Essay Example on the Stanislavsky Method
When I came off of the stage that first night, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was ecstatic, on a natural high. Suddenly, I had found my place in the world. As I have gotten older and more experienced, I have learned that acting is not just reciting lines in front of an audience. There is a technique to acting. It is known as the “method”, “method acting”, or the “Stanislavsky method”.
The method was created by Konstantin Stanislavsky, a Russian actor, director, producer and founder of the Moscow Art Theater which opened in 1898. Stanislavsky had many shortcomings as an actor and worked obsessively to improve his voice, diction and body movement.
As a director and producer, Stanislavsky believed that the mere external behavior of an actor was not sufficient to portray the unique inner world of a character. He felt that once an actor felt what the character was feeling, the emotion would then manifest itself physically, making the performance believable. This idea was the basis for the method that Stanislavsky created, now the most common acting style in Western theater. Stanislavsky’s method begins with relaxation. He called in an “occupational disease.” One of Stanislavsky’s most famous students, Lee Strasberg, believed it to be the actor’s worst enemy.
The exercise Stanislavsky developed for relaxation is meant to help the actor find hidden tension in all muscles of the body, most importantly the face, where most mental tension manifests itself. The exercise begins with the actor sitting in a straight backed, armless chair. First, the actor must find the position that he or she would be most likely to sleep in, if absolutely necessary. Then, starting with the fingers and working all the muscles in sequence, finding the tension hiding in each muscle, and will the muscle to relax. The first time I performed this exercise was in Beginning Drama, my freshman year. My instructor, Mrs. Daniels, had each student find a space on the floor and lay down on their back. From there Ms. Daniels went through each of our muscles telling us to relax each one as we went through them. This exercise helps the actor find where they, personally, hold their tension. Once an actor knows where they hold their tension, they can begin to release it, letting as little of themselves show through the character they are portraying.
The next exercise in the method is called Sense Memory. It is basically each of the five senses remembering the sensory impressions experienced in everyday life. The sense memory exercise trains an actor’s senses to react onstage as they do in real life. By pulling events from an actor’s past, the actor then feels the corresponding emotion. The actor begins the exercise by of getting a mug of coffee, or anything for that matter, and setting in front of them. First, the actor explores the mug and the coffee inside the mug with their sense of sight. The actor asks himself as many questions as he can think of, relating to the sight of the mug.
Once the actor has exhausted every question he can think of for sight, he then moves to another sense, such as touch. The exercise continues this way until the actor has asked every question that he can think of, for each of the five senses. Once the coffee cup has been taken a way, the actor should then be able to recreate it from memory. As time goes on, the actor should be able to recreate the cup within a matter of five to fifteen seconds. Once able to do that, the actor moves on to bringing up past events and actions from his own life. One of the major keys to acting, and making each of the exercises work is concentration.
The actor needs to be able to concentrate on an object. An object is not just a physical object, it can be anything on which the actor chooses to concentrate. An object can be an idea, a person, a dream or anything else that the actor wishes. Ideally, the object is somehow related to the play, but that does not always have to be the case. For example, if two actors are having difficulty with a scene, a director might give each one something different to concentrate on. The director then gives Actor A a multiplication problem to do in his head, while the director tells Actor B to just concentrate on his partner. A trick like that can dramatically change the scene.
Another concentration exercise used by Stanislavsky also helps an actor focus his concentration. In this exercise, Stanislavsky would set the stage lights in a wide circle around one actor on stage, by himself. Stanislavsky would then tell the actor that he could concentrate on any of the objects within the circle. As the actor got used to this boundary, Stanislavsky would slowly decrease the size of the circle. Finally, the light would surround only the actor and his immediate area. This exercise was invaluable at helping the actor focus his concentration.
After performing all of these exercises, the actor picks up his script, and reads it again for inspiration. The best starting point of looking for inspiration would be what Stanislavsky called the “magic if.” The “magic if” asks the actor ask “What would I do if I were in these circumstances?” The “magic if” allows the actor to play make believe, it makes them realize that they are living a fictional life that they must make real to themselves.
Children play make believe all the time, but as they grow into adults, most of them lose this ability to play make believe. Actors are still children inside; they have to be or they would not be able to do their job. For actors it is constant struggle to come to terms with the rest of society, which expects the actor lose the ability for make believe.
In the first performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the main character of Willy Loman, a man in his late 60s, beaten down by life, was played by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb’s performance stunned the theater world because he was such a young man at the time. How could such a young man portray this character so well, the world wondered. Well, Cobb used something called the Animal Exercise to characterize his portrayal of Willy Loman. In this exercise the actor studies an animal; in Cobb’s case he studied the elephant. The actor has to be very specific in his study. How does the animal move? Why does the animal move? What is the animal’s posture? What might the animal be thinking? and so on, until you begin to physically imitate the animal. The actor asks himself if the animal looks intelligent, or tame, or dangerous. After studying this animal as much as possible the actor goes back, and makes the animal human, walking on two legs, acting as a human would, but with the physical and psychological aspects of the animal still there.
Relaxation, concentration, and sense memory are the basis for the method that Stanislavsky taught. He believed that if the actor felt the emotion on the inside, that it would show on the outside. All of this research about the method, and Stanislavsky and other great actors, has only given me an deeper love for the art, which it seems that so few people can perfect. Through acting one can live a thousand lifetimes in just one.
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