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What is the Stanislavski System for Acting?

We at 3-2-1- Acting School in LA for kids, teens and young adults love educating our students about the many different acting techniques that actors can choose to exercise. As part of our series of posts on acting techniques (which began with a post about the Meisner Acting Technique), we are answering the question: What is the Stanislavski system for acting? Read on to find out more about this foundational acting method, and the legend behind it.

Who developed the Stanislavski system for acting?

The Stanislavski System for acting was developed by Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavski of the Moscow Art Theatre between 1911 and 1916.  Stanislavski spent many years developing a method that he felt would allow actors to control what had previously felt like uncontrollable aspects of human behavior — specifically emotions and emotional responses.

Moscow Art Theatre

Moscow Art Theatre (photo source: wikipedia.com)

A myriad of acting teachers trace their methodologies and inspiration to Stanislavski, including Richard Boleslavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Ion Cojar, Andrey Vasilyev, Ivana Chubbuck, and Christine Anketell.

Why did Stanislavski develop the system?

Stanislavski noticed that actors whom he admired would be inconsistent with their performances.  On some nights, they would have big flashes of inspiration, and on other nights, their performances would be mediocre. He wanted to develop a method that would allow actors to be consistent.

What exactly is the Stanislavski system for acting?

Constantin Stanislavski (photo source: biography.com)

Constantin Stanislavski (photo source: biography.com)

The answer to this question is actually quite complex, as the Stanislavski system morphed and changed throughout Stanislavski’s career and life. It was founded on the notion of “emotional memory.” Actors are required to trigger the emotions of their characters internally (vs. triggering them externally, as in the Meisner Technique).  In a process called “emotional recall,” actors would actually call up experiences from the distant past and re-live them in the present, drawing on the emotions that these events produced for their characters.

Over time, Stanislavski rejected his concept of emotional memory.  He realized that it proved to be psychologically unsafe for actors, and that people’s unconscious minds would often close up while implementing the technique, blocking them from recalling memories and emotions.  He then began to work with the “Method of Physical Action,” in which emotions were triggered through a series of simple physical actions (instead of through emotional recall).

If you really want to dive into the details of this complex methodology, we highly suggest getting Stanislavski’s books An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role.

What types of exercises does the Stanislavski system for acting entail?

Again, the system was initially rooted in the concept of emotional memory. In short, actors would call up memories from their pasts that would produce desired experiences and emotions on stage. For example, perhaps a character was to experience grief, or loss. In preparation, an actor portraying this character might call up a memory from his or her past that would trigger a similar emotional experience — for example, the loss of a pet.  This would help the actor to access the sad types of emotions that would accompany a character’s experience of loss.

Is the Stanislavski system the same as Method Acting?

No.  Though these two approaches are often associated with one another, what we know today as “Method Acting” was introduced in the 1930s and 1940s by Lee Strasberg and other actors and directors, who applied the emotional memory technique from Stanislavski’s system.  That said, the two approaches are entirely different. More about Method Acting in a future post!

Should I use the Stanislavski system for acting?

At 3-2-1- Acting Studio in Los Angeles, we encourage our students to read up on the history of their profession — and this includes knowing about foundational approaches, such as Stanislavski’s system.  Stanislavski’s ideas are valuable.  He considered his system to be more of a philosophy or series of ideas and practices upon which an actor could draw throughout his or her career. So yes, by all means, read up on the system, and get inspired!  However, be safe.  Remember that Stanislavksi later rejected the notion of emotional memory as potentially unsafe (some actors who applied it too intensely and experienced psychological problems).  Being safe and protecting your emotional and mental well being should always be your top priority!

Keep on learning.

Now you’ve learned about two approaches to acting: the Meisner Technique and Stanislavski’s system.  Stay tuned for more posts on acting methods from 3-2-1- Acting Studios!

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