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Konstantin Stanislavsky (originally Konstantin Sergeyevich Alexeyev) is best remembered for the system of acting he developed and documented over the course of his life. He was born near Moscow in 1863 to a wealthy family and began acting in small family theatres with siblings and friends from an early age. In his late teens, he began directing amateur vaudevilles and operettas, implementing rigorous discipline into his carefully planned rehearsals and usually playing the lead roles. Emphasising the importance of commitment to artistic excellence and ethical behaviour from actors and technicians, his ideas and autocratic style of directing found full expression when he founded the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko in 1898. A resilient and enduring company, the MAT managed to remain open after the Russian Revolution but was often forced to adopt correct political views in the times of political upheaval that marked Russia in the decades thereafter. Stanislavski suffered a heart attack in 1928 and his weakened condition forced him to take a more supervisory role at MAT. While he sometimes conducted rehearsals from home and appeared occasionally at rehearsals at the theatre, his health increasingly deteriorated.  He died in 1938, shortly before the beginning of World War II.

At the same time as directing and developing various productions at MAT, Stanislavki began to investigate and document a systematic approach to acting training that he hoped would enable actors to perform with a ‘believable truth'. He carefully articulated and recorded terms that he found useful to teach and direct actors about his insights and the concepts he introduced such as the imaginary ‘fourth wall' encouraged actors to imaginatively distinguish different types of realities between audiences and performers. Terms like ‘emotional memory' and the ‘magic if' were also described by Stanislavsky and these and many other concepts have been utilised, discussed and challenged by performers and theorists ever since they were first introduced. Stanislavsky's written work has profoundly influenced the study and practice of acting and theatre. Significant texts include his first publication My Life in Art an autobiographical text referring to the work he was developing during the evolution of the Moscow Art Theatre and a text he wrote and published a few years before he died entitled An Actor's Work on Himself (1936). This later text offered his mature views of his theory of acting and was translated into English in 1937 with the English title An Actor Prepares.

Stanislavsky was impressed with the principles underlying the concept of ensemble playing and established the first Russian ensemble theatre. The ensemble approach advanced a personal and cooperative method of playing that stressed the importance of developing relationships between the cast rather than focusing on individual parts. This emphasis was an important part of his approach to theatre throughout his life but many of his other theoretical views were continually modified as they were informed by his practical work as an actor, director and teacher. For example, Stanislavsky's productions and ideas initially emphasised realism and are quite often studied as typical examples of naturalism. But from about 1905 he became interested in other theatrical styles and he began studying non-naturalistic modes of theatre production. He invited directors Meyerhold (1905) and Edward Gordon Craig (1910) to explore the relevance of emerging theatre forms like symbolism in productions with the MAT. Unimpressed with the results of these explorations, he did not pursue further collaborations. However, his ideas about the role and source of an actor's creativity shifted gradually in response to new ideas and practices being discussed and investigated by actors training in the studios that were attached to the MAT. In fact, looked at as a whole, his work reveals an ongoing interest in establishing a system of training that could refine the art of acting honestly and define the role of ‘creativity' in actors' performances.

Overseas, MAT's productions were noted for the painstaking attention to detail evident in both the acting and set designs and when the company toured America in the 1920s, their approaches to acting and theatre production stimulated much discussion. Stanislavki's ideas attracted the interest of a handful of New York theatre practitioners and they were to form the basis of an influential American acting training program developed by Lee Strasberg called The Method. Although much of Stanislavsky's work is often over- simplified and has been widely misunderstood due to its association with Strasberg's Method, there is no doubt that the extent of Stanislavsky's influence on the development of acting training has been enormous.





Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National