§18. Physical Education (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the 18th 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: §17. Transition to Physical Embodiment (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §19. Voice and Speech
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

Why is physical education necessary for the actor ?

Our habits of movement and posture are often faulty, due to lack of proper physical education.

“People don’t know how to use the equipment nature has given them. (…) Slack muscles, a distorted frame, poor breathing are common occurrences in life. These are all the results of our inability to educate and develop our physical apparatus.” (p. 356)

Although unnoticed in our everyday life, onstage these faults become problematic.

“Physical defects pass unnoticed in private life. They become normal, everyday occurrences for us. But, once transferred to the stage, many of our faults become unbearable.” (p. 356)

“In the theatre (…) the body on display must be healthy, beautiful and its movements expressive and harmonious.” (p. 356)

What is the purpose of doing gymnastics for the actor?

The purpose of gymnastics is to activate the actor’s body in order to increase the range of his means of expression

“The work that has been done not only activated the ordinary, crude motor centres but the more refined ones we rarely use. (…) Once you have activated them you will become aware of new sensations, new movements, new means of expression, greater chances to be subtle than you have known up till now. All this makes your body more mobile, supple, expressive, responsive and sensitive in its functions.” (p. 357)

Gymnastics should not be used to develop the body in unnatural ways. On the contrary, it should be used to correct and develop what is needed to make the body well-proportioned, according to Nature

“I can’t think of anything more ugly than a man with shoulders like a bullock, with knots of bulging muscles all over his body, that are neither the right size nor in the right place for beauty of proportion. (…) Acquiring this kind of monstrous physique is quite wrong for the stage. We need compact, strong, developed, well-proportioned, well-built bodies with nothing unnatural or overdone. Gymnastics should correct not ruin our bodies.” (p. 357)

“We place the same demands on the gymnastic class as we do on sculpting. (…) There is no ideal form. It has to be made. To do that you have to observe the body and understand the proportions of its parts. Once its faults have been understood, you have to correct and develop what nature has left incomplete and preserve what she has done well.” (p. 357)

How can acrobatics be useful for the actor ?

Acrobatics can help the actor both for internal and external use:

  • For internal use: acrobatics can help the actor to develop decisiveness. This is especially helpful for moments of psychological climax in a role, when doubts and thoughts can prevent the actor from opening out and giving himself completely. 

“The actor needs [acrobatics] more for internal than for external use… for moments of great psychological climax… for creative inspiration. (…) I need acrobatics to develop decisiveness in you.” (p. 358)

“It’s disastrous for an acrobat to have thoughts or doubts before doing a somersault or a risky trick. Death threatens. (…) It’s exactly the same for an actor when he comes to moments of climax in a role. (…) In [such] moments, you mustn’t think, doubt, reflect, prepare or test yourself. You have to do it, take a running jump at it. Yet most actors have a quite different psychological attitude. They are afraid of big moments and painstakingly prepare for them well in advance. That produces the kind of constrictions that prevent you from opening out in big moments of climax in a role so that you can give yourself completely to them without reserve.” (p. 358)

“Once you have developed your will in terms of body movement and action the easier it will be to carry it over into big moments inside. That’s when you learn to cross the Rubicon, without thinking but surrendering completely to the power of intuition and inspiration.“ (p. 358)

  • For external use: acrobatics can help the actor be more agile and physically responsive

“Besides (…) acrobatics can render you another service: they help you to be more agile, work better physically onstage when rising, turning, bending, running and doing other, difficult, rapid movements. You will learn to do things in a quick rhythm and tempo and that can only be achieved by a well-exercises body.” (p. 358)

How can dance be useful for the actor ?

Dance can be useful both to improve the body and the quality of movements

“[Dance] not only improves the body but opens movements out, broadens them, gives them definition and finish which is very important as choppy, clipped gestures are no good for the stage.” (p. 359)

Stanislavski goes over the different elements of dance and explain whether they can be useful for the actor.  

What about the placing of the hands ?

Dance can help the actor develop a correct placing of the hands, which should be neither in front of the body nor behind the spine but at the sides

“I value this dance class because it is excellent for the correct placing of the hands (…) Some people, owing to the fact that they have hollow chests and round shoulders, have hands which dangle in front of them and bang against their belly and thighs when they walk. Others, owing to the fact that they have their shoulders and trunk thrown back and their belly sticking out, have their hands dangling behind their spine. Neither of these can be considered correct, as the proper position for the hands is at the sides.” (p. 359)

What about the placing of the elbows ?

Dance can help the actor develop a correct placing of the elbows, which should be turned out away from the body and not in towards it. 

“Elbows are often turned in towards the body. They ought to be turned in the opposite direction, with the elbows in the outside.” (p. 359)

What about the placing of the legs and feet?

Dance can help the actor develop a correct placing of the legs, which should be turned out at the hips and not in. This will in turn correct the placing of the legs, which will have their toes turned out instead of being turned in.  

“The placing of the legs is not less important. If it is incorrect the whole figure suffers in consequence, becoming awkward, heavy and clumsy. In most cases women have their legs turned in from the hips to the knees. The same thing applies to their feet which have the heels turned out ant the toes turned in. The ballet barre corrects these faults splendidly. It turns the legs out at the hips and positions them properly. (…) The correct placing of the leg at the hips has its effect on the feet which have their heels joined together and the extremities separated on different sides, as it should be when the leg is properly placed.” (p. 359)

What about the placing of the feet, hands, wrists and toes

Dance can help the actor improving the finish in the feet, hands, wrists and toes.

“Finish in the feet, hands, wrists and toes is of no less significance both for flexibility of movement and for the development of the body. Here, too, ballet and dance exercises can be of great service.” (p. 360)

“In dance the finish of the feet is very eloquent and expressive. (…) We must make use of the techniques it has evolved.” (p. 360)

“Things are not so good, in my opinion, when it comes to the finish of the hands in ballet. (…) In this instance we are better off turning to the school of Isadora Duncan. It has better control over the wrists.” (p. 360)

What about the placing of the torso ?

Dance can help the actor with the general placing of the torso, which should be supported by the spine being firmly set on the pelvis

“Another element in ballet training which I value and which is of great significance in all further education of the body: its flexibility of movement, the general placing of the torso and our way of holding ourselves.” (p. 361)

“Our spine, which bends in all directions like a coil, must be firmly set on the pelvis. It must be, as it were, screwed in at the place where the first, lowest vertebra begins. If a person feels that the imaginary spiral is firmly set then the upper part of the trunk receives support, has a center of gravity, stability, it’s straight.” (p. 361)

What about the gestures in dance ?

In dance, smooth and broad gestures are developed, but in a way that leads to exaggeration and to gestures for gestures’ sake, which the actor needs to avoid (see Playing in General). 

“Dance tries to create smoothness, breadth of gesture, like a cantilena. It develops them, gives them line, form, direction, lift. (…) But in ballet and dance breadth of movement and refinement of form lead to exaggeration and affectation. That’s not good.” (p. 361)

“There must be no gestures for the sake of gestures onstage. So try not to make them. (…) To defend yourself against that you must ensure that your actions onstage are always genuine, productive and purposeful” (p. 362)

Can facial expression be developed ?

Facial expression is important for the actor. 

“I made the acquaintance of a remarkable actor, who speaks with his eyes, mouth, ears, the tip of his nose and fingers in barely perceptible movements and turns. When describing a person’s exterior, the form of an object or the contours of a landscape he gives an external picture, with extraordinary clarity, of what he is seeing and how he is seeing it.” (p. 362)

It should happen naturally as a result of Expriencing, but can be helped by exercising the face muscles. 

“Facial expression happens of itself, naturally, through intuition or inner experiencing. Still, you can help it by exercises and by developing the face muscles.” (p. 362)

How can the actor develop flexibility of movement?

The actor should develop flexibility of movement

“There are dancers and dramatic [who] have developed their own flexibility of movement to last them a whole lifetime and give no further thought to this aspect of physical action. Flexibility of movement has become part of them, it’s theirs, it’s second nature. Ballerinas and actors like these don’t dance, don’t play, they are what they do, and can’t do anything without flexibility of movement.” (p. 365)

Flexibility of movement can happen when the movement is happening along a line that is:

What is an inner line of movement ?

The actor should avoid movements which are purely external and lacking of inner content, movements done for movements’ sake (see Playing in General).

“There are quite a few ballerinas who, when they dance, wring their hands and demonstrate their ‘poses’ and ‘gestures’ to the audience, while observing them from the outside. They require movements and flexibility of movement for their own sake. They study their dances in terms of ‘pas’ which are devoid of inner content and create forms which are lacking in substance.” (p. 364)

“We also know some dramatic actors who (…) create poses by combining the beautiful twists and turns of their bodies.” (p. 364)

“Such movements are like a messenger-boy delivering letters when he has no interest in what is in them. These gestures may look expressive but they are empty and meaningless, like dancers waving their arms so as to be beautiful. We don’t need either ballet techniques, or histrionic poses or theatrical gestures, which follow an external, surface line.” (p. 365)

Instead, the external line of movement should be elicited by inner energy, following a line driven by Mind, Will and Feeling

“[There is an] energy inside them, stemming from their secret depths, from their heart of hearts. It courses through the whole body, it isn’t empty, it is launched by emotions, wishes, Tasks which drive it along an inner line to stimulate a creative response.” (p. 365)

“Energy, encouraged by feeling launched by the will, guided by the mind, moves confidently and proudly like an ambassador on an important mission. This kind of energy emerges in creative, sensitive, fertile, productive action which can’t be done just anyhow, mechanically, but in accord with the impulses of the heart. As it flows through the network of the muscular system and stimulates their internal motor centres, it elicits external action. That’s the kind of movement and action, originating in the secret places of the heart, following an inner line, which genuine artists of the drama, the ballet and other theatre and movement arts need.“ (p. 364)

“Outward flexibility of movement is based on an inner sensation of the movement of energy.“ (p. 380).

“Only that kind of movement is right for the artistic embodiment of the life of the human spirit of a role. Only through inner awareness of movement can we begin to learn to understand and feel it.” (p. 365)

What is an Unbroken Line of movement ?

Art is born out of continuity

“Art itself is born at the moment when an unbroken, sustained line, sound, voice, movement is created. While there are only individual sounds, scrapings, notes, cries instead of music or individual short lines and points instead of drawing, or individual, spasmodic jerks instead of movements there can be no question of music or singing, of drawing, of portraiture, of dance, of architecture, of sculpture, or, finally, of the art of the theatre.” (p. 368)

Therefore, the inner line of movement/energy should be continuous, Unbroken

“Do you feel (…) your energy majestically progressing along an infinite, inner line ? This line creates the smoothness and flexibility of movement we require.” (p. 370)

To create such a continuous line, unbroken Concentration is needed. 

“Physical concentration plays a great role in [the processes of relaxing the muscles or radiating], as it does now in flexibility of movement. It is important that this concentration should move continuously in conjunction with the flow of energy as this helps create an infinite line which is essential in art.” (p. 367)

What is a rhythmic line of movement ?

The line of movement should have a tempo-rhythm: the movements should be co-ordinated with theaccents of the tempo-rhythm. (p. 370). 

“You have to establish not outward, visible but inward, invisible energy as the basis for flexibility of movement. And this must be coordinated with the rhythmically accented moments in tempo-rhythm. We call this inner awareness of the passage of energy through the body a sense of movement.” (p. 372)

This can be practiced with the following exercise: a general movement is divided up into several parts, with each part corresponding to the movement of (energy in) individual body joints. Then the movement is performed on a particular tempo, meaning that each part must coincide with a beat of the tempo. (p. 368 ss).

“The important thing is that (…) an action divided up in this way should totally imbue you with tempo-rhythm. (…) That should establish an unbroken line of concentration and the continuous line of movement we are seeking.” (p. 371)

Once the tempo of the line of movement is established, variations can be introduced in the rhythm of the flow of energy, to develop flexibility of movement. 

“An unbroken, continuous line of movement in our art represents the raw material out of which we can develop flexibility of form. (…) In one place we can lighten our movement, in another make it stronger, in a third speed it up, slow it down, sustain it, break it, and finally co-ordinate our movement with the accents in the tempo-rhythm.” (p. 370)

How to walk onstage ?

Onstage, walking should follow Nature’s laws, and not our wrong habits from ordinary life. 

“Is there a special way of walking for the stage which is not the way we walk in ordinary life ? Indeed it is not as in life precisely because none of us walks properly, whereas walking onstage should be as nature intended in accordance with all her laws.” (p. 372)

“[We need] to start learning to walk onstage from scratch, just as we do in life.” (p. 372)

When we walk according to Nature’s laws:

  • the torso, the shoulders and the neck should remain at rest; 

“The upper part of the torso and the ribcage, shoulders, neck and head should not suffer jolts but be at rest completely free in their movements.” (p. 374)

  • the body should move forward in a horizontal line.

“[The body should be moved forward] in such a way that [it] floats in a horizontal line from prow to stern.” (p. 374)

However, this horizonal line of walking shouldn’t be absolutely straight. Stanislavski calls this king of walking a “creeping” movement. 

On the opposite, the horizontal line should be slightly wavy with a certain amount of up and down variations, making the walking a desirable “gliding”, “floating” or “flying” movement.

“Smoothness in movement is only a good thing up to a certain extent. A certain amount of variation, up and down, is needed. Let the shoulders, the head and the torso float through the air not in an absolutely straight but slightly wavy line.” (p. 377)

“Our walk should not be creeping but gliding.” (p. 377)

Whether the walking is a “creeping” or a “gliding” movement depends on the timing of the transfer of body weight between one leg and the other:

  • If the body weight is simultaneously transmitted by the first leg and received by the second one, the horizontal line is absolutely straight, and the walking is a “creeping” movement. 
  • If the body weight is not received by the second leg in the same time that it is transmitted by the first one, but there is one moment when the body is airborne, the horizontal line is slightly wavy, and the walking is a “gliding” movement. 

“When our walk is a creeping movement, (…) the [first] leg transmits the weight of the body and the [second] leg receives it simultaneously. (…) There is not a single moment when (…) the body is airborne, resting solely on the big toe of one foot which carries its assigned movement through to the end. In a walk that is a floating movement there is a second during which a person is detached from the ground, like a dancer ‘en pointe’. After this momentary lift into the air, the smooth, imperceptible, shock-free lowering and transmission of the body from one leg to the other begins.  (…) Because of [these two moments, the lift and smooth passage from one leg to the other] we get lightness, smoothness, continuity, airiness, the quality of floating in a person’s walk.” (p. 377)

Still, the flying movement shouldn’t induce any bobbing up and down (p. 377). In order to avoid that:

  • the flying movement should be directed “forwards in a horizontal line” and not upwards (p. 378);

“A walk of this kind flies over the ground, it doesn’t suddenly bob up and down in a vertical line but moves forward and onward horizontally (…) Horizontal movement forward gives a slightly curved, wavy line on a graph, bobbing up and down when walking gives a crooked, zigzag, angular line.” (p. 378)

  • the flying movement should happen in the same tempo in which the step began, without any stops or delays in the forward movement.

“There should be no stops or delays in the forward movement of the body. Forward flight should not be broken for a moment. When you are on the end of the big toe you should prolong your flight through your own momentum in the same tempo in which the step began.” (p. 378)

This natural walking requires the whole body to participate, in particular:

  • the spine, 
  • the lower body, including the pelvic girdle, the hips, the knees, the ankles, the feet and the toes. 

All these parts participate in bringing the body forward and/or in deadening the jolts connected with the movement, acting as springs. 

“Evenness and an unbroken, horizontal line of movement depend on the simultaneous action of all the springs in the leg and on the co-operation of hips, knees, ankles, heels and toes.“ (p. 380).

As for movement in general, walking should follow an inner, Unbroken Line of movement of energy. 

What is the role of the spine ?

The spine should bend to maintain the equilibrium.

“The job [of the spinal column] is to bend spirally in all directions, at the slightest movement so as to maintain the equilibrium of the shoulders and the head, which, as far as possible, should remain at rest.” (p. 374)

What is the role of the pelvic girdle and the hips ?

Pelvic girdle and the hips make the first group of springs

They have two functions:

  1. moving the leg forward,
  2. deadening the lateral jolts, when alternating between left and right legs.

“[The pelvic girdle] has two jobs: first, like the spinal column, it deadens the effect of lateral jolting and the swaying from left to right that happens when walking, and second, it moves the whole leg forward when taking a step.” (p. 374)

The torso should not participate in the moving of the leg forward by bending forward and back.

“[The] swing of the leg, forwards and back, should not, from now on, depend upon the torso. Though the torso often tries to participate in our advance by bending forward or back so as to increase the momentum of the forward movement. This movement should only occur in the legs.” (p. 375)

The movement of the hips is a circular one. 

“When walking (…) the hips fall and rise. When the right hip rises (when you thrust the right foot forward) the left hip drops as the left leg moves back. Then there is the sensation of a circular, rotatory movement in the hip joints.” (p. 375)

What is the role of the knees ?

The knees make the second group of springs

They have two functions:

  1. after the hips are done moving the leg (and, following, the torso) forward, the knees take over, pushing the torso forward further by straightening out ;
  2. they deaden the vertical jolts, when transferring the weight from one leg to the other. 

“The knees (…) also have a double function: on the one hand, they advance the trunk, and, on the other, they deaden the jolts and shocks which occur when you transfer the weight of the torso from one leg to the other. At this point the leg which is taking the weight is slightly bent at the knee, sufficiently to maintain the equilibrium of the shoulders and the head. After which, when the hips have fully done their job of moving the torso forward and regulating its equilibrium, it is the turn of the knees which then straighten out and push the torso onward even further.” (p. 375)

What is the role of the ankles, the feet and the toes ?

The ankles, the feet and the toes make the third group of springs

They have two functions:

  1. after the hips and the knees, they move the torso even forward,
  2. they deaden the jolts. 

“The third group of springs which deaden movement and at the same time move the torso forward, are the ankles, feet and toes joints.” (p. 375)

“As the weight of the body begins to press down and roll across the toe joints they straighten out and push away from the ground until the movement has finally reached the end of the big toe, on which, as with dancers ‘en pointe’, the whole weight of the body rests for a short while without impeding the forward movement, carried by its momentum. (…) It’s important that the toes should, so to speak, ‘follow through’, extend your step right to the end.” (p. 376)

“When I am going home, or to the theatre, and my toes are doing their job thoroughly, I reach my final destination, at a uniform speed, five or six minutes faster than when my feet and toes are not working as they should.” (p. 376) 

Was is the role of motor energy ?

As for movement in general, walking should come from an inner, Unbroken Line of energy

If this inner energy passes smoothly and evenly through the leg muscles, then walking will be smooth and even

“This sense of rolling comes from the passage of energy through the leg muscles. If this occurs smoothly and evenly, our walk is smooth, even and has flexibility of form. If the energy moves in jerks, with hesitations half-way along, in the joints or other motor centres, then our walk can’t be even, it is jerky. ‘’ (p. 379)

This Unbroken Line of energy should also have tempo and rhythm, with moments of energy passing through joints matching the accents of the tempo-rhythm.  

“And so, once our walk has an unbroken line of movement, it means we feel it has tempo and rhythm. Movement, as in the hands, is divided into separate moments in the passage of energy through the flexions and joints (extension of the leg, forward movement of the body, release, changing legs, deadening of shocks etc.). So, when you go on to do more exercises you must match the accents of the tempo-rhythm when you are walking not to the outer but inner line of movement of energy.” (p. 379)

Was is the direction of motor energy ?

The direction of inner energy (muscular tension) when walking is as follows:

  1. When the leg is extended forward and taking the weight of the body, the energy goes up the leg, from the toes to the hips. (p. 378)
  2. After reaching the hips, the energy briefly stops there and rotates to go down.

“There is a second’s pause during which [the energy] [rotates] at the place where the [hip] joints are and then [goes] down. Didn’t you notice the rotatory movement in the hips for yourselves? Something literally doing a full turn before moving downwards? I am reminded of the turntable which enables a locomotive at a terminus to turn round so it can go in the opposite direction.  (p. 379)

  • Then the energy goes down the leg, from the hips to the toes, as the leg is passing the weight to the other leg and moving the body over it. (p. 380) 

“This alternating movement of [energy], from the toes to the hips and from the hips to the toes, occurs in reverse order and in opposite directions. That is how the pistons work in a steam engine of vertical type. Have you noticed how, at the same time, flexions and relaxation alternate up and down, down and up, in logical order? (p. 378 s.)

When the energy reaches the hips, there is also a part of it that continues up to the spine

“Part of the energy goes up the spinal column, deadening the jolts and maintaining equilibrium. Once its work is done the tension in the spine again goes downwards to the toes from whence it came.”  (p. 379)

Previous chapter: §17. Transition to Physical Embodiment (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §19. Voice and Speech
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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