The Definitive Guide To Stanislavsky’s System

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Konstantin Stanislavsky is the father of modern acting. His desire to “live” a role rather than “perform” a role has influenced every acting technique we know today. Stanislavsky wrote detailed notes as he developed his acting system. These notes became a series of books—“An Actor Prepares,” “Building a Character,” and “Creating a Role”—that became the foundational text for training actors in Russia and the United States. 

Stanislavsky worked on his acting techniques from 1888 until he died in 1938. But he developed them in Russia and wrote in Russian. Many of his earliest followers learned Stanislavsky’s System from other actors who studied at his Moscow Art Theatre. Because Stanislavsky was continually experimenting with new ideas—and because many of his students took his ideas and developed their own interpretations of his teachings—it can be challenging to pin down precisely what techniques are part of the System. To get a complete picture, let’s take a deeper look at the man and his methods

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Who was Konstantin Stanislavsky?

Konstantin Stanislavsky was a Russian actor, producer, director, and founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. He was born in 1863 to affluent parents who named him Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev. The name Stanislavsky was a stage name that he gave himself in 1885, when he was 23 years old and entering his prime as an actor on the Russian stage. 

Stanislavsky began acting at the age of 14 in his family-founded dramatic company, the Alekseyev Circle. Compared to other actors, the young Stanislavsky felt that his body was awkward and his voice was weak. So he decided to fix his body, voice, and acting style. He was an analytical, philosophical young man and a prolific writer. He was also captivated by the patterns of human life. He documented his observations of human behavior, created theatrical experiments based on them, and used the rehearsal room as his laboratory for exploring the nature of acting.

Before Stanislavsky, acting was primarily presentational. Actors relied on broad, mechanical gestures and stiff theatricality. Stanislavsky understood that the theater required technical skills like vocal projection and cheating out toward the audience, but he despised unnatural voices and artificial movements. His most common critique to his acting students was, “I don’t believe you.” 

What is Stanislavsky’s System?

“Stanislavsky’s work changed the way actors thought about human behavior.”

Stanislavsky’s System is a series of techniques to help actors develop natural performances. The late 19th century was a period of rapid change for the theater. Playwrights like Anton Chekov and Maxim Gorky were writing stories about everyday people, not gods and kings. These new stories required a new kind of acting, one that displayed a character’s interior life rather than their grandness. 

Stanislavsky’s work changed the way actors thought about human behavior. Stanislavsky was a keen observer of people outside the theater and is often compared to Freud, since both men ignited the public imagination about human life and provoked controversies and debate.

Stanislavsky’s theories don’t fit on a checklist because he never stopped developing new ideas. He constantly pushed his actors to explore new techniques, and students who studied under him in the 1890s performed different exercises than his students in the 1920s. Because Stanislavsky changed his mind (a lot), we look at his theories in two waves: early Stanislavsky and late Stanislavsky. In his early work, he was most concerned with creating living characters on stage. His techniques at the time focused almost entirely on psychological exercises. These included detailed table readings and encouraging his actors to personally experience the actions they were trying to portray. 

Near the end of his life, Stanislavsky argued for finding harmony between internal and external acting preparation. Ultimately, he believed that the best acting connected an actor’s inner world with specific, performable actions on the stage. American actors can see the difference between early and late Stanislavsky in the acting techniques of Lee Strasberg (whose work is based on early Stanislavsky) and Stella Adler (who studied one-on-one with Stanislavsky later in his life). 

What are Stanislavsky’s core principles of acting?

Stanislavsky developed many techniques for actors over his long career. Although his ideas about acting continued to evolve throughout his life, some core principles did emerge: 

  • The Magic “If”: This is probably the best-known Stanislavsky concept. He did not believe it was beneficial (or even possible) for an actor to truly believe that staged events were reality. Instead, he taught actors to put themselves in the characters' shoes and consider what they would do if they were in the character’s situation. The magic if makes the character’s motivations the same as the actor’s. 
  • Given Circumstances: These are all the specifics of the character, any facts you can glean from the script. Given circumstances include everything from the character’s background to the time and place of the story and the structure of the staged world. Given circumstances are essential because they determine what actions are possible for a character to perform. 
  • Super-Objective: The super-objective is the character’s primary motivation in the play. This is the backbone of the character, the thing they want more than anything in the world. All of the actor’s objectives and actions on the stage should connect to this super-objective. 
  • Objective: Essentially, the objective is the answer to the question, “What does the character want?” The best answer to that question involves a playable action. As Stanislavsky writes, “Every objective must carry in itself the germ of an action.”
  • Physical Action: Stanislavsky taught that actors must build a character’s behavior through specific, concrete, performable actions. The best actions are achievable on the stage, within the world of the play. 
  • Communion: Believable action in the play must be directed to the other actors on stage, not the audience. When the actors communicate with one another through their actions, the performance captures more human truth than playing actions to the audience. 
  • Emotional Memory: Stanislavsky encouraged actors to develop their ability to observe emotional reactions in their daily lives. The emotional memories developed off-stage provide the actor with strong feelings to draw from when their character experiences a similar emotion on stage. 
  • Subtext: Subtext is the meaning behind the words on the page. To determine subtext, actors must have a rich imagination to determine why their character says or does something in the play. Subtext drives the performance of a play. “Spectators come to the theatre to hear the subtext,” Stanislavsky explains. “They can read the text at home.” 

Stanislavsky and his students found that, by focusing on these ideas while performing a play, they would portray their characters more realistically. Instead of pandering to the audience, their characters were more concerned with communicating to one another on-stage. The actors were so focused on the character’s inner life that they didn’t have time to be overly “theatrical.”

What famous actors use Stanislavsky’s System?

Actors who studied directly with Stanislavsky include:

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

Lee Strasberg studied with both Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Boleslavsky. 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 offshoots of the System here in the United States—most famously, the Lee Strasberg’s Method. Some celebrity actors who trained in or practice Method acting include Christian Bale, Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, and Daniel Day-Lewis.

No matter what you make of Stanislavsky and the hype that surrounds him, his teachings changed the way the world thinks about theater. His theories and the responses they spurred elevated the acting profession.

Where can actors study Stanislavsky’s System?

Most training programs in the United States use Stanislavsky’s teachings as a springboard for their curriculum. Actors can study Stanislavsky’s System in most college-level acting programs, graduate schools, and independent acting studios. Studios like the Stella Adler Studio, the Neighborhood Playhouse, the American Laboratory Theatre, and the Actors Studio all teach on some form of Stanislavsky’s technique. Prestigious university drama schools Carnegie Mellon, Yale School of Drama, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, also teach Stanislavsky’s System.

Actors that prefer independent study can read Stanislavsky’s books: 

  • “An Actor Prepares: Stanislavsky’s first acting text contains several acting exercises and lays out his early ideas. 
  • “Building a Character”: His second book focuses on stimulating individual creativity and the actor’s imaginative capacity. 
  • “Creating a Role”: The final book in Stanislavsky’s acting trilogy explores how voice and body are used to create prominent roles. 
  • “ An Actor’s Work”: This text combines Stanislavsky’s first two books in one comprehensive manual. 
  • “My Life in Art”: Stanislavsky’s autobiography contains acting insights alongside the details of his personal life. 

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

What are the pros and cons of the System?

Like every acting technique, the System has both pros and cons. One benefit of Stanislavsky’s techniques is that they give actors a way of itemizing and talking about their process. Stanislavsky actors aren’t grasping in the dark, waiting to be “inspired.” The System helps an actor deliver a compelling performance, even on a bad day. It provides actors with an entry point for any performance they’re working on, no matter how far it is from their personal experience.

But the System has downsides, as well. The concept of emotional memory is probably the most controversial. Emotional memory involves an actor activating the memory of a lived experience to help connect the actor to their character. Emotional memory (sometimes called emotional recall) can be applied at various intensities and has developed a dangerous reputation.

In the pursuit of heightening emotional memory, some actors merge their personal lives with their characters’ lives in psychologically unhealthy ways. Stanislavsky student Lee Strasberg is often blamed for introducing this level of intensity to the System because of his insistence that an actor fully “believe” their circumstances—an approach known as “method acting.” 

What’s the difference between method acting and Stanislavsky’s System?

Lee Strasberg’s Method developed from Stanislavsky’s System. The major difference between the two is how much emphasis they place on personal, affecting memories to build performances. Method acting focuses almost exclusively on an actor’s interior experiences to drive a performance, where Stanislavsky’s System emphasizes a balance between interior thought and physical action.  

Stanislavsky kept his techniques in the human world, while Strasberg’s Method includes “animal work.” Strasberg taught that imitating a specific animal’s movements could rid actors of their personal, physical gestures, helping them create new mannerisms for a character. For example, Marlon Brando studied apes to prepare for his performance as Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Stanislavsky was a firm believer in the community of actors performing together. He argued that the actors sharing a stage must create a performance together, in communion with one another. Strasberg, however, was an individualist. “An actor has to be able to do his part on the stage without depending on someone else,” he writes.

How does the System compare to other famous acting techniques?

Almost every current acting style either expands on Stanislavsky or deliberately deviates from it. Popular acting styles that expand on the System include: 

  • The Method: Developed by Lee Strasberg, The Method expands on Stanislavsky’s emotional memory techniques. 
  • Stella Adler’s Acting Technique: Adler expands the idea of emotional memory and emphasizes the creation of specific imaginary circumstances. 
  • Meisner Technique: Sanford Meisner sought to simplify Stanislavsky’s ideas, making them intellectual and more natural. 

Some popular acting techniques that abandon Stanislavsky’s System are: 

  • Practical Aesthetics: Developed by playwright David Mamet and taught at the Atlantic Acting School, this technique relies on the four pillars they call the “literal,” the “want,” the “action,” and “as if.”
  • Boal Technique: Brazilian Theater-maker Augusto Boal based his techniques on play and creating a sense of freedom. 
  • Grotowski Method: Jerzy Grotowski based his acting techniques on physical and vocal discipline. 

Even the acting schools that avoid the System can’t escape Stanislavksy’s influence entirely, since very idea of acting programs comes from Stanislavsky. He ushered in a form of actor training that had never existed before. For centuries, actors trained through observation and apprenticeship. Stanislavsky created an entirely new way of teaching acting in a studio-like setting. Like it or not, most Western acting theories today are still talking about Stanislavsky’s ideas. 

How can I expect my acting to evolve?

If you study Stanislavksy’s techniques as an actor, 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. 

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