§15. The Supertask, Throughaction (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the 15th 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: §14. The Actor’s Inner Creative State (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §16. The Subconscious and the Actor’s Creative State (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

Finding the play’s fundamental goal: the Supertask

What is the Supertask of a play ?

The Supertask of a play is the Task of transmitting the thoughts and Feelings the playwright had and which led him to write the play. 

“A writer’s work grows out of an individual thought and feeling. These individual thoughts, feelings, living dreams (…) guide him when he is creating. He makes them the basis of his play. (…) It is because of them he takes up his pen.” (p. 306)

“The transmission of the writer’s feelings and thoughts, his dreams, his sorrows and joy is the main task of the production. (…) We call this fundamental goal, (…) the supertask of the writer’s work.” (p. 306 s.)

Why is the Supertask important for the actor ?

The Supertask draws together:

“This fundamental goal (…) draws together each and every Task, and stimulates the creative efforts of the inner drives and the Elements that comprise the creative state of the actor-role.” (p. 306 s.)

“These great, life-giving goals which men of genius set themselves can become stimulating, compelling Tasks for an actor, (…) they can pull together all the individual Bits of the play and the role.” (p. 307)

Normally all the Tasks and the short lines of life within the role are directed, without exception, in one single direction – i.e. to the Supertask. (…) Thanks to that, one continuous through line is created, running through the entire play.” (p. 316)

When the actor doesn’t have any Supertask, all these elements exist without a common direction. They can’t create an Unbroken Line and become useless.

“Imagine for a moment that the actor has no Supertask, that each of the short lines of life in the role he is playing is moving in a different direction. (…) A series of large, medium and small tasks and little bits in the life of a role pointed in different directions [can’t] create a continuous, straight line. (…) In that case, the Throughaction is destroyed, the play is broken down into bits (…) and each of its parts is obliged to exist on its own account. (…) In that form, (…) the individual parts are of no use to the play.” (p. 316)

Where should the actor look for the Supertask ?

The actor needs to look for the Supertask both:

  • in the play / the role 
  • in himself. 

Why should the actor look for the Supertask in the play / role ?

The Supertask must “correspond to the ideas the author expresses in the play” (p. 308).

Indeed, Stanislavski warns against introducing “an extraneous goal or slant which has nothing to do with the play. In that case (…) the natural Throughaction which has been created remains in part but is, at moments, deflected by the slant that has been introduced.” (p. 317)

“Above all protect the Supertask and the Throughaction , be wary of forcibly introducing a new slant and other extraneous intentions and goals into the play.” (p. 318)

This doesn’t mean than a new idea can never be introduced into an existing play. Such a graft is possible as long as the new idea is not a merely topical one and is closely linked with the Supertask of the play. 

“You confuse three words: the eternal, the contemporary and the merely topical. What is contemporary can become eternal if it contains questions of substance and ideas which are profound. (…) In complete contrast to that, what is exclusively topical can never become eternal. (…) That is why an eternal work of art is never to be organically combined with mere topicality. (…) When you force topical elements or some other extraneous goal into a monolithic, classical play, it (…) often deforms it beyond recognition. (…) Forcing is a bad method in art and so a Supertask that has been ‘updated’ by using a topical slant means death both to the play and the characters in it. But there are times (…) when the slant is closely linked with the Supertask. (…) Sometimes you can graft a new idea quite naturally onto a classic and so rejuvenate it. In that case the new idea ceases to exist independently and re-emerges in the Supertask. In that case the creative process proceeds normally and the work is organically intact.” (p. 317 s.)

Why should the actor look for the Supertask in himself?

While stemming from the author, the Supertask must also resonate with the actor’s personality. 

“We need a Supertask which is analogous to the writer’s thoughts but which unfailingly evokes a response in the actor’s personality. (…) In other words, you must look for the Supertask not only in the role but also in the heart and mind of the actor.” (p. 308)

“The same Supertask, which every actor playing the role must accept, has a different resonance for each person. (…) These individual nuances in the personalities of different people playing the same role are of great importance for the Supertask. Without their subjective experiences, it is arid, dead. It is essential to find a response in the actor’s personality.” (p. 308 s.)

“It is important that the actor’s attitude to the role should lose nothing of his individual sensibility and at the same time not diverge from the author’s ideas.” (p. 309)

What qualities should the Supertask have ?

The Supertask should stimulate the actor’s Elements and Inner Psychological Drives.

“We need a Supertask which stimulates our creative imagination, which attracts our total attention, satisfies our feeling of truth and stimulates our power to believe as well as the other elements in the actor’s state of self-awareness. We need every supertask, which stimulates the inner drives, the Elements.” (p. 308)

Therefore, the Supertask should appeal to:

  • the actor’s Feeling: we need an emotional Supertask” (p. 308);
  • the actor’s Mind: “[we don’t need a] cold, cerebral Supertask, but we do need a conscious Supertask, that comes from our intelligence, from an interesting creative idea” (p. 308);
  • the actor’s Will: “we need a volitional Supertask.” (p. 308).

How should the actor proceed to identify his Supertask ?

The actor should try to give a name to the Supertask.

“The process of seeking and consolidating the Supertask of a great role is difficult, and choosing a definition plays an important part in it.” (p. 309)

“The naming of the Supertask is an extremely important factor in our creative work and the technique we use in it and gives sense and direction to all our efforts.” (p. 311)

Pursuing the Supertask : the Throughaction

How should the actor actor relate to the Supertask ?

The actor should constantly have the Supertask in sight and focus the efforts of his Inner Psychological Drives in this direction. 

“The Supertask should be fixed in the actor’s personality, his imagination his thoughts, his feelings, as firmly as possible. The Supertask should remind him ceaselessly of the inner life of the role and the goal of his creative work. The actor must be concerned with it throughout the performance.” (p. 311)

“The actor’s first concern is not to lose sight of the Supertask. (…) When that happens, the actor’s concentration moves in a wrong direction, there is an emptiness at the very heart of the role and its life is cut short. (…) The authors’ work was engendered by the Supertask and it is towards that the actor should direct his creative efforts.” (p. 311)

“Once the proper goal of your creative intentions has been understood, all the inner drives and Elements speed along the path set by the author towards their common, ultimate goal, the Supertask.” (p. 312)

This implies in particular that:

  • the actor shouldn’t let himself be diverted by a secondary Task;

“Woe betide the actor if, on the way to a grand, ultimate goal, be it the Supertask of the play or role, or the super-Supertask of his whole life as a creative artist, he pays more attention than he should to something petty or private.” (p. 315)

“Very often when we are intent upon the ultimate Supertask, on the way we come up against a secondary, wrongly theatrical task, of minor importance. All the creative energy of the working actor is given over to it. (…) This exchange of a major goal for a minor one is a dangerous phenomenon which distorts all the work the actor has done. (p. 315 s.)

  • an idea or an Action is only acceptable if it goes in the direction of fulfilling the Supertask

“Everything that happens in a play, all its individual Tasks, major or minor, all the actor’s creative ideas and actions (…) strive to fulfil the play’s Supertask. (…) Even the most trivial detail, if it is irrelevant to the Supertask, becomes harmful, superfluous.” (p. 307)

What is the Throughaction?

The line made by the Inner Psychological Drives moving forward all through the play in the direction of the Supertask is called the Throughaction.

“We call the linear thrust of the inner drives throughout the play the Throughaction of the actor/role. (…) The Throughaction is the direct extension of the dynamic of the inner drives.” (p. 312)

Why is the Throughaction important for the actor ?

The Throughaction participates with the Supertask in bringing together all the Bits and Tasks and the other Elements

“If there were no Throughaction, all the Bits and Tasks in the play, all the Given Circumstances, communication, Adaptations, moments of truth and belief, etc. would vegetate separately from one another, with no hope of coming alive. But the Throughaction brings everything together, strings all the elements together, like a thread through unconnected beads, and points them towards the common Supertask.” (p. 312)

“These exercises and everything else about the ‘system’ are needed, first and foremost, for the Throughaction and the Supertask.(…) [Without them] you are breaking of state of Apollo into bits and showing each of them separately. Fragments will hardly capture an audience.” (p. 313 s.)

By giving unity to the System, the Supertask and the Throughaction are among the most important Elements of the System.

“If you play without Troughaction it means that your actions are not in accord with the Given Circumstances and the magic ‘if’, it means you are not bringing your own nature and your subconscious into your creative work, you are not forming the ‘life of the human spirit’ of the role, and that is what the main goal and the fundamentals of our school of acting require. There is no ‘system’ without them. It means that you were not creating onstage but merely doing individual, entirely unrelated exercises according to the ‘system’.” (p. 313)

“If (…) I have succeeded in making you understand the totally exceptional, pre-eminent role the Supertask and Throughaction play in creative work I shall (…) consider that I have explained one of the most important elements in the ‘system’ to you.” (p. 318)

What is the Counter-Throughaction ?

Like the Throughaction, “the line of the Counter-Throughaction is made up of individual moments and the small lines of life in the actor/role.” (p. 318)

But the difference is that the Counter-Throughaction doesn’t run in the direction of the Supertask but in the opposite direction. It clashes with the Throughaction and therefore reinforces it. 

“Every action meets a counter-action and the second evokes and strengthens the first. So, in every play, parallel to the Throughaction, there is an opposing counter-Throughaction coming from the opposite direction to meet it.” (p. 318)

“That’s good (…) because a reaction naturally provokes a whole series of new actions. We need this constant clash. (…) If there were no counter-Throughaction in the play and everything just worked out, there would be nothing for the cast and the characters to do, and the play itself would be actionless and therefore untheatrical.” (p. 318)

The Super-Supertask and the Super-Throughaction 

Stanislavski calls the Super-Supertask the “vital goal a human being/actor has”, and the Super-Throughaction the line of actions he undertakes in the pursuit of the Super-Supertask. (p. 314). 

An example of a Super-Supertask could be “to inspire and bring joy to people by this high art, to make plain the hidden spiritual beauties which a masterly work of art contains.” (p. 314).

Previous chapter: §14. The Actor’s Inner Creative State (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §16. The Subconscious and the Actor’s Creative State (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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