§02. The stage as art and stock-in-trade (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work


This article is my summary of the second 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« .

Next chapter: §3. Action, “If”, “Given Circumstances”(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

What is the best form of Acting ?

It is a Subconscious Acting.

“It is always best when an actor is completely taken over by the play. Then, independent of his will, he lives the role, without noticing how he is feeling, not thinking about what he is doing, and so everything comes out spontaneously, subconsciously.” (p. 17)

This Subconscious Acting is guided by Nature.

“Only one artist has the power to do [the mostly subconscious and involuntary creative work that is demanded]: the most discriminating, the most ingenious, the most subtle, the most elusive, the most miraculous of artists – nature.” (p. 17).

Stanislavski calls this form of acting « the Art of Experiencing« .

“These moments of success (…) can be termed the art of experiencing which we cultivate here in our theatre” (p. 16).

Is it possible to Consciously control the Nature and the Subconscious ?

The Subconscious cannot be controlled directly.

“We are supposed to create on inspiration, but only the subconscious can do that, and we can’t control it.” (p. 17).

But it can be indirectly influenced and Stimulated.

“There is [a way out of this]. It is the indirect, not the direct influence of the conscious on the subconscious mind.” (p. 17)

This indirect control happens of the Subconscious happens through a conscious and voluntary Psychotechnique

“Subconscious creation through the actor’s conscious psychotechnique. (The subconscious through the conscious, the involuntary through the voluntary)” (p. 18)

“Let us leave the subconscious to nature (…) and apply ourselves to what is available to us – the conscious approach to creative activity and our psychotechnique. (…) Once the subconscious starts working we must try not to get in its way.” (p. 18)

What does this conscious Psychotechnique consist in ?

It consists for the actor in performing the role’s Actions Truthfully, Realistically

“Can you select interesting and important things to aim for in the role (…), can you arouse truthful intentions and perform the right actions?” (p. 20)

“You must create consciously and believably (…) because what is conscious and credible gives birth to truth” (p. 18)

“Play ‘credibly” means (…) behaving truthfully, in logical sequence in a human way, within the character, and in complete parallel to it.” (p. 19)

If the actor behaves Truthfully, he can Experience the role inwardly and Believe in his Experience.

“As soon as the actor [is behaving truthfully], he will come close to the role and will begin to feel as one with it. Here we call that experiencing a role.” (p. 19)

“(…) [When performing the action] you will become personally involved, and start to feel that you are in the same situation as the character in the play. You will experience your own feelings, as being parallel to his. (…) You will see that every moment of your life onstage will evoke corresponding personal experiences.  An unbroken sequence of such moments creates continuous experiencing, living ‘the life of the human spirit’.”  (p. 20)

“Truth evokes belief” (p. 18).

If the actor Believes is what is happening, Nature can believe it too and get involved, bringing in with her the Feelings, the Subconscious and the inspiration.  

“If nature believes in what is happening inside you, then she, too, becomes involved. And in her wake comes the subconscious, and, just possibly, inspiration may then follow.” (p. 18 s.)

“Only when the actor understands and feels that his inner and outer life onstage, with all the conventions that this implies, is proceeding naturally and normally, even to the point of being totally naturalistic in accord with all the laws of human nature, can the deep secrets of the subconscious make a cautious appearance.” (p. 18)

This state of total consciousness where there is genuine inner truth, is the best for arousing feeling, and the most favourable soil for stimulating the subconscious to work.” (p. 20)

“So psychological realism, or even naturalism, is essential for [the actor] to stimulate the work of the subconscious and produce a burst of inspiration.” (p. 18)

What is the Basic Goal of the actor ?

The actor’s Basic Goal is made of two parts:

  1. he must create the inner, psychological life of the role;
  2. he must communicate externally this inner experience.

“Experiencing helps the actor to fulfil his basic goal, which is the creation of the life of the human spirit in a role and the communication of that life onstage in an artistic form.” (p. 19)

The first part of the task is accomplished through the process of Experiencing.

“Our prime task is not only to portray the life of a role externally, but above all to create the inner life of the character. (…) This is why we think first and foremost of the inner aspect of a role, that is of its psychological life which we create by using the process of experiencing” (p. 19)

The second part of the task is accomplished through physical embodiment.

“Our purpose is not only to create ‘the life of the human spirit in a role’ but also to communicate it outwardly in an artistic form. (…) So the actor must not only experience the role inwardly, he must embody that inner experience physically. (…) To be able to reflect a life which is subtle and often subconscious, you must possess an exceptionally and outstandingly well-trained voice and body.” (p 20)

What are the different types of Acting ?

Stanislavski talks about four different types of Acting:

  1. The Art of Experiencing
  2. The Art of Representation
  3. The Stock-in-Trade Acting
  4. The Ham-Acting 

What is the Art of Experiencing ?

The Art of Experiencing aims at living the role every time it is performed. Experiencing is considered « the most important creative factor ».

This type of Acting results in a fresh and spontaneous performance.

This Acting aims at creating the life of the human spirit in a role

What is the Art of Representation ?

The Art of Representation also uses Experiencing, and can therefore also be called an art. But Experiencing is used only once, in the preparatory stage. It’s only a tool in order to find an outward form, which will then be repeated mechanically

“In this kind of acting you also experience your role once or twice – at home or in rehearsal, (…) so as to register the outward form a feeling takes. Having noted the form, you then learn to repeat it mechanically. (…) The process of experiencing is not the most important creative factor, but only one of the preparatory stages (p. 22 s.)

“Once he is accustomed to reproducing a role mechanically, the actor repeats it without any expense of nervous or mental energy. He not only considers this quite unnecessary, but even damaging to a public performance, as every emotional disturbance upsets his control and alters the shape and form of something that has been permanently set.” (p. 25). 

This type of Acting results in a cold and fixed performance.

“In all his playing there was a coldness which led me to suspect that this performance was fixed once and for all, leaving no room for improvisations, thus denying it freshness and spontaneity” (p. 23)

This Acting doesn’t aim at creating real life on stage, but a convention-based life.

“They believe that the stage life they create is better [than nature]. Not the genuine human life we actually know, but another which has been enhanced. (…) They argue that theatre, performances are conventions, that the stage does not have the adequate means to convey an illusion of real life. The theatre, therefore, should not only accept conventions, but take them to is heart.” (p. 26)

What is “Stock-in-Trade Acting” ?

The Stock-in-Trade actor doesn’t use Experiencing, but portrays his role using actors’ clichés, imitation and actors’ emotion. This Acting cannot be called an art; it is merely a technique. 

“The stock-in trade actor can only speak his lines as though he were reporting them, and accompany his report with theatrical tricks that have been works out once-and-for-all.” (p. 28)

“Stock-in-trade actors aren’t capable of experiencing a role. (…) How are you to convey, through voice and movement, the external results of a non-existent inner life ? There’s nothing for it but to resort to simple, convention-based theatrics. This is an extremely primitive, formal, outward portrayal of feelings, which the actor has never known or experienced. This is mere imitation.” (p. 28)

“But no matter how perfect actors’ clichés may be, they cannot move an audience. For that you need additional stimuli, special tricks which we call actors’ emotion. Actors’ emotion isn’t (…) genuine, artistic experiencing. It is an artificial stimulation of the periphery of the body [or of their nerves. The result is artificial physical frenzy or theatrical hysterics, both empty of inward meaning.]. Yet, this emoting can (…) make a certain impression, since the artistically naive don’t question it, and are satisfied with crude imitation.” (p. 31)

The clichés of the Stock-in-Trade acting are a real danger for the actor.

“Time and custom have made the ugly and senseless familiar and dear to us (…) The pity is that all sorts of clichés have stuck. They eat an actor away, like rust. (…) [They] try to take over every moment in a role, every aspect of an actor’s technique. They fill every blank in a role. Frequently, they jump in before any feelings have been aroused, blocking their path. And so, the actor must be vigilant and ward off these intruders.” (p. 30 s.)

What is “Ham-Acting” ?

Ham-Acting uses neither Experiencing nor theatrical tricks, but common clichés. Not only it is not an art form, it’s not even a technique. 

“Ham-acting, like stock-in-trade, starts where experiencing ends. But stock-in-trade is suitably organized to replace feelings with mere artifice and uses practised clichés, while ham-acting does not have even these at its disposal and indiscriminately sets in motion the first available ‘common’ or ‘traditional’ clichés which have neither been polished nor adapted for the stage.” (p. 33 s.)

Next chapter: §3. Action, “If”, “Given Circumstances”(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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