Psychophysical Acting
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Psychophysical Acting

An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski

Phillip B. Zarrilli

  1. 258 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Psychophysical Acting

An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski

Phillip B. Zarrilli

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Psychophysical Acting is a direct and vital address to the demands of contemporary theatre on today's actor. Drawing on over thirty years of intercultural experience, Phillip Zarrilli aims to equip actors with practical and conceptual tools with which to approach their work. Areas of focus include:

  • an historical overview of a psychophysical approach to acting from Stanislavski to the present
  • acting as an 'energetics' of performance, applied to a wide range of playwrights: Samuel Beckett, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Kaite O'Reilly and Ota Shogo
  • a system of training though yoga and Asian martial arts that heightens sensory awareness, dynamic energy, and in which body and mind become one
  • practical application of training principles to improvisation exercises.

Psychophysical Acting is accompanied by Peter Hulton's downloadable resources featuring exercises, production documentation, interviews, and reflection.

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Part I

What is the actor’s work?


Historical context

The work of Russian actor and theater director Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938) revolutionized Western approaches to acting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of his life-long practical research into the nature and processes of acting, Stanislavski was the first to use the term “psychophysical” (psikhofizicheskii) to describe an approach to Western acting focused equally on the actor’s psychology and physicality applied to textually based character acting.
When psychology emerged as a separate discipline from philosophy in the nineteenth century, the sciences of mind and the self were often considered separate from the science(s) of the physical body. This split reflected the long-term Western binary dividing mind from body that so problematically crystallized in the mind–body dualism of the seventeenth-century French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes (1596–1650). Scientists and philosophers who wanted mind and body to be considered in relation to one another, rather than separately, began to use the compound term “psycho-physical” to bridge this gap. As Robert Gordon explains,
The development of post-Darwinian theories of physiology had produced a new understanding of the nervous system, which rendered obsolete the earlier rhetoric of acting based on a simple use of corporeal and facial signs to express inner feelings. New notions of acting as behavior not only served the Darwinian logic of naturalistic drama appropriately, but also reflected the modern physiological conception of the body as a unified psychophysical organism.
(Gordon 2006: 36)
Stanislavski’s use of “psychophysical” in relation to acting was therefore an innovative, if historically limited and not always successful, attempt to problem-solve the relationship between the “psycho” and the “physical” elements of acting. Key elements of Stanislavski’s constantly evolving psychophysical approach to acting were drawn from two main sources—the work of psychologist ThĂ©odule Armand Ribot (1839–1916) and the limited versions of Indian yoga available to Stanislavski in turn-of-the-century Russia, filtered through the then popular occultism and spiritualism (Wegner 1976: 85–89; Carnicke 1993: 131–145; White 2006: 73). From his early focus on affective memory to his later method of physical actions, Stanislavski always attempted to overcome what divided “mind from body, knowledge from feeling, analysis from action” (Benedetti 1982: 66).1
[Ribot’s] psychophysical theories [
] state that the mind and body are a unit, and that emotions cannot be experienced without physical sensation [
] As Stanislavski writes in An Actor Works on Himself, Part I, “In every physical action there is something of the psychological, and in the psychological, something of the physical.”
(Carnicke 1998: 178)
Stanislavski described how the actor’s “physical score,” once perfected, must go beyond “mechanical execution” to a “deeper” level of experience which “is rounded out with new feeling and 
 become[s], one might say, psychophysical in quality” (1961: 66). In My Life in Art, Stanislavski described the actor’s optimal state of awareness or concentration as one in which he “reacts not only on his sight and hearing, but on all the rest of his senses. It embraces his mind, his will, his emotions, his body, his memory and his imagination” (1948: 465). Stanislavski’s ideal was that “in every physical action 
 there is concealed some inner action, some feelings” (1961: 228).
What Stanislavski meant by “inner action” and “feelings” were not exclusively informed by Ribot’s psychology, but also by Stanislavski’s adaptation of yoga exercises, principles, and philosophy.2 As early as 1906, Stanislavski became interested in yoga (Carnicke 1998: 140). Although his knowledge of yoga was limited and may have been drawn exclusively from books in his library,3 Stanislavski adapted specific yoga exercises and principles to help attune and heighten the actor’s sensory awareness in performance.4 Arguably the most important material element Stanislavski borrowed from yoga was prana (or the Sanskrit compound, prana-vayu)—the breath(s), wind, vital energy, or life-force understood to circulate within.5 Stanislavski provided a fairly accurate description of the movement of prana as it is experienced within as follows: “‘Prana moves, and is experienced like mercury, like a snake, from your hands to your fingertips, from your thighs to your toes [
] The movement of prana creates, in my opinion, inner rhythm’” (Carnicke 1998: 141).
From 1912 in the laboratory setting of the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre Stanislavski and/or his artistic and administrative assistant, Leopold Antonovich Sulerzhitsky (1873–1916), utilized exercises clearly drawn from yoga.
First Studio member Vera Soloviova recalls:
[W]e worked a great deal on concentration. We imagined a circle around us and sent “prana” rays of communication into the space and to each other. Stanislavski said “send the prana there—I want to reach through the tip of my finger—to God—the sky—or, later on, my partner. I believe in my inner energy and I give it out—I spread it.”
(White 2006: 79)
Yoga was the basis for Stanislavski’s shift in rehearsal methods when he worked on A Month in the Country. The actors were requested to “radiate their feelings to communicate the subtext of inner emotions and motivations through eye contact with one another” (Gordon 2006: 47–48). In addition to these specific uses of prana for work on concentration, inner action, and the radiation of energy, Stanislavski borrowed from Raja Yoga “the obscure notion of the ‘superconscious,’ placing it next to the ‘subconscious’” (Carnicke 1998: 142).6

The Stanislavski legacy

Stanislavski’s legacy is profoundly diverse. It is like an aging oak tree—each major branch with its own unique twists, turns, knots, etc.—some of which turn in on themselves. The primary trunk and many of its major branches include those primarily concerned, as was Stanislavski himself, with textually based character acting. Some of these branches were developed by those who studied and/or worked directly with Stanislavski and remained in Russia, such as Maria Osipovna Knebel (1898–1985) or Vasily Osipovich Toporkov (1889–1970) (Carnicke 1998: 151). Others were developed by those who worked and trained for a while with Stanislavski, but emigrated from Soviet Russia to the West. First among them were Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya who founded the American Laboratory Theater (1923–1926). Michael Chekhov (1891–1955) founded the Chekhov Theatre Studio at Dartington Hall, UK (1936–1938) and on emigration to the United States further developed his own approach in Ridgefield, Connecticut (1938–1942) and later in Hollywood.7
For very different but equally compelling reasons, a historically balanced view of Stanislavski’s approach to psychophysical acting has been extremely difficult if not impossible both in Soviet Russia and in the United States. Sharon Carnicke reports how Soviet authorities were so troubled by the idealism of Hindu philosophy informing parts of Stanislavski’s work that “censors attacked Stanislavski’s interest in yoga,” expunged prana from the 1938 Russian edition of Stanislavski’s acting manual, and emphasized his late method of physical actions while obscuring the importance of symbolism, formalism, and yoga in his work (1998: 144; 1–2).
In the United States the highly problematic English translations of Stanislavski’s work by Elizabeth Hapgood (Stanislavski 1936, 1949, 1961),8 the dominance of American method versions of Stanislavski’s approach, and “a Freudian-based, individually oriented ethos [
] privileged the psychological techniques of Stanislavski’s System over those of the physical” (Carnicke 1998: 1). This early preoccupation in the United States with psychology and the creation of a truthful emotional life for the character meant that, like the Soviet version, the importance of symbolism, formalism, and yoga in Stanislavski’s ever-evolving system were also obscured.
In addition to suppressing the influence of yoga and Hindu philosophy on Stanislavski, his attempts to solve the acting problems of alternative forms of new drama, such as the highly static plays of the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), were until recently neglected or forgotten both in Russia and in the US. Inspired by symbolist poetry and the late nineteenth-century European fascination with mysticism and metaphysics, Maeterlinck’s plays were written in reaction against historical dramas, drawing-room comedies, as well as emergent naturalism. His plays possess “characters” difficult to situate in a given historical world. Arguably the two most important of Maeterlinck’s plays in terms of experimentation with form were his early plays, The Blind (1892), first staged in 1892 by French director, Paul Fort, and The Intruder, directed by Meyerhold in 1891. In The Blind there is “almost no action—just waiting, mounting anxiety, and slow recognition of inevitable death” (Fuchs 1996: 96). The Blind and The Intruder were notorious at the time as “static theatre” since they placed their “characters” in situations in which there was little if any physical movement.9
In 1904 Stanislavski decided that the Moscow Art Theatre would stage three short Maeterlinck plays, including The Blind. According to Benedetti, Stanislavski “realized that a new acting technique was necessary for this static drama; however, his own experiments at home in front of a mirror, both vocal and physical, proved unsuccessful” (1999: 152). The production was considered “a failure and Stanislavski was forced to concede the inadequacy of conventional representational methods when faced with the mystical abstractions of the ‘new drama’” (Braun 1969: 19). In spite of this failure, Stanislavski remained obsessed with how to successfully stage Maeterlinck’s plays (Benedetti 1999: 177); therefore, he began preliminary work on a production of The Blue Bird in 1907. After “the longest period of rehearsals the [Moscow Art Theatre] had as yet ever deliberately undertaken” (ibid.: 179), The Blue Bird premiered in 1908 and “became Stanislavski’s most famous production” (ibid.: 183).

American versions of Stanislavski

When Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre eventually toured America during 1923–1924, American actors came to know a particular version of Stanislavski based on the realist repertory the company performed and on a series of public lectures about Stanislavski’s acting system. While in the US the Moscow Art Theatre performed four plays from their well-established early repertory—Alexei Tolstoy’s Tsar Fiodor, Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters (Benedetti 1999: 282–287). There were no performances of Stanislavski’s more experimental work, such as Maeterlinck’s symbolist plays.
American actors were so curious about Stanislavski’s “system” that he gave permission for his former student and assistant on the tour, Richard Boleslavsky, to give a series of six public lectures. At precisely the time when Stanislavski was “placing greater emphasis on physical tasks and physical actions” in the development of his own process, “Boleslavsky stressed the importance of emotion memory, developing the technique beyond Stanislavski’s original practice” (Benedetti 1999: 286). The combination of performances from the realist repertory and Boleslavsky’s lectures created a distorted and incomplete picture of Stanislavski’s directorial interests as well as his approach to acting.
So successful were Boleslavsky’s lectures that they were first published in the October 1923 issue of Theatre Arts Monthly as “Acting, The First Six Lessons” (Boleslavsky 1949), thus establishing “Boleslavsky’s authority as a teacher” of the Stanislavski system in America (Benedetti 1999: 286). Arguably the most influential of those who trained with Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theater but never directly with Stanislavski was Lee Strasberg (1901–1982)—the individual most identified with the development of American method acting. Strasberg co-founded the Group Theater (1931–1940) with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford. He focused on developing an actor who “‘can create out of himself’ 
 To do this the performer must ‘appeal to the unconscious and the subconscious’” (Krasner 2000a: 134). Through exercises in “sense memory,” the actor “recalls important events in their life, and then tries to remember only the sensual facets” (ibid.: 132). Exercising one’s “affective memory” the actor experiences remembered emotion leading to a release of the actor’s emotions on stage (ibid.: 133). Strasberg warned actors that emotion “always should be only remembered emotion. An emotion that happens right now spontaneously is out of control—you don’t know what’s going to happen from it 
” (ibid.: 136). In spite of such warnings the firm foundation of Stanislavski’s system as Strasberg taught it lay in finding “emotional truth” (Smith 1990: 424–425).
Two of many other approaches to Stanislavski-based work in America were created when Stella Adler (1901–1992) and Sanford Meisner (1905–1997)—both of whom were members of the Group Theater and worked with Strasberg—each broke with him in 1934 and 1935 respectively. Adler’s 1934 break with Strasberg was prompted by five weeks of work with Stanislavski himself in Paris on a role in Gentlewoman.
What struck Adler most was Stanislavski’s insistence on physical action as the basis for building a performance, his rejection of any direct approach to feelings and his abandonment, except as a last resort, of Emotion Memory, which, under the influence of Boleslavsky, had become a feature of Stanislavskian acting in America.
(Benedetti 1999: 351)
Thereafter, Adler wanted the actor’s work to be inspired by “the play itself” and not “from the material of one’s own personal life” (Krasner 2000a: 141; see also Tom Oppenheim in Bartow 2006: 29–50).
In contrast to Strasberg and Adler, Meisner’s approach does not begin with either emotion memory or text. Via his repetition exercise, Meisner emphasized acting as “the reality of doing” (Meisner and Longwell 1987: 16). Meisner removed “emotion, psychology, or ‘character’ from training” in order to stress the embodiment of impulses via listening as “an act of ‘doing’” in the moment (Stinespring 2000: 102–103; see also Durham 2004; Victoria Hart in Bartow 2006: 51–93). For Meisner acting is reacting. The emphasis is on keeping the actor spontaneous. Discoveries are made in the immediacy of impulses and interrelationships built between oneself and others in the moment.
Preoccupation with emotion and the psychological has meant that most American method approaches to work on “the self” and creating a character have been highly susceptible to some form of body–mind dualism. Meisner’s emphasis on spontaneity and the reality of “doing” creates a language and approach arguably less prone to dualism than other early American method approaches.
When working on oneself, is the actor working on himself, on himself-as-the-actor, or on both? What aspects of the self are being worked on? At one end of the spectrum is the potential overemphasis on the actor’s personal, subjective emotional life. In its most extreme form, acting is reduced to what the actor-as-person feels emotionally in the moment. There is no clear articulation of the...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Halftitle
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. List of illustrations and charts
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. Foreword
  10. A preface in three voices
  11. Introduction: a psychophysical approach to acting
  12. Part I: What is the actor’s work?
  13. Part II: Work on oneself
  14. Part III: Production case studies
  15. Afterword
  16. Appendix 1: A. C. Scott and the Asian Experimental Theater Program
  17. Appendix 2: Yuasa Yasuo’s body-scheme
  18. Notes
  19. Bibliography
  20. Index