Because I’m usually immersed in web stuff, it’s interesting to read a text whose ideas are still relevant to its target profession 70 years on. It was mostly a more enjoyable read than I expected — it’s written as if by a student of acting, reporting on a year of training. It makes clear how much more there can be to acting than just “pretending to be someone else”. Unfortunately I kind of lost it around two-thirds of the way through, when he starts talking about transmitting “rays” to each other, and things get a bit hazy and repetitive. Maybe that stuff makes more sense when the preceding chapters have been properly absorbed and used. (Also see my notes on Sanford Meisner on Acting and Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting.)
Note by the Translator
The author is most ready to point out that a genius like Salvini or Duse may use without theory the right emotions and expressions that to the less inspired but intelligent student need to be taught. What Stanislavski has undertaken is not to discover a truth but to bring the truth in usable form within the reach of those actors and producers who are fairly well equipped by nature and who are willing to undergo the necessary discipline.
1. The First Test
3 First lesson: turn up to rehearsals on time!
5 If rehearsal seems stilted, the same old stuff, change something: setting, privacy, mood, etc.
2. When Acting is an Art
13 Ideally an actor should be carried away in his part, by the subconscious (as long as it carries him in the right direction). But it’s impossible to control the subconscious without destroying it.
14 You must “live the part” by “actually experiencing feelings that are analogous to it, each and every time you repeat the process of creating it.”
15 “Plan your role consciously at first then play it truthfully.” “We must assimilate a psychological technique of living a part, and that this will help us to accomplish our main object, which is to create the life of a human spirit. We must then “express [the life of a human spirit] in a beautiful, artistic form.”
16 The body must be up to it.
18-20 Another method: the “art of representation.” The original preparation of a role is good and true but subsequent performances are fixed, cold copies of its external representation without feelings. We prefer that each performance must be fresh and felt.
19 Be careful when rehearsing with a mirror — teaches you to watch the outside, not the inside.
22-23 The school of the art of representation says the stage is too poor in resources to create life, so we must use these conventions. It may delight you but won’t move you. Its form is interesting rather than content. “Your astonishment rather than your faith is aroused.”
24-6 Mechanical acting: acting with clichés. Shaking fist for revenge, putting hand over heart to express love. Peasants spitting on floor, military men clicking heels. Tearing hair in despair. Clichés will fill every spot in a role that’s not solid with living feeling. But it still takes work to achieve mechanical acting.
27-9 Over-acting: using the first stereotypes, rubber stamps and first impressions that leap to mind, without even sharpening or preparing them for the stage. Common in beginners and can grow into the worst kind of mechanical acting.
29 “Never allow yourself externally to portray anything that you have not inwardly experienced and which is not even interesting to you.” A character built on stereotype cannot grow.
“Now remember firmly what I am going to tell you: the theatre, on account of its publicity and spectacular side, attracts many people who merely want to capitalize their beauty or make careers. They take advantage of the ignorance of the public, its perverted taste, favouritism, intrigues, false success, and many other means which have no relation to creative art. These exploiters are the deadliest enemies of art. We have to use the sternest measures with them, and if they cannot be reformed they must be removed from the boards. Therefore … you must make up your mind, once and for all, did you come here to serve art, and to make sacrifices for its sake, or to exploit your own personal ends?”
35-7 Whatever happens on stage must be for a purpose, even if you outwardly appear to be doing nothing. You must act either outwardly or inwardly.
40-41 Never simply try to act emotions — emotions are caused by something that has gone before, and it’s this that you should think of. The result will produce itself.
46 “If acts as a lever to lift us out of the world of actuality into the realm of imagination.”
70 The actor must use his imagination to be able to answer all questions (when, where, why, how). Make the make-believer existence more definite.
71 If you do or say anything on stage without fully realising who you are, what you’re doing, how you got there, etc, you’re not using your imagination. If someone asks “is it cold outside?” you should “remember” what it was like when “you” were last out — the sights, sensations, etc — before answering.
5. Concentration of Attention
75 “An actor must have a point of attention, and this point of attention must not be in the auditorium.”
82 “Solitude in Public”: when you are in public (e.g., on stage) but have a small circle of attention and feel alone within it.
83-5 Your focus of attention can be larger areas, but this is harder to maintain — if it begins to slip, withdraw the attention to a smaller circle or single object/point, then gradually enlarge the circle of attention again.
88 At the end of every day, in bed, you should go over everything that happened in great detail, both appearance and inner emotions. Also try to refresh earlier memories of places, events, people. “That is the only way to develop a strong, sharp, solid power of inner and outer attention.”
89 You should give the objects of your attention on stage an imaginary life (where did it come from, who’s used it, etc) so that they’re more interesting to you.
93 Observe things in daily life — bestow them with imaginary backgrounds to heighten various emotions. Remember those scenes and draw on them.
93-4 When interacting with people, attempt to comprehend their inner emotional life through their actions, thoughts and impulses. Why did they do that? What did they have in mind?
6. Relaxation of Muscles
95-104 The actor should practice relaxing his muscles; we tend to be too tense.
104-6 If the actor believes in the purpose of an action, the movement will be more believable.
106-110 When performing a single gesture, only the muscles necessary for that gesture should be used.
7. Units and Objectives
111-116 When analysing a play you should look for the overall theme/idea. Then break it up into parts. Then break those up… keep going until you have a series of actions that can be made interesting, but don’t forget the overall theme.
116-126 Decide on the objective for each unit. It should be a verb, an action, something you need/want to do.
8. Faith and a Sense of Truth
130-1 Don’t try too hard to be truthful (to create a believable part) or you’ll over do it.
133 When criticising the work of others look for the good points, because the audience will want to believe what they see, not look for the unconvincing [seems a bit hopeful to me, but justifies why everyone in acting classes is so relentlessly, frustratingly positive about even hopeless performances].
143 When offstage either “play for yourself”[?] or “confine your thoughts to what the person you are portraying would be doing if he were placed in analogous circumstances.”
142-4 Repeat a sequence of physical actions over and over, with belief in their reality, until they become a single sequence: “the life of a human body.”
145-7 Where you have believable actions, it’s a better basis on which to “achieve the creation of the subconscious life of the spirit of a role.”
150-1 The difference in approach to, say, comedy and tragedy is only in the circumstances surrounding the actions of the person you’re portraying. Don’t think about the emotions — think about what you must do.
9. Emotion Memory
163-? You should use memories of emotions to recreate them on stage, sometimes fuelled by memories of sensations (smell, taste, etc).
177 You cannot use everyone else’s feelings, or made-up feelings. They always come from you. So you will always be playing yourself, “but it will be in an infinite variety of combinations of objectives, and given circumstances which you have prepared for your part, and which have been smelted in the furnace of your emotion memory.” You can only play parts well that you have the appropriate feelings for.
183-4 Set, lighting etc. set the mood for the actors, and aren’t just for impressing the audience.
184-6 To repeat a feeling that occurred accidentally, don’t start with the results — look for the original stimulus and use that.
188-90 We can use emotions generated by events we’ve only witnessed or read about, not just experienced.
“Do you realise, now that you know what is required of an actor, why a real artist must lead a full, interesting, beautiful, varied, exacting and inspiring life? He should know, not only what is going on in the big cities, but in the provincial towns, far-away villages, factories, and the big cultural centres of the world as well. He should study the life and psychology of the people who surround him, of various other parts of the population, both at home and abroad.”
198 When doing soliloquies you need to find a subject and object inside yourself. Try to establish communication between brain and solar plexus.
199-202 When communicating with a partner, maintain a constant flow, using eyes, body, emotions when not speaking, every time you act the part.
202-3 If you lack a partner for practice, don’t imagine one — find one. Or you get out of the habit of interacting with real people.
205-222 [Stuff about communicating by transmitting and receiving “rays”. Don’t get what he’s on about.]
223-8 On stage and in life we adapt our behaviour, voice, mannerisms, etc in response to the situation, who we’re talking to and what we want.
234-9 Many adaptations are unconscious. Also, types of conscious adjustments: rubber stamps / stereotypes / stencils originate from the theatrical routine and are lifeless; adaptations suggested by other people, e.g. director, other actors (but always adapt these to your own needs). Mechanical adjustments can be subconscious or conscious — natural human adaptations that become habitual. [These are good apparently, but I don’t understand how they differ from rubber stamps.]
12. Inner Motive Force
245-7 “Three impelling movers in our psychic life”: mind, will and feelings.
249 You can use any of the three to initiate the creative process, and it will in turn prompt the others. [I’m losing him here.]
13. The Unbroken Line
252-7 The life of a character should be an unbroken line of events and emotions, but a play only gives us a few moments on that line — we must create the rest to portray a convincing life.
257-260 The actor’s attention must be an unbroken stream attracted by different objects in turn (but not the audience!).
14. The Inner Creative State
261-2 Our “inner motive forces” [what are they?] combine with the “elements” [the techniques, talents, ambitions, etc earlier in the book] “to carry out the purposes of the actor,” with the aim of searching for the common fundamental objective. The “elements” are now called “Elements of the Inner Creative Mood”.
262-3 The creative mood is worse than the normal state because it’s involved with theatre and self-exhibition. Better because it includes solitude in public — spectators rouse creative energy.
263-5 Performance may be bad if the actor’s creative apparatus isn’t functioning or if he has mechanical habits. Or if he hasn’t freshened up an old role. Or stage fright. Or if one element in the composition is wrong. One false note destroys the whole truth.
[All the above in this chapter is very woolly and I’m not sure what he’s saying other than “do everything well”.]
265-6 An actor should arrive at his dressing room two hours before going on for inner preparation. First, relax muscles.
“Then comes: Choose an object — that picture? What does it represent? How big is it? Colours? Take a distant object! Now a small circle, no further than your own feet! Choose some physical objective! Motivate it, add first one and then other imaginative fictions! Make your action so truthful that you can believe in it! Think up various suppositions and suggest possible circumstances into which you put yourself. Continue this until you have brought all of your ‘elements’ into play and then choose one of them. It makes no difference which. Take whichever appeals to you at the time. If you succeed in making that one function concretely (no generalities!) it will draw all the others along in its train.”
15. The Super-Objective
271-3 You should work out the super-objective of the play — everything should converge to carry this out. It must be the fundamental driving force. Easier to determine in a good play. It must have a verb.
273-280 The “through line of action” must guide everyone toward the super objective. All the smaller units and objectives must serve this common purpose.
277-8 If you, say, rejuvenate a play with a modern theme, that must be grafted on to the super-objective, not be a distraction from it.
16. On the Threshold of the Subconscious
285-6 If something happens accidentally on stage (e.g., a chair tipping over)… the actor should learn to use this in his part, as this can draw you closer to the subconscious.
294-5 Achieve a “creative state” (relax appropriate to the part) and then introduce an “unexpected spontaneous incident, a touch of reality” germane to the super objective and line of action. Where to find this touch of truth:
Everywhere: in what you dream, or think, or suppose or feel, in your emotions, your desires, your little actions, internal or external, in your mood, the intonations of your voice, in some imperceptible detail of the production, pattern of movements.
While the excitement of this lasts, “you will be incapable of distinguishing between yourself and the person you are portraying.”
300 The through line of action is made up of a number of large objectives. These contain many smaller objectives, which are transformed into subconscious actions.
301 We need a super-objective which is “in harmony with the intentions of the playwright and at the same time arouses a response in the soul of the actors.”
301-2 The same theme will affect different actors differently. [I’m not clear if the “theme” is the same as the super-objective — he seems to switch between the two terms.] If an actor is given a super-objective he must “filter it through his own being until his own emotions are affected by it.” Else, find the super-objective/theme for himself.