What is the Stanislavski Method?

The Stanislavski Method is a system of acting technique for training actors that was developed by the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski. The method involves an actor’s four levels of skills – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual – and focuses on a type of imaginary behaviour in which an actor gives a convincing portrayal of a character’s life in the context of the play being rehearsed.

Stanislavski’s approach is commonly studied in drama school and in dedicated acting classes run by a specialist acting teacher. His acting method is one of the ways the actor’s craft is studied, but there are several popular alternatives, including the Meisner technique, the Classical Acting technique and the Uta Hagen technique.

YouTube channel Organic Acting discusses Stanislavski’s Circles of Attention and Communion, which we examine further down this page about Stanislavski and his System.

Method Acting

This article is about the Stanislavski method known as the System.

Method Acting is an acting technique developed by other people in response to Stanislavski’s work, in particular American actor, director and acting teacher Lee Strasberg. His students at the Actors Studio in New York from the 1950s until his death in 1982 included Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino.

Method Acting encourages emotionally sincere performances by fully inhabiting the role of the character. Stanislavski’s System and Method Acting are linked, but are separate topics not to be confused.

Constantin Stanislavski or Konstantin Stanislavski?

In 1884, 21-year-old Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev adopted the stage name of Константин Сергеевич Станиславский (Stanislavski) to hide his theatrical aspirations from his wealthy Russian family. Thankfully, his father’s approval came three years later. In the English alphabet, Konstantin Stanislavski is interchangeable with Konstantin Stanislavsky or Constantin Stanislavski.

Who was Konstantin Stanislavski?

Konstantin Stanislavski was born in January 1863 into one of the richest families in Russia, when the country was ruled by the Russian Tsars. Although his father was a manufacturer, his mother was the daughter of a French actress and the family’s cultural activities included owning two private theatres and supporting the Alekseyev Circle dramatic group.

Konstantin appeared on the family stage at 14 and was soon drawn into the Alekseyev Circle, eventually becoming a leading member. He chose not to go to university, instead working by day and acting in the evenings. The young man was aware of his shortcomings as a performer, so made careful notes and evaluated his work. He experimented by maintaining the role’s character in real life.

Where Konstantin Stanislavski train?

In 1884, around the same time he adopted his stage name, Stanislavski started training under Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, a Russian opera singer and teacher. Komissarzhevsky provided vocal training, but also worked with Stanislavski on other areas of stagecraft including coordination of body and voice.

The following year he spent two weeks at the Moscow Theatre School, quickly deciding not to pursue his acting training there. Instead, he spent a lot of time at the Maly Theatre, whose focus on psychological realism incorporated a disciplined approach, extensive rehearsals, and the use of careful observation, self-knowledge, imagination, and emotion.

Stanislavski then received training from Glikeriya Fedotova. She was a student of Mikhail Shchepkin, the most famous Russian actors of the 19th century and co-founder of the Maly Theatre. Through her, Stanislavski explored the rejection of inspiration in acting, replacing it with training, discipline, and responsive interaction with other actors.

Stanislavski the amateur actor and director

At the age of twenty-five Stanislavski co-founded a Society of Art and Literature. He played roles in a wide range of Russian and European plays, and got his first experience as director.

During this period he was influenced by the aesthetic theories of Vissarion Belinsky, the realist novelist and playwright Leo Tolstoy, and the disciplined, autocratic approach of Ludwig Chronegk, the director of the Meiningen Ensemble.

Stanislavski experienced many major life events during this time. In 1889 he married Russian actor Maria Petrovna Perevostchikova, known by her stage name as Maria Lilina. The following May their two month old daughter Xenia died of pneumonia, and their second daughter Kia arrived the year after that. Stanislavski’s father died in January 1893, and the following year Maria gave birth to Igor.

The Moscow Art Theatre

Over an eighteen hour discussion in the summer of 1897, Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko established the Moscow Public-Accessible Theatre, later called the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT). 

They envisioned a realistic theatre of international renown, with popular prices for seats. Stanislavski set up the Moscow Art Theatre as a limited, joint stock company, rather than his own private business, allowing a wider sense of ownership and decision making. 

Now Stanislavski implemented his working method of extensive reading and research and detailed rehearsals in which the action was defined at the table before being explored physically. Stanislavski’s early work at the MAT saw development of a Naturalistic performance mode.

During this period the Moscow Art Theatre staged performances of plays by Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, and Henrik Ibsen.

Although the Moscow Art Theatre was affected by the 1917 Russian revolution and years of political turmoil, it continued until 1987. Then the MAT split into two separate theatre companies. The MAT and the Stanislavski technique were embraced by the socialist realism movement, which sought to make art obtainable to ordinary people and promote socialist beliefs.

Realism in theatre

Realism was a new approach to drama which developed from the 1870s onwards, bringing real life to the stage. The characters, costumes, scenery, props and events reflected real people and lives. Stanislavski was a loyal follower of realism, albeit with experimentation and symbolism.

Realism does not break reality to deliver a monologue to the audience because characters act in a believable way at all times. They speak in ordinary language, without melodrama or poetry. The settings are everyday, usually within a middle class household.

Naturalism in theatre

The naturalism movement required realistic characters, settings and events, but with characters influenced by underlying forces. Actions resulted from a character built out of family and environment, and the audience or reader could identify the nature or nurture forces. Stanislavski followed realism, but not naturalism.

Be careful about using the term naturalistic performances if you actually mean realism rather than naturalism.

The System

In the early 20th century and using the records and experience of his years of stagecraft, Stanislavski developed the System to help actors recall emotions for their characters in the play. His acting technique sought to make the character realistic and believable by using the actor’s conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes-such as emotional experience and subconscious behaviour-sympathetically and indirectly

Given Circumstances

Konstantin Stanislavski’s methodology for actor training in the System starts with Given Circumstances. Identify everything you can possibly know about the character from notes, stage directions and the play itself. You’ll use this knowledge to build the character in the next steps.

Emotional Memory

The Stanislavski System asks actors to remember past events and emotions that are similar to the emotions of the character in the play. Stanislavski’s idea for Emotional Memory, also called Affective Emotion, was that the acting technique draws on re-experiencing rather than pretending.

Method of physical action

Konstantin Stanislavski’s method for actor training in the System required characters to go about a sequence of carefully rehearsed physical actions. It sets the reality of the scene, but connects the conscious and unconscious aspects of the character as physical actions alter according to current emotion.

A role can demand a lot from an actor, on their body, vocals and emotions. An actor prepares with physical action repetitions which not only create physical muscle memory but also the vocal and emotional equivalent. This rehearsal process under Stanislavski became known as the method of physical action.

Subtext

Stanislavski’s System examines the subtext, which is the meaning, underlying message or motivation behind the words of the script. Actors reflect the characters, plot, and the story’s context as a whole as they say the words which have emotional depth and aren’t just a straightforward statement of fact. 

Magic If

Konstantin Stanislavski’s method asks an actor to put themselves into the character’s situation and ask what they would do if they were in the same situation. Asking themselves questions around the magic ‘if’ scenario helps the actor carefully examine motivation from the character’s viewpoint.

Objective

Konstantin Stanislavski’s actor methodology in the System examines and specifies what the character’s objective is in the play. They want to have achieved something by the time the play ends. Furthermore, their motivation towards achieving that objective fuel their actions.

Super objective

Within Stanislavski’s System is the super objective, the overarching aim of the play. Different characters have their own stages within the super objective. Lead characters may have several objectives too, which may change over time. But the one overall aim that dominates the play is the super objective.

Through line

The through line in Stanislavski’s System examines the character’s emotional link to the super objective. The super objective is the overarching aim of the play. All the characters share this common aim. The character repeats actions and objectives within the through line so they are recognisably the same person.

Stanislavski’s 3 Circles of Attention

Stanislavski’s theory identified three circles of focus and concentration for the actor in each scene. Sometimes known as circles of concentration, they help overcome an actor’s self-consciousness. There is no direct awareness of the audience in any of these circles of attention, but focuses on who the character is, why they are there and how they relate to the characters around them.

1. The first circle of attention

According to Stanislavski, the actor concentrates on themselves in the first circle of attention, in what he called Solitude in Public. Think through the given circumstance to connect with the character’s situation, emotion and motivation. What’s the character’s relationship to their costume and the props around them?

2. The second circle of attention

In Stanislavski’s second circle of attention, the actor is aware of their fellow actor, the character they are addressing. Assess what the character’s relationship is to the person and belongings of the person or people they are talking to, and how this affects their emotions.

3. The third circle of attention

In the third circle of attention, Stanislavski says the actor is aware of the rest of the production. This does not include the audience, which is beyond the fourth wall.

Tempo & Rhythm

Stanislavski’s idea about tempo and rhythm was that the inner character should work at a rhythm reflecting the intensity of the emotion. That then affects the tempo, the speed of actions, speech and feeling on stage.

Stanislavski Rehearsal Techniques

Stanislavski rehearsal techniques centre around breaking down the character physically and emotionally. The actors are supported to improvise, building on their emotional memory, and repeating scenes within the method of physical action.

Books by Stanislavski

Stanislavski’s books about his system and the ideas about the art of drama that underpin them quickly became international bestsellers.

My Life in Art (1924, first published in English)

Following a successful tour to the United States, Konstantin Stanislavski wrote his autobiography, My Life in Art. In it, he charts his theatrical career from early experience in Rubinstein’s Russian Musical Society, through to the artistic triumphs of the Moscow Art Theatre.

In addition to his own famous productions, this book also gives insight into Stanislavski’s encounters with the drama greats of the 19th century – Kommisarjevksy, Tolstoy, Gorky, Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig.

An Actor Prepares (1936, first published in Russian)

In the first of three books explaining Stanislavski’s System, the inward preparation of actors is examined. Action, Magic if, Given Circumstances, Emotional memory, Imagination, Communication, Objectives, and the Super-objective are explained in detail.

Building a Character (1948, first published in Russian)

Exploring the imaginative processes at the heart of the actor’s craft to create a handbook to the physical art of acting, Building a Character deals with the physical realisation of character on the stage through expressions, movement and speech.

Creating a Role (1957, first published in Russian)

Stanislavski describes the elaborate preparation needed from actors during the rehearsal period, in order to show convincing emotion and characterisation on stage. The director also analyses key works including Othello and Gogol’s Inspector General.

Stanislavski Quotes

Stanislavski’s approach to theatre and acting had a profound influence on the drama world and continues to be relevant for modern theatre. Here are some famous quotes found in Stanslavski’s published work.

Stanislavski Quotes from My Life In Art

“Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.”

Stanislavski Quotes from An Actor Prepares

“You can kill the King without a sword, and you can light the fire without a match. What needs to burn is your imagination

“Everyone at every minute of his life must feel something. Only the dead have no sensations.”

“In the circle of light on the state in the midst of darkness, you have the sensation of being entirely alone… This is called solitude in public… During a performance, before an audience of thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle, like a snail in its shell… You can carry it wherever you go.”

“Today the Director opened his remarks by telling us what we must always do when the author, the director, and the others who are working on a production, leave out things we need to know. We must have, first of all, an unbroken series of supposed circumstances in the midst of which our exercise is played. Secondly we must have a solid line of inner visions bound up with those circumstances, so that they will be illustrated for us. During every moment we are on the stage, during every moment of the development of the action of the play, we must be aware either of the external circumstances which surround us (the whole material setting of the production), or of an inner chain of circumstances which we ourselves have imagined in order to illustrate our parts. Out of these moments will be formed an unbroken series of images, something like a moving picture. As long as we are acting creatively, this film will unroll and be thrown on the screen of our inner vision, making vivid the circumstances among which we are moving. Moreover, these inner images create a corresponding mood, and arouse emotions, while holding us within the limits of the play.” (Kostya)

“The actor does not live, he plays. He remains cold toward the object of his acting but his art must be perfection.”

“If you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically, without fully realizing who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going, and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without imagination. That time, whether it will be short or long, will be unreal, and you will be nothing more than a wound-up machine, an automation.”

“If the man who plays the farmer has talent, he will prove to you by his acting that he is unconscious of any guilt.”

Stanislavski Quotes from Building a Character

“If you are looking for something, don’t go sit on the seashore and expect it to come and find you; you must search, search, search with all the stubbornness in you!”

“I was truly happy. But my state was not that of any ordinary satisfaction. It was a joy which stemmed directly from creative, artistic achievement.”

Stanislavski Quotes from Creating a Role

“In the language of an actor, to know is synonymous with to feel”

“The verbal text of a play, especially one by a genius, is the manifestation of the clarity, the subtlety, the concrete power to express invisible thoughts and feelings of the author himself. Inside each and every word there is an emotion, a thought, that produced the word and justifies its being there.”

“It is not enough to discover the secret of a play, its thought and feelings-the actor must be able to convert them into living terms.”

Positive aspects of the Stanislavski System

The Stanislavski system teaches actors to accurately imagine what their characters are thinking and feeling, and then to use that imagination to bring the characters to life on stage.

The process that actors use to make their performance believable involves a structured sequence of “rehearsal exercises,” or “acting games,” in which actors act out a scene in a series of rehearsed actions to learn how to move, speak, and react to the others in the scene.

The theatre director gives actors a safe environment for mistakes, allowing them room to improve and embrace emotion memory as they move on in the rehearsal process.

The circles of attention focus the actor’s attention on their character and the emotional relationship to the people, props and costumes in the scene.

Negative aspects of the Stanislavski System

Stanislavski’s system can lead to a high level of intellectualization, and consequently, a lack of spontaneity and interpersonal sensitivity, although, the technique is highly intentional. The actor’s work needs them to emotionally connect to their character, props and other characters, which can lead to fatigue and burnout.

Stanislavski’s idea never sought to codify acting in a rigid and inflexible way.

Conclusion

Stanislavski’s work in Russian theatre was groundbreaking. It influenced theatre practitioners across continents and decades, and continues to be relevant to modern theatre.

There are a variety of acting methods. Each method has their own pros and cons, and you need to determine which method works best for you to help you learn and grow as an actor or theatre director.

Understanding the theory and practice of acting techniques is a great reason to go to an accredited drama school. But there’s nothing stopping you reading books and watching videos about the subject, accessing local acting classes and national workshops to put the theory into practice.