Theatre performance is an art, where a story, a mythological character, an important historical event etc. are displayed by an “actor” where he pretends to be someone else, for the enjoyment and edification of the viewers. The concept seems to be very much normal in the first place, however involves very deep theories of psychology in itself as the person enacting a certain character needs to control his emotions and basically displays the emotions of the character that he is playing. By the end of the 19th century Stanislavski and one of the other Moscow producer-author Nemirovich Danchenko merged their acting companies and formed the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT). This company started working and produced “Seagull”, a play, which was not very successful however started a new era in the field of acting as this was the first event where Stanislavski concentrated on involving psychological depth and emotional truth in his plays and in those times it was more of self or audience obsessed actors where the characterizations were not effectively managed to give them a life of their own.
“Method Acting” is very famous theory of psychologically managing the role of theatre artists and revolutionized the theatre arts since it was introduced by Stanislavski, this is a methodology where an actor is expected to combine his personal and emotional aspects matching to that of the character which is being played so that they can get themselves, if not physically then neurologically completely transformed into the character that is being demonstrated in an act. The above has really added a great value to the performances around the world and has even helped to relate the theatre arts with the various concepts of psychology. Antonio Damasio has given a descriptive and detailed idea of our “brain” in terms of emotional understandings and neurological aspects in his book “Looking for Spinoza” which really helps to explain the concept driven by Stanislavski and vice-versa. In this paper we will establish the fact that the theory of “Method Acting” established by Stanislavski related to theatre arts is actually not just an assembly and display of internal emotions but is a development of the brain as emotional machinery.
Stanislavski was somewhat dissatisfied with the way he performed his initial experiments in order to work on the development and production of emotions and the way they were triggered. At this point of time Stanislavski also believed like the others that the emotions can be simply generated and displayed with the help of physical actions however he later realized the connections between internal experience, mental understanding and physical actions as established by scientists like Ivan Pavlov and Sechenov. [ CITATION Saw01 \l 1033 ]
During his experiments in the last decade of the 19th century, Stanislavski realized that once given the role of a character, an actor has to go through a psychological process in order to create a co-ordination between his mental state and the physical display of emotions. He then realized this fact that that in order to generate the same emotions as required by a particular role, there are ways in which the “emotional” memory can be matched to naturally bring those emotions through physical display and this is how the acting training was conceptually changed by Stanislavski initially. [ CITATION Saw01 \l 1033 ]
After a lot of research and analysis, Stanislavski deduced a series of physical actions which would be performed in a sequential manner in order to trigger certain set of emotions as required by a particular act, now this method used the qualities of the subconscious mind and introduced an emotional impact from an indirect means hence leading to a state called “Method of Physical Actions” or popularly known as “Method Acting”. Now the above is more like a map which directs the actor to move towards his subconscious mind and find those emotions which are required in an act; it is important to discuss these actions in detail and understand that how they relate the “Feeling Brain” and its components as discussed by Damasio. [ CITATION Dam03 \l 1033 ]
“Method Actions”…steps of theory and its relation with neurobiology
Damazio gives a very interesting insight into the understanding process that we possess in relation to the different level of organizations of our brain; he mentions that the contents of the brain consists “the microscopic molecules that constitute an enzyme or a neurotransmitter”, Damasio agrees to the fact that the cognitive functions that we possess and most importantly the attention, reasoning, perception, learning, feeling, motion and language etc. do not arise in a single centre of our brain which means that we need a co-ordination of multiple neurological functions in order to achieve the desired emotions. Now that we know the very basic concept from Damasio’s explanation, it will be helpful to look at the set of actions introduced by Stanislavski and relate them to the neurological perspective.[ CITATION McG03 \l 1033 ]
Units and Objective
In this step a particular unit was chosen, e.g. a scene that has to be enacted and an objective that has to be achieved during that particular unit is also produced, in this step the actors were supposed to think according to the situation involved and the objective in place, for example, if one actor has to make another one angry in a scene then he must do that with corresponding physical actions leading him to ultimately achieve the emotion.[ CITATION Mey10 \l 1033 ] Now looking at this from Damasio’s perspective, he mentions in Chapter two of his book that “by affectus I mean the modifications of the body, whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained, and also the ideas of such modifications.”, now the above a self-explanatory proof of this step and proves the fact that units and objective together can work to create the “affectus” as defined by Damasio.[ CITATION Dam03 \l 1033 ]
Line of Actions and the Super-objective
Now in this step once again Stanislavski introduces the concept of neurological mapping with different small steps to finally achieve an ultimate goal. The super-objective may be something like “winning back the love of another character”, now there will be multiple unit objectives to reach the super-objective and there may be steps (units), like pleasing, exciting, provoking and placating etc., now all these were supposed to be joined together in order to reach the final feeling which is supposed to be revealed through the set of actions as discussed. [ CITATION Els11 \l 1033 ] Damasio’s chapter on “Feelings” has clearly stated that “part of what we feel would correspond to a resistance to the upheaval caused by emotion, to the tendency to control the ongoing emotive perturbation”, this means that the feelings are produced in a broader frame and they too have a goal which is based on the combination and co-ordination of various different units of feelings as also highlighted by Stanislavski. [ CITATION Wan09 \l 1033 ]
Truth, Belief, Imagination and Subtext
Stanislavski believed that in order to prepare oneself for the theatre he must ask himself various questions like Who Am I? What is my role? Etc. and should talk to himself about the situations that the character is into, an example of this can be an actor who is enacting “Hamlet”, he would almost face delusions and should need psychiatric help, however it is entirely the game if imagination, Stanislavski has mentioned in his book as mentioned below.[ CITATION Saw01 \l 1033 ]
“There is no such thing as actuality on the stage. Art is a product of the imagination, as the
work of a dramatist should be. The aim of the actor should be to use his technique to turn
the play into a theatrical reality. In this process imagination plays by far the greatest part.”
Damasio has also produced an argument in his book where he states that body symptoms are not really caused by emotions but emotions are caused by body symptoms but this contradicts the above discussion, as per Stanislavski’s observations if an actor can achieve to agree that he himself is physically in that situation as the character he is playing is, automatically the desired emotions will be triggered. [ CITATION McG03 \l 1033 ]
Motivation and Concentration
The next two steps that Stanislavski introduced were related to motivation and concentration, Stanislavski believed in the fact that motivation of the actors is not something which is an ultimate need or a preparation strategy, giving the example of Shakespeare’s play we can say that, no background was revealed to the actors of Shakespeare’s play but still the actors were able to do justice to their characters, secondly concentration is something that really is very important for Stanislavski, according to the theory, any actor once goes on the stage has several opportunities to get distracted and he must concentrate at one particular object of thing on the stage in order to keep himself alive into the character that he is playing.
“All of our acts, even the simplest, which are so familiar to us in everyday life, become
strained when we appear behind the footlights before a public of a thousand people.”
Damasio also mentions that: ”The mind is built from ideas that are, in one way or another, brain representations of the body.” Which means that while on stage if there is any activity that can help to digress the actor, he may simply loose the connection developed with the character that he is playing.
The Stanislavski System and Claims from Damasio
Though there are a few claims that provide evidence to Stanislavski’s arguments in theatre arts, the major contradiction is with the fact that the co-ordination between the ideology of input and output, while considering the fact that emotions are a result of physical actions or vice-versa, we understand that a mutual agreement to both is there somewhat in both the theories, however the basic understanding and reasoning that we have seen above helps us to deduce the fact that brain can be used as something that can trigger emotions if required using physical actions, if we look at the three claims made by Damasio, in his book we will understand that he claims that physical actions are responsible for the emotional feelings that are present. [ CITATION Bor06 \l 1033 ]To the contrary Stanislavski also believes that the mind is capable of delivering emotions as required, it’s just that he has a different concept to achieve the same and in his system he believes that previous emotions can be used to create fresh set of emotions and simultaneous physical actions. [ CITATION Dam03 \l 1033 ][ CITATION Saw01 \l 1033 ]
We have seen the various steps that Stanislavski has induced in order to achieve the desired results and body-mind cooperation, are reflective and true according to the basics that Damasio has written in his book, despite the difference in the opinion related to the theory of developing emotions, the final fact that we can infer from the entire discussion is that, there are several ways of developing emotions, we can say that our physical actions can do that and the same is also possible by the combination of previous emotions and taking certain steps to relate them and produce the required emotions, hence it is true that from both points of view, we infer that the steps we have discussed above from Stanislavski’s theory and is evident from the arguments of Damasio, that mind can be converted into a kind of mental machinery which is capable to trigger emotions as and when required and this has a huge application in theatre and acting.
Boros, Gabor. “SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY THEORIES OF EMOTION AND THEIR CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE.” ORIGINAL SCIENTIFIC PAPER VOL.2 No.1 (2006): 125-142.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. North Eugene: Harvest Publishers, 2003.
Elsom, John. “Take nothing for granted. Think of your own experiences and use them truthfully.”Stanislavsky. 23 May 2011 <http://method.vtheatre.net/stanislavsky.html>.
McGinn, Colin. ‘Looking for Spinoza’: The Source of Emotion. New Jersey: The New York Times, 2003.
Meyerhold, V. and B. Brecht. Acting Classes Vancouver Non Method Acting. Vancouver: Methodica , 2010.
Sawoski, Perviz. THE STANISLAVSKI SYSTEM: GROWTH AND METHODOLOGY. Moscow : Valovic Publications, 2001.
Wanucha, Genevieve M. The Clearest Mirror: the science of laughing and crying. Massachusets: Massachusets Institute of Technology, 2009.
Winner, Ellen and Thalia R. Goldstein. A New Lens on the Development of Social Cognition: The Study of Acting. Chestnut Hill: Boston College, 2008.