§9. Emotion Memory(Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
This article is my summary of the ninth 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: §8. Belief and the Sense of Truth (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §10. Communication
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)
What does the audience want to see onstage ?
The audience is interested in feelings.
“I, as the audience, am much more interested in knowing how you were responding internally, what you were feeling. (…) If the external action, (…) [is] not substantiated from within, [it is ] mere form, dry, and unnecessary for us onstage.” (p. 196)
Therefore, the actor should make sure that his actions are always substantiated with feelings and not performed mechanically.
“If, the first time, your actions were prompted by your feelings, your intuition, your everyday experience, today you followed a well-beaten track blindly, almost mechanically. You repeated the first, successful version, and didn’t create a genuine, new life belonging solely to today. You drew your material not from everyday life but from theatrical memories of ‘acting’.” (p. 197)
Should the actor experience the feelings of the character or his own ?
“An actor can only experience his own emotions.” (p. 209)
When an actor acts a role, he cannot experience the feelings and emotions of the character; he can only experience feelings and emotions which are his own, but which are similar and “run parallel to the feelings of the role” (p. 209).
“We can understand, feel a role, put ourselves in its place and start behaving as the character would. That evokes experiences which are similar to the role in us. But these feelings belong not to the character the author has written, but to the actor himself.” (p. 209)
The actor must learn to work from his own feelings and emotions, developing and combining them in order to build the particular character he is playing.
“The actor brings to the role (…) memories of feelings he has experienced in his own life. (…) The actor carefully transfers his best qualities onto the stage.” (p. 209)
“The actor’s human emotions, which run parallel to the feelings of the role, must remain alive.” (p. 209)
“An actor’s art and inner technique must be directed towards finding a natural way to discover the seeds of innate human virtues and vices in himself, and thereafter to nurture and develop them for whatever role he happens to be playing.” (p. 210)
“Make it your business to learn, first, the means and techniques whereby to draw emotional material from your inner self and, secondly, the ways and means whereby to create infinite combinations of human souls, characters, feelings and passions for your roles.” (p. 210)
This means that, in whatever role he’s playing, the actor must always remain himself.
“You are always yourself. Never lose communication with yourself onstage. Act from your own personality as an actor / human being. You can never run away from yourself. If you deny your “me”, then you cut the ground from under your feet, and that is the most terrible thing that can happen. The moment when you lose communication with yourself onstage is the moment when experiencing ends and playacting begins.” (p. 209)
“Always play yourself onstage but always with different combinations of Tasks, Given Circumstances, which you have nurtured, in the crucible of your own emotion memories. They are the best and only material for inner creative work.” (p. 210)
What are the different types of (his own) feelings that the actor can experience onstage?
Among his own feelings, they are two kinds of feelings that the actor can experience on stage, depending on what arouses them:
- First-time feelings: they are feelings which the actor has not previously experienced in real life; they are aroused for the first time while the actor is on stage, spontaneously.
- Recurrent feelings: they are feelings which the actor has previously experienced in real life; they come from the actor’s memory of this experience.
Which of these two types of feelings should the actor focus on ?
First-time feelings are very precious. When they appear, all the actor needs to do is to let them happen.
“First-time feelings (…) are highly desirable. (…) They burst through here and there, but only as discrete moments. (…) Because they are unexpected, [they] provide an irresistible stimulus for an actor. (…) We aren’t masters of spur-of-the moment experiences, they master us. And so all we can do is leave it to nature, and say to ourselves, if spontaneous feelings do arise, then let them appear when they are needed, lest they run counter to the play and the role.” (p. 208)
Yet, first-time feelings are rare, and they cannot be consciously controlled.
Therefore, the actor should rather focus his work on what he can, in some way, consciously control: his recurrent feelings.
“Learn, first and foremost, to use [the recurrent feelings which our Emotion Memory consciously prompts]. They are more accessible to us. (…) It is only through them that you can exert some degree of influence on inspiration.” (p. 209)
In order to do so, the actor should learn to develop and use his Emotion memory.
The Emotion memory : what it is and how to develop it ?
What is the Emotion memory ?
The Emotion memory is the memory which stores the feelings once experienced by the actor.
“We have agreed to call the memory of feelings, Emotion memory”. (p. 198 s.)
“Feelings you once experienced are resurrected in your Emotion memory.” (p. 199)
Is sensory memory the same thing as Emotion memory ?
The Emotion memory should be distinguished from the sensory memory, which does not store feelings but impressions produced by the five senses. As such, these impressions don’t belong to the Emotion memory.
“[Impressions produced by memory stirred by the five senses] do not belong to the category of experiences in our Emotion memory.” (p. 200)
Nevertheless, the sensory impressions are tightly linked to feelings, and reviving memories of taste, touch, smell, sound and sight related to a past event can lead to reviving the feelings that we experienced in that moment. Sensory memory is therefore also needed for the actor.
“You can see clearly (…) the tight relationship and interaction of our five senses and their influence on the things which Emotion Memory recalls. So, as you see, the actor needs not only Emotion Memory but sensory memory.” (p. 203)
“Of all the five senses sight is the most receptive to impressions. Hearing is also very acute. That is why it is easiest to act upon our feelings through our sight and hearing. (…) Recollections of taste, touch and smell may have little application for us in our acting, nonetheless sometimes they assume great importance.” (p. 200)
What kind of memories are stored in the Emotion memory ?
Different kind of memories can be stored in the Emotion memory:
- Experiences which the actor has lived as a participant
- Experiences which the actor has lived as an observant
- Experiences which have not been lived by the actor but by other people (and which the actor has only heard or read about). Stanislavski calls “fellow-feeling” the related feeling experienced by the actor.
“The quality of lived experiences as remembered by an observer and by a participant are not the same thing. (…) There are cases when we are not an active participant or even an observer of what happens but only hear or read about it. That doesn’t prevent us from being strongly influenced by it, from having deep emotion memories.”
“When we are searching for raw material we should use not only our own life experiences but things we have recognized in other people with whom we have felt a natural fellow-feeling. A similar process occurs with recollections of reading, or from stories told by other people.” (p. 224)
How does Emotion memory proceed the feelings it stores?
When storing past events and related feelings, the Emotion memory makes selections and combinations, thus making the memory clearer, deeper and more poetic than reality.
“[Past events] are stored in the memory but not every detail, only the features which have made the most impact. All these traces of similar experiences and feelings are distilled into a single, wider, deeper memory. (…) This is a synthesis of all like feelings. It is related not to [one] small incident but to all similar cases. (…) It is clearer, deeper, denser, richer in content and sharper than reality itself.” (p. 206)
“Time is a wonderful filter, a powerful purifier of memories, of feelings one has had. Moreover time is a great artist. It not only purifies, it lends poetry to memory.” (p. 206)
How should the actor develop his Emotion memory ?
Since the actor needs a rich Emotion memory to provide him with feelings for the stage, he needs to continually feed it with new material.
“The more comprehensive Emotion Memory is, the more raw material it has for us to work on, the richer and fuller that work is.” (p. 219)
“Our stores of Emotion Memory (…) must be continually replenished.” (p. 226)
What does the Emotion Memory need to be fed with ?
There are many possible sources for this creative material: it can come from ourselves or others, from the reality or the imagination.
“First in line are our personal impressions, feelings, experiences. These we obtain from the real world and from our imagination, from our recollections, from books, from science and learning, from travelling, from museums and, most important of all, from our relationships with other people.” (p. 226)
The Emotion memory : how to use it when working on a role ?
When working on a role, the goal of the actor is to turn a fellow-feeling for the character into his own feelings.
“When we first encounter a dramatist’s work, with rare exceptions, only fellow feeling for the characters occurs. It is our job, as we rehearse, to turn this fellow feeling intou our own genuine feelings as actors and human beings.” (p. 224)
“From the moment that [the transformation of fellow-feeling into feeling] takes place, the actor feels that he is an active character in the life of the play, genuine human feeling is born.” (p. 223)
What does the actor need to do to turn fellow-feeling into feelings ?
The amount of work needed for this transformation depends on the grasp the actor has on the character’s situation: the stronger this grasp, the more spontaneously this transformation will happen.
“Sometimes this transformation of the fellow feeling into the feelings of a character occurs spontaneously. The former (the human being) may have such a strong grasp of the situation of the latter (the character) and respond to it so that he feels he is in his place. (…) In this instance, the experiences of the observer spontaneously transform fellow feeling into direct feeling, i. e. they acquire the same quality and almost the same strength as they have for the character in the play.“(p. 223)
When the grasp is not so strong that the transformation happens spontaneously, the actor needs to turn to the psychotechnique for help, to evoke a response in his Emotion Memory (p. 224).
What does the actor need to do to experience a feeling stored in his Emotion memory ?
The amount of technical work and effort needed to experience a recurrent feeling depends on the strength of the particular memory: the weaker the memory, the more preparatory work is needed to use this material as an actor (p. 221):
“The strength of Emotion Memory is of great importance in our work. The stronger, sharper, more precise it is, the clearer and fuller our ability to experience.” (p. 219)
- When the Emotion memory is very strong, it will come alive by itself, without the need of any outside help (p. 221). The only thing the actor needs to do is to experiences the scene as parallel to this memory.
“If he possesses such keen-edged emotional raw material and he can easily be aroused, all the actor has to do is experience a scene as parallel to the shock stamped on his memory in life. He requires no technique to help him. Everything happens spontaneously. Nature helps the actor.” (p. 220).
- When the Emotion memory is moderately strong, the actor will need “some help from our psycho-technique”, by making a conscious effort of recalling the cricumstances of the memory.
“But sometimes [the actor] can’t manage all the details at once. He has to recall the circumstances of that unfortunate incident. Then the feeling comes alive again, either all at once or gradually.” (p. 220)
- Finally, when the Emotion memory is weak, there is “a great deal of preparatory work” involved if the actor wants to use this material (p. 221).
What does the preparatory work consist it ?
The preparatory work that needs to be done to experience a recurrent feeling consists in using a decoy that will act as a stimulus to the Emotion memory.
“If our feelings will not come out into the open there is no way to ambush them. In that case we have to rely on a decoy. (…) These decoys are precisely those stimuli to Emotion Memory and recurrent feelings which we have been talking about all this time to lure them out.” (p. 225)
What are the decoys for the Emotion memory ?
There are two kinds of decoys (or stimuli) for the Emotion memory:
- The different elements of the psychotechnique, which act as internal stimuli.
- The different elements of the staging, which act as external stimuli.
The internal stimuli
What are the internal stimuli ?
All the previous stages of the psychotechnique are decoys to the Emotion memory and internal stimuli to feelings (p. 224), namely:
- The physical Actions and their logic and sequence
- The If and the Given Circumstances
- The imagination
- The objects of Attention
- The Bits and Tasks
- The Sense of Truth and Belief
“Each successive stage in our studies has brought a new decoy (or stimulus) for our Emotion Memory and recurrent feelings In fact, the magic ‘if’, the Given Circumstances, our imagination, the Bits and Tasks, the objects of attention, the truth and belief in inner and outer actions, provided us with the appropriate decoys (stimuli).” (p. 225)
“If we bring together all the stimuli (…), that’s your capital, your psychotechnique. You have to know how to use it.” (p. 225)
How should the actor relate to the internal stimuli ?
“The actor must be able to respond directly to the decoys (stimuli) and master them (…) You have to be the gardener, so to speak, of your own heart, one who knows what grows from which seeds.” (p. 225 s.)
The external stimuli
What are the external stimuli ?
The external stimuli are all the externals of a stage production, that is its staging or mise-en-scène, including in particular the setting, the set, the props, the lights, the sound and other production effects “which create the onstage illusion of real life and a living atmosphere” (p. 225).
How are the externals of a stage production acting as stimuli to feelings ?
The externals of a staging influence the actor’s feelings and mental state, in the same way that in real life our mood is influenced by the things that surrounds us.
“The things around us influence the way we feel. And that happens not only in real life but on the stage, too. (…) So, the externals of the setting and the mood they create is a stimulus for us.” (p. 212)
“When we use detailed sets and stage dressing, lighting, sound (…) we use these stimuli not only for the audience, but for the actors, too. We try to help them focus on what’s onstage and make them ignore what’s off it.” (p. 216)
What should be kept in mind when devising the staging ?
Since the staging will for sure exert influence on the actors’feeling, it’s up to the actor and/or creative team to decide whether this influence will be for good or for bad.
It’s only if the staging is thought in such a way as to match the play that it will provide a stimulus which will help the actor experiencing his character.
“The mood [the setting evokes], if it matches the play, focuses attention marvelously on a character’s inner life (…). Instead of focusing the actor on the stage and the role, a bad set will draw him away from the action and put him in the power of the full house. (…) The externals of a production can be a double-edged sword in a director’s hands. They can do good or harm.” (p. 213)
“How hard it is to [communicate the whole of the ‘life of the human spirit’] without help from the director, with no mise-en-scène, no props and furniture which you can lean on, sit on, rest on, group yourselves around.” (p. 214)
“If the mood we create on our side of the footlights matches the play, then we establish a creative atmosphere, one which correctly stimulates Emotion Memory and experiencing.” (p. 216)
“On the one hand the actor looks for a setting that matches the mood, the matter in hand, the immediate Task and on the other hand, the Task, the matter in hand themselves create the setting.” (p. 215)
How should the actor relate to the staging ?
The actor needs to let the staging act as a stimulus on his Emotion memory, by paying attention and responding to it.
“Learn to look and see onstage, surrender to the things around you, respond to them. In a word, be able to use all the given stimuli.” (p. 216)
“In their turn, actors must learn to look, see, understand the things around them, and surrender to the illusion without reserve.” (p. 213)
“Just as an actor often encounters [the case] when he as to create his own mises-en-scène [according to his mood, as he feels the task within the action], so in his working practice, he meets a [another] when he has to justify someone else’s (…) layout, try and find the corresponding experiences and actions and discover the corresponding mood within them.” (p. 215)
How to repeat the successful experience of a recurrent feeling ?
When the actor has been successful in experiencing a recurrent feeling, he will want to repeat it the next time he will play the character. How is he to do that ?
The temptation is to go directly for the feeling. But this is a mistake: the feeling that has been successfully experienced was only the outcome of a preparatory process, the result of a stimulus; thus, if the actor wants to repeat this result, he needs to go again through an analogous preparatory process, he needs to expose himself again to the stimulus that has led to the result the first time.
“In the vast majority of cases (…) if [actors] happen to have a successful moment in a role and want to repeat it, then they take the direct route to the feeling itself and try and experience it. And that’s the same as trying to create a flower without the help of nature. That’s impossible, and so there is nothing to do but substitute a prop flower.” (p. 218)
“Don’t think about the flower itself but water its roots, or plant a new seed in the earth and grow a new flower (…). [Don’t] think about the feeling itself but think about what made it grow, the conditions which led to the experience. They are the soil which you have to water and manure. Meanwhile nature herself will create a new feeling, analogous to the one you experienced before.” (p. 218)
“Never start with the result. It will not come of itself, it is the logical consequence of what has gone before.” (p. 218)
This way of doing is especially important when the actor has spontaneously, unconsciously experienced a particular feeling: in order to repeat it, the actors first needs to find out what has stimulated this spontaneous experience. Then, by a conscious use of this stimulus, he will be able to experience the feeling again.
“We go from feelings created by chance to the stimulus so that thereafter we can go from the stimulus to the feeling.” (p. 219)
“So far we have gone from stimulus to feeling. But we often have to do things in reverse, go from feeling to stimulus.” (p. 217)
But even when taking the correct way to repeat a feeling – that is the indirect way of the stimulus –, the actor should be aware and accept that the repeated experience will not and cannot be the same as the first one. The recurrent feeling experienced will be different every time. Even though it may appear less strong that the previous time, it will be fresh and new, and this freshness is the best stimulus to creative work.
“Trying to repeat something you have experienced by chance is like trying to bring a dead flower back to life. Wouldn’t it be better to do something else, not try to revive something that’s already dead, but to grow something new in exchange ?” (p. 218)
“When [recollected emotion] appear and blaze within you (…), thank heaven for granting them to you. But don’t for a moment imagine you can retrieve a feeling that has gone forever. (…) Don’t imagine you can return to yesterday’s memory, be content with today’s. Learn to accept memories that have come to life afresh. Then you heart will respond with renewed energy to anything that no longer excites you in a play that you’ve played too often. You will take fire and then, perhaps, inspiration will appear.” (p. 207)
“But give up the idea of hunting old beads – they are beyond recall (…) Try to let each day bring forth new, fresher inspiration in you, one sufficient unto the day. No matter if it is weaker than yesterday’s. The good thing is that it is today’s, it is natural, it appeared spontaneously for an instant out of its hiding place to fire your creative efforts. Besides, who can say for sure which of the flashes of genuine inspiration is better or worse. They are all beautiful in their own way if only because they are – inspiration.” (p. 207)
“The fact is that the best stimulus to creative activity is often the element of surprise, the freshness of a creative theme.” (p. 197)
Previous chapter: §8. Belief and the Sense of Truth (Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor’s Work)
Next chapter: §10. Communication
Table of contents: An Actor’s Work (Konstantin Stanislavski)