Glossary of Stanislavski’s System
This is a glossary of key terms of the Stanislavski’s System, as presented in the book « An Actor’s Work » by Konstantin Stanislavski, translated in English by Jean Benedetti.
List of entries
Acting | Action | Actor’s Work | Actor’s Work on a Role | Actor’s Work on Oneself | Adaptations | Appraisal | Art of Experiencing | Art of Representation | Attention | Basic Goal | Belief | Bit | Catalyst | Circle of Attention | Communication | Concentration | Counter-Throughaction | Decoy | Elements | Emitting and Receiving | Emotion Memory | Experiencing | Feeling | Focal Point | Given Circumstances | Ham-Acting | I Am Being | If | Imagination | Inner Creative State | Inner Eye | Inner Images | Inner Psychological Drives | Logic and Sequence | Magic If | Mental Images | Method of Physical Actions | Mind | Mind’s Eye | Monitor | Muscular Release | Naturalism | Nature | Object of Attention | Physical Embodiment | Playacting | Playing in General | Psychotechnique | Public Solitude | Realism | Representation | Sensory Concentration | Sensory Memory | Stimulus | Stock-in-Trade | Subconscious | Super-Supertask | Supertask | Super-Throughaction | System | Task | Throughaction | Truth | Unbroken Line | Will | Will-Feeling
Unless otherwise specified, the references in brackets refer to the corresponding chapters in « An Actor’s Work » by Konstantin Stanislavski, translated in English by Jean Benedetti.
An Action can be: (§3)
- physical (outer Action),
- psychological (inner Action).
- performed with Realism, when the Action is the result of an If, Given Circumstances and a Task, and is Logical and Sequential;
- Played in General, when the Action is performed for Action’s sake, mechanically, without justification nor purpose.
The Actor’s Work is what the actor needs to do to reach his Basic Goal.
The Actor’s Work includes: (§16)
Actor’s Work on a Role
Actor’s Work on Oneself
- the work on his internal apparatus (Experiencing),
- the work on his external apparatus (Physical Embodiment).
Adaptations are the adjustments of the actor’s mental and physical Actions in order to influence in a certain way an object of Communication. Adaptations are a means of Communication and of fulfilling a Task. (§11)
The concrete form Adaptations take depends on: (§11)
- the object of Communication,
- the content of Communication,
- the person of the actor,
- the actor’s Circumstances.
Adaptations must be: (§11)
- first, selected;
- secondly, carried out.
Each of these two steps can happen: (§11)
Instead, the actor should aim for: (§11)
- either Subconscious Adaptations (Adaptations which are Subconsciously selected and Subconsciously carried out),
- or semi-conscious Adaptations (Adaptations which are Consciously selected, but Subconsciously carried out).
The participation of the Subconscious in the Adaptations can only be indirectly stimulated, with the help of a Decoy. Since Subconscious Adaptations occur when Experiencing does, all the Decoys used to stimulate Experiencing can be used as well to stimulate Subconscious Adaptations. (§11)
Art of Experiencing
Art of Representation
The Art of Representation uses the process of Experiencing only as a preparatory stage, in order to find the outward form of the role, which is then fixed and repeated mechanically, without Experiencing the role anymore. (§2)
Focusing the Attention on what is happening onstage allows the actor to resist the natural tendency of having his attention drawn to the audience, which is inhibiting. (§5)
Attention is also important in real life, to provide the actor with creative material. Valuable sources of creative material and therefore worthy Objects of Attention include nature, art, everyday life and the inner life of people. (§5)
The Basic Goal of the actor is to conceive and give birth to a new human being – the role. (§16)
This Basic Goal can be divided into two parts: (§2)
- to create the inner life of the “human spirit” of the role, through Experiencing;
- to Communicate externally this inner life in an artistic form, through Physical Embodiment.
The Basic Goal is reached through the Actor’s Work.
Belief is the acceptance that what is happening onstage could happen in reality. (§8)
Belief is a necessary condition for Experiencing and I Am Being to happen in the actor. Belief is also essential for the audience, who can only be captivated if they are able to believe what they see. (§8)
The length of each Bit can vary, from the largest to the smallest. The process of division can be repeated several times, with the Action of each large Bit being further divided into smaller Bits, which can in turn be divided into even smaller Bits. The actor should divide the Action as many times and into as small Bits as needed in order to make each of them clear in its every detail. (§7)
When performing the role, the actor should put the Bits back together into larger Bits. These larger Bits will be the milestones of the path the actor should follow. (§7)
Circle of Attention
The size of the Circle of Attention can vary. Stanislavski distinguishes between: (§5)
- the small Circle of Attention (which can be used to create Public Solitude),
- the medium Circle of Attention,
- the large Circle of Attention,
- the largest Circle of Attention.
The Circle of Attention can be: (§5)
- either around the actor (the actor being at the center of the circle),
- or outside the actor (the actor being outside of the circle).
Communication is essential in theatre, because it’s only when characters are in a situation of Communication that their Feelings and inner life are expressed to the audience and the inner life of the characters is what the audience is interested to see. The actor should therefore be in a situation of Communication at every moment. (§10)
The objects of (direct) Communication can be: (§10)
- a living object (a fellow actor),
- the actor himself (self Communication or solitary Communication),
- an imaginary object.
The audience should not be an object of direct Communication (this would lead to Stock-in-Trade). The Communication between the actor and the audience should happen only indirectly, through another object of direct Communication. (§10)
The actor’s means of Communication include: (§10)
- visible/external means of Communication: they include the eyes, the face, the hands, the fingers, the body, and are used for bodily Communication;
- Invisible/internal means of Communication: they include all what relates to the Mind, and are used for mental Communication (also called Emitting and Receiving).
The Counter-Throughaction is the line made up of all the individual moments and small lines of life in the actor/role and running in the opposite direction of the Supertask. (§15)
A Decoy (or Stimulus or Catalyst) is what the actor uses in the frame of the Psychotechnique in order to indirectly stimulate Nature and Subconscious (§16) and what relates to them such as Feelings (§9), Subconscious Adaptations (§11) or Inner Psychological Drives (§12).
A Decoy can be: (§9)
- Internal: internal Decoys are the different Elements of the System, such as the physical Actions (in the Method of Physical Actions) and their Logic and Sequence, the If and
- the Given Circumstances, the Imagination and its film of Mental Images (§4), the Objects of Attention, the Bits and Tasks, the sense of Truth and Belief. (§9) Each Inner Psychological Drive can also be used as a Decoy for the others. (§12)
- External: external Decoys are all the externals of a stage production (the staging or mise-en-scène, the set, the props, the lights, the sound and other production effects), which influence the actor’s Feelings in the same way that in real life our mood is influenced by the things that surrounds us. (§9)
The Elements include Actions, If and Given Circumstances, Logic and Sequence, Imagination, Attention, Bits and Tasks, Truth and Belief, Emotion Memory, Adaptations, Inner tempo-rhythm, Inner characterization, Stamina and polish, Inner ethics and discipline, Charisma and allure. (§9, §11)
Emitting and Receiving
The Emotion Memory is the memory which stores the Feelings experienced in the past by the actor.
- from real situations that the actor has experienced himself (either as a participant or as an observant),
- from real situations experienced by others and which the actor has heard about,
- from the actor’s Imagination.
The Emotion Memory must be distinguished from the Sensory Memory which doesn’t store past Feelings, but past impressions produced by the five senses. Nevertheless, Emotion Memory and Sensory Memory are tightly linked, since reviving memories of taste, touch, smell, sound and sight related to a past event can lead to reviving the Feelings which were experienced in that moment. (§9)
The actor should therefore learn to develop and use his Emotion Memory. (§9)
Instead, the actor needs to go at them indirectly, using the Psychotechnique. (§4, §9) The Psychotechnique consists in using a Decoy that will act as a Stimulus to the Emotion Memory and its Feelings. (§9)
The use of the Psychotechnique will lead the actor to Experiencing, and when the actor is Experiencing, he will experience Feelings. (§2) Feelings will thus appear of themselves, as a result of the process of Experiencing, and the actor should not be directly concerned with Feelings. (§3)
Experiencing is the process by which the actor creates I Am Being, (§8) becoming personally involved in his role, feeling that he is in the same situation as the character in the play and experiencing his own Feelings as being parallel to the character’s. (§2) Experiencing thus allows the actor to involve his Nature and Subconscious into his Acting. (§2, §16)
The Feelings that the actor can experience onstage are note the Feelings of the role, but his own, which are similar to the Feelings of the role and run parallel to it. Therefore, the actor must work with his own Feelings. (§2, §9)
The Feelings that the actor can experience onstage can be : (§9)
- first-time Feelings : they are the 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. They are rare and cannot be Consciously controlled.
- recurrent Feelings: they are the Feelings which the actor has already experienced in real life. They come from the actor’s Emotion Memory. They can in some measure be Consciously controlled and it’s therefore on them that the actor should focus. He can do that by learning to develop and use his Emotion Memory.
Feelings are an expression of Nature and Subconscious. Feelings, Subconscious and Nature cannot be directly controlled by the actor, in a Conscious and voluntary way. (§2) Therefore, the actor shouldn’t be concerned with the Feelings and focus on them. This would result in Stock-in-Trade. (§3, §7, §8)
But since the Subconscious is not totally separate from the Conscious experience either, Feelings can be indirectly stimulated, Consciously and voluntarily, by creating the favorable conditions for them to appear on their own, as a result. This is done by the application of the Psychotechnique, in particular the Method of Physical Actions (§2, §16), the Imagination (§4) or the Tempo-Rhythm (§12).
Depending on the distance between the Focal Point and the actor, Stanislavski distinguishes between: (§5)
- the immediate Focal Point,
- the mid Focal Point,
- the distant Focal Point.
The Given Circumstances are the answers to questions such as the “who, when, where, why, for what reason, how, …” of a situation. (§4)
The Given Circumstance can be: (§4)
- given by the play,
- given by the creative team,
- invented by the actor’s Imagination.
- to invent the Given Circumstances that are not given by the play or the creative team,
- to illustrate and color all the Given Circumstances.
The actor should use the If and the Given Circumstances:
- to perform Actions with Realism and to avoid Playing in General (§3),
- to Imagine (§4),
- to stimulate Muscular Release (§6).
Ham-Acting uses neither the process of Experiencing (unlike the Art of Experiencing and the Art of Representation) nor theatrical tricks or technique (unlike Stock-in-Trade), but only common clichés. (§2)
I Am Being
I Am Being is the state of Mind of the actor who, having put himself in the center of the situation described by the Given Circumstances, feels that he is really inside it and begins to act as himself. (§4) It means “I am, I live, I feel, I think as one with the role”. (§8)
The actor should use the If and the Given Circumstances:
- to perform Actions with Realism and to avoid Playing in General (§3),
- to Imagine (§4),
- for stimulate Muscular Release (§6).
In the Psychotechnique, the actor should use his Imagination:
- to invent the Given Circumstances that are not given by the play or the creative team; (§4)
- to give life to the Given Circumstances; (§4)
- to enhance his Attention, turning it into Sensory Concentration; (§5)
- to feed his Emotion Memory. (§9)
- in the preparation of the role, the actor must create a film or Unbroken Line of Mental Images representing the Given Circumstances;
- in the performance of the role, the actor must project this film outside of himself and watch it with his Inner Eye.
At each step, the actor should introduce the If in relation with the Mental Images he is creating or watching. These Mental Images will evoke corresponding moods and experiences to the actor, thus creating Truth and Belief and providing a Stimulus to Feelings and to Action. This will urge him to use his Imagination further. (§4)
For Imagination to play this role, the actor should observe some rules. They are basically the same as for performing Actions with Realism: the actor should avoid imagining in general (see Playing in General); his Imagination should instead have a purpose and be Logical and Sequential. (§4)
Inner Creative State
The actor should create this state every time he is working and prevent it from getting distorted. A distortion can happen when one of the Elements gets separated from the others or when a wrong Element is introduced into the state. Any distortion prevents Experiencing from happening and leads to Stock-in-Trade. The actor should use the Monitor to notice any distortion happening. (§14)
See Mental Images.
Inner Psychological Drives
There are three Inner Psychological Drives. (§12)
In the original, older terminology, the three Inner Psychological Drives are: (§12)
In an alternative, newer terminology, the three Inner Psychological Drives are: (§12)
The three Inner Psychological Drives are:
- equally important: even though every actor may have a predominant Inner Psychological Drives, this one shouldn’t overwhelm the two others. (§12)
- inseparable: the three Inner Psychological Drives cannot be separated from one another, but form an indivisible thing. The actor should make sure to have his three Inner Psychological Drives working together, if he wants to create freely. (§12)
- the Mind can be activated by the If and the Given Circumstances,
- the Feeling can be activated by Tempo-Rhythm,
- the Will can be activated by a Task.
Once one of the Inner Psychological Drives is activated, it can activate the two others, given their interdependency. Thus, each Inner Psychological Drives also functions as a Decoy for the others. (§12)
Logic and Sequence
In the act of Imagination, Mental Images (or Inner Images) are the images or Representations created by the Mind (in particular in relation with the Given Circumstances) and perceived by the actor with his Inner Eye. (§4)
Method of Physical Actions
The Method of Physical actions is a part of the Psychotechnique.
Even though the Truth the actor needs to create is a Truth of the Feelings, the Method of Physical Actions invites the actor to focus on physical Actions rather than on psychological ones. Psychological Actions are complex and elusive, while physical Actions are concrete and accessible. When physical Actions are performed within the context of Given Circumstances, there is a strong interaction between the Mind and the body, the Actions and the Feelings. Therefore, physical Actions offer an easy and indirect way to the Truth of Feelings. (§8)
As the other Inner Psychological Drives, the Mind can be activated thanks to the Psychotechnique, by the use of a Decoy. As a Decoy, the actor can use any Element, in particular the If and the Given Circumstances. (§12)
See Inner Eye.
Stanislavski mentions the Monitor in relation with:
- Muscular Release: the Monitor’s role is first, to be aware of the arising of excessive tensions and to locate them; second, to release them. The Monitor should be constantly at work in the actor. (§6)
- Inner Creative State: when the actor feels a distortion happening to his Inner Creative State, he should use the Monitor in order to find out which is the Element in himself that has stopped working properly, and make the necessary adjustments to restore the Inner Creative State. With time, this process should become automatical. (§14)
Muscular Release is the process by which the actor releases excessive muscular tension due to bad habits of movement and speech, to the fear related to public appearance (§6) or to attempting to access directly to the Subconscious (§16).
Muscular Release is important because excessive muscular tension impedes both Experiencing and Physical Embodiment, thus preventing the actor from fulfilling his Basic Goal. Muscular Release allows the actor to move according to the laws of Nature. (§6)
The object of Muscular Release is not any muscular tension, but only the tensions that are unnecessary for the given posture or movement. (§6)
Muscular Release is a three-step process: (§6)
- Allowing the arising of excessive tension;
- Releasing this excessive tension with the help of the Monitor;
- Justyfing the posture or movement by the If and Given Circumstances, with the help of Imagination. The goal is to simulate Nature to participate in the process by creating Truth and Belief, because only Nature can distinguish between the necessary tension that needs to be kept and the unnecessary tension that needs to get released.
Nature gives the principles of Acting which are described in the System. (§16) The Actor’s Work consists in rigorously studying and observing them, so that he can involve Nature into his Acting and fulfil his Basic Goal. (§2, §16)
The laws of human Nature include in particular:
- the Logic and Sequence of Actions (§3) and Imagination (§4),
- a correct use of muscular tension for posture and movement (Muscular Release) (§6).
Object of Attention
The Object of Attention can be: (§5)
The Object of Attention can be: (§5)
Physical Embodiment is the subject of the second part of Stanislavski’s book “An Actor’s Work”. It corresponds to the programme of the second year in the Acting curriculum presented in this book. (§2)
Playing in General
The actor should avoid Playing in General and always perform Actions with Realism. An Action which is Played in General cannot lead to Truth, Belief and Experiencing, as it should in the Method of Physical Actions and the Psychotechnique. Playing in General leads to Stock-in-Trade. (§3)
The Psychotechnique is the way to the Art of Experiencing: it is the means whereby the actor can Experience his role and achieve I Am Being, thus fulfiling the first part of his Basic Goal, that is to create the inner, psychological life of the role. (§2)
The Psychotechnique can be used not only to stimulate the Subconscious and Feelings 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. (§16)
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 that direction would have negative results (such as muscular tension). (§16)
- By using a Decoy : Using a Decoy consists for the actor in choosing one Element and making it fully alive, pushing it to its extreme limit. (§16) The Decoy can for example be performing Actions with Realism, as in the Method of Physical Actions. The use of the Decoy will create Truth, which will evoke the actor’s Belief, and the state of I Am Being will arise. When the actor believes his experience, Nature can believe it too and will get involved, bringing in with her Feelings, the Subconscious and inspiration. (§2, §16)
- By using a larger Task: Using a larger Task consists for the actor in diverting his Attention away from the Task at hand and focusing it on the larger Task which the Task at hand is part of. The Task at hand gets absorbed into the larger one and naturally falls under the control of the Subconscious. The same process can also happen with the absorption of a large Task into the Supertask or with the absorption of the Supertask into the Super-Supertask. (§16)
- By using an accident: Using an accident consists for the actor in reacting appropriately to an accident happening onstage, by making the accident part of the play. (§16)
Realism of Action is necessary, not for Realism’s sake but as part of the Psychotechnique and the Method of Physical Actions to stimulate Experiencing: only Realism can create Truth, Belief and I Am Being, which will in turn simulate the appearance of Nature, Subconscious and Feelings. (§3)
- well-founded: it must be the result of an If, Given Circumstances (§3, §4) and a Task (§7);
- Logical and Sequential: it should obey the same Logic and Sequence which we are familiar with in real life (§8).
Realism doesn’t mean bringing onto the stage every aspect from the real life. Some things from real life would be harmful to artistic Truth and would lead the actor to Stock-in-Trade. Truth on stage must be selective: it should retain only the essential things from the real life, while leaving unnecessary ones behind. This way Truth on stage will be not only realistic, but artistic and poetic as well. (§8)
The Representation is one of the three Inner Psychological Drives, in the alternative, newer terminology. Representation and Appraisal together correspond to the Mind in the original, older terminology. (§12)
To achieve Sensory Concentration the actor should Imagine Given Circumstances around the Object of Attention and give life to them with the If. This will create an emotional reaction and an impulse to action that will strengthen the bond between the actor and the Object of Attention. (§5)
Sensory Memory is the memory which stores past impressions produced by the five senses. (§9)
Nevertheless, Sensory Memory is related to Emotion Memory and is also important for the actor, in as much as sensory impressions are tightly linked to Feelings: reviving memories of taste, touch, smell, sound and sight related to a past event can lead to reviving the Feelings which were experienced in that moment. (§9)
Many wrong turns in the Actor’s Work can lead to Stock-in-Trade, for example:
- bypassing Tasks and Actions and going straight for the result (in particular the Feelings) (§3, §7, §8);
- Playing in General instead of performing Actions with Realism (§3);
- choosing unnecessary, harmful Tasks (§7);
- making the audience his object of direct Communication (§10);
- making Adaptations an end in themselves, instead of using them as a means to fulfill his Tasks (§11);
- Adapting to the audience and not to the fellow actor (§11);
- using fully Conscious Adaptations (§11);
- letting the Inner Creative State getting distorted either by one of the Element getting separated from the others or by a wrong Element being introduced into the Inner Creative State (§14).
- not involving Subconscious into his Acting (§16).
Subconscious must be involved into Acting because the Basic Goal of the actor is to create the life of the human spirit of the role, and in human life, Subconscious is constantly at work, prompting both our inner life and the physical expression of it. (§16)
The appearance of the Subconscious onstage must be prepared by the actor. The Subconscious cannot be directly controlled, in a Conscious and voluntary way. But since the Subconscious is not totally separate from the Conscious experience either, it can be indirectly stimulated, Consciously and voluntarily, by creating the favorable conditions for the Subconscious to happen on its own. This is done by creating Experiencing and I Am Being, by use of the Psychotechnique. (§2, §16)
The Super-Supertask is useful to simulate the Subconscious as part of the Psychotechnique: when the actor diverts his Attention away from the Supertask and focuses it on the Super-Supertask, the Supertask gets absorbed into the Super-Supertask and falls under the control of the Subconscious. (§16)
The Supertask must correspond to the ideas that the author expresses in the play, while resonating with the actor’s personality. (§15)
The Supertask’s role is to: (§15)
- stimulate the Elements and the Inner Psychological Drives. It should therefore appeal to the actor’s Mind, Will and Feeling.
- bring together the Elements and the Inner Psychological Drives, by giving them a common direction. In particular, it gives a unity to the individual Bits and Tasks of the role. This role of giving unity to the different components of the System makes the Supertask one of its most important aspects.
- define the Supertask by giving it a name;
- constantly focus all the efforts of his Inner Psychological Drives in the direction of the Supertask (thus forming the Throughaction), not letting himself to be diverted by a Task, Action or idea that would go in a different direction.
The Supertask is useful to simulate the Subconscious as part of the Psychotechnique: when the actor diverts his Attention away from a Task and focuses it on the Supertask , the Task gets absorbed into the Supertask and falls under the control of the Subconscious. (§16)
The System includes:
- the Psychotechnique which aims at accessing the Subconscious through the Conscious (§2);
- the Elements (§11);
- the Inner Psychological Drives, which activate the Elements (§12);
- the Inner Creative State, which is achieved by the coming together of the Elements and the Inner Psychological Drives (§14);
- the Supertask and the Throughaction (§15).
A Task is what the actor/role needs to accomplish in order to overcome the obstacles that stand on the way between himself and what he wants. (§7)
A Task can be: (§7)
- physical (outer Task),
- psychological (inner Task),
- basically psychological (that is a physical Task but with a psychological element as well).
Focusing on his Tasks (and on fulfilling them through Actions) allows the actor to avoid the temptation of going straight for the result of the role’s actions (in particular the Feelings), which leads to Stock-in-Trade and Ham-Acting. When the actor focuses on his Tasks instead, the result takes care of itself. (§7)
To define his Tasks the actor should divide the role into Bits and identify a Task within each Bit by giving it a name. Each Task can be named with “I want to…” followed by a verb. (§7) As Bits, Tasks can be of various sizes (large, medium, small, …). (§7)
- related to the deeper meaning of the play and the role;
- directed in the direction of the Supertask, which draws together all the individual Tasks of the play or the role and gives them unity and a common direction;
- directed towards the other actors;
- genuine and believable;
- dynamic, concrete and feasible;
- attracting to the actor.
When performing the role, the actor can use Tasks to simulate the Subconscious as part of the Psychotechnique: when the actor diverts his Attention away from a Task at hand and focuses it instead on the larger Task which the Task at hand is part of, the Task at hand gets absorbed into the larger Task and falls under the control of the Subconscious. (§16)
Together with the Supertask, the Throughaction participates in bringing together the Elements, the Inner Psychological Drives and the individual Bits and Tasks of the role by giving them a common direction. This role of giving unity to the System makes the Throughaction one of its most important aspects. (§15)
Truth and Belief are necessary conditions for Experiencing and I Am Being to happen in the actor. Truth and Belief are also essential for the audience, who can only be captivated if they are able to believe what they see. (§8)
In order to create Belief within the actor and the audience, Truth must be Realistic and not a truth-like, as in the Art of Representation. But that doesn’t mean bringing onto the stage every aspect from real life. Some things from real life would be harmful to the artistic Truth and would lead the actor to Stock-in-Trade. Truth on stage must be selective: it should retain only the essential things from real life, while leaving unnecessary ones behind. This way Truth on stage will be not only realistic, but artistic and poetic as well. (§8)
Even though the Truth the actor needs to create is a Truth of the Feelings, the Method of Physical Actions invites the actor to create it in his body through physical Actions rather than in his Feelings through psychological Actions. Psychological Actions and Feelings are complex and elusive and if the actor focuses on them he runs the risk of Stock-in-Trade.
On the other hand, physical Actions are concrete and accessible and when performed within the context of Given Circumstances, there is a strong interaction between the Mind and the body, the physical Actions and the Feelings. Therefore, physical Actions offer an easy and indirect way to Truth of Feelings. (§8)
- a broken line (when the Element or the Inner Psychological Drive is intermittently engaged),
- an Unbroken Line (when the Element or the Inner Psychological Drive is constantly engaged).