Acting Styles: Konstantin Stanislavski’s System

“A true priest is aware of the presence of the altar during every moment that he is conducting a service. It is exactly the same way that a true artist should react to the stage all the time he is in the theater. An actor who is incapable of this feeling will never be a true artist.” ~ Konstantin Stanislavski

When it comes to discussing modern-day acting methods, the conversation must begin with Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), the renowned Russian actor, director, producer, teacher, and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky devised an acting system, sometimes referred to as the “Art of Experiencing,” that has formed the foundation of how many of today’s performers approach their craft on stage and screen. His theories have spawned well-known variations of his principles developed by accomplished disciples of his, including Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg.

The main thrust of Stanislavsky’s system is for the actors to tap into their “emotional memory” to achieve a more realistic performance. His techniques are used to build believable characters. Stanislavski taught his students that in each scene, actors had goals and challenges to overcome. Let’s take a look at some of the components of his groundbreaking technique:


The Seven Questions

Applying Stanislavski’s technique requires actors to perform a detailed analysis of the script. They then need to find the answers to these Seven Questions to fully understand their characters and motivations:

* Who am I?

* Where am I?

* What time Is It?

* What do I want?

* Why do I want it?

* How will I get what I want?

* What do I need to overcome to get what I want?

Uncovering the answers to these questions requires thoughtful reflection. It often leads to a more personal connection between actors and their characters.


The Magic If

“Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors.” ~ Konstantin Stanislavski

After completing the Seven Questions exercise, actors are in a position to take the understanding of their characters to a deeper level by using “The Magic If.” Practitioners of the Stanislavski system often ask themselves: If I were in my character’s situation, what would I do?

In this exercise, actors reflect upon their personal experiences and feelings, and apply them to their characters. When an actor thinks about he or she would react in a particular situation, it provides further insight regarding some of the choices and challenges faced by their characters.


Emotional Memory

“The person you are is a hundred times more interesting than the best actor you could ever become…” ~ Konstantin Stanislavski

The key to mastering Emotional Memory is to refrain from “acting” your emotions on stage. Instead, you draw from a time in your own life when you experienced similar feelings. When you recall how you felt, you are then able to naturally experience these emotions. This creates a more realistic and personal performance.

Practitioners of this method are cautioned not to force a memory or recall something painful. Stanislavski said to be careful not to “assault the subconscious.” It is recommended to use memories from past experiences, rather than emotions experienced in current situations or circumstances.

Stanislavski also advocated for using “Sense Memory,” which he referred to as “Creative Fantasy,” to help an actor develop a dramatic imagination. The actor is asked to think of a memory and apply all five senses. Using this technique, the actor can more vividly recall a memory and the emotions experienced at that time.

For more information on this theatrical forerunner’s techniques, look for his books: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.