Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev was born the son of a wealthy Moscow manufacturer in 1863 and is regarded as the founder of realism. He first appeared on stage at the age of seven and later changed his acting name to Konstantin Stanislavski1 to preserve the reputation of his family, though they were not ashamed of his work. Indeed, his father often supported him and allowed his son to perform to friends and relations at their family and country home. At the age of 25, he established the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) which became famous for realistic performances of plays by famous Russian playwrights Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorki. In fact, Chekhov became famous because of Stanislavski's direction of The Seagull in 1898. Stanislavski's interpretation of Chekhov's piece was almost unheard of at the time, but drew audiences deeply into the mythical universe created on stage. He turned simple stage directions into a barrage of subtle details, varied emotions, long pauses and gloomy stares.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, Russian theatre was heavily censored and only Moscow and St Petersburg sustained acting companies. Towards the middle of the century, social comedies began to disguise scathing attacks on society and gradually broke down censorship. Playwrights, such as Gogol and Schepkin, tried to make acting a respectable and structured practice; but by the time Stanislavski came to it, it was as chaotic as it had ever been. Stanislavski's chief worries early on as a director lay with the punctuality of the actors and their backstage drunkenness.
The acting style itself was almost anarchic. Actors would strut on stage as they saw fit and deliver the lines downstage to the audience, without any regard to addressing fellow actors. The actors or theatre store provided whatever costumes they had to hand. The theatre provided sets and props from stock, while set design placed doors for the convenience of actors rather than to create a realistic aesthetic for the crowds. In 1894, Stanislavski directed Shakespeare's Othello and took a trip abroad to buy props and fabrics for costume that would actually fit the play - something unheard of at the time.
Stanislavski not only disliked the costumes and props, but also the general feel of theatre - an indifferent system negligent of thespian training or a rehearsal process, relying primarily on cheap French and German farce comedies. In a bid to eradicate this problem, he developed a method, or more accurately a system, with which to train the actors he directed. This system led Stanislavski to become the father of modern theatre.
The System uses a balance between an actor's personal experience and an attempt to imagine being in their character's situation. The actors could not merely rely on observation and imitation, they had to emotionally feel the role of their characters and recognise themselves in it, not just think of the part but also live it. Stanislavski stressed importantly that no part of his three-part system take precedence over another part, as this would create an imbalance. All aspects of The System must systematically engage together.
The System falls into three sections, elaborated upon in Stanislavski's novels:
An Actor Prepares (1937) - This book explains how the actor must psychologically and emotionally prepare for a created role. Once it is created, the actor must personally develop it until he feels comfortable living as somebody else. Actors must ask themselves 'What would I do if...?' based on the circumstances surrounding their character. The System describes this as a personal reality.
Building A Character (1949)2 - This book deals with the external training an actor undertakes to communicate different aspects of a role. The stress here is on a physical and vocal approach to the role and how far these aspects can change to display aspects of the role while remaining in the character.
Creating A Role (1961) - This book gives detailed examples of how The System can be applied to various roles. The actor must make the role fit the script, but only after preparing the role and assuming it both physically and vocally. The actor must effectively consider and approach each line and every pause from the character's perspective. This helps the actor gain proper access to the subtext.
By encouraging actors to become artists in their own right, Stanislavski had to lay down a method to stimulate his three-part System. Now known as 'method acting', the mechanisms used to take on a role are varied, but all focus on making an actor put their own experience, imagination and feeling into a role.
Towards the end of his life, Stanislavski placed emphasis on physical expression in training. He said that through the physical - the doing - an actor could give his role depth. He believed that actors must be in role all the time they are on stage, and most of the rehearsal time too, even if not required by the text to speak or carry out an action. This meant the actor should assume the role of their characters even during rehearsals. If the character stood in a cold place then the actor should shiver and alter his posture while rehearsing. A good way to experiment with characterisation is to improvise various scenes that do not appear in the text, but could happen between some characters. This activity provokes the actor to think about their character as a real person rather than simply role on a page.
The Magic If
The 'magic if' is the basis of assuming the mentality of a character. An actor asks 'If I were there, what would I be thinking?' and then later 'If I were my character, what would I be thinking?' allowing the emulation of realism on stage. Stanislavski did not require actors to be the part, as is a popular misconception, but he did demand that they lived the part with the magic if.
The Given Circumstance
This forms the context within which the actor asks the 'magic if', the basis for an actor and their role. The actor must believe in the given circumstances and appreciate it as the truth. The circumstances are: the play's narrative; its facts, events, epoch, time and setting; conditions of life; interpretation by the actor and director; and, finally, the design element - costumes, lighting, sound, etc.
A character does not have a full biography. The actor must find details of a character's life from hints within the text or invent them. Stanislavski demanded his actors to undergo a visual journey of motivation, including: who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going and what you will do when you get there. According to Stanislavski, speaking lines without fully realising the answer to these questions means not acting with your imagination.
Circles of Attention
During his career as a young actor, Stanislavski felt tense on stage. Later in life, he examined ways to help an actor relax and focus on stage. An actor could focus by concentrating on a small circle, himself and one other actor or prop. The actor, once focused on this small circle, extends his attention to a medium circle that includes more actors or larger props. After truly focusing on this, the actor can extend the focus of the large circle of attention to cover the entire stage. If an actor loses concentration, he can retreat into the small circle before building up to a large circle again. This enables actors to achieve public solitude.
Truth and Belief
Stage truth is unlike real truth as it is not really true, it is merely suggested to be true by the actor. If the actor fails to employ the magic, if they will not reach the stage where they are speaking and acting as a character, this will cause the audience not to believe and, in turn, stop them from suspending their disbelief.
Before communicating the subtle nuances of the play with an audience, an actor must commune with the cast. They must be aware of them and the character relationships between them. To achieve full communion the actor must use all senses and he should practice dialogue with another actor so as to learn nothing away from this communion.
An actor must overcome problems to achieve the best portrayal of a role. To keep a creative mind, the actor must think round a problem and approach it in different ways. By doing this, an actor can find imaginative solutions to the problems of staging.
On stage, less experienced actors may fall victim to nerves and hurry their lines and directions in order to get off as soon as possible. It is an actor's responsibility to find the correct tempo rhythm of every line and action performed. They should rehearse each line and action until they find a suitable tempo rhythm.
It is an actor's duty to stimulate his own emotion memory from which to draw and build a character. These memories are repeated emotional experiences, rather than the primary experiences they are based on. In other words, an actor should look for a general approach to a situation rather than their personal one. Stanislavski found this process best suited to re-inventing emotions for performances night after night.
Units and Objectives
The idea focuses on breaking the play down into units of action, and not just acts and scenes. The objectives within them dominate each unit and once reached the unit ends. There must not be too many units, but there should be enough to guide an actor towards realism. Each actor must realise their character's role in the objective, whether they want to achieve it, prolong it, prevent it, etc.
Super-Objective and Through-Line of Action
The super-objective of a play is the main thrust of the plot, an objective that runs throughout the entire text, it links to all the small units and objectives via the through-line. To gain understanding of a character, an actor must be aware of their character's relation to the super-objective.
During the build up of major political change in Russia, Stanislavski mirrored social issues on stage during 1905's Bloody Sunday and the more influential Red October of 1917, which revolutionised the country into Communist rule. Konstantin survived the consequential violence only due to his close allegiance with Lenin and his theatre began producing plays containing Soviet propaganda. In 1918, he established the First Studio as a school for training young actors, still trying to gain acting rightful recognition as a serious profession. In 1938, a month before the open declaration of World War II, Stanislavski died believing in a peaceful, socially-responsible world that exchanged its works of art - his books have now been translated into over 20 languages.