From Travis Lee Ratcliff comes a video essay that explores the influence of Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian theatre director whose “system” of actor training shaped a generation of iconic American actors. Here’s how Ratcliff sets the stage for his video essay.
In the 1950s, a wave of “method actors” took Hollywood by storm.
Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift, brought a whole new toolset and perspective on the actor’s craft to the films they performed in.
The foundation of their work, however, was laid in Russia more than fifty years prior to their stardom.
Stanislavski’s conception of “psychological realism” in performance challenged ideas about the essential features of the actor’s craft that had been held for centuries.
In theatre before Stanislavski, acting was defined as a craft of vocal and gestural training. The role the actor played was to give life to the emotions of the text in a broad illustrative fashion. Formal categories such as melodrama, opera, vaudeville, and musicals, all played to this notion of the actor as chief representer of dramatic ideas.
Stanislavski’s key insight was in seeing the actor as an experiencer of authentic emotional moments.
Suddenly the craft of performance could be about seeking out a genuine internal experience of the narrative’s emotional journey.
From this foundation, realism in performance began to flourish. This not only changed our fundamental idea of the actor but invited a reinvention of the whole endeavor of telling stories through drama.
Teachers would adopt Stanisvlaski’s methods and ideas and elaborate upon them in American theatre schools. The result, in the 1950s, would be a new wave of actors and a style of acting that emphasized psychological realism to a greater degree than their peers in motion pictures.
This idea of realism grew to dominate our notion of successful performances in cinema. Stanislavskian-realism is now central to the DNA of how we direct and read performances, whether we are conscious of it or not.
I think it is important to know this history and consider its revolutionary character. Understanding the nature of Stanislavski’s insights allows us to look at other unasked questions, other foundational elements of our craft that we might take for granted.
Beyond this, Ratliff also provides a list of Stanislavski’s books, which still provide “fascinating explorations of the craft of performance.” Check them out:
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