How the Russian Theatre Director Constantin Stanislavski Revolutionized the Craft of Acting: A New Video Essay

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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Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Sovi­et Mon­tage The­o­ry: A Rev­o­lu­tion in Film­mak­ing

Mar­lon Bran­do Screen Tests for Rebel With­out A Cause (1947)

The James Dean Sto­ry: The Ear­ly Doc­u­men­tary by Robert Alt­man

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