§7. Bits and Tasks (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work

THEATRE


This article is my summary of the seventh 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: §6. Muscular release (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §8. Belief and the Sense of Truth (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

Bits

What are Bits ?

The Bits are the different parts or episodes that make up a role or a play. 

Why is it useful for the actor to think in terms of Bits ?

Considering a role as a succession of different Bits is useful for the actor, both in his preparation of the role and in his performance of it:

  • In preparing the role, dividing it into several Bits helps the actor develop his action in detail.
  • In performing the role, thinking of it as a succession of Bits helps the actor to see the path he should follow. 

The Bits also allow the actor to find the Tasks of the role. 

How to work with Bits ?

The work with Bit is a two-phase process:

  1. First, to prepare the role, the actor should divide it into Bits. These Bits should be as many and small as necessary.
  2. Then, to perform the role, the actor should put these small Bits back together into larger ones, so as to keep only as few and large Bits as possible. 

“From the largest to the medium-size, from the medium-size to the small, from the small to the tiniest Bits so that you can once more combine them and return to the largest.” (p. 140)

How to use Bits to prepare a role  ?

The actor should start by identifying the essential parts of the role, the parts the play “can’t do without” (p. 141). These are the largest Bits. 

“The technique of dividing into Bits is quite simple. Just ask yourself, ‘What is the one essential thing in the play?’ and then start to recall the main stages, without going into detail.” (p. 141)

Then the same process should be applied to these largest Bits to divide them into smaller ones. 

“Precisely the same division into parts, for analytical purposes, occurs in each of the medium-size and small Bits.” (p. 142)

This process should be repeated as many times as necessary in order to make each Bit clear in its every detail.  

“Divide all the individual Bits into their smaller, constituent parts, to develop them and convey each of them clearly, in every detail. If these new Bits prove monotonous then you will have to break them down again into medium, and tiny parts and repeat the same work with them until your [action] displays all the details which characterize it.” (p. 140)

All the Bits should come from the play itself. Only exceptionally can the actor introduce into a role Bits that are not featured or implied in the play. 

“There are instances when you have to introduce your own personal actor’s or director’s Bits into a play which a bad author hasn’t properly worked out. Only pressing need can justify this kind of licence.” (p. 142)

How to use Bits to perform a role ?

The division into small bits is only useful for preparing a role. To perform the role, the small bits should be then put back together into larger Bits. 

“Dividing a play and a role into small Bits is only permissible as an interim measure. (…) With small Bits we are dealing rather with preparatory work but, when acting, they are combined into large Bits, and we ensure they are maximal in size and minimal in number. The larger the Bits, the fewer the number and the more they help us grasp the play and the role as a whole.” (p. 140)

“Don’t break the play up unnecessarily, in performance don’t use the small Bits but just follow the fairway through the large Bits, which have been properly worked out and brought to life in all of their constituent parts.” (p 141)

These large Bits will be the milestones of the path the actor should follow in his performance. 

“Having eliminated what is superfluous and merged the small Bits into very large ones you create ‘the fairway’ (or plan).” (p. 140)

“The actor (…), in his role, must go not by the small Bits which are numberless and which cannot all be remembered, but by the large, most important Bits, through which the creative path passes. These large Bits may be likened to the areas through which the fairway passes.” (p. 139)

In his performance, the actor should move from one milestone to the other, focusing first on the first Bit, then on the next and so on, while at the same time keeping in mind the final goal his path is leading to.

“As you make up you only think of the very first Bit, in relation, of course, to the entire play and its ultimate goal. You play the first Bit and move on to the second and so on. A performance like that seems easy.” (p. 142)

“In your roles or your acting exercises go from one large Bit to the next without losing sight of the final goal.” (p. 142)

Tasks

What are Tasks ? 

A human being always wants something. But obstacles stand on the way. To overcome these obstacles, he needs to accomplish some actions. These actions that need to be accomplished are his Tasks

“A human being wants something, fights for something, wins something every moment of his life.” (p. 143)

“Life, people, circumstances and we ourselves endlessly set up a whole series of obstacles one after the other and we fight our way through them (…). Each of these obstacles creates a Task and the action to overcome it.” (p. 143)

Why are Tasks important in theatre ?

Theatre is the staging of major human Tasks

“Theatre consists in staging major human Tasks and the genuine, productive and purposeful actions necessary to fulfil them.” (p. 143 s.)

Why are Tasks important for the actor ?

The temptation for the actor is to focus on the result, not on the Tasks and actions that lead him to it. But this approach of playing the result leads to bad forms of acting – stock-in-trade, ham-acting

“The mistake most actors make is that they think not about the action but the result. They bypass the action and go straight for the result. What you get then is ham, playing the result, forcing, stock-in-trade.” (p. 144)

Instead of playing the result, the actor should focus on fulfilling the Tasks of the role through action, and let the result take care of itself. The Tasks are like lamps lighting the path the actor should follow. 

“Learn not to play the result onstage but to fulfil the Task genuinely, productively, and aptly through action all the time you are performing.” (p. 144)

“Tasks guide the actor along the proper path and stop him playacting. Tasks make an actor conscious of his right to go onstage, and live his own life, one parallel to the role.” (p. 144)

“Tasks are the lights which show where the fairway is and stop you losing your way in any given segment of your course. These are the basic stages in a role which guide the actor during the performance.” (p. 143)

“As to the results, they take care of themselves if everything that has been done beforehand is right.” (p. 143 s.)

What are the different types of Tasks ?

Among Tasks, Stanislavski makes two distinctions:

  1. Between necessary and harmful Tasks
  2. Between inner and outer Tasks

What is the difference between necessary and harmful Tasks ? 

“There are many varieties of Tasks. But not all of them are necessary or useful. Many are harmful.” (p. 145)

The necessary Tasks are the ones that are “capable of stimulating experiencing” and therefore are “conducive to the basic goal of acting” (p. 145).

The main features of necessary Tasks are (p. 145, 150):

  • They are related to the play and the role
  • They correspond to the deeper meaning of the role
  • They are directed towards the other actors
  • They are genuine and believable
  • They are dynamic and drive the role forwards
  • They are feasible, accessible, achievable, concrete, immediate 
  • They are attracting to the actor, making him want to to them

“However true the Task, its main, its most important quality is its fascination for the actor himself. It has to be pleasing, draw him, make him want to do it. Like a magnet it attracts his will to create. We call these Tasks creative Tasks.” (p. 146)

“Think about yourself (…) If you’re interested in [the Task] the audience will go along with you.” (p. 146)

By contrast, harmful Tasks are the ones that don’t display the features above. For example (p. 145):

  • Tasks which bear no relation to the play and the role
  • Shallow Tasks, which only skim the surface of the play
  • Tasks directed towards the audience (for example to amuse them)
  • Histrionic, actorish, automatic, conventional Tasks
  • Dead Tasks

Such Tasks are harmful, in so far as they lead the actor to stock-in-trade acting (p. 145). 

What is the difference between inner and outer Tasks ?

“There are inner and outer Tasks, that is physical and psychological ones.” (p. 145)

Beside outer/physical Tasks and inner/psychological Tasks, Stanislavski adds a third category, which is in between the first two: the basically psychological ones. (p. 145)

A “basically psychological Task” is one “we perform every day, but there is an element of the psychological in it” (p. 146).

For example, shaking hands with someone to greet this person while at the same time trying to convey a certain feeling (p. 146). 

Stanislavski then adds that it is actually not possible to completely separate physical tasks and psychological tasks, since in any Task there are elements of both. 

“In every physical, in every psychological Task and its fulfilment there’s a great deal of the other. There’s no way you can separate them. “ (p. 147)

“These are physical actions. Yet how much psychology there is in them. Or, more accurately, all these are complex psychological actions but how physical they are!” (p. 147)

Therefore, this distinction is only approximate

“When selecting a Task don’t define the borderline between your physical and mental sides too precisely. Do it approximately, as it were, using your feelings as a rough guide.” (p. 147)

Nevertheless, Stanislavski advises the actor focus (at least at first) on Tasks that are (mostly) physical. Such Taks are indeed easier to accomplish. And since they also contain psychological elements, they will help the actor to create the right psychological state. 

“Let’s agree for the moment to deal with physical Tasks. They are easier, more accessible, easier to achieve. There’s less risk of careering off into playacting. We’ll talk about psychological Tasks all in good time but for the moment I advise you to look for physical Tasks in all your exercises, excerpts and roles.”  (p. 147)

“Carrying out a physical Task truthfully helps you create the right psychological state. It transforms a physical Task into a psychological one. (…) Any physical Task can be given a psychological base.” (p. 147)

How should the actor defines his Tasks ?

The Bits are the starting point to define the Tasks. 

“There is a creative Task stored in each Bit. The Task arises organically out of its own Bit, or, vice versa, gives birth to it.” (p. 142)

How to derive a Task from a Bit ?

To derive a Task from a Bit, all the actor needs to do is to give a correct name to the Bit. 

“To derive Tasks from Bits (…) the psychotechnique of this process consists of devising an appropriate name for the Bit under examination.” (p. 147)

“In selecting the name you find the Task itself. The correct title, which defines the essence of the Bit, reveals the Task lodged inside it.” (p. 148)

How to name a Bit/Task correctly ?

The name given to the Bit/Task should be a verb, not a noun. Nouns are representations, whereas verbs suggest dynamism and action. 

“I advise you never to define a Task by a noun. Reserve that for a Bit, a Task must invariably be defined by a verb.” (p. 148)

“Nouns only express [a representation] figuratively or in terms of form, with no attempt to suggest dynamism or action. Yet every Task must inevitably be active.” (p 149)

“[A noun] is action, only not the genuine, productive, fit for purpose action, but stagery “representational” action, a reproduction, which we do not recognize and are doing our best to drive out of the theatre.” (p. 149)é

The name of the Bit/Task could start with “I want to followed by a verb (not a noun). 

“Before you choose the verb place the words ‘I want’ in front (…)  ‘I want to do… what?” (p. 149). 

The verb following “I want to” shouldn’t be the verb “be”, which also lacks the dynamism required from a Task. 

“The word be defines a static state. It does not have the necessary dynamism for an active Task.” (p. 149)

In this process, the actor should be careful to only define Tasks which display the features of a necessary Task.  

Previous chapter: §6. Muscular release (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §8. Belief and the Sense of Truth (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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