Soviet theatre maestro Konstantin Stanislavski is an indispensable part of the history of the performing arts. During his own lifetime, he had received acclaim for his own work as an actor and director but the central focus of his legacy is the unique system he engineered for actors to follow. The principles that Stanislavski formulated ended up shaping the future of method acting and can even be observed in the works of performers today.
Back in 1906, the Moscow Art Theatre group went on 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 which were completely devoid of any real emotional foundation.
In order to resolve this, Stanislavski embarked on a journey that would soon become his life’s work. Instead of looking at his future productions as separate projects, he began to see them as a series of experiments necessary to further his research into the machinations of an actor’s mind. Many people around him did not understand what Stanislavski was aiming for and criticised him for minimising directorial authority and letting the actor take the lead.
These experiments he conducted would soon form the basis of a coherent school of acting which would come to be known as Stanislavski’s system. He noted that it was incredibly important for actors to master “the art of experiencing”, claiming that an actor can only activate their full potential if they choose to use their will to access their subconscious feelings and find emotional justifications for their on-stage actions.
The aforementioned justifications also had to have parallels within the script, something that Stanislavski called “Given Circumstances”. He urged actors to throughly study the dynamics of the characters they were to play, forming a clear understanding of their emotional background as well as the reasons behind their scripted reactions. He maintained: “The best analysis of a play is to take action in the given circumstances”.
Stanislavski termed this as “The Magic If” and explained that letting the actor arrive at logical conclusions that their characters would reach in imaginary situations helped them understand the mechanisms of the psyche. According to Stanislavski, it was the actor’s duty to figure out the existential purpose of the character, i.e. the tasks they have to solve or the objectives they have to achieve within the framework of the play.
His rigorous method was a huge leap for the world of acting but interesting developments to his system were soon being recommended, the most notable being Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s question: “What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does?” This was generally considered to be a practical improvement to Stanislavski’s suggestion that the actor should completely focus on the character and negate the self.
These ideas found a new life in the United States when pioneers such as Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg began the reconfiguration of what has now come to be known as the “Method”. Adler trained with burgeoning artists who would go on to become some of the most definitive method acting icons of the 20th century, including the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.
Due to the inherent conflict between an actor’s authoritative operations and an auteur’s need for complete control, method actors were often criticised by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. While Stanislavski’s reflections were theoretical in nature, many actors decided that it would be better to take on roles if they had a similar experience first which prompted De Niro to drive around New York in a cab before starring in Taxi Driver.
The problems usually occur when some actors took it to annoying heights, leading John Cassavetes to famously declare that method acting was “more a form of psychotherapy than of acting” and that it was irredeemably pretentious and self-indulgent. Stanislavski made a major breakthrough more than a century ago with his beautifully different system but it has all culminated to give way to Jared Leto – a petulant child who blames his asinine antics on “method acting”.