method (also known as the Stanislavski system) is a system of acting that is considered to be the root of modern-day ‘method acting’. The system was designed and developed by Konstantin Stanislavski in 19th Century Russia. It aimed to help actors perform in a way that was natural and believable when on stage – a stark contrast to the typically over-the-top performances that were more common in Russia in the 1800s.
Who was Konstantin Stanislavski?
Konstantin Stanislavski was born in 1863 in Moscow. As is the case with many great actors and directors, he developed a love for the theatre at an early age. Stanislavski’s passion led him to pursue acting as a profession in his teenage years – defying all social conventions in the process, as he was born into one of the wealthiest families in all of Russia.
However, his stint in theatre school was short-lived. He dropped out several weeks later, claiming that the over-the-top style of acting that they taught was not representative of true human behavior. These were the first roots of the Stanislavski Method – which he would later teach at the Moscow Art Theatre that he founded in 1898.
The different aspects of the Stanislavski system
The Stanislavski system is notoriously complicated, and a quick Google search will find thousands upon thousands of articles delving into its finer details. But what are the main aspects of the method and how do they work together to create natural, believable acting performances?
For Stanislavski an integral aspect of giving a believable performance was to convey genuine emotion. If a character has experienced the death of a loved one then they should show authentic grief. On the other hand, in moments of joy, the audience should be able to detect genuine happiness on the face of the actor.
To do this, Stanislavski believed that an important part of acting was to immerse oneself in the mindset of the character in order to personally experience these same emotions. In particularly emotional scenes these intense feelings may come naturally. In less intense scenes, or where the actor otherwise finds it difficult to emphasize and relate to the character, they must dip into their own personal experiences and hope to draw the same emotions from these.
“What would I do if…”
One of the fundamental aspects of Stanislavski’s system is that ‘truth’ could occur on stage – separate from real life, but believable for the audience members. The most direct way for actors to achieve this truth through their characters is to use the “magic if”.
The “magic if” essentially means actors asking themselves a number of questions about themselves and the characters they are portraying, most importantly “what would I do if I were in this situation?” or “what would happen if I were in these circumstances?” The answers to these questions help actors to develop a sense of their character and their reactions to the plot of the story, by extension providing a more realistic and believable performance.
Stanislavski was a firm believer that observing people as they go about their everyday lives is an important part of good acting. He taught students to watch people’s physical actions and nuances closely, as every living person is unique with their own individual traits. This sense of uniqueness could then be brought across into whichever character the actors were playing.
Stanislavski himself was an avid people watcher. While developing his method he used to observe people around his village, then attempt to disguise himself as someone of a different social class or age and see how successfully he would fit in amongst the locals.
Re-education of being on stage
In Ancient Greek theatre actors performed in a grandiose and over-the-top fashion – the greater the level of choreography, the better. This was perfectly suited to large amphitheaters and the roaring crowds that would be in attendance.
Conversely, the Stanislavski method focuses on realistic acting that mirrors real life, but often actors can struggle to combine this with the need to project oneself (both verbally and in one’s physical stage presence) when performing. To overcome this problem, Stanislavski encouraged actors to overcome the nervousness that being on stage can create, instead of learning to act and talk naturally when performing in front of large crowds.
What is my motivation?
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Stanislavski acting technique is the motivation for the character’s behavior. The motivation is always driven by the script itself – why do they walk into the room and sit down? Why do they agree or disagree with another character’s opinion? What is the reason for their sharp exit?
Sometimes the answer is obvious, other times it requires in-depth thought, and occasionally even the playwright couldn’t tell you. With Stanislavski’s system, it is the job of the actor to work out the motivation within each scene and across the whole performance.