Constantin Stanislavski: Techniques of a Legend

Posted on 8 July 2016


Born in Moscow in 1863, Constantin Stanislavski was to become perhaps the most famous figure in theatre. He not only devised the still-used ‘System’ of acting; he also sparked inspiration in every other teacher he met, launching a wave of System-inspired techniques across Europe and the U.S.; including the Method we use here at Brian Timoney Actors’ Studio.


Early Life

Stanislavski’s surname at birth was Alekseyev, and he was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Russia.

His maternal grandmother had been an acclaimed French actress, so his family didn’t frown on young Constantin’s passion for acting as other bourgeois families might have. In fact, they built a theatre of one of the Alexseyev estates especially for him. However, it was still considered a taboo career choice for someone of his standing, and so he went into the family business officially whilst pursuing a vibrant thespian lifestyle in his spare time.

Thankfully, the winds of revolutionary change would blow all those taboos away, and he would go on to win three major honours under USSR leadership as well as international acclaim.

In 1888, at the tender age of 25, he co-founded the Society of Art and Literature. The Society’s aim was to unite amateur and professional actors and artists to the benefit of all involved. Stanislavski – having permanently adopted his chosen stage name – funded the Society fully with his massive inheritance.

The 1917 revolution meant that bourgeois families like the Alekseyevs faced severe criticism and restrictions. Stanislavski, however, had been developing and encouraging Realism in his work for years prior, and his company was jointly owned. He continued in the theatre unhindered by Soviet leadership.


The Moscow Art Theatre


We are striving to create the first rational, moral, and public-accessible theatre.


In 1897 Stanislavski opened the Moscow Art Theatre. It all began with an 18-hour meeting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Dancheko, which has since been compared to theatre history‘s equivalent of the Treaty of Versailles! The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) was to take actors from Nemirovich’s Philharmonic and Stanislavski’s Society as well as the public.

The MAT was revolutionary in many ways, and contributed more than just the System to the masses; it also reignited the career of the brilliant writer Anton Chekhov.

His early years at the MAT were spent working on a structure for actors; something that would produce meaningful performances that were also disciplined and consistent. Hence, the System was born.

The System was a series of exercises designed to encourage emotional intelligence. Actors, Stanislavski reasoned, must understand the motivations and reactions of their characters; they must be able to truly understand their innermost selves if they’re to act with depth and naturalism.

1922-24 were the years of the MAT’s world tour, which saw Stanislavski and his company travel to Europe and the United States. In the U.S. some members of the party stayed behind to instruct students such as Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner, who would go on to co-found the Actor’s Studio and develop the American Method. This Method is still in widespread use today, including in our acting programmes.


Emotional and Sense Memory

Acting at its best is a form of emotional intelligence. All the best actors and the legendary acting teachers are highly emotionally aware – of both themselves and their characters. Emotional intelligence is refined and enchanced by the use of Stanislavski’s famous System, which uses techniques like emotional and sense memory.

Eleonora Duse – an incredible actor, perhaps one of the best of all time, describes using emotional memory in an interview. She suggests that the reason her art continues to improve with age is that with each passing year she gains life experience, and has therefore amassed a fortune of experiences to draw on when she inhabits a new character. Personal issues, she says, are not distractions; they’re inspiration.

Many acting classes avoid this psychological aspect of acting, but not ours – and certainly not Stanislavskis. An actor’s job is to accurately portray a character, and a large part of that must be to understand its psyche.

Early in his career, Stanislavski could be found wandering the streets of Russia in character – as a tramp, a fortune-teller, a drunk – as an acting “experiment”. He would truly walk in the shoes of characters he wished to play, gaining relevant life experience. He would make elaborate notes on these exercises, and later refine them into the System.


Naturalism and Realism

As we’ve previously covered, Realism is the way things are and Naturalism is the why; they are, respectively, an artistic movement and a technique.

Naturalism emerged in the 19th Century, and was popularised by the French literati – Emile Zola’s three principles were considered the best techniques for a long time. Then Naturalism came to the stage.

In the 20th Century, Soviet Russia adopted Realism as its artistic movement of choice. The purpose was to portray things as they really were – realistically – without pomp or fantastic qualities. Naturalism as a technique was, therefore, ideal; and Stanislavski had been adapting it for the theatre for a long time.


Given Circumstances

In the second half of his career, he expanded his System in a different direction; he developed Given Circumstances. This technique was a natural progression from understanding the importance of emotional awareness, but a step away from the aggressive psychological nature of the early System.

“Given Circumstances” refers to the environmental conditions and personal situations of a character. For example, a given circumstance might be that the play is set in Elizabethan England, or that Hamlet’s father died prior to the play’s actions.

Stanislavski argued that although characters make choices unconsciously, actors do not. Given circumstances influence a character’s actions, and no level of emotional memory will give you all the same circumstances as the character. Therefore, an awareness of the circumstances given to the character will enhance the actor’s understanding of their motivations and make the portrayal of action more natural.


The Given Circumstances, just like ‘if,’ are suppositions, products of the imagination.


This was a big turnaround for the System and its offspring, the Method: Stanislavski was beginning to believe that the imagination could be just as powerful as real-life experiences. One of his most famous students, Sanford Meisner, couldn’t have agreed more.

Meisner used Stanislavski’s new Given Circumstances to encourage the adoption of his Meisner Technique, which advocates for the power of imagination over emotional memory. Meisner believed that an actor can understand circumstances without having lived them by producing a rich imaginary world.

Another founder of the Actor’s Studio, Stella Adler, agreed with Meisner and Stanislavski whole-heartedly:


Drawing on the emotions I experienced – for example, when my mother died – to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it.

Brian’s Take

Those with a less intense imagination are better off with Strasberg’s interpretation of the System, and of course the techniques Stanislavski devised early in his career still work. However, he noticed that those of his students who abused emotional memory often became hysterical.

This is why, when we teach the Method, we teach safe use of it; although a psychological connection to the role will always improve its portrayal, abuse of emotional memory for art isn’t worth the resulting trauma.

In every era of his jam-packed life, Stanislavski uncovered something else for us to learn from and expand on. He not only was inspired; he inspired others, and continues to do so decades after his death. To find out what we can offer, consider our unique acting programmes – for inspired actors only!


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