§4. Imagination (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)

Konstantin Stanislavski An Actor's work

THEATRE


This article is my summary of the fourth 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: §3. Action, “If”, “Given Circumstances”(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §5. Concentration and Attention (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

The role of imagination in the process of experiencing

Why is imagination important for the actor ? 

Acting means stepping into the world of imagination.

“Introducing the magic ‘if’ into the play and role (…) lifts the actor out of everyday life into the world of imagination. The play, the role, are stories, a series of magic and other ‘ifs’, Given Circumstances which the author has made up.” (p. 60).

What does it mean to imagine ?

To imagine (…) means above all to see the things one is thinking about with the mind’s eye. (…) We call these mental images, the inner eye.” (p. 73) 

What does the actor need to use his imagination for ?

The actor needs his imagination in his task of creating (experiencing) a role

  • to give life to the Circumstances Given by the dramatist and the creative team
  • to invent the circumstances they have not given

“Creating a role, transforming of the dramatist’s words into theatrical fact (…) proceeds in cooperation with the imagination.” (p. 84 s). 

“All this [the text of the play, the author’s stage directions, the director’s demands, the moves, the mise-en-scène and the whole production] has to be filled out and given depth by the actor. (…) Only then can the actor begin to live the inner life of the character.” (p. 62)

“Our most immediate source to help here is our imagination, with its magic ‘if’ and Given Circumstances. It not only tells us what the author, the director, and the others have not, but it gives life to everything that has been done by the production team, whose creative work reaches the audience primarily through the actors’ success.” (p 62)

Every moment of the actor is on stage – every action he does, every word he says – must be the result of the Given Circumstances, and therefore of the actor’s imagination

“Not a single scene, not one single step onstage must be performed mechanically, without an inner reason, that is without imagination.” (p. 84)

“If you speak a word, or do something mechanically onstage, not knowing who you are, where you have come from, why, what you need, where you are going, or what you will do there, you will be acting without imagination, and this fragment of your existence onstage (…) will hold no truth for you.” (p. 84)

“Every one of our movements onstage, every word but must the result of a truthful imagination.” (p. 84)

Even after having created the role, the actor still needs the imagination to keep his performance fresh.

“The actor needs imagination not only when creating but also when renewing what has already been created and is now getting jaded. This is effected by introducing a new idea, or revitalizing individual details.” (p. 82)

How should the actor use his imagination to experience a role ?

1. With his imagination, the actor must create a film of inner images related to all the Given Circumstances. This film must cover each moment of the role’s life. 

“First we need a continuous line of Given Circumstances through which the scene can proceed, and secondly (…), we need an unbroken series of inner images linked to these Given Circumstances.” (p. 74)

“In every role we need not plain but illustrated Given Circumstances” (p. 76) 

2. Every time the actor performs his role, he must constantly project and watch this film

“Every moment [he is] onstage, the actor must see what is going on around him  i.e. the external Given Circumstances, created by the director, the designer and the rest of the production team, or what is going on inside, in his own imagination, i.e. those images which depict the Given Circumstances in full colour. A continuous line of fleeting images is formed, both inside and outside us, like a film. It lasts as long as the creative process lasts, projecting the Given Circumstances which the actor has fully coloured, onto the screen of his mind’s eye, so that he now lives his own life entirely.” (p. 74)

3. This film will evoke corresponding moods, experiences and feelings in the actor

“These images create a corresponding mood inside, which then acts upon your mind and evokes matching experiences.” (p. 74)

“If [you] create a film inside [you], composed of the mental images [you] have for each moment of [the role’s] life, and project that film onto the screen of [your] mind’s eye (…) and if (…) they truly reflect the play’s Given Circumstances and magic “if”, and if they evoke in you moods and feelings parallel to the role itself, then, truly, (…) you will truthfully experience [the role’s] feelings every time you view the film inside you.” (p. 77)

The film of mental images is thus an indirect way to access to feelings, which are too elusive to be accessed to directly. 

“Our feelings and experience are elusive (…) and cannot be pinned down (…) Sight is more amenable. The things we see are (…) more deeply engraved on our visual memory and are resurrected anew in our representations of them (…) So let the more accessible (…) mental images help us revive and pin down the less accessible (…) innermost feelings.” (p. 76) 

4. Finally, these experiences and feelings will create an impulse to action for the actor. 

“All you [have] to do [is] see [the mental images] in your mind’s eye, feel its atmosphere, and immediately familiar thoughts connected with the place where the action occurs [come] alive in you. Thoughts produced feelings and experience, and then the impulse to action.” (p. 73) 

“The imagination can produce a mental breakthrough, evoke a vital impulse to action.” (p. 82)

“[The actors’ imagination] must incite first inner then outer action.” (p. 65)

How should the actor proceed to create the film of inner images ?

1. The actor can start with a conscious, mental activity. This is done by asking questions. 

“When the student’s imagination is inactive, I ask a simple question (…) The student either has to stir his imagination immediately, make himself see the things he has been asked about in his mind’s eye, or tackle the question by using his intelligence, through a series of logical appraisals. The work of the imagination is quite often prepared for and guided by this kind of conscious, mental activity.” (p. 79)

“The questions – who, when, where, why, for what reason, how – which we [ask] so as to stir our imagination, [help] us create a picture of our imaginary, illusory life with greater and greater definition.” (p. 83)

2. Then , after having done this mental work, the actor should introduce the “if” by asking himself: “what would I do if my fiction became fact ?” (p. 84)

“When we invent using our reason, we often get no more than pallid reflections of the life we have imagined. And that is not enough for creative acting, which demands that the human being/actor (…) should surrender to the role not only psychologically but physically. What are we to to ? Put another familiar question to yourselves: ‘What would I do if my fiction became fact’ ?” (p. 83 s.)

This question will draw the actor to answer this question through action, which will further stimulate his imagination. Experiencing this stimulus will make the actor believe in the film he has created, solidifying it. 

“We are draw to respond to this question [what would I do if my fiction became fact ?] through action (…) This question proves an excellent stimulus, urging our imagination on. For the moment, don’t give this action physical form, but let it remain an impulse. It is important only that this impulse be aroused and experienced by us not only psychologically but physically. Experiencing it this way fixes the story we have created.” (p. 84)

How should the actor proceed to project and watch the film of inner images ?

He must constantly project it outside himself and watch it with his inner eye

“Mental images arise in our imagination, our memory, and, thereafter, our minds, as it were, project them outside ourselves, so we can see them. But we see these imaginary objects from the inside out, so to speak, not from the outside in, with our mind’s eye [our inner eye]” (p. 75)

“The film itself is running inside me, but I see it projected outside me (…) in the empty space before me.” (p. 74) 

“The same thing happens with hearing. We hear imaginary sounds not with outer but with our inner ears, but we identify the source of these sounds, in most cases, as not inside but outside ourselves.” (p. 75) 

Developping the actor’s imagination 

What should be the actor’s imagination be like ?

It should be “mobile, dynamic, responsive and properly developed.” (p. 85)

There are different degrees of responsiveness. The actor should aim for the highest one: an imagination which takes the initiative. 

“There is the kind of imagination which takes the initiative (…) There is also the kind of imagination which lacks of initiative but which readily accept anything suggested to it and then develops it independently (…) However, if the imagination just accepts what has been suggested to it, and doesn’t’ develop it, then there are problems. (…) [These people] have no imagination and without imagination you cannot be an actor.” (p. 64)

What are the rules to observe when using imagination ?

There are a few rules to observe when using imagination so that it can work properly:

  • The imagination should not be forced.
  • As for actions, you should never imagine for the sake of imagining; it should always serve a purpose
  • The imagination should be logical and sequential.
  • The ideas imagined should be active so as to stimulate the actor into action. 

“You committed a series of errors (…) First you forced your imagination, instead of coaxing it. (…) Second you let your imagination wander at random, wherever and however chance drove you. Just as you should not do something for the sake of doing something (…), so you must not let your imagination wander for the sake of letting it wander. There was no sense, no purpose in the work your imagination was doing (…). Third, your ideas weren’t active, weren’t dynamic. (…) [The imagination] must incite action” (p. 65)

“Imagining ‘in general’ without a well defined, solidly based theme, is fruitless.” (p. 83)

“In nature everything is logical and sequential (…) and your make-believe must be the same.” (p. 70)

How can the actor develop his imagination ?

He can – and should – do it through specific exercises

“Pay particular attention to developing your imagination. Develop it in every possible way – through exercises (…), that is, direct work on the imagination as such, as well as indirect work.” (p. 85)

What are the exercises to develop the imagination? 

Step 1: exercises in the world of reality

The actor can first imagine within the reality, using the real objects around him:

  • by introducing an imaginary circumstance into the real situation he is in. 

“Don’t rush things ! You’ve got time ! For the moment, be content with simple, elementary daydreaming. Live (…) among the things around you in the real world. Make this furniture, the objects which you can feel and see part of your work.” (p. 66)

“Take the real life around you with its real objects, introduce one imaginary circumstance with the help of ’if’, for example changing the time of the days or the location, and use your imagination to justify it. (p. 66)

  • by transforming these real objects with his imagination.

“With the help of imagination, we are able, inwardly, to give a new life to the world of inanimate objects. (…) At the same time, while we may not believe that the chair is a genuine tree or rock, we do believe in the genuineness of our relationship to these artificial substitutes and treat them as if they were trees or rocks.” (p. 69)

Step 2: exercises in the world of imagination

The actor can then imagine within an imaginary world, in his mind. 

  “Now I am going to move out of the world of objects and into the world of the imagination. There our actions will be just as dynamic, but performed in the mind.” (p. 69)

In this imaginary world, the actor who is imagining can take different positions:

  • He can watch the imaginary scene from the outside, as a spectator.

“You are a mere spectator of the picture your imagination has painted, and you play no role whatsoever in this imaginary life. “ (p. 72)

  • He can watch the imaginary scene from the outside, as a spectator, while at the same time seeing himself in the picture, as a (passive) participant of this imaginary scene.
  • He can watch the imaginary scene from the inside, from his point of view of an active participant of. Stanislavski calls this position “I am being”. This is the position the actor should aim for. 

“You don’t see yourself but the things around you and respond inwardly to everything that is happening as a genuine paprticipant. At that moment, when you are imagining actively, the mood which we call ‘I am being’ is created in you.” (p. 72)

“’I am being’ refers to the fact that I have put myself in the centre of a situation I have invented, that I feel I am really inside it (…) and that I am beginning to act as me.” (p. 70)

There are different types of worlds of imagination :

  1. It can be a world that is imaginary (that is, not the one the actor is in at the moment), but familiar to him (for example, his apartment). In this case, the actor’s imagination will be guided by material drawn from his own life. 
  2. It can be a world that is imaginary and unfamiliar to the actor, but existing (for example, a foreign country where the actor has never been to). In this case, the actor’s imagination can be guided by material drawn from “books, maps, photographs and other sources”. 
  3. It can be an imaginary world that doesn’t exist in real life. In this case, “science, literature, painting, folk-tales provide us with hints, nudges, starting-off points for these mental excursions realms.” (p. 71 s.)

In this case, Stanislavski speaks of fantasy instead of imagination. 

“Imagination creates what is, what exists, what we know, but fantasy creates what isn’t, what we don’t know, what never was and never will be.” (p. 61)

But fantasy should be no less logical and sequential than imagination.  

“Sequence and logic (…) bring the impossible and the probable together. So, when creating the fabulous and the fantastical, be logical and orderly”. (p. 72)

Previous chapter: §3. Action, “If”, “Given Circumstances”(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §5. Concentration and Attention (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)

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