§10. Communication (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the 10th chapter of An Actor’s Work by Konstantin Stanislavski. This book is a new edition and English translation by Jean Benedetti of the material previously published under the titles « An Actor Prepares » and « Building A Character« .

Previous chapter: §9. Emotion Memory(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §11. An Actor’s Adaptations and other Elements, Qualities, Aptitudes and Gifts (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

Why is Communication important for the actor ?

The audience is interested in seeing the inner life of the characters – their Feelings and thoughts. 

This inner life can only be witnessed by the audience when the characters are in a situation of Communication.

“Imagine that the author has taken it into his head to show his characters while they are asleep or unconscious, that is, in those moments when their inner life is in no way apparent. (…) If that’s the case, the audience is wasting its time, since it is not getting what it came for. It doesn’t sense the feelings or learn the thoughts of the characters.” (p. 232)

“When the audience sees two or more characters exchanging their thoughts and feelings, it becomes involved in their words and actions involuntarily. (…) The audience can only understand and indirectly participate in what is happening when the characters in the play are in communication with each other. » (p. 232)

Therefore, the situation of Communication is of the utmost importance for the stage – even more so than in real life. 

“If we need to be in proper and continuous communicating with people or things in life, the need is ten times stronger onstage. This is due to the nature of theatre itself, which is entirely based on the relationships among the characters and of individual characters with themselves.” (p. 232).

“If the actors do not wish to lose their grip on a large audience, they must take great care always to be in unbroken communication with their partner.” (p. 233)

What should the actor Communicate with ?

There are three possible objects of direct Communication (p. 242):

  1. Communication with a living object 
  2. Communication with oneself
  3. Communication with an Imaginary object

The audience is only an indirect object of Communication

What is Communication with a living object ?

Communication with a living object is Communication directed at another actor. More precisely, it is directed at this actor’s soul. 

“Can you really be in communication with every part of [his] body at the same time ? (…) If that’s not possible then choose some part of [him], some point, through which you can make communication. (…) What you first look for in someone is their soul, their inner world. (…) People always try to make communication with the living soul of an object.” (p. 234 s.)

Communication with a living object can also be directed at more than one actor at the same time, for example a whole crowd on stage. 

“Sometimes we make communication with individual objects, at other moments we encompass the whole mass of people. That is, so to speak, extended two-way communication.”

Stanislavski mentions a few characteristics that Communication with a living object should have:

It consists of both emitting and receiving Feelings (p. 235 s.). 

“Dialogue (…) is mutual communication between two or more characters.” (p. 236).

In particular, Communication should continue in moments of silence, when the receiver is silently listening to the speaker or when the speaker is making breaks in his speech to let his words reach the receiver.

“Unfortunately continuous communication is a rarity onstage. Most actors, if they use it at all, only communicate while they are saying their own lines. As soon as they have nothing to say and someone else is speaking, they don’t listen, don’t receive their partner’s thoughts (..) until it’s their next line.” 

“Giving and receiving of feeling requires [direct communication], not only during spoken words, but in moments of silence, when very often it is the eyes that go on speaking.” (p. 236)

“You must learn to speak your thoughts to someone else and then ensure they have reached his consciousness and his feelings. For that you need a short pause. Only when you are convinced that this has happened and you have spoken with your eyes what is not possible to say in words, should you go on to deliver the next part of the speech. 

Communication should take place every time the role is being performed. 

The process of continuously giving and receiving feelings and thoughts must be gone through each and every time you recreate the role.  (p. 236)

What is Communication with oneself ?

Communication with onself is also called solitary Communication or self Communication.

Although frequent onstage, such a situation is rare in real life and therefore needs to be properly justified

“When do we talk out loud to ourselves in real life ? (…) This occurs very rarely in real life but very often onstage. (…) How am I to justify onstage something which I am almost never able to justify in life ?” (p. 233)

It will help the actor’s efforts of justification if he identifies within himself two different centres Communication with each other

How do I direct the inner flow of communication – from where to where ? I need a properly defined subject and object. Where are they inside us ? Without two related centres, I cannot keep a firm grip on my power of concentration (…) There [is] another centre, apart from the centre of the nervous system in the brain, one located near the heart – the solar plexus. I [try] to get these two centres talking to each other. (…) I [take] the centre in my head to represent consciousness and the solar plexus to represent emotion. So, my impression [is] that my head [is] in communication with my heart.” (p. 234)

What is Communication with an Imaginary object 

Communication with an imaginary object is communication with an unreal, non-existent object, for example the ghost of Hamlet’s father (p. 236) 

However, an imaginary object of Communication should not be used as a replacement of a living one. 

“Some actors (…), when working at home, also retort to an imaginary object in the absence of a living one. They place it mentally before them, then try to see it and communicate with an empty space. (…) This becomes a habit, which they carry over unwittingly onto the stage. In the end they are no longer used to seeing a living object but are used to placing a sham, dead object between them and their fellow actor. (…) It is agony to play opposite actors who look at you and see someone else and adapt to him, not you.” (p. 237)

“Don’t communicate at all until you’ve found [a living object to make connection with]. (…) I absolutely insist that students should not communicate with an empty void but do exercises with living objects.” (p. 237)

To Communication with an Imaginary object, the actor should not try hard to see what is not there. Instead, he should ask himself what he would do if the Imaginary object would be in front of him. 

“Faced with [imaginary, unreal, non-existent objects], the inexperienced try to delude themselves into thinking they can really see an object which does not actually exist but is only implied. All their energy and concentration goes into it. But experienced actors know that it’s not the actual [object] that matters, but their relationship with it, and so they replace a non-existent object with a magic ‘if’, and try to answer sincerely and honestly what they would do if [this object] were to appear in the empty space before them.” (p. 236 s.).

What is Communication with the audience ?

The actor should not make direct Communication with the audience. Stanislavski calls such CommunicationStock-in-Trade Communication

“[Stock-in-trade communication] is directed straight from the stage to the house, bypassing the other actor, who is a character in the play. It’s the line of least resistance (…) You have to know it and study it so you can fight it.” (p. 239)

This doesn’t mean that the actor shouldn’t Communicate with the audience at all. On the opposite, a Communication should take place, but only indirectlythrough the other actors. Even though this Communication is indirect, it should be is no less mutual than direct Communication.

“[You must not make] direct communication during a show [with the audience], but indirect communication is essential. Both the difficulty and the uniqueness of our form of communication lie in the fact that it occurs with another actor and with the audience simultaneously. Communication with the former is direct, conscious, but with the latter is indirect, unconscious, through another actor. It is evident that, in both cases, the communication is two-way.” (p. 237)

“If you want a better idea of what you get from the audience, try getting rid of it and playing to a completely empty house. (…) Playing without an audience is like singing in a room with a dead acoustic (…) The audience creates, so to speak, a psychological acoustic. It registers what we do and bounces its own living, human feeling back to us.” (p. 238).

What should be the content of Communication?

What should the actor Communicate ?

The actor needs to Communicate his own thoughts and Feelings which are similar to the character’s. 

“If you want to communicate, you must have something you wish to communicate, i.e. first and foremost, your own thoughts and feelings, your experiences.” (p. 239)

“You should communicate onstage (…) your living feelings, which are similar to the character’s, and are fully experienced and physically embodied.” (p. 242)

“I try only to have dealings with my fellow actor, so that I can communicate my own human feelings, similar to the character’s. The other things which produce a total fusion with the role, and give birth to a new creation, the actor/role, appear subconsciously. In performances of that kind I always feel myself as myself, in the Given Circumstance.” (p. 242)

Since the thoughts and feelings which are to be Communicated need to be similar to the character’s, they do not arise spontaneously, as in real life, but they require a special Attention and preparation from the actor. 

“In the real world, (…) the material we communicate arises spontaneously, depending on our circumstances. This is not the case in the theatre (…). In the theatre we are given someone else’s thoughts and feelings in a role which has been created by a writer and appears in cold print on the pages. It is difficult to experience that kind of material.” (p. 240)

“[The actor] needs to have stored up considerable, profound inner content of mind, experiences that are similar to the ‘life of the human spirit’ of a role, which he will need to communicate with the other actors. He must share that content with his partner the whole time he is onstage.” (p. 231)

What should the actor not Communicate ?

The actor should avoid three wrong contents of Communication:

  • The actor shouldn’t Communicate nothing (“hack reportage”)

“The kind of flimsy nonsense actors often communicate to the audience, rattling off words with no concern for their sense, their Subtext, only for the effect they have.”  (p. 240)

  • The actor should avoid showing himself in the role (“exhibitionism”)

“I showed myself in the role (…) and exploited [the] speech, its words, staging movements, actions etc., not to demonstrate the role but myself in the role, i.e. my own attributes – body, voice, gestures, poses, mannerisms, movements, walk, voice, diction, speech, intonation, energy, technique – in a word everything except proper feelings and experiences.” (p. 241)

  • The actor should avoid showing the role in himself (demonstrating the shape of the role)

“It’s not a matter of experiencing [the role], but rather of giving its outward shape, the lines, the face, the moves, etc. I won’t create the role, I will merely dispatch it (…), without attempting to give it any life or depth (…), like those actors who play a role they are sick of but which has been well planned.” (p. 241)

How should the actor Communicate ?

Communication onstage is made difficult by the unnatural conditions under which the actor has to work. These conditions offer a lot of distractions from the actor’s roles When the actor gets distracted, the Communication line gets broken and the role suffers from it. 

“Don’t’ forget either that the conditions under which we work, in public, are fraught with difficulty and require to be endlessly and energetically resisted. (..) A normal human being would find these conditions unnatural.” (p. 252)

“Should [the actor] be distracted [from his role], he is (..) caught up in his own personal life, which carries him away beyond the footlights, into the auditorium or further, outside the theatre, seeking some object with which mentally to communicated. At such moments the role is conveyed externally, mechanically. All these distractions constantly break the lifeline of the character and communication. The gaps are then filled by details from the actor’s personal life, which have nothing to do with the role he is playing. (…) Constantly breaking the line of a role in this way either cripples it, or kills it. ” (p. 232)

The actor should resist these distractions and focus all his Concentration on his Task

“You must be able to overcome [the unnatural conditions under which you work] or ignore them, divert your attention from them with your own creative Tasks. Let them focus all your concentration and creative ability, i.e. create grip.” (p. 252)

More precisely, as far as Communication is concerned, the actor should fix his Attention on two things in particular:

  1. on the object of Communication 
  2. on the content he wishes to Communicate

“Learn to fix upon the object, your fellow actor and your communication with him, and, on the other hand, learn to recognize wrong objects and wrong communication, learn to fight them. Pay special attention to the quality of the inner material you are sharing.” (p. 243)

How to fix on the object of Communication?

The actor needs to develop an inner bounding with the objects he is in Communication with. 

“You can only be in communication when you see something and surrender to what you see. Brief moments of being in communication are created by things to which you give something of yourself, or from which you take something.” (p. 231)

Stanislavski calls this inner bounding the “grip”. 

“We judge our students’ concentration and their power to make communication (…) by the strength and duration of their grip. So develop it.” (p. 252)

  • As for its strength, the grip must “develop the degree of strength which we call the iron grip” (p. 251)

“We must have an iron grip onstage, in the eyes, the ears, in all five sense organs. If you are listening, then listen and hear. If you are smelling, then smell. If you are looking, then look and see, don’t let your eyes slide over the object, without latching on to it, just visually licking it. You must, so to speak, sink your teeth into the object. But that doesn’t, of course, mean you should go unnecessarily tense.” (p. 251)

“There is an external formalistic, or, so to speak, ‘token registering with empty eyes’ (…). This kind of seeing is unnecessary and harmful. The eyes are the mirror of the soul. And empty eyes are the mirror of an empty soul.”(p. 231)

  • As for its duration, this grip must be continuous (unlike in real life).

“You don’t always need continuous grip in life, but onstage, especially in tragedy, it is essential. (…) Most of our life is taken up with minor routine. (…) That doesn’t require grip and happens automatically. But there is no place for that onstage.” (p. 252)

How to fix on the content of Communication?

“It’s important that you should not only understand with your intelligence, not only feel, but that you should see with your own eyes what it is, most of the time, we bring onstage with us to communicate to the audience.” (p. 240)

What are the actor’s means of Communication ?

The actor’s means of Communication are of two kinds (p. 245) :

What are the visible means of Communication ?

The actor’s visible means of Communication include the eyes, the face, movements of the hands and fingers, the body (p. 261). 

Let’s rid the stage forever of empty eyes, static faces, lacklustre voices, flat speech, awkward bodies with rigid spines and necks, wooden hands, wrists, legs through which movements don’t flow and an awful gait and mannerisms. Let the actor pay the same attention to his creative apparatus as a violinist gives his beloved Stradivarius.” (p. 245)

“If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, the fingertips are the mirror of the body.” (p. 244)

What are the invisible means of Communication ?

Invisible means of communication is Communication through the mind, which is just as important as bodily/visible Communication.  

“Many people think that the visible movements of the hands, legs and body are signs of dynamism whereas invisible actions, mental communication are not true activity. That is a mistake (…). Communication through the mind constitutes one of the most important dynamic actions in acting (…) It is absolutely essential in the process of creating and emitting the ‘life of the human spirit’ of a role.” (p. 239)

“That is direct, immediate communication in its pure form, from mind to mind, from eye to eye, or from fingertips, from the body with no visible physical action.” (p. 247)

“It is important that an actor’s eyes, his gaze, his glance, reflect the size, the depth of his creative mind.” (p. 231)

Stanislavski called this kind of communication Emitting and Receiving (rays)”. 

“Haven’t you ever been aware, in life or onstage, when in communication with other people, of a current emanating from your will, flowing through your eyes, your fingertips, your skin ? What shall we call this method of communication? Emitting and receiving rays, signals ? Radiating out and radiating in ?” (p. 246)

“That was invisible communication, the emitting and receiving that, like an underwater stream, flows continuously under our words, in silences, and forms the invisible link between objects which creates an inner connection.” (p. 248)

Emitting and Receiving does not happen automatically. And when it does happen, it can be more or less perceptible

“We can look, see and take in and give out nothing. But you can look, see and receive and send out a stream of rays.” (p. 248)

“When our mood is calm the so-called emitting and receiving is barely perceptible. But in moments of intensity, of heightened feeling, they are clearer, for both those involved.” (p. 246)

Therefore, it’s important for the actor to know how emitting and receiving feels like, so he will know whether it’s present or not.

How does Emitting and Eeceiving feel like ?

“[Emitting] is as though our inner feelings and wishes give off rays, which pass through our eyes, our body and engulf other people in their stream. (…) [Receiving] is the opposite process, i.e. taking in other people’s feelings and impressions.” (p. 250)

Stanislavski mentions a few images to describe the feeling of Emitting.

“Can you imagine the sensation a flower has when giving off its scent, or a diamond has when flashings its rays of light ? (…) I myself recalled the sensation I had of a voluntary stream issuing from me (…) when I watched a magic lantern casting its bright rays on a screen in the darkness, and also when I stood on the edge of a volcano, which was belching out hot air. (…) When you hypnotize someone else, there is the same feeling.” (p. 250)

Likewise, he mentions a few images to describe the feeling of Receiving.

“[Receiving means] trying to take in the things the object speaking to you is feeling.” (p. 248)

“A magnet attracting iron might experience the same sensation of receiving.” (p. 251)

How to Emit (and Receive) ?

Stanislavski explains two ways of approaching Emitting and Receiving:

  1. From the inner to the outer
  2. From the outer to the inner 
How  to Emit, going from the inner to the outer ?

Th method of Emitting (and Receiving), going from the inner to the outer, can be divided into three steps:

  1. Relaxing
  2. Preparing what is to be Emitted (or Received)
  3. Emitting (or Receiving) through the eyes 
  • Relaxing

The actor needs to get rid of muscular tension (Muscular Release).

“Emitting and receiving (…) cannot occur while there is muscular tension. (..) Start by getting rid of tension wherever it appears. (…) Lean back. (…) You really have to be at rest. Now, look at each other. Do you really call that looking ? Your eyes are popping out of your head, you’re so tense. Do much, much less. No tension in the pupils of the eyes!” (p. 247

“All you were thinking about was how you could force [something] out of yourself. You tensed your muscles. (…) The muscles don’t need to work for you to be able to ‘shower’ someone with the rays of your will. The physical sensation of a stream issuing from us is barely perceptible.” (p. 249)

The actor needs to prepare what he would like to emit before starting Emitting it.

“Before you convey anything to someone else, you prepare what you have to convey. You can’t convey something you don’t have. Think of something to communicate mentally.” (p. 248)

The actor must be careful to choose things that can actually be Communicated through the mind, for example Feelings or wishes, but not words or thoughts. 

“Do you intend emitting thoughts and words with your eyes ? You won’t succeed. (…) Convey thoughts through the voice and words, and let the eyes supply what can’t be transmitted by speech.” (p. 247)

“If you use a long line of experiences and feelings which are in logical sequence and are interconnected, then [grip] will be strengthened, will grow and finally develop the degree of strength which we call the iron grip and which makes the process of emitting and receiving rays stronger, sharper and more concrete.” (p. 251)

After having chosen what he would like to Emit, the actor must live it.

“For me to feel the general tone of the feeling you are conveying to me, you must live its inner essence.” (p. 249)

“Grip doesn’t mean extreme physical tension but a great deal of dynamic inner action.” (p. 252)

The actor needs to Emit (or Receive) through his eyes what has been prepared.

“Convey your feelings to me without words, with the eyes only.” (p. 248)

How to Emit, going from the outer to the inner ?

This second approach can be used when the first one doesn’t work

“If you can’t go from the inner to the outer, then go from the outer to the inner. Then we can use the organic link between the body and the mind.” (p. 254)

“If inner communication does not occur spontaneously, then approach if from the outside. (…) This help from outside is the lure which sets the process in motion and then experiencing itself. Fortunately (…) the new decoy can be developed technically.” (p. 254)

Stanislavski explains an exercise to practice this approach:

“The (…) exercise consists of using a decoy to arouse some emotion (feeling) or other in yourself and emitting it to someone else. While you’re doing it you pay attention to what is happening to you physically.” (p. 256)

  • The actor sits or stand in front of another one.

“Don’t do [this exercise] alone, by yourself or with an imaginary person. Make communication only with living objects, (…) with someone really standing beside you and really wanting to receive your feelings from you. Communication must be mutual.” (p. 256) 

  • The actor “[thinks] up a Task, an idea to justify it.” (p. 256)
  • The actor fulfils his Task by Communicating using visible means (words, facial expressions, …), while paying Attention to his physical sensations (p. 256)
  • The actor continues his Communication as long as he’s able to, using no more words or Actions, but only invisible means (emitting) (p. 256)
  • As some point Feelings should step in, and the actor should go on Emitting them. 

“Didn’t your inner feelings cry out to let them step in and help you ? Didn’t your Emotion Memory do all it could to suggest and experience you could use for physical communication ?’ (…) ‘Transmit whatever it is you’re feeling now to me, or find some other feeling inside you.’” (p. 256)

  • The other actor should observe what it feels like to Receive. (p. 256)

“In the same way get used to what it feels like to receive, when it occurs naturally and note what it is when you are communicating with others.” (p. 256)

Previous chapter: §9. Emotion Memory(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §11. An Actor’s Adaptations and other Elements, Qualities, Aptitudes and Gifts (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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