§06. Muscular release (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the sixth 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: §5. Concentration and Attention (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §7. Bits and Tasks (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

Why does the actor experience muscular tension ?

The majority of people have bad habits of movement and speaking in life: the way they move and speak usually involves excessive muscular tension. 

“We all know how to [see, to walk, to talk] in life. The trouble is that in the overwhelming majority of cases we do it badly, and not according to nature.” (p. 124)

These muscular tensions get even stronger on stage because of the excitement or fear of appearing in public. 

“[Muscular tension] will always occur in an actor, in so far as he is human, whenever he makes a public appearance.” (p. 122)

Why is muscular tension especially problematic for the actor ?

Muscular tension endangers the Basic Goal of the actor:

1. Muscular tension impedes the process of Experiencing, that is the creation of the inner life of the role

“You cannot imagine how damaging muscular tension and physical tightness can be to the creative process.” (p. 120)

“Physical tension paralyses our whole capacity for action, our dynamism.” (p. 120) 

“Even the most significant tension anywhere, which you can’t detect, can paralyse the whole creative process.” (p. 121)

“There can be no question of true, subtle feeling or of the normal psychological life of a role while physical tension is present.” (p. 121)

2. Muscular tension impedes the process of physical embodiment, that is the external communication of the inner life of the role

“The movement we make must be distinct like the clear-sounding notes of a piano. Otherwise the contours of a particular part will be unclear and the communication of its inner and outer life vague and lacking in artistry. The more subtle the feelings, the more precision, clarity, flexibility they require when they are physically embodied” (p. 131)

Shortcomings which slip by unnoticed in life become obvious in the glare of the footlights and stick out like a sore thumb to an audience.” (p. 132)

“Onstage, life is shown within the confined space of the picture-frame stage, as in the diaphragm of a camera. (…) So nothing escapes the audience’s attention, not a single detail.  

What should the actor do to solve the problem of excessive muscular tension?

We need to change our habits of posture and movement and learn to move according to the laws of Nature

“The actor (…) must learn everything from scratch, to see, to walk, to talk and so on. (…) Onstage we need to see, walk, speak differently – better, more normally than in life, more closely to nature.” (p. 124)

“We would have to remake ourselves completely, body and soul, from head to foot and adapt to the demands of our art, or rather, to the demands of nature. For art is in harmony with her. Life and the bad habits that have been grafted onto her mar our nature.” (p. 132)

How can the actor change his habits of posture and movement ?

Stanislavski proposes a three-stage process:

  1. Allowing the arising of excessive tension
  2. Releasing this excessive tension 
  3. Justifying the pose or movement

“In whatever stance or bodily position you adopt, there are three stages. The first – excess tension, which is inevitable in every new pose and with the excitement produced by appearing in public. The second – automatic release of excess tension using the monitor. The third – substantiation or justification of the pose if it does not, of itself, produce belief.” (p. 128)

He calls it the process of Muscular Release

“(…) one of the most important elements in our work, the process of muscular release.” (p. 121)

The actor doesn’t need to get rid of every muscular tension. Some tensions are indeed necessary for movement and posture. What the actor needs to release is only the excessive, unnecessary tensions (also called the constrictions). The task is therefore to learn to “distinguish between necessary and unnecessary tensions (p. 126), release the former and keep only the latter. 

“It [is] possible to develop the agility, flexibility and adaptability of [the] body, in which the muscles only do the work indicated by a highly developed sense of equilibrium.“ (p. 127)

“When moving each individual, ‘isolated’ group of muscles – shoulders, arms, back, legs – all the other muscles should be without tension of any kind.” (p. 132)

Stage one: allowing the arising of excessive tension

Excess tension is hard to avoid completely. Therefore, the first step in fighting it is letting it arise.  

“Let tension arise if it can’t be avoided. (…)” (p. 123)

“[Muscular tension] will always occur in an actor, in so far as he is human, whenever he makes a public appearance.  (…) You must therefore wage a constant battle against this defect. You cannot eradicate evil altogether, but you can fight it.” (p. 122)

Stage two: releasing this excessive tension 

Then the actor needs to release the excessive tension.

To do so, he needs to create a Monitor in himself

“[You fight excessive tension] by developing an observer or monitor in yourself.” (p. 122)

“Let tension arise if it can’t be avoided. But let the monitor follow close behind and check on it.” (p. 123)

The role of this Monitor is:

1. To be aware of the arising constrictions and locate them

“To become more aware of your impressions (…) you should define those places where constriction is to be found.” (p. 123)

2. To release these constrictions

“The monitor must, in life as onstage, be tirelessly on the lookout lest excess tension, muscular constrictions appear. The monitor should eliminate these tensions as they emerge.” (p. 122)

This self-monitoring should happen at any time on stage, also – and especially – in moments of great excitement of the role. 

“[This process of self-monitoring] must be transformed into (…) a natural requirement not only for quiet moments in a role but, most importantly, in moments of high nervous and physical excitement. (…) To stop yourself straining in moments of great excitement you must pay special attention to freeing the muscles, absolutely, totally, from tension.” (p. 123)

This self-monitoring process should be practiced at any time, not only on stage but also in real life, until it becomes a second nature, an unconscious reflex of the actor. Only then the actor will be able to stop dedicating a lot of conscious attention to it and to focus completely on his creative work.  

“Until this becomes a habit, you have to give a great deal of conscious thought to the monitor, and direct it, and this distracts you from your attempts to be creative. (…) You should work daily, systematically to develop this habit, not only in class and the exercises you do at home but in real life, offstage, which means while you sleep, get up, eat, walk, work, rest, in a word at every moment of your existence.” (p. 123)

“You must make muscular control part of your physical being, make it second nature, (…) develop a habit to the point where it becomes an unconscious reflex.” (p. 123)

Stage three: Justifying the pose or movement

It might be difficult for the actor to distinguish between the necessary tension to keep and the unnecessary tension to get rid of.

Only Nature can do that perfectly.  

“Nature is a better guide to a living organism than the conscious mind and well-known famous ‘acting’ techniques.” (p. 128)

So the actor should be guided in his efforts by Nature. To get help from nature, the actor must Believe in his posture or movement. To be able to Believe in it, it must be performed Truthfully. For the movement to be performed Truthfully, it needs to be justified by the If and the Given Circumstances

“Each stance should not only be checked by our individual monitors for the automatic release of tension, but should also be substantiated by our own powers of invention, the Given Circumstances and ‘if’. From that moment it ceases to be a mere stance, it acquires an active Task, it becomes action. (…) Just feel the truth inherent in this action and nature itself will immediately come to your aid. Excess tension will be released, but necessary tension will be retained, and this will occur without the intervention of conscious technique.” (p. 127 s)

“Living tasks and genuine action (a real or imaginary life, well substantiated by the Given Circumstances in which an actor sincerely believes) draws nature itself into play as a matter of course. Only she can fully guide the muscles and tense or release them correctly.” (p. 130)

Therefore, the last step of the process of Muscular Release is to justify to posture or movement by the If and the Given Circumstances, with the help of Imagination

“There can be no groundless, unsubstantiated posing onstage.” (p. 128)

Previous chapter: §5. Concentration and Attention (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter:
§7. Bits and Tasks (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents:
An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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