While reading the works of Konstantin Stanislavski is a great way to gain an understanding of the Theatre, its best lessons are hidden within his more diaristic entries.
As a youth in Russia, Stanislavski as a child of privilege was forced to keep his theatrical interests somewhat guarded.
Possibly for that reason, he observed the art from a whole new perspective.
Theatre of the late 1800s/early 1900s was concerned with clear, constant communication with the audience. Actors were classically trained to physically demonstrate the range of emotions common in the four styles of theatre: melodrama, vaudeville, comedy, and tragedy. Each style carried with it a series of almost arch displays of facial expression and physicality that were designed to be seen by every spectator in the audience.
However, Stanislavski tried these tried-and-true elements out (in the privacy of his own home) only to discover their artificiality. No tragedy in life has a Greek chorus. No selfless death is accompanied by a grand gesture before its plunge. Theatre in Stanislavski's eyes needed a dose of reality.
In his work "Faith and A Sense of Truth In A Performer," Stanislavski writes about one day when the players all gathered for rehearsal, they could not begin until they found a lost purse. As the actors stormed the stage and the rest of the theatre, they did not know the director saw them hard at work. So when the director emerged to being rehearsal outright, his first exercise was to re-enact searching for the purse. As the actors did it this time, some were overly emotive, most were uninvolved, and the exercise was confusing. So, the director explained, "As you already knew where the purse was - you were not searching for truth."
This morsel in one of his many texts ("An Actor Prepares," "An Actor's Work," and "Building a Character" all sadly out of print at this time) provides what one should know about "The System" he developed which is now taught as "The Method." Stanislavski sought to use the stage as a mirror reflection of real life. Acting in gestures was essentially lying to the audience. In real life, the decision-making and rationalization that humans endure is internal. So "The System," saw characters built from the ground up.
Stanislavski turned Theatre completely around. Actors constructed entire biographies of their characters or even sought out real groups to observe and interact with. This "experience" would then be emulated within the performance itself. Fortunately, Stanislavski documents the experience of making these discoveries. American acting instructors Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner then took these ideas and initiated exercises and one-on-one work with actors that would change Theatre and film dramatically.
Back to the magical "truth," Stanislavski as a director and actor had the grounding to manipulate his actors. However, all of his experiments were about removing the artifice of "performance" and replacing it with the physical and mental "experience."
For example, while directing Shakespeare's "Othello" in the 1930's, Stanislavski did away with the lengthy table read/pre-rehearsal period instead using what he deemed "active analysis." By moving the actors immediately to the stage and toward physical expression, they improvised what they thought their characters would do. Now, their performance was their own and a play from 1603 steeped in customs and archaic language could vibrantly communicate to a modern audience.
As "The System" became "The Method," Stanislavski's works became manuals for practice and serious study. In fact, while many of Stanislavski's existing works can seem quite thin - their reading demands far more thought and attention to the inner workings of the man than most.
"The Method of Physical Action" was well on its way to becoming a theatrical standard in the late 1930's, The stage was being transformed into a fourth wall for the audience to observe a different stratum of life. Stanislavski, growing older, found the help of Vsevolod Meyerhold with the documentation of his ideas. Meyerhold's biomechanical training increased the physicality of "The Method" greatly. Stanislavski even went so far as to pronounce Meyerhold as the "heir to his Method." Stanislavski passed away Aug 7, 1938. Meyerhold was tortured to death by Joseph Stalin's police two years later.
The legacy of Stanislavski was carried in the work of the actors he trained. Stella Adler worked directly with Stanislavski for five weeks blocking nearly every scene in the play and even (against Stanislavski's advice) using "sense memory" to reach a higher level of performance. Adler taught Marlon Brando and James Dean. Her adaptation of "The Method" remains in use today. In "An Actor's Life," Stanislavski recants the day-to-day operations of rehearsal. When to arrive. How arriving late punishes everyone. The hours and hours of rehearsing at home with the knowledge that you will never be as "free" as this in front of castmates or an audience. While it all seems so rote, it may be the best way for us to understand the mysterious experience of "The Method."
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.