§11. An Actor’s Adaptations and other Elements, Qualities, Aptitudes and Gifts (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the 11th 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: §10. Communication (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §12. Inner Psychological Drives (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

What do Adaptations mean ?

Adaptation is the capacity to adjust of one’s mental and physical behaviour in order to influence in some way on object. 

“This word, Adaptation, is the one we shall use in future to designate the ingenuity, both mental and physical, people use to adjust their behaviour and so influence other people, their object.” (p. 259)

Why are Adaptations important for the actor ?

Adaptations are essential for a living Communication, because they are what allow the Communication of Feelings

“To be able to penetrate someone else’s heart, make communication with his life, I need Adaptations.” (p. 260).

“All kinds of communication – two-way, group, with an imaginary or non existent object and so on – require a corresponding Adaptation. People make communication through their five senses, using visible and invisible means (…). In every case they need the corresponding Adaptations to do this.” (p. 261)

“When we are communicating with someone, words are not enough, they are too formal, dead. We need feeling to breathe life into them, and we need Adaptations to reveal and communicate that feeling to the object with whom we are in communication. They supplement the words, complete incomplete statements.” (p. 260)

“Adaptation is one of the most important techniques in communication, even when we are alone, since we need to adapt to ourselves and to our own state of mind if we are to convince ourselves.” (p. 260)

What form do Adaptations take ?

The concrete form Adaptation takes depends on the peculiarities of the situation at hand, in particular:

“We must know how to adapt to circumstances, to time and each person separately. If you are dealing with a fool, you must adjust to his mental capacity, find simpler forms of words and Adaptations that are right for the mind and understanding of a fool.” (p. 262)

“Each feeling we experience requires its own elusive, special Adaptation if it is to be communicated.” (p. 260 s.)

“We use [Adaptations] to highlight our inner feelings, the state we are in, as much as possible. But in other cases we use Adaptations to hide, to mask our feelings and our general state. (…) An investigator cunningly hides his real attitude towards the criminal he is questioning, using Adaptations.” (p. 260).

“In some cases, [Adaptation is deception], in others it is a visible expression of inner feelings or thoughts. Sometimes Adaptation helps you draw the attention of someone you want to communicate with and whose sympathy you want. Sometimes it conveys things which are invisible and scarcely perceptible to others. (…) There are many kinds and many uses for Adaptations.” (p. 259)

“It’s not a matter of the quantity but of the quality of the Adaptations. (…) They are many and various. Each actor has his own particular Adaptations of varied origins and varying effectiveness, which belong to him alone. It’s the same thing in life.” (p. 260)

“Every new circumstance in life, in our surroundings, place and time produce corresponding changes in our Adaptations. (p. 260 s.)

Do Adaptations happen consciously or subconsciously ?

The process of Adaptations can be divided into two steps.

“I see two stages in creating Adaptations: 1) choosing the Adaptations; 2) carrying it out.” (p. 263)

Adaptations can be either fully conscious, semi-conscious or Subconscious, depending how consciously these two steps happen.  

How conscious are Adaptations in real life ?

In life, Adaptations are either semi-conscious or Subconscious

“I have never, in real life, been aware of Adaptations that were both selected and carried out in a fully conscious manner.” (p. 263).

How conscious are Adaptations onstage ?

On the opposite, fully conscious Adaptations can be seen onstage. This is the case when actors use clichés (p. 263). But this is something to be avoided. 

Instead, the actor should always try to have at least some Subconscious elements in his Adaptations, because only Nature and Subconscious are able to create the unexpected Adaptations that can convey Feelings to the audience and influence them. 

“When you are performing you need powerful, irresistible ways of influencing people, and most of our biological, subconscious Adaptations are numbered among them. (…) And it’s only by using these natural Adaptations that you can convey barely perceptible nuances of feelings from the stage to a packed house. (…) Only our organism and our subconscious have the ability to create and convey them. You can’t carry out that kind of Adaptation with your intelligence or your technique. They occur spontaneously, subconsciously when feeling reaches its climax.” (p. 263)

“The strength [of subconscious Adaptations] lies in their unexpectedness, their audacity, their effrontery. (…) When you are watching an actor (…), you expect him, at key moments, to deliver his lines loudly, clearly, with seriousness. But suddenly, quite unexpectedly, he says them lightheartedly, happily, almost inaudibly instead, and that convey the originality of his feelings. This surprise is so convincing, so stunning that his interpretation of this particular passage seems the only one possible.” (p. 263 s.)

“Even a minimal dose of the subconscious gives life, a sense of awe when feelings are expressed and transmitted onstage” (p. 264)

Even when the starting point of an Adaptation is conscious (for example an Adaptation suggested by someone or witnessed in real life), the actor should work and make it his own in order to put a dose of Subconscious in it. 

“I acknowledge [conscious adaptations onstage] in cases when they are suggested to me from the outside – by the director, my fellow actors, (…) But conscious Adaptations of that kind must be treated with caution and wisdom. Don’t ever think of using them in the form they are given. Don’t simply copy them ! You must absorb other people’s Adaptations and make them your own, personal possession. That needs a lot of work, new Given Circumstances, decoys and so on.” (p. 264)

“That’s what we should do when an actor sees Adaptations in real life which are typical of the role he is creating and he wants to use them. Beware simply of copying. It always pushes the actor into playacting and the stock-in-trade. Once you have devised a conscious Adaptation, give it life by using your psychotechnique which will help you endow it with a small dose of the subconscious.” (p. 264

What are the dangers of Adaptations onstage ?

The stage and the audience can expose the Actor to two dangers when it comes to Adaptations:

“I’m saying all this to explain how the stage itself and the fact of performing in public and lead you away from natural, genuine, human Adaptations, and push you towards those that are conventional, unnatural, theatrical.” (p. 268).

  • The first danger consists of making Adaptations an end in itself, instead of using them as a mean to fulfill his Task. The actor gets distracted from his Task, his Adaptations become useless and he is led to overacting and Stock-in-Trade

“Good Adaptations can be a dangerous temptation for an actor. (…) [To avoid becoming monotonous in pursuing one single Task] many people concentrate entirely on their Adaptations. They change them minute by minute while fulfilling the same Task (…). The continuous, non-stop switching of Adaptations introduces some variety. That, of course, is good. But the bad thing is that the Adaptations, unbeknown to the actor, become his main, his sole purpose. (…) Then the Adaptations imperceptibly become ends in themselves and take the place of the major Task in the role.” (p. 266)

“From that moment on the Adaptations became an end in themselves and took on the primary, not the secondary role assigned to them. They became Adaptation for Adaptation’s sake.” (p. 265 s.)

“This leads to their being overplayed. It distracts you from the Task, and even from the other actors. When that happens living, human feeling and genuine action disappear and theatrics come into their own.” (p. 266)

“I know quite a few actors who are capable of splendid, vivid Adaptations which the use not to make communication but merely for display (…) They sacrifice the role for the sake of a few laughs and some applause. (…) When Adaptations are used like that they lose all sense. They are useless. (…)

  • The second danger consists for the actor to adapt not to his fellow actor but to the audience. This also leads to Stock-in-Trade acting. 

“He heard laughter in the auditorium and immediately switched his object of attention, and started adapting not to me, [the fellow actor], but to you, the people encouraging his antics. Now he had a new Task, to amuse the audience. How can that be justified ? Where are we to find the Given Circumstances ? (…) You can only overact. As soon as that happened all genuine human experiencing ceased and stock-in-trade came into its own.” (p. 265 s.)

“Most actors constantly perpetrate this absurdity, which would be inexplicable in any normal human being (…). They stand next to their fellow actors and adapt their facial expression, voice, movements and actions, not with an eye to the actors close by with whom they are supposed to be communicating, but to the empty space which lies between them and the back row of the stalls. Putting it simple, they don’t adapt to the actor standing next to them but to the audience out front. Hence a wrongness in which neither cast nor audience can believe. (…) You must in the first instance think of your fellow actor and adapt to him.” (p. 267)

Adapting to the audience is sometimes motivated by the actor’s desire to be seen and heard by a large audience. But this is a mistake, for it is other aspects of the technique that serve this purpose.    

“As far as the back row of the stalls is concerned, we have our vocal technique for that, a well-placed voice, good rounded vowels, clear consonants. With that kind of diction you can speak quietly, as in a room, and you will be heard better than if you shouted, especially if you interest the audience in the content of what is being spoken and get them involved in what you are saying. (…) [For the audience to be able to see what’s happening] we have long, clear, sequential, logical action (…), especially if we use it to engage the audience and involve them in the action. But if the actor works against the inner sense of what he is saying (…), you can’t watch them for very long.” (p. 268)

How to produce and reveal Adaptations technically ?

How to produce Subconscious Adaptations ?

Subconscious Adaptations can only be indirectly stimulated, with the help of a Decoy. Since Subconscious Adaptations occur when Experiencing does, all Decoys that stimulate Experiencing can stimulate Subconscious Adaptations.

“Unfortunately there is no direct route to the subconscious, so we have to be indirect. We have a number of decoys for that purpose which we can use to stimulate the process of experiencing. And when there is experiencing, you inevitably have communication and conscious or subconscious Adaptations. (…) These are moments of inspiration when Adaptations occur subconsciously.” (p. 268 s.)

How to produce semi-conscious Adaptations ?

Semi-conscious Adaptations can be more easily helped than subconscious Adaptations, thanks to the Psychotechnique

“There are some things we can do with the help of our psychotechnique. I say ‘some things’ because there’s not a great deal we can do here either.” (p. 269)

Stanislavski suggests an exercise:

“Write down (…) [a list of] states of mind, moods, feelings (…) Put your finger on the list (…) and read the word you come on by chance. Let the state of mind indicated by the word be your new Adaptation. (…) Adopt this new tone in exchange for your old Adaptations, justify the change and it will bring freshness to your acting. (…) Whatever states of mind, moods you use to fill this list, they are all useful in providing new tones and subtleties of Adaptation, if they are inwardly justified. Sharp contrasts and surprises in Adaptations can only help you influence other people when you are communicating states of mind.” (p. 270)

“Let’s imagine that you’ve gone back home after a show which had a shattering effect on you… just to say the actor was good, excellent, inimitable, incomparable is not enough. None of these adjectives expresses what you experienced. You have to pretend to be depressed, jaded, exhausted, enrage, in the depths of despair and use the unexpected moods of these Adaptations to express the heights of enthusiasm and joy.” (p. 270)

How to reveal Adaptations ?

The actor needs to train his body, face and voice to be responsive so they can adequately convey all the subtleties of his Adaptations

“What versatility, what power of expression, what sharpness, discipline of the face, body and voice you need to respond to the almost incommunicable subtleties of an actor’s subconscious life. Adaptations place the highest demands on an actor’s expressive means when he is in communication. That laces an obligation on you to equip your body, face and voice in the appropriate way.” (p. 270)

What are the other Elements, qualities, aptitudes and gifts that the actor needs for creative work ?

Besides Adaptationsthe other inner Elements, aptitudes, talents and artistics gifts needed for the creative work include (p. 270 and 272):

  • Inner tempo-rhythm
  • Inner characterization
  • Stamina and polish
  • Inner ethics and discipline
  • Charisma and allure
  • Logic and Sequence 

Logic and Sequence has already been addressed previously in the program in connection with Imagination, Actions, Attention, Bits and Tasks, Emotion MemoryOther Elements will be dealt with later on in the program. 

Previous chapter: §10. Communication (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §12. Inner Psychological Drives (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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