Stanislavski and the Actor
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Stanislavski and the Actor

The Method of Physical Action

Jean Benedetti

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eBook - ePub

Stanislavski and the Actor

The Method of Physical Action

Jean Benedetti

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In Stanislavski and the Actor, Stanislavski scholar and biographer Jean Bendetti has recovered materials that can stand as a final, last work by the great director and teacher. In this volume readers will find the first English text of Stanislavski s notes and practical exercises from these last sessions. This is a major rediscovered work by Stanislavski, full of new ideas and insights about his working method. To the original materials Jean Benedetti adds his own analysis of Stanislavski's approach to acting and rehearsal methods.The master's own summary of a lifetime of theatrical experience, Stanislavski and the Actor will quickly become an essential tool for actors, students, and teachers everywhere.

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Part One
An Outline of the Method of Physical Action

The Actor’s Dilemma

I am an actor. My job is to appear to be someone else. But I cannot actually be someone else. The only feelings or thoughts or impulses I can have are my own. I cannot actually experience anyone else's emotions any more than I can eat and digest anyone else's meal. If I really believe I am someone else then I am, in Stanislavski's words, a pathological case and need psychiatric help.
As an actor, no matter what my appearance, no matter what my ability to transform myself through costume and make-up, at the centre will always be myself. I have no other resource from which to create a performance but my own life.
So, if I can only be myself, how do I create and present a character whom an audience accepts as a fully rounded, comprehensible human being, but who is not me? How do I move them to laughter or tears? How do I change the way they think and feel about the world they live in?
I do it by using a natural process
Human beings have an innate sympathy for one another, the capacity to feel for one another. If I see someone close to me in distress, I feel distress. They cry, I cry. We are crying as separate individuals, but our crying is similar. This is a mechanism so fundamental I take it for granted. I can also, of course, be critical, pass judgement, feel hostile. But I am not indifferent. People who cannot feel anything towards their fellow humans are considered as somehow deficient and abnormal.
It is precisely this capacity to reflect back, to respond to and judge other people's thoughts and feelings that is at the root of art.†
Stanislavski believed that the actor most likely to affect an audience profoundly is the actor who behaves most like a complete human being, thereby Stirling not merely their emotions but their minds as well. His art is based on an understanding of the way we behave in our daily lives, which he then uses when creating a character. If a character's behaviour is similar to our behaviour in life, then it becomes 'human'.
The first step in the creative process, therefore, is to look at the way we behave.

Everyday Behaviour


In life I act out of human Necessity.‡ I drink because I am thirsty. I eat because I am hungry. My behaviour is purposeful or, as the child psychologist, Jean Piaget, put it, goal-directed. I have needs and intentions, which I respond to through actions. There is no such thing as unmotivated behaviour, even if my motives are not clear to me. Thinking, too, is purposive. I think about something.
I interact with the world about me all the time, accept it or change it.


Feelings, emotions, moods, states of mind, Stanislavski realised, arise as a result of that interaction. Emotions are not objects, like chairs or tables or books. Love, hate, envy, greed, anger do not exist anywhere. Experiencing an emotion is not like plugging into an electric socket, pressing the switch so that an emotion comes on, like a light bulb. Emotions are states which are produced by activity, they are the result of a process, of actions designed to fulfil an intention.

The Real ‘I’

When I speak or do something, my words and actions bear the imprint of my personality. They are not 'objective' or 'neutral', they are part of me, the result of my life experience. What I say is coloured, shaped by who I am. There is a Real 'I'. That is what other people perceive. If two different people speak the same words, the effect is different. People read each other's behaviour, their faces, their personality, their body language. They don't merely take in the logical content of what is being said, which only accounts for a small fraction of the total message.

Automatic Reflexes

Most of my actions are automatic, things I do out of habit. Stanislavski believed that some 90 per cent of normal behaviour was automatic. When I walk, for instance, I do not consciously motivate each leg each time I move it. I learned to walk as a baby. I know I can do it, I take it for granted. In life I consciously make decisions, create intentions, but the actions I perform to carry them out are, for the most part, reflex. If I decide to write a letter, I may think consciously about what I am going to say, but my hands will write or type apparently of their own accord, spontaneously. These are what we might call operations, we operate as a machine operates.

Organic Actions

Stanislavski defined the sequences of habitual actions, the operations we perform as Organic Actions. By this he meant actions which have their own logic and must be performed in a certain sequence. It is no good, for example, sealing an envelope and putting a stamp on it before I have written the letter. The sequence of actions remains the same whatever the situation, whatever I am feeling, whether the letter is a happy or a sad one.

Created Behaviour

The Dramatic ‘I’

Spontaneous thoughts and feelings and reaction to other people's thoughts and feelings are not art. But if I tell a story about something that happened to me, and deliberately try to make my listeners share the feelings that I am reliving as I speak, that is the beginning of the art.† If I act out events which I have not actually experienced but which someone else has described, and try to make the people watching experience what I am experiencing, that is the beginning of acting.
Acting is created behaviour, prepared spontaneity, something which looks like life but is, in fact, a selection from life, organised in such a way to make an audience participate in the events being shown.
To do that, I have to create a Dramatic 'I' that will look and sound as human as a Real 'I'.
How do I sret from a Real 'I' to a Dramatic 'I'?
The Method of Physical Action is designed to solve that problem by making me start from where I am, as a human being, so that I can go to where I want to be as an artist.
It has two fundamental principles:
  1. That I can do nothing creatively until I know what happens in the play, what the situations are, what demands they make.
  2. That by finding out what happens and deciding what I would do physically in any given situation, and believing in the truth of my actions, I release my creative energies and my natural emotional responses organically, without forcing, without falling into familiar acting clichés. In Stanislavski's words I go through the conscious to the subconscious.
What is this process?

From the Real ‘I’ to the Dramatic ‘I’: from Script to Performance

The Script

When I am cast in a play I am given a script. What is it? Black marks on a page. If I take a script written in Chinese, Hindi or Egyptian hieroglyphics, I see it for what it is - calligraphy. If I take a script in a foreign language which I know moderately well, I can make out the surface meaning of the words. I know, more or less, what the characters are talking about. If I take a modern script in my own language, I will take in not only the words but see the social reality that lies behind them, a world with which I am familiar, my world.
The script gives us information, a series of suggestions concerning a possible sequence of events in which certain imaginary individuals participate.
The 'events', the 'characters' in a play do not exist in the way real events and real people exist. They will not be seen on the evening news, nor can we interview the people involved. They exist only insofar as I believe they might be true, or might have happened, and create them out of my own resources, physical and mental. The only way in which marks on a page can become a play, a kind of reality, is through my natural capacity for make-believe. The essential factor is belief. If I believe something to be true and follow the consequences of that belief through, it becomes 'true' and an audience, if it wishes, and if I am convincing, can also believe in that 'truth'.
I can take an ordinary object like a chair and decide to makebelieve it is something else - a horse, or a motorbike, or a lawnmower - and act accordingly. I behave as if it 'really' were what I say it is. What is important is not the object itself but my attitude to it. That is what creates the 'reality' of the situation.
This is a natural, easy process. Children do it all the time. Adults will use simple objects on a tabletop to explain a football match - this pepper-pot is player number 9 etc. There is no problem, it is spontaneous.
My basic task as an actor, therefore, is to study the events the author has given in the script and ...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title page
  3. Series
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Introduction
  9. How to Use This Book
  10. Stanislavski: A Biographical Note
  11. Part One An Outline of the Method of Physical Action
  12. Part Two The Stanislavski ‘system'
  13. Physical Action
  14. Mental Action
  15. Mind and Body
  16. Interaction
  17. Tempo-rhythm
  18. Verbal Action
  19. Physical Characterisation
  20. Total Action
  21. Performance Mode
  22. Part Three The Method of Physical Action in Rehearsal
  23. Part Four Stanislavski's Master Classes on Hamlet
  24. Conclusion
  25. Appendix One: Variations in Terminology
  26. Appendix Two: Index of the Principal Terms Used