All the schools of acting currently in practice - in fact, all schools of acting for at least the past 100 years - are wholly indebted to the work of one man: Konstantin Stanislavski, born in Russia in 1863 and active from the end of the 19th century until his death in 1938. The “system” that Stanislavski developed for his troupe at the Moscow Art Theatre revolutionized the way we think about acting (and about theater in general), and is the foundation upon which all the different schools of American method acting were built. His influence was so vast, in fact, that all schools of acting since his time are necessarily either eruptions within or reactions against his teachings. It is impossible to discuss acting without referring, in some regard, to Stanislavski.
Stanislavski was influenced by many popular artistic, literary, and scientific theories of his time, from modernism and symbolism in art to yoga; but perhaps most notably of all by psychophysiology - the scientific study of the relation between the physical and the psychological/emotional. Stanislavski used the psychophysical approach to explore and expand upon the general philosophy behind the naturalism popular in the theater of his day: in basic terms, the idea that man’s life is defined and shaped by his social and physical environment.
The system that Stanislavski developed (which he referred to as “spiritual realism,” but which is better known as “psychological realism”) was a means of exposing the hidden aspects of relationships between people and of revealing the repressed elements of everyday life. The ultimate goal was for each actor to “live” his or her part without falling into the trap of complete belief in the character being portrayed. Stanislavski felt very strongly that while an actor should be able effectively to demonstrate the emotions and physicality of a character, there should always be an intellectual detachment between character and actor.
Stanislavski would begin his rehearsal process with a round-table at which he and his actors would literally sit around a table and discuss their ideas about the characters and the script until they had reached some form of mutual understanding. He would then assign the actors homework exercises, which involved breaking the script down into a series of discrete psychological units. A script would break down roughly as follows:
Objective (also called the Super-Objective): The final, over-all goal that a character wants to achieve (this might be worded as, “What do I want?” or “What is my purpose?”)
Obstacles: Things that will prevent or complicate the achievement of a character’s objective.
Toolsor Methods (this aspect goes by many names): The means a character will use to overcome obstacles and achieve his objective.
Units and Bits: Smaller objectives and methods which build towards the larger goal. An entire sequence of bits might make up a unit, and there may in turn be several units in service of the final objective.
Actions: Mini-objectives for each line, or sometimes even each part of a line. These are usually identified in verb form, and can be extremely specific (for example, to flatter, to cajole, to soothe).
Stanislavski believed that if an actor did this homework properly, the character’s emotions would naturally emerge. But he also recognized that every actor is different, and purposely created the system as a flexible structure, which will vary not only from character to character, but from actor to actor. Two actors playing the same role might come up with very different - but equally valid - objectives; Stanislavski saw this as a natural result of the system.
In order to facilitate and enhance the homework exercises, Stanislavski also developed a rehearsal method which he referred to as Emotional Memory or Affective Memory. This “inside-out” approach involved drawing on one’s own experiences and memories in order to present emotions on stage. Unfortunately, Stanislavski found that these exercises would often leave his actors in hysterics. So although he never completely disavowed Emotional Memory as an acting tool, he began to search for less draining ways of accessing emotion, finally coming to focus on the dramatic text itself as a stimulus for imagination and belief (rather than relying upon the actor’s private, and often painful, memories).
Late in his life - beginning in the early 1930’s - Stanislavski changed his approach once again, and started working on what he referred to as the Method of Physical Actions. This method was based on the notion that certain physical movements and gestures can create emotions in the actor through a system of personal associations. This “outside-in” approach was essentially Emotional Memory in reverse, and was a seminal influence on the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold - one of Stanislavski’s actors who later became a highly influential teacher and theorist in his own right. Meyerhold took the Method of Physical Actions even further than Stanislavski, codifying a series of particular gestures and movements to represent specific emotions.
It was two other actors from the Moscow Art Theatre - Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, who had worked under Stanislavski during his Emotional Memory period - who brought Stanislavski’s “system” to the United States when they founded the American Laboratory Theater (later called the Actors Studio) in New York in 1923. Many of the foremost actors of the day - among them the young Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg - flocked to this new establishment to study under the great Stanislavski’s disciples, and American method acting was born.
Stanislavski never did find full satisfaction with his own work - he saw his accomplishments merely as inconclusive experiments in the science of acting. He wanted to find a universal system which could be used by all actors - it is perhaps ironic, then, that he always emphasized the importance of the individual in the acting process. He himself said, “Create your own method. Don't depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.” And perhaps that is the best advice that any acting teacher could give.
The following are common misspellings of Stanislavski's name: Constantin Stanislavski, Constanteen, Constantene, Konstantean, Konstantene, Konstantine, Constantine, Stanislavki, Staneslavski, Staniflavska, Staniflavski, Stanislafski, Stanislavskii, Stanislavsky, Staniflavsky, Satanislavski