Stanislavski’s method of acting

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Konstantin Stanislavski, (born Konstantin Alekseyev, and sometimes spelt Constantin Stanislavsky), was 14 years old when he first set foot on the stage that his parents owned in 1877. His love of the theatre blossomed throughout his life, leading him to become one of the world’s most influential theatre practitioners to date. His work in the field of theatrical rehearsal techniques made him a household name for drama students worldwide. He published many books and guides designed to give drama students an insight into “realism”, including ‘An Actor Prepares’ and ‘Building a Character’, which outline various famous rehearsal methods designed to allow an actor to fully relate to their character, to the point that they are not just pretending to be them, but actually living their lives. He argued that the actor should “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art” [1], looking for the emotion within themselves as opposed to the words in the script.

Stanislavski’s pioneering vision for the theatre was that characters should be believable, and the storyline should focus on the emotion portrayed, engaging the audience through means such as empathy. He argued that anything put forward on the stage should be an accurate account of real life, a thought which derived from his distaste for the melodramatic theatre he had grown up with. However, Stanislavski is one of several famous theatre practitioners, all with a completely different concept of what theatre should be. For example, Bertolt Brecht put forward the theory of ‘Epic Theatre’, which taught that the audience should always be alienated from the action onstage, unable to identify with the characters, but rather being left with questions to ask themselves. He believed the audience couldn’t possibly empathise with the characters onstage because there were so many individual differences in society itself- “society cannot share a common communication system so long as it is split into warring factions” (Brecht, 1949, paragraph 55[2]). Brecht wanted the audience to leave the theatre debating their morals. Another prestigious theatrical practitioner is Antonin Artaud, who argued that any performance should deeply affect the audience. In order to achieve this, he used non-naturalistic lighting and sound to create a disturbing atmosphere. Artaud wished his audience to leave the theatre having changed within themselves. With three such different aims from each practitioner, it is difficult to be sure whether any of them had a particularly valid point. All three theories are widely respected, but each contrasts and challenges the next, meaning that, in order to believe in one of them, you must rule out the others as valid.

These conflicting theories became the beginning of the main ideas behind this project. I wanted to know whether there was a solid way to prove whether Stanislavski’s theories are affective to the audience in terms of creating a more realistic performance than one with normal rehearsal, or indeed rehearsal methods devised by other practitioners. To be able to determine this, I needed to conduct deeper research into Stanislavski’s system.

The system itself is deep and intricately detailed, with many different aspects as to what Stanislavski considered a ‘good performance’. However, some points are evidently more significant to him than others. According to the online Encyclopaedia Britannia [3], the main features are ‘Given Circumstances and the Magic If’, and ‘Emotional Memory’. ‘Units and Objectives’ is also a major feature of the system, so these are the three aspects I chose to refine my research to in order to establish a better understanding of Stanislavski’s method of acting.

‘Given Circumstances and the Magic If’

Stanislavski said that “what is important to me is not the truth outside myself, but the truth within myself” [4], meaning that anything put forward on the stage must be true. He recognised this idea was a potential issue because all acting is, essentially, a lie. He therefore said that all actors should be as true to themselves as they can while playing a part. The idea behind Given Circumstances is that actors accept that, with the script of a play, they are given a set of circumstances which they must adhere to in order to create the storyline. Given circumstances can relate to either the character or the play itself, and they include things like character’s age, gender, social class, and the play’s time period, setting and social/historical/political implications. In order for an actor to give a true performance, Stanislavski put a massive emphasis on the importance of research into the given time period or situation so that the performer would truly understand their role. He taught that the research needs to be completed until an actor can fully flesh out his character, and answer any questions given to them about their character’s parentage, childhood, and life events, even if these aren’t mentioned in the script. Once the Given Circumstances had been realised, Stanislavski suggested that the actors utilised a linked aspect of his theory, called the ‘Magic If’, in order to deal with them. The ‘Magic If’ is a technique where the actor asks himself “given the circumstances already decided by the playwright, if I was this character, and I was in this situation, how would I react?”. In his book ‘An Actor Prepares’, Stanislavski talked about the professor using the example of pretending to be a tree. “Say to yourself: “I am I; but if I were an old oak tree, set in certain surrounding conditions, what would I do?” and decide where you are… in whatever place affects you most” (Stanislavski, 1937, p65[5]). Stanislavski asked that his students allow their imaginations to flourish through techniques such as Given Circumstances and the Magic If, to construct deeper, more realistic performances.

‘Emotional Memory’

Another technique which was born from Stanislavski’s belief that acting must be real is Emotional Memory, sometimes known as Affective Memory. Shelley Winters, an example of a famous actress with ultimate belief in the Stanislavski System, said that as an actor you must be willing to “act with your scars” [6], or in layman’s terms, be willing to allow your inner emotions and past experiences to show through. This is essentially the main terms of Emotional Memory, which requires the actor to draw on previous personal experiences which resulted in a similar emotion to which their character is experiencing. Once the actor has identified the experience, they are encouraged to allow the emotion they felt once again take over their mind and body, reinstating the context and mind-set until the emotion is real. The emotion must then seamlessly be applied to the script or character, as Stanislavski felt this would make the performance more believable because the emotion is true to the actor. Peter Oyston, founding Dean of Drama at the Victorian College of the Arts and regular teacher/director at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, created a rehearsal method specifically designed to enhance the feelings from memories. He published this, and other methods referring to Stanislavskian techniques, in a DVD documentary called “How to use the Stanislavski System” (2004). The Emotional Memory section can be viewed on YouTube [7], and teaches the student to remember a time when they personally felt an emotion which shadows or parallels that required from the text. They are encouraged to talk about the situation they are remembering out loud, until the emotion takes over their minds and bodies. Then, they must seamlessly transfer their speech from their own recollections to the script given to them, transferring the emotions at the same time.

‘Units and Objectives’

One of the most prominent aspects of Stanislavski’s method is his idea that any character in any play has a ‘Super-Objective’ throughout the action; an aim or driving force which sustains throughout the play. Stanislavski taught that this Super-Objective must stay in each actor’s mind throughout their rehearsal and performance, and that even though it may not be stated, or even obvious, they must take it upon themselves to research and discover it. Once this has been accomplished, he felt that the script could then be broken down into smaller Objectives, which would change several times throughout the piece as the plot deepened. Each Objective must be a verb, in order to be an ‘active objective’. He asked actors to split their script into Units and Objectives. Most pieces of drama are split by the playwright into a series of scenes and acts, allowing the action to move in time or setting, but Stanislavski found that an objective could run through and overlap into different scenes, or change very suddenly in the middle of an act. He therefore introduced the concept of Units, which are another way of dividing up a play- each unit should contain one objective.

The diagram above outlines the intricate detail of the aspects of Units, Objectives, and Super-Objectives. The Throughline of Action is the aim in a character’s mind throughout the entirety of the play, which culminates in the Super-Objective. Meanwhile, each character has several different Objectives which are split between the Units the actors devised for the script. These Objectives can take the character to many different places, but their Super-Objective will always remain the same.

Furthermore, the Objectives themselves are equally as detailed. Stanislavski said that each Objective could be broken down into the Aim, the Obstacle and the Action. The aim is what the character is trying to achieve in that particular unit. The obstacle is something which stops or restricts them from fulfilling their aim, and the action is the steps the character takes in order to avoid or overcome the obstacle.

Stanislavski accepted that it is impossible for a play to achieve a smooth finish where objectives are concerned because often, the action takes place off stage. The characters come and go, and the time changes, so we as an audience cannot witness the whole story. Stanislavski said that in order to overcome this, actors must always be consciously aware of their Super-Objective.

A familiar example of this aspect of the Stanislavskian Theory is Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo’s Super-Objective is to experience true love. He begins the play with the objective of marrying Rosaline, and this continues to be his objective until the Unit shifts at the Capulet party. Here, Romeo’s objective becomes to find out more about Juliet, and later becomes to marry her. Towards the end of the party, however, Romeo speaks with Juliet’s nurse, who tells him that “her mother is the Lady of the house” -that Juliet is a Capulet(Shakespeare, 1973, p. 910 [8]). This provides the obstacle, since Romeo’s family, the Montagues, have an ancient feud with the Capulets. Romeo then takes on a new action, which is to overcome the feud between the families, even if it means the couple have to lie about it. Romeo doesn’t manage to fully achieve his Super-Objective, because he never experiences the simplicity of love he was looking for- both he and Juliet have to die in order to truly be together.

Of all the aspects of Stanislavski’s method, these three prove to be the most popular among modern day performers.

Having researched the key aspects of Stanislavski’s system, I devised a way to be able to assess the effectiveness of them on a live performance by young actors, as this would allow me to establish whether the method does in fact help to produce a more believable performance. I decided to conduct an experiment into the effectiveness of Stanislavski’s system. I decided to utilise my contacts at a local youth drama group, which is made up of young actors and actresses aged between 11 and 17 years old. In order for the experiment to be a fair test, I determined to split them equally into two groups, and give each group the same scenario to work with. I planned to leave group one, the control group, to rehearse to their own methods, while conducting group two’s rehearsal processes myself, giving them tasks similar to those set by Stanislavski to his own pupils. After the groups had had the same period of time to rehearse, I wanted to invite an audience to watch their performances. The audience were to be given a questionnaire after the performances, asking which group’s interpretation of the scenario they found more convincing and realistic. I intended to film both sets of rehearsal processes in order to put together a short documentary. The results of the audience questionnaire were intended to ascertain whether Stanislavski’s rehearsal methods have a real influence on making modern day performance more realistic.

In order for this experiment to work, I firstly had to create an idea. Originally, I devised a script which revolved around the issue of teenage pregnancy, which is a growing concern in today’s society. The script included four gender specific characters, and I intended to have both groups perform the same piece; one using Stanislavski’s techniques, and the others using generic rehearsal processes. Having written the short play, and talked briefly to the children at the theatre, it became apparent that there was more interest in the workshop than I had expected. Another problem with using a script would have been that the audience would have watched the same piece twice, and would be comparing the actor’s individual performances as opposed to the believability of the pieces. Since it would have been unfair of me to cast the roles, I instead decided to take a different approach in order to include everyone. I devised a scenario, again based around a teenage pregnancy, that each group would be able to use as the core of their piece of drama. They would then devise the rest of their plays alone. This meant that each group could incorporate a flexible amount of participants, and ensured two unique, original performances.

With my idea in mind, I next needed to devise some Stanislavski-based rehearsal techniques for my group to use during their preparation for the production. Keeping the themes of ‘Given Circumstances and the Magic If’, ‘Emotional Memory’, and ‘Units and Objectives’ in mind, I devised three rehearsal techniques specifically tailored to Stanislavski’s ideals. With these techniques devised, I had to actually carry out the rehearsal and performances. In order to do this, I would need a space, two groups of actors, a party of responsible adults with CRB checks and an audience. I contacted the chairman of the theatre and booked myself a studio performance room for Saturday the 3rd of April. I then sent out letters to the actors involved with the Nonentities Youth Theatre. The letters outlined the project and the experimental side of the day, offered the chance to look at the technical side of theatre, and asked for a response. I received 18 positive responses back, which was many more than the original 12 participants I had in mind, making the scenario idea far more usable. I then had to split the actors into two different groups, a control group, who would direct themselves, and the experimental group, who I would direct using Stanislavski’s methods. The groups needed to be equally weighted with talent, as it was important to make this experiment as fair as possible by not allowing acting ability to throw it. I therefore split the actors into groups myself, aiming to balance the ages in each group while placing responsible actors I could trust to work independently in the control group, and actors open to co-operation and willing to listen in the Stanislavski group. The Independent Variable of this study was ‘whether Stanislavski’s methods were applied to rehearsals’, and the Dependant Variable was ‘whether the performance was more believable based on the rehearsal method used’. My hypothesis was: “The techniques used in rehearsal will have an affect on the performance given”.

I experienced my first problem of the day when the actors arrived in the morning. Shortly before the workshop was to take place, a letter had been sent to all members of the youth theatre outlining the need for a new leader and the cancellation of sessions until another letter was sent out. It became apparent that many of the actors who had wished to be a part of the workshop had assumed that it, too, was cancelled, so the final number of actors I had to work with was just 10. Although I had to adjust the group list, the smaller number of participants made the day as a whole more intimate, and the group sizes more manageable, so I feel it was a beneficial circumstance. Once everybody had signed in, I conducted a brief warm-up, asking all members to think of the way different characters moved and spoke in real life, asking them to act believably, not just as caricatures. I then split up the actors into groups, and chose the two girls who I felt would be most capable of acting the part of the pregnant teenager. I asked both groups to create a piece of drama focussing around the pregnancy that would last between 10 and 15 minutes, and I gave each group a list of criteria that they must adhere to, including aspects such as using the younger members in the younger roles, including a number of monologues from different characters, and that they must write down the decisions made in early rehearsal. I told the control group that they were allowed to use music, and dramatic techniques such as physical theatre and freeze frames, while the Stanislavski group had to endeavour to make their characters and circumstances applicable to real life, and were told not to use out-of-place techniques like freeze framing. The video was set to record as the groups split up into two different rooms, and I allowed the control group to keep to themselves for the majority of the day, while I worked with the Stanislavski group, asking them to use my previously-prepared rehearsal techniques.

The first technique I gave them was designed to support ‘Given Circumstances and the Magic If’. I asked each group to use the first stages of rehearsal to create mind-maps around the pieces of drama. Whilst the control group’s map outlined the storyline, the Stanislavski group were asked to spend an hour and a half fleshing out their characters, and the relationships and links between them. They gave each character a name and an age, they wrote about their belief’s and opinions, and decided upon how their characters met. Each actor developed a detailed history for their character, pulling from personal experience and their imaginations to create steady backgrounds. These are aspects relating to ‘Given Circumstances and the Magic If’ because they invite the participants to firstly realise the Circumstances the script gives them, and secondly to flesh out their characterisation by putting their characters in different situations through use of the Magic If.

The second technique I devised related to ‘Emotion Memory’. I used this technique when working with the actress playing the pregnant girl. We applied it to the scene in which she is told that the test is positive. I asked her to think about a time when she felt lost, and perhaps didn’t have anybody she could talk to about it because nobody had been in that position before her. She talked of a time when her parents were going through a messy divorce, and she felt cut of from the both of them. She spoke openly and freely, and answered my questions honestly. As time went by, she was drawn further and further into her memory and the emotions that were present at that time, so that when I finally asked her to begin talking from her character’s perspective, her acting became real. She didn’t need to fake the tears, because she was filled with the emotion her character was filled with.

The third technique was designed to compliment ‘Units and Objectives’. Once the actors had created their storyline, I asked them to divide it up into scenes, so that it was as close to a normal scripted piece of drama as possible. We talked about each of their characters, and what their Super-Objectives would be. The actors decided upon everyone’s objectives as a group, which brought a deeper level of understanding to the piece. They decided that the father’s Super-Objective would be to protect his children, while Rosie, the pregnant daughter, aimed to face her future head on. I then asked each actor to divide up the play into their own Units, focussing on the shifts in emotion. This process proved difficult for the younger members of the group, so the group as a whole helped them to identify their Units. There proved a great variety in the amount of Units in the piece for each character; while the pregnant girl had almost one per scene, the father had only two. Furthermore, the switch between Units for him came suddenly in the middle of his monologue, which was right at the end of the piece- before then his character had wanted the same thing throughout. I asked the group to physically improvise the scenes they had written about, and to stop the action when they encountered their obstacles. Once they had all found their obstacles, they were asked to continue acting while finding a way to overcome this obstacle- their action. I then asked them if they had noticed the other actor’s actions in the scene, so that everybody was aware of the decisions their group was making.This in-depth workshop class on ‘Units and Super-Objectives’ made the young actors aware and knowledgeable in the field, while also allowing them to know their characters inside out by knowing what they want, and how they might go about achieving it.

A couple of hours before the performances were scheduled to begin, I took notes on the rehearsal processes of both groups. The control group had included an omniscient narrator who could stop the action and introduce new characters. The narrator sat in the middle of the piece throughout the majority of the action, until the final scene where he became an involved character. A narrator is generally used to create a sense of dramatic irony, where the audience gain knowledge that the characters don’t yet know. However, this type of narration is rarely set within the piece itself, more often a voice over or such like. It is also unrealistic that the narrator, who is generally removed from and neutral to the action, suddenly become ‘real life’ and jump into the scene. The group also used a split-screen technique to enable them to show two different apartments at the same time, which is effective to the audience but unrealistic, as while action is playing out in one space, the characters in the other must be frozen. This creation of ‘freeze-framing’ is difficult to hold for long periods of time, and does not occur in a genuine situation. Another technique they used was audience-participation, where one member of their cast sat in the audience until the final moments of the play, where she rose, walked across the stage, took out her mobile and called the police. I concluded that the control group had included various aspects of performance which were designed to make the action more interesting to the audience, and add the element of surprise, but were not designed to look or feel realistic. They had spent only half an hour mind-mapping their decisions, and talked about their other decisions while physically rehearsing.

The Stanislavski group spent an hour and a half developing their characters, and another hour developing their storyline, so they ended up with four A3 sheets of paper detailing their entire performance. They used only one location, the teenager’s bedroom, so that there was never a set change needed, because it would interrupt the storyline and distract the audience. The group’s monologues were delivered to a person, as opposed to the audience, so that the barrier between the audience and the characters stayed strong. Had the actors been talking to the audience, their speeches would have seemed less realistic.

After five hours of rehearsal, it was time for the final performances. Each actor had been asked to invite some family members or friends, and members of the theatre came along to participate too. Each audience also included the actors from the other group, making the final audience figure 19 members. I watched the performances, but didn’t participate in the questionnaire, as I would have been biased toward the Stanislavski group. I introduced the pieces, and talked about the work the actors had undertaken over the day. The audience weren’t told which group was the control group, and which group was the Stanislavski group, until both performances had finished, meaning that they couldn’t be biased in favour of Stanislavski either. I also asked them to be open minded, and not answer the questionnaire in favour of the production their child was associated with, telling them they were judging my direction, not the individual actor’s talent. The audience watched the control group first, and were given time to fill out their questionnaires while we set up the stage for the Stanislavski group. After both performances had finished, I thanked everybody for taking part and collected in the questionnaires.

Having extrapolated my results, it became apparent that there was a general feeling that the Stanislavski production was more believable. When asked “was the main storyline believable”, 66% of the audience thought that the control group’s piece was “a dramatised and exaggerated version of real life”, while 95% thought that the Stanislavski group’s piece “could credibly happen in real life”. Having worked extensively with the pregnant character from the Stanislavski group, I was pleased that 42% of the audience thought that she portrayed the pregnancy flawlessly, while a further 42% felt that she portrayed it very well, while in the control group, these percentages combined only reached 44%. I asked the audience to rate how believable they felt the overall performances were, and 56% rated the control group’s performance at an 8/10 or higher, while 94% rated the Stanislavski performance at an 8/10 or higher. Overall, it is evident that the Stanislavski group’s performance was more widely believed.

It is important to note that the effectiveness of the performances given may not be entirely down to the methods of rehearsal used. Although I tried to make the experiment as fair as possible by attempting to make the rehearsal methods the only variable, other extraneous variables may have had an affect on the final results. For example, since there were fewer participants than planned, I had to shuffle the groups a little. This meant that the control group had two of the younger members in their piece, while the Stanislavski group had four older members. The younger members of the theatre are less experienced and therefore don’t have as many creative ideas to bring to the mix. It is also apparent that almost half of the audience were family members of the younger actors, meaning that they are liable to vote in favour of their child’s piece as they are proud to see them on stage. Although I asked the audience to keep an open mind, they may have been bias towards their family or friends, and this is a factor which could have affected the final results.

At the beginning of my project, I asked myself “What is Stanislavski’s Method of acting, and how far has it influenced modern day performance?” Having undertaken a considerable amout of research on Stanislavski and his methods, it became easier for me to define them, and to easily distinguish the difference between his teachings, and those of other practitioners. I found that Stanislavski’s method of acting is largely based around the actor’s own interpretation of the character, aiming to keep the emotion real. I found that Stanislavski wanted the audience to connect with both the storyline and the characters, and he achieved this connection by keeping th acting real, thus allowing the audience to connect empathetically. Having created an experiment to see whether Stanislavski did indeed influence modern day performance, I found that the audience were effected by the group that used the Stanislavskian rehearsal techniques, so much so that one person wrote on the bottom of their questionnaire that their performance “actually brought tears to my eyes”. While researching, I came across a website [9] where Jeni Whittaker (1999) argues that “Stanislavski is rightly called the ‘father of modern theatre’, his System of acting became the backbone of twentieth century theatre craft. Nearly all other practitioners use him as a starting point, either to build from or to react against”. This substantiates my initial hypothesis that Stanislavski has a major influence on modern day theatre. In conclusion, I feel that Stanislavski has an extended influence on modern day theatre. Audiences of today wish not to be challenged or alienated, but to see characters they can relate to on the stage, and the majority of theatre today follows this teaching, whether the director realises he is adhering to Stanislavski’s theory or otherwise. Furthermore, when watching two similar pieces of drama, it became apparent that the audience are more drawn towards that which used Stanislavski’s rehearsal techniques because the characters and storyline were portrayed in a true to life manner. I found that Stanislavski is not only used in theatre, as many famous screen actors choose his methods when getting into character. I feel that the world is exposed to Stanislavski’s teachings more than it realises, and therefore the influence of Stanislavski on modern day acting is significantly higher than I believed when I began the project.


Source unknown, Stanislavski.

Brecht (1949). ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, paragraph 55.

Encyclopædia Britannica (2010). ‘Stanislavsky method’. Encyclopædia Britannica Online; Retrieved February 22, 2010, from:

Source unknown, Stanislavski.

Stanislavski (1937). ‘An Actor Prepares’, (reprinted 1988) United Kingdom: Methuen Drama LTD.

Harry Governick for TheatrGROUP. (1992). An Interview with Shelly Winters; Retrieved February 22, 2010, from

Peter Oyston, ‘How to use the Stanislavski System’ DVD(2004). Retrieved (via YouTube) April 12, 2010, from

Shakespeare (1973). ‘Romeo and Juliet’, from ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare- The Alexander Text’. London and Glasgow: Collins.

Jeni Whittaker for DramaWorks. ‘Stanislavski through Practice’ (1999) Retrieved April 13, 2010, from

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