The Definitive Guide to the Stanislavsky Acting Technique

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Chances are, you’ve heard of a famously mysterious acting style known as the Method—the controversial and captivating theory that implies actors should embody the nature of their characters in nuanced (and even unflattering) detail. It’s likely, too, that you’ve heard some names loosely associated with this buzzword technique—whether it’s Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, the Group Theatre, Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis, Angelina Jolie, or the late Heath Ledger. But, there’s one name that looms large over them all—Konstantin Stanislavsky (spelling can vary, depending on translation). Though Stanislavsky died 80 years ago, his theories, known as the System, undoubtedly inspired the nature of American acting and training in film, on television, and on the stage.

Though Stanislavsky never taught in the United States, his disciples spread out across the country, and students of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre imported the legendary teacher’s style to the States when they toured the country with their productions or immigrated permanently stateside, capitalizing on America’s growing promise.

However, these teachers also modified his lessons with their own insights and inclinations—creating a dramatic mystique of controversy, ego battles, and rivalries. It didn’t help that Stanislavsky was deconstructing and revising his System until the day he died—before he could even see most of his writings get translated, published, and circulated globally. Thus, the System and the Method (a younger, similar-looking relative) are some of the most misunderstood theories that influence much of what American actors do today. Below, we answer frequently asked questions about the man and his teachings.

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Who was Konstantin Stanislavsky and why was he such a big deal?

It’s better to start off with who Stanislavsky wasn’t. He was neither a professional actor nor a scientist. He wasn’t a virtuoso and he wasn’t an inventor. But, like many revolutionary thinkers, Stanislavsky found harmony between the curious and discontent. The chord he struck was already there (the French psychologist Théodule Ribot articulated the System’s emotional technique before Stanislavsky’s teachings). Stanislavsky merely plucked the chord in a new way. And its ring echoed throughout the world.

In Moscow, Stanislavsky had an affluent upbringing and dabbled in the performing arts as an amateur actor, opera singer, producer, and director. However, what distinguished him at the offset were two particular habits. The first is that he was a meticulous and prolific writer. The second? He was captivated with the patterns of human life. He documented detailed observations, created experiments, coined terms, and saw the rehearsal room as a laboratory for exploring the nature of humanity.

Stanislavsky’s curiosity about human behavior led to a hypersensitive observation of the world. One famous story tells of how, during a play’s rehearsal process, Stanislavsky noticed that an actor’s dog (who would accompany the actor to rehearsal) would always awake from its nap before the owner would beckon the pup. Stanislavsky posited that the dog could tell when the actors shifted from speaking like “actors” to speaking like everyday humans again. How could actors sound like everyday people on the stage under lights, with a fictional set and an audience watching their every move (a distinctly unnatural conceit)? This was Stanislavsky’s obsession.

What you should understand is that American acting pre-System was primarily presentational. Actors relied on big, broad gestures and a level of theatricality that was over the top by today’s standards. Though Stanislavsky understood that actors needed certain technical skills like vocal projection or cheating out toward the audience, he generally resented recycled theatrical gags and pandering populism. Stanislavsky’s System formalized tricks to circumvent the physical language of “theater” and find a more naturalistic style of authentic human life.

These tricks (or exercises) can be boiled down to these basic principles:

  • Actors should focus on a character’s tasks. What is your character doing?
  • What action does your character need to enact to do the task?
  • Why does the character do that particular action to accomplish that particular task?
  • Why is that task important to that character? What is the character’s objective?
  • What is getting in the way of your character reaching that objective? What’s the obstacle?
  • What decisions would the actor make “if” the actor was in the character’s circumstances? (This is the premise behind the famous “magic if” principle).

Stanislavsky and his students found that if they focused on answering these questions in every single moment of the play—Stanislavsky called moments of action “bits,” which, because of his thick Russian accent, was misheard as “beats”—not only would the actors portray their characters more realistically but, funnily enough, the actors stopped pandering to the audience. The actors were too focused on the inner life of the character to be overly “theatrical.”

When an actor considers questions of circumstance for every single line they have, every single second they’re performing—every single beat—a rigor is added to the work of acting.

Actors were no longer shooting in the dark, waiting to be “inspired.” Charisma was no longer being misconstrued for artistry. Now, actors had a way of talking about and itemizing their process. Finally, actors had a system to demonstrate how complicated acting really is! In addition to giving actors the language to create a craft or technique, it also gave acting an academic legitimacy it had not quite achieved before. By giving actors tasks, they were encouraged to build up muscles and mechanisms for telling the story of their character even if the actor was having a bad day, not feeling well, or feeling disconnected. It provided an entry point for any play an actor was working on.

Stanislavsky’s assertions changed the way people thought about human behavior through the vessel of the actor. In this way, Stanislavsky is often compared to Freud—an imperfect pairing in many ways, but the two figures are similar in that they ignited the public’s imagination about human life and provoked controversies and debate.

What do people mean by “Early Stanislavsky” and “Late Stanislavsky”?

One of the reasons Stanislavsky’s theories can be so confusing is that he changed them incessantly. Because his theories were neither scientific nor rooted in qualitative or quantitative data, his notions were flexible and fragile. This undefined nature is why those who commit to the System at orthodox levels can often find themselves in a quagmire. Because Stanislavsky changed his mind (a lot), we look at his theories in two waves: early and late. Many of his students who immigrated to the United States were trained in Stanislavsky’s First Studio. This first wave of theory was reliant on the concept of emotional recall (which we’ll discuss later). Near the end of his life, Stanislavsky changed directions and focused on physical action. He was also directing a lot of his attention to hybridizing his System with the conventions of opera. While some argue that Late Stanislavsky is a logical evolution from Early Stanislavsky, it’s not difficult to interpret it as Stanislavsky patently rejecting his own early teachings.

But before he could communicate his change of heart, his students had already set out for the United States and were teaching his early theories to eager, curious actors. For example, when the Actors Studio opened, nine years after Stanislavsky died, the curriculum for the famed studio was teaching an expired Stanislavsky System—one that was 31 years outdated. To this day, much of the United States’ acting training is rooted in the early teachings of Stanislavsky—not his later teachings. One can’t help but wonder what Stanislavsky himself would have to say about that!

How do I know if Stanislavsky’s System is right for me?

Most American actors today utilize Stanislavsky’s System inherently—whether they recognize it or not. Coincidentally, the System is more popular and widely taught in the United States than it ever was in Russia. Often, people conflate the System with its many offshoots (like the Method), and assume that Stanislavsky’s System is an extreme form of actor preparation where an actor must live the role of the character even outside of rehearsal and performances. This hyperbolizing of the technique has created fear and mystique about the System. However, at its most simplistic definition, the System is about actually doing something instead of pretending to do something. If your character must clean a dish onscreen, an actor using the System would actually work to clean the dish—not just wag a cloth over a plate in meaningless circles.

Stanislavsky’s System is usually helpful for most American actors (especially considering the standards that directors and audiences have for realistic storytelling in this day and age). However, it’s vital that actors understand what the System actually is and don’t buy into its false reputation of recklessness.

It’s worth noting, too, that Stanislavsky’s System isn’t clear-cut. When you go back to the source, Stanislavsky himself was full of contradictions and all but rejected his early teachings near the end of his life. This frustrated his disciples, because each claimed that they were representing Stanislavsky’s authentic teachings and built their status on such claims. But his teachings were constantly changed by the mysterious Russian teacher himself—this is why Stanislavsky’s ideas are divided into two periods.

How does the System compare to other well-known acting techniques?

Most Western acting techniques are spawns of, or responses to, the System. It’s important to emphasize that Stanislavsky’s documentation of his theories ushered in a form of actor training that was rather new. For centuries, actors trained through observation and apprenticeship. Stanislavsky—through his habits of obsessive chronicling—initiated a new status quo of deep and detailed acting theory. Like it or not, most Western acting theories today revolve around what the System proposed. But there are, of course, some techniques that deliberately deviate.

In the United States today, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints method urges spatial awareness and the activation of the body’s instincts through physical improvisation. They have partnered with Tadashi Suzuki’s method of militaristic physicality—aimed at activating an actor’s endorphins through martial arts–like discipline.

American Viola Spolin created a catalog of improvisational games designed to unlock an actor’s imaginative instincts. Brazilian Augusto Boal also utilized games to awaken the actor within anyone—and shock the importance of the actor’s role in oppressive societies.

Kristin Linklater relies on the authenticity of the voice, and William H. Macy and David Mamet emphasize the power of just speaking the text and leaning into the “if” principle.

Where can I learn it?

The 20th century saw a transformational rise in formal training programs for actors in the United States. Studios like the Stella Adler Studio, the Neighborhood Playhouse, the American Laboratory Theatre, and the Actors Studio opened their doors to teach internal acting techniques. Prestigious university drama schools were started at Carnegie Mellon, Yale, New York University, the University of Minnesota, and Tulane. Most training programs in the United States use Stanislavsky’s teachings as a springboard for their curriculum. Thus, it is likely that most acting programs and schools in America integrate early Stanislavsky’s System at some level—unless you attend a Grotowski-based (like Double Edge Theatre’s training program) or clowning-based program (like the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre) that is firmly rooted in external physicality. There are few acting schools that the System doesn’t touch.

Are there any pitfalls to studying Stanislavsky?

At its most basic, the System and its American mutation, the Method, simply imply that an actor behaves realistically under imaginary circumstances. However, the technique gets complicated and controversial in regard to the notion of emotional recall. Emotional recall is the practice of an actor activating the memory of a lived experience to help connect the actor to Stanislavsky’s “magic if” (i.e., what “if” I were experiencing the circumstances of this character?).

Emotional recall can be applied at various intensities and has thus given Method acting in particular a dangerous reputation. Some high-profile actors have merged their personal lives with that of their characters’ lives in psychologically unhealthy ways. Lee Strasberg often gets the blame for introducing this level of intensity to the System because of his insistence that an actor fully “believe” their circumstances. Strasberg’s notion of “affective memory”—encouraging actors to utilize remembered emotions—is often confused as encouraging actors to relive emotional traumas onstage for the sake of their performance. Stella Adler, a contentious rival of Strasberg, offered another route by insisting an actor use their imagination to create these detailed circumstances through a fictional inner justification.

Is Stanislavsky’s System better for film and TV than stage?

Not necessarily. But there are a few factors to be aware of which might influence the effectiveness of the System in an actor’s work, depending on the medium. The most obvious is the fact that film and television are framed by a camera’s gaze, which can capture the nuanced details of an actor’s performance. For this reason, the System and Stanislavsky’s exercises are helpful—particularly the Meisner technique. In the theater, venue size can vary. For smaller, intimate theaters, an actor’s work can be more nuanced and film-like. In larger theaters, an actor must exaggerate their choices to ensure the audience can fully appreciate their work regardless of their proximity to the stage. Though, even with larger decisions, they can still be rooted in authentic choices. Finally, there’s the consideration of genre. It’s doubtful that Stanislavsky’s System would be too helpful to an actor in a highly physical slapstick farce. However, it’s safe to say that the actor with training in the System is better prepared for any gig, no matter the medium or genre.

How long does it take to learn?

In Stanislavsky’s book “An Actor’s Work”, the training is divided into two years: The first is focused on “experiencing,” the second is focused on “embodiment.” Training programs can last weeks, months, even years—it all depends on the program. However, the realistic answer is that because the System is rooted in the study of life, training is lifelong.

How can I expect my acting to evolve?

The biggest shift you can anticipate is that you will begin looking at stories differently. When you read a script or are preparing for a role, you will inherently begin a process which is formally known as “scoring.” As you read dialogue, you will think about a character’s multiple circumstances—what the character wants, why the character wants it, what the character wants to do to other characters, what obstacles are pushing against a character’s wants—and you will begin to understand plot and characters as a series of actions; it is your job to express them authentically. Also, you will realize that acting is not about popularity, limelight, applause, or commercialism—it’s about artistic craft. It’s about preparing your body, voice, and mind for the rigor and labor of a performance.

What acting methods complement Stanislavsky’s technique?

Most techniques complement Stanislavsky’s System by expressing its core values in different ways (like different denominations of the same religion). Strasberg’s technique digs into emotional recall (or affective memory) while Adler’s emphasizes the creation of specific imaginary circumstances. Meisner’s technique finds authenticity through repetition, while Uta Hagen’s or Robert Lewis’ find it through the notion of “substitution.” Michael Chekhov, nephew to the famous playwright Anton Chekhov and student of Stanislavsky’s, created a technique that relied on psychological gestures. In Western entertainment, quality acting is often judged by how convincing it is; this is at the heart of every technique.

Who are some actors who use Stanislavsky’s System?

Actors who studied with Stanislavsky include:

  • Stella Adler
  • Richard Boleslavsky
  • Michael Chekhov
  • Joshua Logan
  • Maria Ouspenskaya

Laurence Olivier was an enthusiastic purveyor of the System, and John Gielgud wrote the foreword to the 1963 translation of Stanislavsky’s landmark book “An Actor Prepares.”

Of course, there were many denominations of the System here in the United States—most famously, the Method. Some celebrity actors who trained in or practice Method acting include:

  • Christian Bale
  • Marlon Brando
  • Daniel Day-Lewis
  • James Dean
  • Robert De Niro
  • Julie Harris
  • Anne Hathaway
  • Dustin Hoffman
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Heath Ledger
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Al Pacino
  • Sean Penn
  • Natalie Portman
  • Meryl Streep
  • Forest Whitaker
  • Kate Winslet
  • Robin Williams

No matter what you make of Stanislavsky and the hype that surrounds him, there’s no denying that his techniques and teachings changed the way the world thinks about theater. To understand his theories and the responses they spurred is to understand the inner workings of how actors work.

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