Acting Stanislavski

In Acting Stanislavski, John Gillett offers a clear, accessible and comprehensive account of the Stanislavski approach, from the actor's training to final performance.

In this excerpt from the book, John discusses the importance of objectives and actions and offers a variety of exercises for the actor

Actions

Actions are what we do to achieve what we want.

For example, if my objective is ‘I want to stop you leaving me’, I might restrain you, block the door, implore you, contradict you, reproach you, embrace you, reassure you, tease you, instruct you, entice you, etc. etc. Many of the actions will arise spontaneously, if you allow them, through playing your objective and interacting, and they will change according to how the circumstances alter, what’s at stake and what the obstacles are. In Stanislavski’s work on Hamlet (recorded in Part 4 of Stanislavski and the Actor), he examines the scene where Gertrude and Claudius hold court. Gertrude’s objective is to present her husband in such a way that he is accepted. Stanislavski says that her important actions here are to fawn, cajole and bribe. These produce adaptations such as calming Hamlet, giving an affectionate look, etc. but these are spontaneous. He stresses that the most important thing is to create the impulse to action. All actions should not be planned and contrived because that creates mechanical, clichéd acting.

We should not think about how to act either, because invariably it’s a hallmark of representational acting that means adopting a manner or ‘style’: doing something sadly or irritably, gracefully or eccentrically, so we see a ‘sad’ or ‘eccentric’ scene as opposed to the clear telling of a story and enactment of action.

The process of creating a physical score of actions, which are responses to impulses, was explored by Stanislavski in his Method of Physical Action, which we look at in Chapter 12; and later by Grotowski in his montages of actors’ experiences (see At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions, Thomas Richards).

What do objectives give us?

  1. Objectives create an essential part of our inner life in imaginary situations.
  2. They engage our will and give us a drive through the circumstances, stopping us playing moods and general emotional states.
  3. They prompt our imagination and a range of actions.
  4. They give us an inner structure because we link all the things we want through the action.
  5. That structure creates a confidence and real security that enables freedom because we are working from an inner impulse to create words in an improvisation, or recreate lines in a script – this is totally different from the false security of knowing how you will say every line and do every move in a mechanical, predetermined fashion.
  6. They enable you to react spontaneously to other actors and events while keeping the inner structure and the interpretations agreed with the director. So whether you are improvising or working from a script, every take on what you do is effectively a fresh improvisation rather than a stone tablet.
  7. Because objectives help you engage in the moment and promote dramatic conflict, they also help to access and release emotion.

Actors who don’t play objectives will usually end up playing generalizations rather than specifics – general moods, attitudes, emotional states and external gestures – which for Stanislavski is the enemy of art. This will create one-dimensional, unstructured, undramatic, dull and deadly theatre. Need I go on? Objectives are one of Stanislavski’s most important and creative tools.

Of course, they can be misused, like anything. If I use my telephone as a hammer, it won’t help me to communicate. If objectives (and other aspects of this approach) are seen in a purely intellectual way, they will not have the described effects. They become simply a tool for logical analysis governed by the left brain. We need to approach them from the right brain-controlled imagination and intuition. ‘If I am in these circumstances as myself or a character, what do I do and what do I want?’

I imagine myself in the circumstances and engage with them. I don’t intellectually deduce by some mathematical process what I want. I’m human. I empathize to understand on a range of levels. When I get a sense of what I may want in a situation, I follow that impulse with my will and feeling, spontaneously create actions to achieve what I want against certain obstacles, also engaging my voice and body to that end. If I do it all cerebrally and ‘my objective’ just sticks in my head like a piece of calculus, not descending below neck level, and if I try to implement it in a self-conscious and over-controlled manner, thinking the words I’ve used to define it all the time I’m trying to play it, it will of course be as useless as a disconnected plug. My want has to come from a need, not just be placed in the head. For example, I want to get my hands on the crown – because I am the rightful heir, approved by God and backed by thousands, the present incumbent is a bad king, and I personally feel my life has been purposeless. What’s at stake is my whole peace of mind, sense of worth, the future of my family and the well-being of this kingdom. Neither should I just ‘do the actions’ associated with that need and want, without strong impulses behind them:

… the most important thing is not the actions themselves but the emergence of natural impulses towards them. I try to find physical tasks and actions in living, human experience. To believe they are true, I have to give them a psychological base and justify them within the given circumstances of the role. When I have discovered and felt that justification, then my psyche, to a certain extent, merges with the role (An Actor’s Work on a Role: 55).

This creates the sense of I am being in the role, of genuine experiencing and connecting with the subconscious, of ‘yourself in the role and the role in yourself’ (61).

Some practitioners reject objectives because they perceive them as too intellectual and a block to real involvement, the opposite of what they are intended to be. They are essentially about the will, and once we find an objective we must trust in it and pursue it. When we’re actually performing we don’t have to get into our heads a whole sentence full of words like ‘I want to convince them I’m innocent.’ We may just get a flash of particular words like ‘convince’, or a visual or other sensory image associated with your innocence, and that gives us the impulse to engage. Antonio Damasio suggests that ‘Thought is an acceptable word to denote such a flow of images … One might argue that images are the currency of our minds’ (The Feeling of What Happens: 318–19).

If it’s wrong to determine and think the objectives intellectually and drily without them entering one’s whole being, it’s equally wrong not to be aware of them in performance at all, relying on the fact that having created them in rehearsal they’ll just be working away for you automatically. They need to be kept alive organically as you as the character, just as we experience them as ourselves in everyday life. Each time we perform, we have to rediscover and re-experience all the impulses behind the action – thoughts, objectives, images and sensory elements – without which the action will be unjustified and mechanical. There is no point where we can or should go onto automatic pilot.

EXERCISES

OPPOSING OBJECTIVES

Try playing opposing objectives in pairs, as yourselves, keeping the stakes high.

Don’t be premeditatedly rigid – ‘I’ll never let this person overcome my objective!’ – but be responsive to what is actually done to you. In life, and in scripts, someone will achieve what they want sometimes.

If you don’t succeed at first, don’t get stuck in one set of tactics. Try other actions – adapt!

For all exercises you must create for yourself the given circumstances – Who am I? Where am I, where have I been, where am I going to? Why am I here? What time is it? What do I want? Give yourself good reasons, high stakes, why you want what you do.

  1. A wants to get B out of their very small flat for the evening because a girlfriend is coming round. The future of his difficult relationship depends on it. B wants to get A off his back and convince him he has to stay in to get vital work done by the morning, or he may lose his job.
  2. A wants to make contact with B, who is sitting on a park bench alone. He’s had terrible news about a friend, relative or himself and wants some human contact, sympathy and understanding. B wants to study a book / sketch / appreciate nature after a stressful week and keep to herself, keeping other people at a distance.
  3. B has an undisclosed problem and A, a close friend, wants to find out what is worrying her so that she can be of help and support. B wants to steer her away from the difficult issues.
  4. A and B share a house in a high crime area. A has just witnessed a violent mugging of a middle-aged woman and returns wanting to persuade B to leave and find somewhere more peaceful to live. B wants to dissuade her and make her embrace the positive aspects of the area.
  5. A has been dumped by her boyfriend, by text message, and he’s gone to Paris with a new girlfriend. She is meeting B in a bar for a night out and wants to get reassurance and support. When B arrives she wants to make A put it behind her, move on and get real.

OBSTACLES

Try the same impros again but with an obstacle, and see how it changes what you do.

For example in:

  1. A has already asked this sort of favour before, and B has obliged by leaving the flat for the evening. B is a very compliant, obliging person. It might become less confrontational.
  2. A is aware of having bad body odour. B recently refused to talk with a disturbed friend, who ended up killing himself. Both might be more sensitive and cautious.
  3. A has to leave within five minutes to get to the theatre. B feels guilty for shutting A out and is often reproached by friends for being withdrawn. The exchanges may be brisker, more energized.
  4. A has persuaded B to move before due to local crime and violence. B has himself witnessed some frightening acts of violence in recent weeks. It could be more measured and reasoning.
  5. A has been dumped several times before and doesn’t want always to appear to be the victim. A year ago B was dumped and was so depressed she went to bed for three days. Both might become more controlled, or more dismissive.

The danger here is that you forget to play the objective and instead play the problem, the obstacle. This is very common, particularly on TV. At its worst, you play a manner and emotional state of, for example, anxiety or impatience, and you stop trying to get reassurance, convince, etc. Play the objective, but allow the obstacle to sit underneath as an influence that draws out different adaptations, actions and reactions.

ACTIONS

Now try the impros again and focus on the same objectives but use at least three actions you would not commonly use given your personality, and three you often use. For example, you might often comfort, praise or encourage others. You might not often order, insult or threaten them.

Select these actions in advance – but allow them to come through the impro as organically as possible according to what the other does to you. This will encourage you to find a wider range of adaptations and flexibility and not get in a rut. It also will reveal how changing your actions to get what you want changes you – you start to experience how you can transform into someone else.

PHYSICALIZATION

Now come to the same impros a fourth time. Try to keep them fresh and this time focus on finding a fuller verbal and physical expression for the actions.

Allow your voice to respond to the dynamic between you in its tone, range, inflections and power.

Find gestures that fit the actions, e.g. the natural gestures associated with commanding, warning, begging, calming, dismissing, soothing, and so on.

The objectives will then pervade your whole mental and physical life and be communicated to their fullest.

GROUP

If you have a number of people to work with, try a group exercise incorporating the above elements. For example:

You are all staying in a guest house in Australia and have become surrounded and trapped by a forest fire. You are gathered in the lounge to discuss the options. ‘If I’m in this situation, what do I do?’

All have different objectives, e.g. to work out how to escape, to discourage this and get everyone to play safe, to cheer everyone up, to support whoever seems sensible, to get small constructive things done, to blot everything out, etc.

You all have different obstacles – e.g. fear, headache, lack of confidence – and will employ a variety of actions to achieve what you want. Make the stakes high.

It’s always tempting to talk over everyone else as you go for what you want. So, listen and respond to each other. Fully breathe in the enormity of the problem and your own extra obstacles.

TEXT

Now take short pieces of text, no more than a page or two, and two-handers. Give yourselves a different objective each time you act it.

Try a group scene.

Let the objectives run through the words, changing their expression on impulse.

You will see how different the script can be with each objective, how many readings are theoretically possible, how versatile you as the actor can be and how you needn’t be constrained by a set of static line-readings.

Acting Stanislavski was first published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama in 2014.