Stanislavski System

The Stanislavski System is an approach to acting developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor, director, and theatre administrator. The System is the result of Stanislavski's many years of efforts to determine how a human being can control, in performance, the most intangible and uncontrollable aspects of human behavior: things such as emotions, and artistic inspiration.

The System arose as a result of the questions a young Stanislavski had regarding great actors whom he admired in his youth -- actors like the tragedians Maria Yermolova and Tommasso Salvini -- and how these actors seemed to operate on different rules than everyone else, and yet like everyone else, they were susceptible on some nights to flashes of inspiration, of completely 'being a role', while on other nights their performances were good or merely accurate.

In essence, the goal that remained throughout the life of Stanislavski was to formulate some codified, systematic approach that might impart to a given actor some grip on his 'instrument', that is, himself, beyond immediate physical control.


Approaching acting

Konstantin Stanislavski had a dictum at some point, which he probably believed throughout most of his life, that one should always approach a role as directly as possible and see if it lives. If the actor and role connect, and the role comes to life, then what is the point of applying a technique, a system? Forget it, and enjoy, he assured his actors, but remember: such a thing may only happen once or twice in your life, or never. The rest is -- technique. The rest is dependent upon your way of working.

It must surely depend on the individual actor and whether or not an approach 'works' for him, as actors are fond of saying. And indeed it is a very practical thought, coming from Stanislavski, a man who in the end, was always brilliantly practical.

While Stanislavski was not the first to codify some system of acting (see for instance, any number of Victorian gesture-books for actors) it was for all intents and purposes the first to take questions and problems of psychological significance head on. And while Stanislavski's approach changed greatly throughout his life, he never lost sight of truth in performance and love of art.

The System versus the Method

Stanislavski and his System are frequently misunderstood. For instance, often the System is confused with the Method. The latter is an outgrowth of the American (much of it in New York) theatre scene in the 1930s and 40s, when actors and directors such as Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, Lee Strasberg, etc, first in the Group Theatre and later in the Actors Studio, came across Stanislavki's thought through such intermediaries as Stella Adler and Richard Boleslavski. Stanislavski's emphasis on life within moments, on psychological realism, on emotional authenticity, seemed to attract the actors and thinkers working in these cutting-edge institutions. While much work was done with the works of playwrights like Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, the Method ended up being applied to older works like those of Shakespeare. Indeed it is an instructive contention whether or not this is an appropriate idea, namely that of a Method approach to pre-Modernist plays. For while the System and Method share the same love of psychology, in reality they are very different, as different as the temperaments of Stanislavski and Strasberg

Progression of the System

The System is, through a sort of shorthand, often confused with the Method because of its close ties to New York, and again because of figures like Adler, who visited and was taught by Stanislavski himself. But the System is frequently also confused with itself. For while it may seem that Stanislavski had, throughout his life, one focused project, this is emphatically not the case.

There is a story that an actress who had once been in a play directed by Stanislavski came to him years later and informed him that she had taken very copious notes of him and his technical approach during rehearsal, and she would like to know what to do with these notes. He replied, 'Burn them all.'

The anecdote, whether or not true, is instructive of Stanislavski and his approach. The Stanislavski of later life is not the same one as the Stanislavski whom Stella Adler first met. At times, Stanislavski's methodological rigor bordered on opacity: see, for instance, the chart of the 'Stanislavski System' included as a fold-out in editions of Robert Wilson's book Method or Madness, a series of lectures. The chart, made by Adler, is very complicated, listing by various numbers all aspects of performance and of the actor that he thought were pertinent at the time. His dedication to completeness and accuracy often contended with his goal of making a workable system that actors might actually use.

See also his description of the correct way of walking on stage, in his own book translated into English as Building a Character. His interest in analyzing as far as possible the qualities of a given phenomenon were meant to give an awareness to the actor of the complexities of human behaviour, and how easily falsehoods -- aspects of behaviour that an audience can detect even without being aware -- are assumed by an untrained or inexperienced actor in performance. All things, all actions that a person must do, like walk, talk, and even sit on stage, must be broken down and re-learned, Stanislavski insisted at one point.

Such rigors of re-learning were probably a constant throughout his life. Stanislavski, a man of institution, namely his own Moscow Art Theatre and its associated studios, was a great believer in formal (and rigorous) training for the actor.

The Method of Physical Action

Training was highly physical and demanding, and it is this never-failing respect which Stanislavski ever harbored for physical action that brought his system to a point of apotheosis, as it were, a way of reaching the gods of emotional truth and physicological realism while having a grip on control of the physical, and further, freeing oneself up for performing anything, be it Modern theatre or the Greeks.

Late in his life Stanislavski began putting much faith in an approach he called the Method of Physical Action. (The use of the word Method, again, induces confusion with Strasberg's Method.) This approach, Stanislavski surmised, finally brought him to a complete dealing with the instrument of the actor, and further with a universality of performance.

It is difficult to describe the Method of Physical Action (here, MPA for short) in few words because it requires an understanding of the significance of physical action, or more specifically, in the performance of physical action. The idea behind the MPA is fairly simple per se, but its implications are profound. It is easy to oversimplify. It is based on an idea that always fascinated Stanislavski, that emotional life is a kind of two-way street; further, that the only thing an actor will ever have control of in his life as regards himself is his body, nothing more. There is never a direct line to emotions in performance, only to the body. Emotions may be remembered and brought up via emotional memory, but Stanislavski generally considered this if anything a rehearsal tool or technique of research, at best. There is, in the end, only the body.

Therefore the actor and the director must work hard using the body, that is, the body's performance of physical action, as the primary material of creation. That is the subject of rehearsal, how to come to physical actions that affect the actor and bring the scene to life at the same time. So in one pass both emotional and aesthetic considerations are dealt with, and a way of working is given while the enormity (indeed, infinity) of options, the entire landscape of possibilities of performance, are sensed.

The MPA is such a simple idea it comes very close to the default, to a kind of techniqueless technique. Figure out what to do: where is the technique in that? Two points must be made: first, that thorough physical training is always required, and second, an understanding of what a truly good physical action is, is also required. Both can take years of experience and reflection for an actor to be fully equipped in handling a role. The art of performance cannot be learned from literature but instead from action: from performance, and observation, thought Stanislavski late in life.

This late stage unfortunately receives little notice or appreciation in most summations of Stanislavski's life and technique. Most authors are satisfied with identifying Stanislavski with his System and with the contributions that such an approach has made towards the film and theatre in the 20th Century. This is certainly due in part to little writing on the subject; and many of the authors (author-actors and author-directors) that have come since Stanislavski in Russia remain untranslated, despite the value of their work. Some books are available, such as Vasilii Toporkov's Stanislavski in Rehearsal, and Jean Benedetti's Stanislavski and the Actor.

Other approaches

There have been a number of competing systems at work. They are thought of as different entities largely because they have different names. Their genealogy is complex and will not be taken up here, nor will their merits, nor essential differences. Suffice it to say that the most fully-formed systems are often practiced with much more rigor in training than in paid, professional performance. It is realistic to say that in 'real life', as it were, most actor use an amalgam, a 'personal approach' of some kind (whatever that means), or 'no system': that is, they just learn the lines, and perform them. A radical thinker might even suggest that there are no systems, just ways of performance; but that idea is not taken up here.

There exist, besides the System and the Method, and the MPA, several other ways. The Meisner Approach, associated with Sanford Meisner and the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York (still around). The Atlantic Theatre Company, also in New York, espouses a technique that prides itself on straightforwardness and plain talk; this technique has been much promoted by David Mamet and his circle of actors. (Purchasing a copy of the official handbook was (and might still be) a prerequisite for interviewing at the Atlantic Theatre Co for a place in the two-year program.) Further, there exists the Viewpoints Technique, espoused by director Anne Bogart, which emphasizes six different categories of performance on which an actor must focus. Also there is the Suzuki Method of Actor Training, developed by Tadashi Suzuki, a strenuously physical approach. Finally some creatve personalities are associated with distinctive approaches to theatre: Vsevolod Meyerhold, sometime friend of Stanislavski, spent many years trying to expand the possibilities of performance. Jerzy Grotowski is credited with taking Stanislavski's work to radical new heights (there is something called the 'Grotowsky system', a term somewhat in contention). Antonin Artaud developed a theatrical concept all his own, as did Bertolt Brecht. Viola Spolin popularized the concept of the game, and the importance of (and technique behind) improvisation, both for rehearsal and performance.


Mike Nichols once remarked in a workshop that all he wanted to do when he rehearsed a scene was to figure out, with the actors, what to do in a scene so that the scene seemed very simple -- in spite of the myriad psychological complexities that were evident. In essence, said this director, he wanted the actors to think 'All I have to do is -- this.' A deceptively simple statement, as a simple action is deceptively simple but it can stay in one's memory for a lifetime.


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