“… I read Juha Hurme`s book “Parrakkaita lapsia” today.
Suddenly I thought: Why do I bother to read the works of Stanislavski?
Why should we imitate “real life” on the stage?
Don`t we have enough of that already?”
personal notes 3 March 1996
What on earth is Stanislavski? There are at least “the ever-changing, curious artist/researcher-Stanislavski”, “the psychological Stanislavski”, “the historical/fictitious My Life in Art-Stanislavski”, “the Stanislavski of active methods taught even today at the St Petersburg Theatre Academy”, “the method-Stanislavski translated to the America”, and many others.
Even though I stated that “Stanislavski is not useful for me” at the beginning of this research, I believe I meant the “method-Stanislavski translated to the America” because I do not normally run into the others stated above in my work. My claim is that this is the tradition for which I need to break the lance with Finnish theatre actors. Let us call it “the Method-Stanislavski”. Its spirit, metaphysics and practices can best be found in the following works: Robert Cohen’s Acting Power, Sonia Moore’s The Stanislavski System and, of course, the modern hit, Judith Weston’s Directing Actors.
My observation before starting this research was that, whenever I discussed acting with Finnish theatre professionals – actors in particular, the discussion did not move forward from the beginning or the middle of the 20th century. During my MA-theatre studies, I had become familiar with a number of different ideas of the theatre and rehearsals: realistic acting in front of the camera, improvisation, psychological and realistic spectacle, and dance theatre. Performances were also prepared purely on the basis of movement and form with a little “internal movements” on top of all (Piispanen:38-40. Kallioniemi:17).
As I was acting in various tasks in the “professional field”, whenever a text with characters for which a few lines had been written was brought to me, everyone often fell automatically into the world of discussion built by writings inspired by the “Method-Stanislavski”, even if it was in conflict with the performance’s intended aesthetics or conception of Art. For some reason, everyone in work groups believed that we could never abandon those methods, speech habits or all of their metaphysical levels set by them for acting. The “Method-Stanislavski” kept leaping out of its hiding place and started to build the performance towards the direction it desired – ignoring the creators of the performance.
The main question was how to talk about acting, not necessarily how to act in practice. The question was of our assumptions regarding the performance and audience, of how and in what ways we should discuss our rehearsals in order for our performance to become true, believable and honest.
As examples, I will present a few phrases I have heard during my studies or in my profession as stated by theatre directors:
“I think you were a little bit false in that part of the scene” or
“At that moment I didn`t believe in you”
and by actors:
“This line (or way of action) is quite impossible for me, if I just have said something like that….” or
“You can`t make an actor say or do anything that doesn`t feel right or natural for him/her”
Does the director in the example aim his words at the actor’s persona or character? Who is he talking to? To the actor, of course. In this situation, the actor has two choices: he/she either attempts to re-interpret the director’s phrase and act according to the tools he/she masters, or he/she attempts to find more practical ways of communication.
Who does the actor refer to when saying “…for me it’s impossible…”? The character or the actor’s persona? The actor, of course. In this situation, the director has two choices: he/she can start a discussion over the form of the performance and how this rhetoric could be achieved through cooperation by combining different exercises with which the actors could become familiar with the intended aesthetics. Or, in order to have the actor cooperate he/she attempts to dig the rhetoric required by the actors out of the “Method-Stanislavski” so that the team can move forward without creating a larger crisis. In my research, I have, as a director, attempted to act following the former method, while having to rely on the latter example in “professional theatres”. As Sonia Moore says in her book The Stanislavski System:
“Nowhere in the world of theatre can directorial or acting problems be solved without taking Stanislavski`s teachings into consideration” (Moore:7)
The main reason why the “Method-Stanislavski” is still going strong is partly caused by the highly successful star cult of Hollywood. Actors all over the world are familiar with the work of Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and Robert de Niro on the big screen, and the results have often been impressive. Actors often wish to become stars and, if all of the aforementioned actors swear in the name of the “Method-Stanislavski”, critique on the method is about to face difficult times. However, it should be noted that, even if the “Method-Stanislavski” has worked well in the cases above , I does not mean that the Method is universal or free of the history. The strongest defence for the “Method-Stanislavski” is that it supposedly is the only acting method which is universal and relevant for of all forms of theatre. My claim is that this interpretation is incorrect. No acting method or way of speaking can be free of history and context because all Art is always connected to them. My claim is that the “Method-Stanislavski”, as a style, is always directed, as theatrical actions or related discussion, towards American psychological realism and does not provide any tools for detachment from that style, era, thinking, values or especially its diverse metaphysics.
Society, human conception, the art and philosophy are always amidst constant changes. Theatre is not detached from the situation or a free islet in the current of history. New actors need to work, more and more, in constantly changing conditions, in a different world, and changing and developing media. In such a situation, it does not benefit anyone that a single method, way of speaking, teacher or trend could, even locally, have power over determining which is the correct form of art or how it needs to be talked about in order for it to be real.
“Artists who do not go forward go backward” – Stanislavski
1.1 1.1 Philip B. Zarrilli’s criticism towards Sonia Moore’s “Method-Stanislavski”
In the foreword of his book “Acting RE-Considered”, Zarrilli reads Sonia Moore’s book “Training an Actor: The Stanislavski System in Class” through critical eyes. The choice is a good one because, within the Method tradition, Moore’s book represents the more recent, “critical” approach towards pure psychological acting. The objective is an actor who is more “aware of his/her body” or a “psychophysical entity” (Zarrilli:11). As Zarrilli confesses in his introduction, one reason for the birth of critique on pure psychological acting within the “Method-Stanislavskism” was the publication of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception in English in 1962 (Zarrilli:14). As is known, Merleau-Ponty questions the absence of the body whenever talking about human experiences.
According to Zarrilli, Moore sees the body as a “tool” and “instrument” for sound, speech, observations and imagination. Moore is also consciously looking for acting students for whom this “instrument” can be trained. In her book, Moore wishes to emphasise the problem that the interpretation of Stanislavski methods have, particularly in the United States, ignored the importance of physical exercises in the entire Stanislavski Method. According to Zarrilli, Moore does not, however, define how the importance of the body becomes a central factor in the Moore version of the Method, apart from the fact that it emphasises the need for physical exercises so that the actor’s body becomes “responsive” (Zarrilli:11-13). Moore refers briefly to the connection between the mind and the body by saying that actors should control their bodies as perfectly as dancers. Zarrilli makes a note of the dualism prevailing in the sentence in that the mind continues to control the body (Zarrilli:11). As an example, Zarrilli presents one of Moore’s phrases used for instructing an acting student.
“Let your body express what you have in you mind” or
“Think, think and make your body project what is in your mind“ (Moore:36)
Therefore, thinking is represented as a some kind of storage of mental images which is fully separate from the rest of the body. According to Zarrilli’s interpretation, Moore’s version of the Stanislavski method strengthens all nature/culture dichotomies of the 20th century where culture (man/mind/text) controls, shapes, and tames nature (woman/emotions/body) (Zarrilli:11). The method wishes to offer control and order in place of chaos. This idea presents a problem in that, even if the method functions perfectly, the underlying human conception – an idea of a human subject and affecting power relations – has been decided on beforehand. This turns the criticism into a very political question – what is freedom and how can it be defined?
In my opinion, a larger problem in Sonia Moore’s book and the “Method-Stanislavski”, in general, is that, while it eventually locks the actor inside the mind vs. body dualism built in the method, it leaves the ever-famous “building of the character” as the only tool for the actor. Even if a theatre performance as a complete art work (or a process) could escape the form of American psychological realism contained by the method, the figures of speech about acting and the actors formulated actions on stage are penetrated by the metaphysics offered by the Method. The “building of a character” is happening inside the mind or using the mind and transferred into physical actions or left as a mere psychological structure.
At this stage, Zarrilli has cause to point out that this matter was not this simple for Stanislavski himself. For Stanislavski, physical functions and the holistic awareness of the body were ever-changing factors to be reflected on, and he did change his method and related opinions until his death (Zarrilli:13).
1.2 “Method-Stanislavski” and the theatre director as the actor’s personal trainer
When Sergei Tcherkasski, a professor of the St Petersburg Theatre Academy, was asked, in the Stanislavski Colloquium at the Theatre Academy of Helsinki on 30 March 2009, what was Stanislavski’s relationship with director education, the answer was not a simple one. Tcherkasski said that the Stanislavski Method does not apply that much to artistic theatre performances but to acting education. It does not comprise a road leading to art but means for training art for actors. Because Stanislavski did not have artistic problems as a theatre director but as an actor, not many of his notes of theatre directing have remained. Tcherkasski also said that Stanislavski was of the opinion that directors should “distinguish” themselves from the acting staff, which is what happened historically to his acting students (Meyerhold, Vakhtangov, Chekhov). In my opinion, this is a notable feature in the “Method-Stanislavski” which followed Stansilavski in that it often reduces the theatre director into an actor-trainer, the highest authority whose only task is to determine the moment when the actor is “real” or “believable”, or when he/she is not. As a result, the director becomes a supervisor of actors – a trainer, therapist or “guarantee” on the road towards the actor’s mysterious “divine performance” (Weston:24). This narrows down all of the other possibilities for the theatre director to be an artist.
1.2.1 Judith Weston and the director as “the actor’s personal trainer” in Directing Actors
According to Judith Weston, she has written this book for directors to be able to fully understand the film script and provide actors with quick simple directions (Weston:28). The book is strongly based on the “Method-Stanislavski” but the angle is aimed at directing, i.e., how the director can make his/her film “real” (p.9) and turn actor performances into “divine miracles” (p.24). According to Weston, the director’s most important obligation is to narrate the story (p.26) and ensure, while performing this task, that the level of acting is good – to distinguish good from bad (p.25).
Even though Weston admits that film directing involves much more than directing actors, she provides directors with tools for this particular task so that the film is successful without exceeding the budget which, according to the book, is the worst situation in a film production. Working with actors (according to Weston) can be learned similarly to learning how to locate the camera. The film director is strictly in the service of the fixed-format entertainment industry, in addition to which he/she needs to work with great actors (i.e., varying nature/woman) who regard acting as “a laboratory of the soul, and a tool for exploration and growth” (p.175). For this conflict, Weston offers the “Method-Stanislavski” tool kit as a neat package, including all of its internal historic contradictions (p.175-196).
Weston’s book could easily be ignored by claiming that it has been written through the American entertainment industry. However, it earns its credibility globally, and particularly in Finland, by referring to the performances of a number of star actors as empirical evidence of the method. It offers its method and the underlying human conception to directors so that they could quickly, without closely examining this human conception, go back to their proper work, i.e., the film industry – or the entertainment industry in this case. The book has widely been accepted as the “industry’s fundamental book” without much criticism (http://www2.teak.fi/teak/Teak299/15.html). It seems to be important that someone writes anything about directing actors.
In my opinion, all Weston does in her book is to adapt the “Method-Stanislavski” into a “The Method for Dummies” book for film directors. The wisdom of the book, i.e. “learning by doing”, can be learned from other sources, as well.
2. Sanford Meisner, repetitive exercises and Ruotsalaisen kesän yö
My firm decision to abandon the instructions set by the “Method-Stanislavski” for acting and directing brought a number of problems in directing situations in The Screens and Yvonne. As actors asked me to provide any reasons or purposes for some of their single lines, I often attempted to parry the question and find a solution elsewhere, e.g., the distance, rhythm or other such quality between the actors. At times, I used instructions close to the “Method-Stansilavski”, such as “use the line for challenging”, or “accuse”, “persuade” or “strike”. This often worked because it was close to the language more experienced acting students had been accustomed to in rehearsals. However, I was not satisfied with these emergency solutions because they always brought back the “Method-Stanislavski” and all of its by-products.
Erland Josephson’s Ruotsalaisen kesän yö is filled with dialogue. I wanted to include a dialogue play in my research to be performed with professional actors without relying on the “Method-Stanislavski” tools that I have criticised. If the tools had been used, we would have slipped to using stage solutions that would not have corresponded with my artistic objectives. My aim was to have similar dialogue as in dreams, i.e. babbling, that would, however, be connected to the world – a dialogue that we could not fully locate but remember at certain level. At this stage, I had already become somewhat familiar with Haraway’s cyborg theory and parametric design and, as a result, I was eager to study similar processes that could convey “signals” between different stage objects as efficiently as possible.
The performance was built around three-dimensional images, embodied sculptures and settings. In the middle, actors often talked. Because of the aforementioned reasons, I did not want to analyse the dialogue or set any specific instructions, but I wanted the actors to have a perspective on the conscious rehearsals of the dialogue material within the group. I wanted to experiment with a few of Sanford Meisner’s exercises in order to achieve these goals.
The work team also involved actors from Tampere Theatre Telakka and four visitors. The actors from Theatre Telakka had vast experience in acting together, but I hoped that all actors in the production would, in a new functional manner, become familiar with each other’s way of being, reacting, moving, seeing and observing – to get to know each other in the professional sense and with a research touch.
2.1 Sanford Meisner’s method
Meisner was part of the renowned Group Theatre’s acting staff, from which he resigned due to artistic differences (Krasner:142). In his teaching, Meisner emphasises doing, reactions and their “reality”, i.e., the reality of functions is not derived from psychological motives and emotions, but they are real in themselves. In my opinion, Meisner wishes to emphasise the reactive, even behaviouristic side of acting.
I have for long been interested in Meisner’s method and his critique on the psychological analysis of acting. What is interesting about Meisner is that he does not separate thinking from actions (but he separates “text” from “emotions”), but as Meisner says:
“… if you read onstage, really read; if you eat, really eat” (Meisner and Longwell:17)
What Meisner is lacking is a distinction between the operating/analytical “mind” and the functioning/executing “body”. In practice, Meisner’s methods were experimented in Ruotsalaisen kesän yö as led by director student Hilkka-Liisa Iivanainen who had studied the Meisner method in the United States. Iivanainen acted as the director’s assistant in the play.
2.1.1 Repetition exercise
The purpose of the exercise is to learn how to express what an actor observes in another actor. We used three different versions of this exercise that, in my opinion, were rather close to the exercises used by Meisner (Krasner:144).
- Only one phrase is used at the first stage, e.g., “You’re looking at me”, to which the other actor responds “I’m looking at you”. The phrase is repeated about twenty times so that the observation is allowed to have an impact on the uttered phrase. The actors are to observe each other’s behaviour and allow it to affect their behaviour, changing the nature of the dialogue. It is important that the actor does not attempt to do or produce anything – it is essential to observe and allow observations to affect one’s behaviour.
- Once the exercise has advanced to the stage where actors start to rely on their observations, the phrase can be varied so that its content changes into an expression of what the actor has observed in his/her opposite actor or what another actor’s behaviour feels like. This can be expressed through phrases, such as “You’re angry with me” or “You’re laughing at me”. The purpose is to change an observation directly into behaviour.
2.1.2 Meisner and “the Method”
Sanford Meisner was a representative of method acting. For all who worked under the (historical) title of “The Method” (Strasberg, Adler, Meisner), it was characteristic that they developed exercises focused on the acting “process” instead of the “results”. The ideal was to develop the actor’s professional skills instead of directing single productions or gaining success. For me, a significant difference between Meisner and other representatives of this school is that Meisner aims at directing the actor’s attention to the reality of the stage at the expense of the written text of the play. In my opinion, this makes the actors “play (music) together” and communicate using means other than spoken words.
Ruotsalaisen kesän yö was a precisely positioned performance. It communicated through images and combinations. It was vital that there would be no improvisation regarding the rhythm or other form of the performance, but everything should take place “spontaneously” – by accident and automatically. Actors needed to be able to “read” everything taking place on stage and react to each action organically without excessive “thinking” or emotional “analysis”, and build a “relationship” to another being acting on the stage. As a result, the actors would be able to build their artistic work with the material given to them on stage and in the script, instead of presenting their already-established ideas of the “character” or their conception of the world presented.
In his book Twentieth Century Actor Training, David Krasner summarises the Meisner Method as follows:
” (…) Meisner emphasises ensemble behavior, creating a spontaneous exchange in a jazz-like atmosphere of action and reaction” (p.146. emphasis in bold by me)
At the beginning of my research, I found it important to abandon the entire 20th century, the series of methods originating from Stanislavski, and start exploring my own modern theatre tools for the stage without any cultural preconceptions. However, it was as important to return to study the possibilities provided by Stanislavski and a number of consequent applications. I am aware that Method Acting is still a developing field in many aspects and has not become stuck with the basic exercises and styles created by its founders, but all of this did not raise my interest at this stage of my research. It was more important that, during the rehearsals for Ruotsalaisen kesän yö, we started to closely examine the Meisner tradition together, providing all of us with highly special and individual teachings and observations. We rehearsed the play’s dialogue material consciously without falling to the simple psychology of the “Method” or the related genre trap. This approach was probably possible only because, at the time, I had abandoned phenomenological approaches as “the parent theory” for my research. Donna Haraway’s texts on cyborgs and situational knowloedge interests helped me to keep a sufficient distance to Meisner’s tradition it order to move as close as possible to Meisner’s methods.
All historical theatre forms (NOH theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, The Method) contain fragments, parts of something more universal, information characteristic to the theatre in all conditions. In order for individual artists to develop these fragments into practical tools, they must, in my opinion, be open to this information and experience originating from history and be extremely critical considering the type of messages and aesthetics these methods introduce. In this production, I freely combined Meisner’s exercises with Japanese butoh exercises and the cyborg theory, and built cross-exposures to the stage area located between these exercises that raised at least my interest.
- Cohen, Robert (1986). Acting power. Translation to finnish: Maija-Liisa Màrton. Tampere University. Tampere.
- Krasner, David (2000). Strasberg, Adler and Meisner: Method acting. In book: Hodge, Alison: Twentieth Century Actor training. Routledge, New York.
- Kallioniemi, Janne (1999). Lavarentoutta etsimässä. Tampere University. Department of Acting.
- Meisner, Sanford and Longwell D (1987). Meisner on Acting. Vintage. New York.
- Moore, Sonia (1965). The Stanislavski System: The Professional Training of an Actor: Digested from the teachings of Konstantin S. Stanislavski. Viking. New York.
- Moore, Sonia (1968). The Stanislavski System in Class. Penguin Books. New York.
- Piispanen, Elisa (1999). Paljain jaloin. Tampere University. Department of Acting.
- Weston, Judith (1999).Directing actors. Finnish translation: Päivi Hartzell. Nemo, Gummerus. Jyväskylä.
- Zarrilli, Phillip B (1995). Acting (re) Considered. Routledge. New York.
Theatre as a Project of a Body - artistic research on the theoretical and practial possibilities of moders acting
To be presented, with the permission of the board of School of Communication, Media and Theatre of the University of Tampere,
for public discussion in the Teatterimonttu theatre, D-wing, Kalevantie 4, Tampere on April 22nd, 2012 ay 12 o`clock.
UNIVERSITY OF TAMPERE
(c) Mikko Kanninen 2012