Stanislavski’s acting technique has inspired all the major acting methods developed in America in the twentieth century, yet a lot of beginning actors still find it difficult to understand. For a quick look at the basics of the “Stanislavski system”, below are four of Stanislavski’s acting principles, each illustrated by a simple acting exercise.
1) Using your imagination to create real emotions on stage
Stanislavski encouraged his students to use the magic if to believe in the circumstances of the play. Actors use their imagination to answer questions like:
“What if what happens in the scene was really happening to me?”
“Where do I come from?”
“What do I want?”
“Where am I going?”
“What will I do when I get there?”
A simple exercise you can do anywhere to develop your imagination is to simply observe people surrounding you as you go about your daily life (for example, in the subway or at the coffee shop). Then, invent details about their lives and use your observations to make up a biography for each person. The next step is to write the biography of a character you’re playing.
2) Action versus Emotion
Stanislavsky encouraged his students to concentrate on actions rather than emotions. In every scene, the actor has an objective (a goal of what he wants to accomplish) and faces a series of obstacles. To reach his goal, the actor breaks the scene down into beats, with each beat being an active verb, something the character does to try to reach his objective. Here are a few examples of active verbs that can be actions in scenes:
A simple exercise to get used to this way of working is to get a piece of paper and continue this list, adding as many active verbs as you can think of.
3) Relaxation and Concentration
Actors who study Stanislavski’s acting method learn to relax their muscles. The goal is to not use any extra muscles than the ones needed to perform a particular action on stage. They also work on concentration so they can reach a state of solitude in public and not feel tense when performing on stage. In this acting technique, relaxation and concentration go hand in hand.
Here’s a simple Stanislavski concentration exercise to get started…
Close your eyes and concentrate on every sound you hear, from the loudest to the most quiet: a door slamming in the distance, a ruffle of the leaves in the trees outside, the hum of the air conditioner, etc. Try to focus solely on sounds, excluding everything else from your mind. The next step is to open your eyes and try to retain the same amount of focus.
4) Using the senses
Stanislavsky students practiced using their senses to create a sense of reality on stage. For example, if their character just walked indoors and it was snowing outside, they may work on an exercise to remember what being outdoors in the snow feels like so they can have a strong sense of where they’re coming from.
Here’s a quick example of how you would approach that type of exercise…
Close your eyes and imagine you are outdoors in the snow, then ask yourself the following five questions:
What do you see? Is the snow pristine? Muddy? Is it sparkling in the sun? Is it more of a dark cloudy day?
What do you smell? How cold is the air as it enters your nostrils and goes down to your lungs?
What do you hear? Is it more quiet than usual?
What do you feel? How does the snow feel as it falls on your face? Is it sticky? Powdery? Wet? Are your toes cold?
What do you taste? Imagine that a snowflake falls on your lips. How does it taste?
Is your throat dry from the cold?
Of course, there’s a lot more to Stanislavski than these four acting principles. Among other things, Stanislavski developed several exercises to help actors build a character “from the outside in” through physicality and voice. These techniques are described in his book, Building a Character, the second in a trilogy of must-read acting books by this great actor and director.