Stanislavski and the systematization of the “method”

Dame Barbara Hepworth, 1951, Serravezza Marble 248 x 505 x 295mm, 19 kg
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By VANDERLEI TENÓRIO*

Best practice in a play is to act in the given circumstances.

Konstantin Stanislavski is an indispensable part of the history of the performing arts. During his lifetime, he received praise for his work as an actor and director, but the central focus of his legacy is the system he designed for actors.

In 1906, the group Moscow Art Theater made their first European tour and it turned out to be a huge success. However, it also caused a very serious crisis in Stanislavski's mind because it made him see that most of his acting was "mechanical". Despite his best efforts, he was delivering performances completely devoid of any real emotional underpinning.

To resolve this, Stanislavski embarked on a journey that would soon become his life's work. Rather than looking at his future productions as separate projects, he began to see them as a series of experiments needed to further his research into the machinations of an actor's mind. Many people around him didn't understand what he was up to and criticized him for downplaying the director's authority, letting the actor take the lead in the action.

The experiments he conducted would soon form the basis of a coherent school of acting that would come to be known as the Stanislavski System. He noted that it was incredibly important for actors to master "the art of experimenting", claiming that an actor can only activate his full potential if he chooses to use his will to access his subconscious feelings and find emotional justifications for his actions on stage.

The aforementioned justifications also needed to have parallels within the script, something Stanislavski called “given circumstances”. He asked the actors to thoroughly study the dynamics of the characters they would be playing, forming a clear understanding of their emotional background as well as the reasons behind their reactions in the script. He maintained: "The best analysis of a play is to act in the given circumstances."

In the Russian view, the “given circumstances” were divided into external and internal. The character's external (the material disposition around him) and internal circumstances help to create a frame of mind and keep the actor focused on the core of the character. In this, to access the character's unconscious and awaken emotions, the actor should make use of imagination, in the words of the theorist, “art is a product of imagination”.

He called it“the magic if" and explained that letting the actor reach the logical conclusions of his characters would be the perfect exercise in understanding the mechanisms of the human psyche. According to him, it was the actor's duty to discover the character's existential purpose, that is, the tasks he must solve or the goals he must achieve within the scope of the play.

The second decisive concept of his method is “action”. The Russian theorist believed that the action led to an emotion, that is, from the physical experience a feeling is generated, and not the opposite. Therefore, his method included several physical practices that could help the actor to awaken the character's emotion, such as physical and vocal relaxation techniques.

The third concept was “purpose”. For the theorist, it was important to give purpose to each and every action or feeling of the character. In itself, this would help keep the actor and director in focus, not falling into clichés and unnecessary actions for scenic development.

Accordingly, his rigorous method was a great leap forward for the acting world, but interesting developments in his system were soon recommended, the most notable being Yevgeny Vakhtangov's question: “What would motivate the actor to behave the way the character behaves?”. This was considered a practical improvement to Stanislavski's suggestion that the actor should concentrate completely on the character, denying himself.

These ideas found new perspective in the United States when pioneers such as Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg began the reconfiguration of what is now known as the "Method". Adler coached emerging artists who became the XNUMXth century's most definitive method acting icons, including Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.

Due to the inherent conflict between an actor's authoritative operations and a director's need for complete control, method actors were often criticized by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock.

While Konstantin Stanislavski's musings were theoretical in nature, many actors decided it would be best to take on roles if they had a similar experience first, which led to De Niro driving around New York in a cab before starring in Taxi Driver, Jack Nicholson performing sessions of real electroshock for her role in Flying over a Cuckoo's Nest and Daniel Day-Lewis breaking two ribs to play a paralyzed character in my left foot – a role that earned him an Oscar for best actor.

Problems usually occur when some actors take it to irritating heights, prompting John Cassavetes to declare that method acting was "more a form of psychotherapy than acting" and that it was hopelessly pretentious and self-indulgent.

Despite this, it is agreed that Konstantin Stanislavski made a breakthrough in over a century with his beautifully constructed system. For the curious, Stanislavski's method is gathered in the works: My life in art (1924) An actor prepares (1938) An actor's work on himself (1938) Building a character (1950) and create a role (1961)

*Vanderlei Tenorio is a journalist and is studying geography at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL).

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