§16. The Subconscious and the Actor’s Creative State (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the 16th 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: §15. The Supertask, Throughaction (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §17. Transition to Physical Embodiment (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

What is the goal of the study of the Elements ?

The goal of studying the Elements is to achieve the Inner Creative State

“All the stages in our programme, (…) all the investigations of the individual Elements, we have undertaken this year, have been done so that we can achieve the creative state. (…) That’s what demands and always will demand your undivided attention.” (p. 319)

What is the key Element of the System ?

The key Element of the System is the part played by the Subconscious

“The creative state we have developed needs one major addition. It holds the great secret of the ‘system’, one which justifies the most important principle of our school of acting: the subconscious through the conscious.” (p. 319)

Why is the Subconscious important ?

Why is the Subconscious important in real life ?

In real life, the Subconscious is present in every moment.

“The subconscious and we are good friends. We encounter it in real life with every step we take. Every emergent representation, every mental image requires the subconscious in some measure or other. They arise from it. In every physical expression of our inner life, in every Adaptation – in whole or in part – there is an invisible prompting from the subconscious.” (p. 328)

Why is the Subconscious important in onstage ?

Onstage, the actor needs the Subconscious and the creative power of his Nature to make his Acting lively. 

“In those circumstances every time we repeat a performance there will be immediacy, naturalness, truth and more important of all unexpected differences. Only then will you be able to deliver yourself from stock-in-trade )…). Only then will living people appear onstage.” (p. 336)

“Without the creative power of our nature, mental and physical, our acting is cerebral, wrong, mere convention, arid, lifeless, formalistic.” (p. 328)

However, the Subconscious rarely appears onstage, and when it does, most of the times it’s only briefly, in individual moments

“That makes it all the more tiresome that we rarely find [the subconscious] in the place we most need it – in the theatre, onstage.” (p. 328)

“Onstage, we live emotion memories of the real world. At moments they seem like real life. Losing oneself in the role totally, continuously, having an unwavering belief in what is happening can occur, but only rarely. We know individual, more or less lengthy moments of such a state. The rest of the time, the true and the true-seeming, the believable and the likely alternate.” (p. 327)

How can the actor make Subconscious happen onstage ?

The appearance of the Subconscious onstage can and must be prepared by the mean of the Psychotechnique.

“Things which occur naturally, spontaneously in life have to be prepared for onstage by using the psychotechnique.” (p. 330)

The Psychotechnique does not consist in going directly at the Subconscious. The Subconscious isn’t directly accessible to the conscious mind and any attempt in this direction would have negative results. 

« Never consider or try the direct route to the subconscious, because you are looking for inspiration for inspiration’s sake. That only leads to muscular tension and the opposite result.” (p. 337)

The Subconscious is not totally separate from the conscious experience, though.

“How can we consciously approach something which, evidently, by its very nature is not accessible to the conscious mind, which is ‘subconscious’? Fortunately for us there is no sharp dividing line between conscious and subconscious experience. Moreover, the conscious aspect often indicates the direction in which subconscious activity will go.” (p. 329)

This makes it possible to consciously create the favorable conditions for the Subconscious to happen, on its own. That’s the goal of the Psychotechnique

“It enables us to fulfil one of the most important fundamentals in our school of acting: to induce an actor’s subconscious creative powers through a conscious psychotechnique.” (p. 329)

“Try to give free play to the creative subconscious ! Remove the things which hinder it, and make the things which help it stronger. And so the basic task of our psychotechnique is to bring the actor to the state in which his creative subconscious can burgeon.” (p. 329)

« Think (…) about what stimulates our inner drives, think of the creative state, the Supertask and the Throughaction. With their help learn to create favourable soil for the subconscious.” (p. 337)

“The ‘system’ doesn’t manufacture inspiration. It just prepares the right soil for it. (…) I advise you (…) not to chase after the ghost called inspiration. Leave that question to the enchantress, nature, and concern yourself with what is accessible to human consciousness. (…) Once the role has been put on the right track, it moves forward, broadens, deepens and finally reaches inspiration. Until that happens, rest assured that lies, playacting, clichés, posturing never produce inspiration. So do your best to play truly, learn to prepare the right soil for ‘inspiration from on high’ and rest assured that it will be much more in tune with you because of it.” (p. 320)

What does the Psychotechnique consist in ?

Stanislavski mentions three different ways of stimulating the Subconscious through conscious means:

  • by using a Catalyst
  • by using a larger Task
  • by using an accident. 

How to use a Catalyst to stimulate the subconscious ?

What Stanislavski calls a Catalyst is one of the Elements pushed to its limit. The process he describes is as follow:

1. The actor chooses one Element of the System, to act as a Catalyst

“You know that only you have to start with one of the Elements and that all the rest will follow on behind because of the indissoluble link that exists among them.” (p. 332)

Stanislavski shows the example of using Muscular Release as a catalyst Catalyst to reduce physical and psychological tensions. 

“In acting we must always start by relaxing your muscles. So first of all sit comfortably and easily as though you were at home.” (p. 322)

“When an actor works too hard, it is helpful if he adopts an indifferent, almost casual attitude to what he is doing. That’s a good antidote to working too hard and overacting.” (p. 323)

“There is a great deal of excess tension in the Elements too. Only you have to deal with inner tightness differently from crude muscles. (…) When you are battling against psychological tension, you must remember there are three stages, i.e. tension, relaxation, justification. When dealing with the first two, look for the inner tensions, find out their origin and try to get rid them. In the third stage, you justify your new psychological state with the right Given Circumstances.” (p. 323)

But instead of starting with Muscular Release, the actor can turn to any Element.

“You can (…) work (…) starting with any of the Elements. Instead of starting (…) by relaxing the muscles, turn to the imagination and the Given Circumstances, wants and tasks, if they are clear, for help or to the emotions if they are stirred spontaneously, to representations and appraisals.” (p. 332)

“We can find ‘catalysts’ everywhere – in representations, in mental images, in appraisals, in feelings, in wants, in tiny mental and physical actions, in new small details created by our imagination, in the objects with which you are in communication, in the passing details of the setting, in the staging, the mise-en-scène. In fact anywhere you can find small, genuine, human, living truth which evokes the kind of belief that can establish the mood of ‘I am being’.” (p. 331)

“You introduce (…) a catalyst in the form of something impromptu [for example a new Given Circumstance], a detail, an action, a moment of genuine truth – it doesn’t matter if it is mental or physical. This sudden surprise rouses you and nature rushes into the fray.” (p. 331)

“When the soil has been prepared [by physical action] and feeling burgeons in an actress, turmoil follows, and all you have to do is find a way in for it – a highly challenging Task, a magic ‘if’ or some other ‘catalyst’.” (p. 341)

“it’s almost always a question of the imagination and a magic ‘if’. You just have to be able to bring in the ‘catalyst’ at the right moment.” (p. 342)

2. The actor makes this Element fully alive by pushing it to its extreme limit. 

“The important thing, in every case, is that you should not forget to make the first Element that emerges fully alive. (p. 332)

“I made you perform every creative action right through to the end, down to the last drop. That was all (…) It is the actor’s conscious psychotechnique pushed to its very limits which creates the ground in which our natural subconscious, creative process can come to life. (…) Pushing to the limit, the perfect use of our psychotechnique, constitutes an extremely important addition to what you already know about creative acting.” (p. 329 s.)

Bring all the Elements, the psychological inner drives, the Throughaction, to the point where they become normal, human – not convention-bound and actorish – activity.” (p. 330)

3. This brings about Truth and Belief

“Then you will come to know the truth of your own mind and nature. You will come to know the truth of the character. You cannot but believe this truth.” (p. 330)

4. This in turn makes the state of “I Am Being” arise and the Subconscious want to join in. 

“And where there is truth and belief the state of ‘I am being’ arises of itself. (…) Each time they appear, spontaneously, independent of the actor’s will, nature and the subconscious join in.” (p. 330)

“The smallest action or feeling, the smallest aspect of our technique acquires enormous significance if onstage they are pushed to the very limit. There it ends and living, human truth, belief and the ‘I am being’ begin. When that happens, then the actor’s mental and physical apparatus starts to work according to the laws of human nature, exactly as it does in life,  notwhithstanding the artificial situation we find ourselves in, having to be creative in public” (p. 330)

“The most insignificant physical or mental action, which creates moments of genuine truth and belief, taken to the threshold of ‘I am being’ skilfully involves the actor’s own nature and his subconscious in what he is doing.” (p. 330)

5. All the actor has to do is to allow the Subconscious in.

“As soon as you have created the right mental state and feel that the psychotechnique has helped you to put everything in place inwardly for you to be creative, and when you feel that your nature is only waiting for the go-ahead, then give it.” (p. 331)

“Then (…) your head spins with the number of moments when the life of the character and your own unexpectedly and totally fuse. You will feel parts of ourself in the role and of the role in you.” (p. 331)

This technique can be used not only to stimulate the Subconscious when creating a role, but also when playing a role that has already been created in order to repeat Feelings that the actor has already Experienced

“Approaching feeling through truth and belief in physical actions and then ‘I am being’ is applicable not only to roles you are creating but to roles you have already created. The greatest piece of luck is that there are ways of stimulating feelings that have already been created.” (p. 342 s.)

“How good it would be if we could master the technique of repeating [feelings] we have successfully experienced. But feelings can’t be fixed. (…) So we have, willy-nilly, to seek more stable methods, influence and stabilize them. (…) The most accessible, the easiest, a physical action, a small truth, small moments of belief.” (p. 340)

How to use a larger Task to stimulate the Subconscious ?

When the actor is faced with a Task, he should put all his Attention on the larger Task that the Task at hand is part of. This will divert the actor’s Attention away from the smaller Task at hand, which then gets absorbed into the larger one and naturally falls under the control of the Subconscious

“When an actor commits himself to a major Task, he is totally taken over by it. While that is happening, nothing prevents nature from working freely, at her own discretion, in accordance with her needs and desires. Nature takes control of all the small Tasks and uses them to help the actor reach the ultimate Task into which all his attention, his conscious activity has been sunk.” (p. 335)

“The ultimate goal draws attention away from the immediate goal, just as small Tasks disappear from our minds. These Tasks automatically become subconscious. (…) The deeper, the broader, the more meaningful the ultimate goal is, the more attention is drawn to it and the less opportunity there is to succumb to immediate, subordinate, small Tasks. Leave them alone and these small Tasks come under the control of nature and the subconscious in a perfectly normal way.” (p. 335)

“The small Tasks hang together and create a series of large ones. (…) What is important (…) is to feel that the process of absorbing the small Tasks into major ones occurs subconsciously.” (p. 334)

“The major Task is one of the best means we can find for our psychotechnique to influence our minds, bodies and the subconscious.” (p. 335)

The same process can also happen:

“The same transformation which you have just observed in small Tasks takes place with the large, provided that they are led by an all-embracing Supertask. (…) When the actor is totally focused on the Supertask, then the large Tasks are also, to a great extent, fulfilled subconsciously. (p. 336)

“It remains for me to counsel you to use the Supertask as a guiding star and never to flag. Then the entire Throughaction of the play will be followed with ease, naturally and, in a large measure, subconsciously.” (p. 336)

“The Supertask and the Throughaction are the most powerful lures for arousing our natural, biological subconscious creative powers (p. 336)

“Just as the Supertask and the Throughaction swallow up all the large Tasks and make them subordinate, so the super-Supertask and the super-Throughaction of the life of the human being/actor as a whole swallow up the Sueprtasks of the plays and the roles in his repertoire. They become the means, steps towards the accomplishment of the major goal in his life. (…) That is not good for the show if it tips the scales towards the cerebral, but good when you achieve the effect by using artistic means. » (p. 337)

How to use an accident to stimulate the Subconscious ?

An accident happening onstage is real life bursting into the performance. It offers the actor an opportunity to stimulate his Subconscious, providing he reacts appropriately, by making the accident part of the play. 

“Frequently a mere accident unconnected to the play, the role or the performance, bursts in from real life into the conventional life of the stage.” (p. 338)

“Apart from a conscious psychotechnique which prepares our minds for subconscious creative activity, there are often pure accidents. We need to know how to use it but for that we need the proper psychotechnique.” (p. 335)

“If the actor has his wits about him, if he doesn’t get confused or try to ignore this accident but, on the contrary makes it part of the play then it becomes a tuning fork for him. It provides one true living note in the midst of the convention-bound theatrical lies. (…) All this leads the actor to his natural, subconscious creative powers. You must use accidents, feelings wisely, must not reject but cherish and yet not base your artistic planning on them.” (p. 338)

A particular kind of accident that the actor can use is “the similarity and closeness of the situation of the human being/actor and the human being/character, which produces an identity between himself and the role” (p. 337 s.)

A summary of the System 

What is the nature of Acting ?

The nature of Acting consists for the actor in conceiving and giving birth to a new human being.

“What is the nature of acting as we understand it ? It is the conception and birth of a new living being, the human being/role. That is a natural creative act, like human birth. (…) Every character in the theatre is a unique, inimitable, creation, like everything in nature. (…) In the creative process there is he, the husband (the author). There is she, the wife, (the actor or actress who is pregnant with the role (…)). There is the fruit, the child (the role as it is being created). There is the moment when he and she (…) first meet. This is the time of their coming together, of falling in love, quarrelling, disagreeing, being reconcile, of coupling, insemination and pregnancy. During this period the director serves as a matchmaker, (…) as a midwife or obstetrician.” (p. 344 s.)

Where do the principles of the System come from ?

The System’s principles are not invented, but they are given by Nature

“Nature, the subconscious, (…) create strictly in accordance with the principles of our kind of acting, since those principles have not been invented by us but given by nature itself.” (p. 339)

“Why make up your own rules when they already exist, when they have been laid down once and for all by nature itself. Its rules are obligatory for all those people, without exception, who do creative work in the theatre, and woe to those who break them. Transgressors of acting like these do not become creative artists but counterfeits, imitators, mimics.” (p. 345)

Since the System is in its infancy, the range of its possibilities is still limited.

“Our technique is feeble and primitive, and we shall not be able to meet the interesting and justifiable demands of serious innovators all that soon. These people make one big mistake, they forget that there is an enormous difference between ideas, principles, fundamentals, however right they may be, and putting them into practice. For us to come anywhere near them we need to work a long time on our technique, which is still in a primitive state.” (p. 345)

What is the Actor’s work ?

The Actor’s Work consists in rigorously studying and observing the laws of Nature as described by the System

“Everything makes the absolute demand that each student who wishes to become an actor should in the first instance study the creative laws of nature thoroughly.” (p. 346)

“Once you have made a deep and intense study of the laws of nature and learn to obey them freely not only in life but onstage, you will create what and how you please, with this one absolute condition, that you observe all the creative laws of your nature strictly and without exception.” (p. 345)

It requires a constant practice from the actor. 

“Far from all [the actors I’ve taught] have had the will and the stamina to work right through to genuine art. It’s not enough just to know the ‘system’. You must be able to use it. For that you need daily training and drill throughout your whole acting career. Singers need to vocalize, dancers need to go to class and actors need technical training as set down by the ‘system’. Do this work, want to do it, all your life, learn about your own nature, discipline it and, if you have talent, you will become a great actor.” (p. 348

What are the different aspects of the Actor’s Work ?

The Actor’s Work includes:

What are the different aspects of the Actor’s work on Himself ?

The Actor’s Work on Himself includes:

  • the work on the Internal apparatus to create the process of Experiencing

“Now you have your psychotechnique. With its help you can stimulate the process of experiencing. Now you can cultivate feeling and give them physical form.” (p. 346)

  • the work on the external apparatus to Physically Embody what has been internally experienced

“But for the subtle, often subconscious life of nature to find external expression, you must possess an extremely responsive, wonderfully developed vocal and physical apparatus. They must instantly and precisely convey, with enormous subtlety and immediacy, inner experiences which cannot quite be captured.” (p. 346)

“That is why actors of our kind, much more so than in other kinds of acting, must be concerned not only with our internal apparatus, which creates the process of experiencing, but with our external, physical apparatus which truthfully conveys the results of the creative work done by feeling – its outward form of bodily expression. Our nature and our subconscious have a great influence on this work too.” (p. 346)

The work done so far has been dedicated to ExperiencingThe next classes will be dedicated to Physical Embodiment

“In a few months we shall assemble again to continue the ‘work on oneself’ and in particular the process of giving bodily expression.” (p. 347)

The Actor’s Work on a Role will be studied in a third stage

What is the Actor’s Work on a Role ?

“You have taken some aspects of our later ‘work on a role’: you have learned to establish that creative state, which is the only way to approach this process.” (p. 346)

Previous chapter: §15. The Supertask, Throughaction (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §17. Transition to Physical Embodiment (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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