* I never really believed that acting could, or should for that matter, be taught. There is no concrete way to act. For some people, the ability to do theatre, and to do it well comes naturally; for others, it does not. I have always held the conviction that to teach acting is to rob the art of it’s truth, it’s beauty.
Over the summer, I performed in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I was directed by someone who really made me understand the harsh realities of the “business,” and yet at the same time, gave me a deeper appreciation for good theatre, and the intensity that goes into creating it. Through watching him on stage and listening to him, I have gained new insight to my own future in acting. I realized what a sloppy actor I am, and how much refinement I desparately needed.
I still believe that you cannot teach someone to act. However, I do know that someone’s inherent acting abilities can be refined. Now, the kicker here is how? There has to be some sort of common language among actors and directors that can be used in maturing theatre techinique. By developing the system of method acting, Konstantin Stanislavski did just that. He created continuity in the refinement of technique, and thus allowed communication to occur within the acting realm. *
For years I have unknowingly used various aspects of the “method” in my own acting. When my mentor told me to read Stanislavski’s system by Sonia Moore, I was expecting some sort of ephiphany which would immediately broaden my whole theatrical outlook. Thus was not the case. Stanislavski strove to give an actor control over the phenomenon of inspiration. (Moore; 1974) He did this by creating a system which simply involved developing a common language which could be applied to acting technique.
Sonia Moore took Stanislavski’s main principles and described what they are and the technology and experiences that aided him in the development of his teachings. Although much of what I read was rather obvious, (or, perhaps, merely intrinsic to me), it did call my attention to many of the simple things that I may or may not do in my acting. It gave me a common ground. And this I have found to be imperative to the refinement of my work.
Theater, said Stanislavski, is a pulpit which is the most powerful means of influence. With the same power with which theater can ennoble the spectators it may corrupt them, degrade them, spoil their taste, lower their passions, offend beauty. My task is to elevate the family of artists from the ignorant, the half-educated, and the profiteers, and to convey to the younger generation that an actor is the priest of beauty and truth. Some actors and actesses love stage and art as fish love water. They revive in the atmosphere of art. Others love not art itself but an actor’s career, success; they revive in the backstage atmosphere. The first are beautiful, the others are abominable. The habit of being always in public, of exhibiting oneself and showing off, of receiving applause, good reviews, and so on, is a great temptation. A serious artist cannot be satisfied for long with such existence, but superficial people are enslaved by the temptations of the stage, and become corrupted. This is why, in our work more than in any other, one must constantly keep oneself in hand. An actor needs a soldier’s disicipline.
Theatre is a collective effort and thus Stanislavski believed discipline to be essential to the welfare of the group. He based his teachings around the idea that an actor must discipline him/herself in order to aspire to true greatness. His goal was to, through his system, give the actor some clear basis by which he/she could evoke inspiration. When an actor is inspired he is in the same natural and spontaneous state that is ours in life, and he lives the experiences and emotions of the character he portrays. Stanislavski’s aesthetic and ethical beliefs formed the point of departure in his work and the driving force in the creation of his System. (Moore, 1974)
There are many elements involved in the Stanislavski system. However, most importantly is the concept of physical actions, and how by executing them with truth, they can portray the deepest emotions. “The method of physical actions,” said Stanislavski, “is the result of my whole life’s work.” Stanislavski discovered that there is an unbreakable tie between the psychological and the physical in humans. Behind every physical action is some sort of psychological premise. Thus, in order to convey true believability on stage, one must have very consise expressions and mannerisms.
In order to create intuitive, truthful actions, an actor’s subconsious must be “turned on.” Stanislavski describes a myriad of techiniques by which this can be done, the first being the ever elusive “magic if.” He knew that an actor probably cannot honestly believe in the truth and reality of events on stage, but they could believe in the possibility of them. What an actor must do is question “what if I were in Juliet’s position?” “This ‘magic if,’ as Stanislavski calls it, transforms the character’s aim into the actor’s.”(Moore, 1974) “If,” takes the actor into the imaginary circumstances, and with it he/she no longer needs to force themself into believing such given events.
The second element involved in the creation of fiduciary physical actions is the given circumstances. Given circumstances include the plot of the play, the epoch, the setting, the conditions of life, the interpretation of the piece, the properties, lighting, sound effects–all that an actor encounters when he/she takes on a role. A person’s psychological and physical behavior are affected by the elements of his/her environment. The actor must become so familiar with their environment on stage that he/she becomes a part of it. The nuances and color of an action are greatly dependent on one’s surroundings, and therefore they must be clearly understood.
Imagination plays a dominant role in the artist’s task to transform the story into a scenic reality. Consequently, an actor must harness it and make certain that it functions properly. One’s imagination must be cultivated and developed; it must be alert, broad, and active. The actor must be able to think on many different levels. An actor without a good imagination is useless to the growth of a role, for it is the key to his/her emotions.
Stanislavski believed that concentration was crucial to creativity on stage. Creativeness cannot be achieved, he said, without the occurrence of public solitude. Public solitude involves the actor being without fear, to feel at ease, to forget one’s worries and everything that interferes with artistic expression on stage, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that the audience does exist.
Stanislavski developed three circles of attention to aid in the process of executing physical actions:
* A small circle of attention is a small area that includes the actor and, perhaps, a nearby table with a few things on it. The actor is the center of such a small area and can easily have his attention absorbed by the objects inside it.
* The large circle of attention is everything an actor can see on stage. The larger the circle, the more difficult it is to keep the attention from dissipating. (Moore, 1974)
A harmonious connection within the group on stage is imperative to make the meaning and logic of an actor’s actions understandable to spectators. Stanislavski called this connection “communion.” To be in communion with another person on stage means to be aware of that person’s presence, to make sure that he/she hears and understands what you tell him/her and that you hear and understand what he/she tells you. Basically, there must be a mutual influence amongst actors in order to convey to the audience in a comprehensive manner.
An effective means of communion between actors is adaption. Adaption is the adjustment to one’s surroundings, including setting and other actors. In order to adjust oneself to another, one must be well aware of that person’s presence and personality. (Moore, 1974)
On the more physiological side of the implementation of physical actions, there is tempo-rhythm. In every second of life there are tempo (speed) and rhythm (varying intensity of experience). Every movement, every fact and event takes place in a corresponding tempo-rhythm. (Moore, 1974) By using the correct tempo-rhythm, the actor can aid in their own concentration and avoid distracting factors. However, tempo-rhythm must correspond to the given circumstances. For instance, a person should not walk slowly when the given circumstances require energetic walking. If done correctly and naturally, tempo-rhythm can create a connection and balance between physical actions and emotions.
The final, but in no way least important elements of physical actions is emotional memory. An actors experiences on stage are vastly different from those in life. Stage experiences are repeated, whereas those in life are “primary.” Stanislavski believed that in order to be truly inspired, an actor must treat every stage experience as if it were the first time he/she was having it. To go on stage with no pre-conceived notions and to act according to all the nuances that occur, just as in life.
My mentor/director/friend used to engrave into my mind these two key principles in acting, which I believe to describe Stanislavski’s emotional memory the best:
* What you do doesn’t depend on you; it depends on the other fella’. (Meisner, 1987)
These two rather self-explanatory, yet essential principles form much of the basis of method acting. By following them, an actor can portray truthful and meaningful physical actions, and thus convey to the audience a true stage experience.
The world of the Elizabethans was vastly different than that of modern day. Thus, because the “system” is a product of modern time it is much more tangible to us, and can therefore be explained and understood relatively easily. However, when attempting to describe Elizabethan culture and the text produced from that era, it becomes much more difficult because of the fact that Elizabethan society and their whole mentality was fundamentaly different than that of ours today, and may come across as abstract.
In order to have a true grasp of Shakespearean text, there are a few basic societal factors that one must know, and of which I will illustrate. The “medieval” world view is characterized by a set of beliefs that seems foreign to modern readers. This set of beliefs is founded on a fundamental belief in Cosmic Order, meaning that everything that has happened, is happening, or will happen; and everything that exists, as well as where and how it exists; are all part of a divine design. Several beliefs rested on this foundation:
* The Great Chain of Being. All things created exist in a clear hierarchy, closer or farther away from God. Closest to God were the angels, then humankind, animals, plants, rocks, minerals, etc. Satan was, of course, the farthest from God, and thus was at the bottom of creation.
* The celestial spheres. According to this view, all heavenly bodies revolved around the earth (the Ptolomeic universe). Each sphere had its designated path, according to God, and reflected perfect mathematical and divine order.
* Divine providence. Since all things reflected God’s natural order, an astute observer could see God’s plan (providence) in nature.
* Cure through resemblance. Because all things were connected, and reflected God’s order, cures for physical ailments could be found in those things that resembled each other.
The Elizabethan political system mirrored cosmic order. This meant that class distinctions were essential and strictly maintained. All people were born into a specific place in the social hierarchy and were expected to stay within their places while at the same time having the utmost respect for those that ranked above them. For instance, a king did not rule because his subjects gave him power, but because God chose him to rule ( E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture).
This world view is therefore not only dependant on political authority, but even more importantly religious authority and textual authority. The medieval church controlled access to the Bible and thus had authority over the interpretation of the Bible (religious authority). Also, there was great discrepancy on what was written in books (textual authority). Because of the rarity of books people seldom questioned differing opinions on any given topic. (E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture)
Religion, as you may have realized, was a staple to the Elizabethan culture. It was connected with every, single aspect of their lives. Their faith in God ruled their beliefs, their family lives, and all that encompassed their existence. Very much unlike today, religion didn’t simply affect a scattered number of people in society; it affected everyone. Each individual was surrounded by people of the same belief. There was no way around religion. The political system, belief system, etc. was dictated by their religious standards. Today, even the most devout of relgious individuals are not as affected by the Church as the whole of Elizabethan society was.
As actors, all of these aspects of Elizabethan culture are going to influence everything we do on stage. We need to know and understand that. It is not only necessary to transcend time, and differences in world meaning, sentence structure, et al., but, most importantly, a different way of thinking. Even beyond “thinking” differently, Elizabethan’s brains worked differently. In order to work in that vein, as actors, that information needs to be known. Without it, there is no possible way to communicate to the audience a truthful portrayal of Shakespeare’s text.
Hamlet, for example, meant something else to the Elizabethans. In order to convey the depth and power of this play to a modern audience, we must understand Elizabethan life. If we read Shakespeare, we form our emotional memory based on our view and interpretation on the character, the play, the text, etc. However, what we have created is not what Shakespeare created. In order to tie the two together, we need to look at the text and analyze how it affected an Elizabethan audience. We have to ask ourselves these questions: What does this mean to an Elizabethan? What aspect of this text insighted emotion in an Elizabethan? How would an Elizabethan be affected by this work? Then, an actor must apply the same questions to a modern audience. To do Shakespeare justice, we have to bring our culture, our language to the text, while at the same time remembering the way of thinking of the Elizabethans.
Shakespeare not only reflects the above aspects of Elizabethan society, but also the people’s way of speaking which, again, was fundamentally different than that of modern day speech. When my mentor explained Elizabethan speech to me, I found it to be rather abstract; however, I will attempt to explain it as clearly as possible. Elizabethan language was much more organic and physical than ours today. There was no subtext behind what they said. Their speech was a direct representation of their actions.
Whereas modern speech is a manifestation of intellectualization, Elizabethan speech is a direct response. One way of explaining this is the reaction that we give when we are punched in the stomach. When someone punches us, we don’t think, ” Oooh, that was painful,” and then say, “Oooh, that was painful.” Instead our immediate reaction, right as the blow is delivered, is “ugh.” This is a direct response to the punch. All of Elizabethan speech is this way-it is a direct response.
One of the first things that my director told me when reading lines for Romeo and Juliet, was that I didn’t have to find any hidden meaning behind them; everything that was being felt or thought by the character was right in the text. There was no intellectualization before the speech.
Once again, an actor must understand the speech of the Elizabethans before attempting to convey it in a comprehensible manner to a modern audience. We must understand their reactions and views-their world, before attempting to convey it to ours. This is the vein that we, as actors, must be in in order to apply our modern day acting skills to Shakespeare. The use of method acting allows a modern day audience to identify with a certain piece; the understanding of the Elizabethan world enables us, as actors, to continue doing justice to the profound and beautiful works of Shakespeare.