Adaptation An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 2)
Adaptation An Actor Prepares
“Can it be that your mind, which is really an intelligent one, could suggest such absurdities?” said Tortsov. “Or was it your feelings? In that case, you gave an external physical form to the suggestion made by your subconscious? In either case, both when you had the idea of the pineapple, and when you adjusted yourself to that idea, you passed through that unknown region of the subconscious.
“From some stimulus or other an idea comes into your head. At that instant, it crosses the subconscious. Next, you consider that idea, and later when both the idea and your thoughts about it are put into the tangible physical form you pass again, for an infinitesimal length of time, through the subconscious. Each time you do that your adjustments, in whole or in part, absorb something essential from it.
“In every process of inter-communication, necessarily involving adjustments, both the subconscious and intuition play a large, if not the principal part. In the theatre, their significance is extraordinarily enhanced.
“I do not know what science says on this subject. I can only share with you what I have felt and observed in myself. After a prolonged investigation, I can now assert that in ordinary life I do not find any conscious adjustment without some element, however slight, of the subconscious in it. On the stage, on the other hand, where one would suppose that subconscious intuitive adjustments preponderate, I am constantly finding completely conscious adaptations. These are the actors’ rubber stamps. You find them in all roles that have been worn threadbare. Every gesture is self-conscious to a high degree.”
“Then may we conclude that you are not willing to countenance any conscious adjustments on the stage?” I asked.
“Not those I have just mentioned and which have become nothing more than stencils. And yet I must admit that I am aware of the conscious character of certain adjustments when they have been suggested by outside sources, by the director, other actors, or friends, proffering sought or unsought advice. Such adaptations should be used with utmost care and wisdom.
“Never accept them in the form in which they are presented to you. Do not allow yourself simply to copy them. You must adapt them to your own needs, make them your own, truly part of you. To accomplish this is to undertake a large piece of work involving a whole new set of given circumstances and stimuli.
“You should go about it in the same way as an actor does who sees in real life some typical characteristic that he wishes to embody in a role. If he merely copies it he will fall into the error of superficial and routine acting.”
“What other types of adaptations exist?” I asked.
“Mechanical or motor adjustments,” answered Tortsov.
“No. I am not speaking of them. They should be exterminated.
Motor adjustments are subconscious, semi-conscious, and conscious in origin. They are normal, natural, human adaptations that are carried to a point of becoming purely mechanical in character.
“Let me illustrate. Let us assume that in playing a certain character part you make use of real, human adjustments in your relations to others on the stage. Yet a large part of those adjustments grows out of the character you are portraying and do not stem directly from you. Those supplementary adaptations have appeared spontaneously, involuntarily, and unconsciously. But the director has pointed them out to you.
After which you are aware of them, they become conscious and habitual. They grow into the very flesh and blood of the character you are playing, every time you live through the part.
Finally, these supplementary adjustments become motor activities.” “Then they are stereotypes?” someone asked.
“No. Let me repeat. A rubber stamp piece of acting is conventional, false, and lifeless. It had its origin in theatrical routine. It conveys neither feelings, thoughts nor any images characteristic of human beings. Motor adjustments, on the contrary, were intuitive, originally, but they have become mechanical, without sacrificing their quality of naturalness. Because they remain organic and human, they are the antithesis of the rubber stamp.”
“The next step is the question of what technology means we can employ to stimulate adaptations,” announced the Director as he came into class today. Then he proceeded to lay out a program of work for the lesson.
“I shall begin with intuitive adaptations.
“There is no direct approach to our subconscious, therefore we make use of various stimuli that induce a process of living the part, which in turn inevitably creates inter-relationship and conscious or unconscious adjustments. That is the indirect approach.
“What else, you ask, can we accomplish in that region into which our consciousness cannot penetrate? We refrain from interfering with nature and avoid contravening her laws. Whenever we can put ourselves into a wholly natural and relaxed state, there wells up within us a flow of creation that blinds our audience by its brilliance.
“In dealing with semi-conscious adjustments the conditions are different. Here we have some use for our psycho-technique. I say some, for even here our possibilities are restricted.
“I have one practical suggestion to make and I think I can explain it better by an illustration. Do you remember when Sonya coaxed me out of making her do the exercise, how she repeated the same words over and over again, using a great variety of adaptations? I want you to do the same thing, as a sort of exercise, but do not use the same adjustments. They have lost their effectiveness. I want you to find fresh ones, conscious or unconscious, to take their place.” On the whole, we repeated the old stuff.
When Tortsov reproached us for being so monotonous, we complained that we did not know what material to use as a basis for creating fresh adaptations.
Instead of answering us he turned to me and said:
“You write shorthand. Take down what I am going to dictate:
“Calm, excitement, good humor, irony, mockery, quarrelsomeness, reproach, caprice, scorn, despair, menace, joy, benignity, doubt, astonishment, anticipation, doom . . .”
He named all these states of mind, mood, emotions, and many more. Then he said to Sonya:
“Put your finger on any one word in that list and, whatever it is, use it as the basis for a new adaptation.”
She did as she was told, and the word was: benignity.
“Now use some fresh colors in the place of the old ones,” suggested the Director.
She was successful in striking the right note and finding appropriate motivation. But Leo outshone her. His booming voice was positively unctuous and his whole fat face and figure exuded benignity. We all laughed.
“Is that sufficient proof for you of the desirability of introducing fresh elements into an old problem?” asked Tortsov.
Sonya then put her finger on another word on the list. This time the choice rested on quarrelsomeness. With a truly feminine capacity for nagging, she went to work. This time she was outdone by Grisha. No one can compete with him when it comes to argumentative persistence.
“There is fresh proof of the efficacy of my method,” said Tortsov with satisfaction. Then he proceeded to go through similar exercises with all the other students.
“Put what other human characteristics or moods you choose on that list and you will find them all useful in supplying you with fresh colors and shadings for almost every interchange of thought and feelings. Sharp contrasts and the element of unexpectedness are also helpful.
“This method is extremely effective in dramatic and tragic situations. To heighten the impression, at a particularly tragic point, you can suddenly laugh as though to say: ‘The way destiny pursues me is nothing short of ridiculous!’ or, ‘In such despair, I cannot weep, I can only laugh!’
“Just think what is required of your facial, vocal, and physical apparatus if it is to respond to the finest shadings of such subconscious feelings. What flexibility of expression, what sensitiveness, what discipline! Your powers of expression as an artist will be tested to the limit by the adjustments you must make in your relation to other actors on the stage.
For this reason, you must give appropriate preparation to your body, face, and voice. I mention this now only in passing, and because I hope it will make you more aware of the necessity of your exercises in physical culture, dancing, fencing, and voice placing. In time we shall go more fully into the cultivation of external attributes of expression.”
Just as the lesson was over, and Tortsov was getting up to leave, the curtain was suddenly drawn, and we saw Maria’s living room, all decorated. When we went up onto the stage to see it, we found placards on the walls, reading: (1) Inner tempo-rhythm.
- Inner characterization.
- Control and finish.
- Inner ethics and discipline.
- Dramatic charm.
- Logic and coherence.
“There are a number of signs around here,” said Tortsov, “but, for the present, my remarks about them must be brief. There are many necessary elements in the creative process that we have not yet sorted out.
My problem is: how can I talk about them without departing from my habitual method, which is first to make you feel what you are learning by vivid practical examples and later come to theories? How can I discuss with you now invisible inner tempo-rhythm or invisible inner characterization? What example can I give you to illustrate my explanations in practice?
“It seems to me that it would be simpler to wait until we take up external tempo-rhythm and characterization because you can demonstrate them with physical actions and at the same time experience them inwardly.
“Or again: how can I speak concretely about control when you have neither a play nor a part demanding sustained control in its presentation? By the same token, how can I talk about finish when we have nothing on which we can put a finish?
“Nor is there any point now, in taking up ethics in art or discipline on the stage during creative work, when most of you have never even stood behind the footlights except at the test performance.
“Finally, what can I say to you about charm when you have never felt its power over, and effect on, an audience of thousands?
“All that is left on the list is logic, coherence. On that subject, it seems to me, that I have already spoken often and at length. Our whole program has been permeated by it and will continue to be.” “When have you discussed it?” I asked with surprise.
“What do you mean, when?” exclaimed Tortsov, astonished in his turn. “I have talked about it on every possible occasion. I have insisted on it when we were studying magic ifs, given circumstances, when you were carrying out projects in physical activity, and especially in establishing objects for the concentration of attention, in choosing objectives derived from units. At every step, I have demanded the most stringent kind of logic in your work.
“What there is still left to be said on this subject will be fitted in from time to time as our work progresses. So I shall not make any special statements now. I fear to, in fact. I am afraid of falling into philosophy and of straying from the path of practical demonstration.
“That is why I have merely mentioned these various elements, in order to make the list complete. In time we shall come to them, and work on them in a practical way, and eventually, we shall be able to deduce theories from that work.
“This brings us temporarily to the end of our study of the internal elements necessary to the creative process in an actor. I shall add only that the elements I have listed today are just as important and necessary in bringing about the right inner spiritual state as those we worked on earlier in greater detail.”