Stanislavski acting techniques are the most popular acting techniques. In fact, almost all types of acting approaches that actors use in the present era have been derived from Stanislavski’s techniques. It is more popularly known as “the method”.
You take any acting guru, be it Uta Hagen, Sandford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, or Stella Adler, each takes one or two or more pages out of Stanislavski’s book of acting.
I won’t be explaining how or what is the history of Stanislavski’s approach to method acting is. You can read the history on Wikipedia.
By the way, when I was first introduced to method acting, I was asked to read about the history of method acting. Yes, history is boring but it was interesting to know how Stanislavski’s own struggle to approach acting helped him shape “the method” we know.
You Can Learn About His Method in Detail from His three books (I consider them as the tri- bible for actors):
- An Actor Prepares (Get it from Amazon)
- Building A Character (Get it from Amazon)
- Creating A Role (Get it from Amazon)
In order to understand this Stanislavski’s approach to acting, you must know what it consists of. The way I see it, it has 7 basic techniques or pillar that makes the base of the whole Stanislavski approach. Those are like the alphabets that you must master in order to form a meaningful word.
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So, what are the 7 pillars of Stanislavski acting techniques?
The action simply means doing something. It is easier said than done when it comes to acting. Just try to sit for one second doing nothing in front of an audience, you will realize there is so much tension in every part of your body: both physically and psychologically. You won’t be able to move your hand from your hips to your head without feeling the tension. Mentally, you might be thinking, what am I doing here? Should I go?, should I stay? So many questions will pop into your mind.
You might think, this is because there is nothing to do here as an actor. The audience will think you are a fool sitting on a chair. Well, you are wrong, if you were really sitting on a chair as you do at home or class or restaurant, the audience won’t think you are a fool, they will be curious why you are sitting on a chair alone.
Even in the simplest act of sitting, there is so much to do for an actor. Everything you do must have a purpose. Having a purpose is a good way to stay in the moment while playing a character. The purpose of your action will bring out the right emotions in you.
The best exercise is to make your action believable is to do simple tasks and creating some story attached to it. Let me give the example from Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares. Imagine you are trying to burn wood in a fireplace. Do everything you do to build a fire. Make sure you have arranged enough dry woods, you have something that would help you burn the woods like paper, or fuel and check if you have a matchbox or lighter on you. And Create a simple story, like it’s a cold night, your heater is dead and you need to get a good night’s sleep in order to wake up early for an audition. This story offers a simple motive to your action and makes it truthful.
Action is always a part of a scene. Mastering this Stanislavski acting technique would give you the ability to make any scene truthful.
Imagination is like fuel for an artist. I said artist, not actor because any kind of art it is painting, writing, acting, dancing, or anything, it thrives on imagination. The story, characters, place, props, everything on stage or set is imaginary or make-believe. The actor has to imagine that whatever circumstance the writer has offered is true.
Stanislavski offers you a great tool to imagine anything. The tool is called “if”. Imagine you have to storm out of a room and slam the door behind because you are angry with your wife or husband. You have to imagine a relationship with another actor because the other actor is not your real wife or husband or the so-called room is just a wall and the door in the middle and open on the other three sides.
Stanislavski’s acting techniques teach how to have a good imagination. To be a have a good imagination, you must be a good observer. Observe everything that surrounds. Try to remember each and every detail about it. Be it a person or a thing, just imprint its image on your mind. Create a bank of it. And when you imagine, make sure you provide some motive to it. Imaginations are like inward actions, hence they are must have a motive. First, be a spectator to it, when you are familiar with it, be a part of it.
A major problem actor face is where to look, or where to focus. To address this issue Stanislavski’s method of acting offers several tools to the actor. He describes in his book, An Actor Prepares, that an actor must have a point of attention. This will not only help actor to stay in the scene but also takes the actor’s attention away from the audience or camera or the crew.
An effective technique is to create a circle of attention. This attention can be created by using the objects in the room or the light. During the scene, try to restrict the circle only to the necessary area. Whenever a circle gets out of control, bring it back to the objects or focused light that you had marked as your circle of attention. Even while moving, carry this circle of attention with you.
Another major issue that freaks out the actor is the audience or the camera. Creating an invisible wall, which in acting terms is called the fourth wall, using your attention will help you stay focused on the action that you have to do. Read the scenes carefully, they always offer good insight on where the actor is looking, using that you can create your point of attention or circle of attention.
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Earlier we talked about how you feel when you are put in front of a room full of an audience or a camera. Your muscles tighten up, you feel your legs are cramping or your throat is choking. All these are signs that you are not relaxed. Every new actor struggles to stay relaxed.
Hence, most of the Stanislavski acting techniques are designed to help an actor stay relaxed. Stanislavski believed that in order to stay relaxed actor must direct their attention completely on the task in the given scene. Because it is impossible to completely remove the muscular tension. If you try to relax your legs, tension moves to your shoulders, and you shake it off your shoulders, it might go to your back. There will always be a struggle. But it is the actor’s job to keep it under control and not allow it to show in his or her performance.
The most popular of the Stanislavski acting techniques are making students hold different positions like sitting on a chair or hanging from the tree or simply just lie on the floor. During this, you have to note which muscles tense up and try to relax them. Through his techniques and regular practice, the actor can make the process of relaxing muscles, a subconscious process. Thus, during a scene actor won’t even notice which part of his or her body has a spasm, it all will become a subconscious thing for him, just like a real human.
Units and objectives
As a method actor, this is an absolute favorite of mine. Because, most of my struggle is to stay in the moment, even if on the exterior it doesn’t appear so. Inwardly, I know I went out of my character, or I noticed something that was not part of a scene. I like to be in part during the scene, and I hope other actors like to do the same.
Stanislavski’s method of acting addressed this issue by creating series of small units of objectives which in a whole would make a scene. It is like reverse engineering an action or task or objective into small units. For instance, your task is to go to a nearby bakery and buy bread. You can divide these task into small several units:
- Getting your coat maybe because it’s chilly outside.
- Then checking if you got the essentials like money, keys, etc.
- then walking or driving to a bakery
- buying a good piece of bread.
However, this technique is must be limited only for preparation purposes. While performing, it must be performed as a whole scene while keeping the objectives in mind. It’s not objective, it’s objectives because as a whole it might look there is one objective in a given scene, if we take the above example, it’s buying bread. Beyond that, there may be a psychological objective that drives the scene. For our example of buying bread, it might be; say, a friend of yours or a family member is coming to visit you and you might want to impress him or her by serving something with bread.
Remember there will always be a psychological reason behind the actions. So, every time you divide the objective into units, find the right psychological reason that drives the scene.
If you have some experience of method acting by some workshop or class or even book, you might have come across emotional memory. Some method acting coaches do not advocate and some just go gaga overusing emotion memory.
What emotion memory does to you? It gives a trigger or we can say it act as a springboard for you that brings the right emotion out of you. Emotion memory is all about recalling a past event that is similar to the given circumstances. Frankly speaking, not all understand how emotional memory must be used. Most of the actors think it is about reliving the episode from the past for the purpose of the scene. But it is not what Stanislavski techniques teach.
Stanislavski’s acting technique is all about recalling the past event to the point, that it moves you. Or sometimes it is even creating a new one just to bring out the emotion that you might have never experienced. The purpose of this technique is not to lose yourself in the scene (which an actor must never do). The moment you lose yourself, you move away from your part which is not asked of you as an actor.
Emotion memory is a whole wider subject that cannot be summed in one or two paragraphs, but for the purpose of information, it is only about arousing new feelings using your past experience or even creating new ones if required.
One important point, it is completely different from sense memory. Sense memory deals with the five senses not with emotions.
If you master all the above techniques, you will automatically on the path of giving a truthful performance. However, the only thing that would hold you back would be faith. Faith always hampers our sense of truth.
If you have no faith that you are holding a cardboard sword, the audience wouldn’t believe you are holding a real sword.
“As an actor, you have to put life into all the imagined circumstances and action until your sense of truth is satisfied and create faith in what you are doing.”- Stanislavski.
If do the action with full conviction, you justify the part. However, do not go overboard, try to do it just to an extent that you can believe.
To create faith, you have to proceed with the action bit by bit with all the actual details taken from reality. It is important you create a logical sequence for action. This is just like units. Break parts that you cannot believe into smaller believable parts. Always and always use “as if” to create multiple units.
Summary of Stanislavski acting techniques
I recommend you to read Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. The book deals with all the above mention techniques in detail. There are whole chapters dedicated to each of them.
You must remember Stanislavski’s method of acting is a psycho-technique, it will demand exploration of yourself, so when starting out do not worry about mechanical actions ( that you consider look funny) that arise out of your psychological approach. The sole focus must be on being truthful and bringing out the real emotions using all the techniques.
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