Adaptation An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)
Adaptation An Actor Prepares
THE FIRST SUGGESTION that the Director made, after seeing the big placard “ADAPTATION” that his assistant had put up, was to Vanya. He gave this problem:
“You want to go somewhere. The train leaves at two o’clock. It is already one o’clock. How are you going to manage to slip away before classes are over? Your difficulty will lie in the necessity of deceiving not only me but all of your comrades as well. How will you go about it?”
I suggested that he pretend to be sad, thoughtful, depressed, or ill. Then everyone would ask: “What’s the matter with you?” That would give an opportunity to cook up some story in a way that would oblige us to believe he really was ill and to let him go home.
“That’s it!” exclaimed Vanya joyously, and he proceeded to go through a course of antics. But after he had cut a few capers, he tripped and screamed with pain. He stood rooted to the floor with one leg up and his face twisted with suffering.
At first, we thought he was fooling us, and that this was part of his plot. But he was apparently in such real pain that I believed in it, and was about to go over to help him when I felt a little doubt and thought that for the tiniest part of a second I saw a twinkle in his eye.
So I stayed with the Director, while all the others went to his rescue. He refused to let anyone touch his leg. He tried to step on it but he yelled so with pain that Tortsov and I looked at each other as much as to say, is this real, or is it fooling? Vanya was helped off the stage with great difficulty. They held him up by the armpits and he used his good leg.
Suddenly Vanya began to do a fast dance and burst into laughter. “That was great! That I really did feel!” he chortled.
He was rewarded with an ovation and I was once more aware of his very real gifts.
“Do you know why you applauded him?” asked the Director. “It was because he found the right adaptation to the circumstances that were set for him, and successfully carried through his plan.
“We shall use this word, adaptation, from, now on to mean both the inner and outer human means that people use in adjusting themselves to one another in a variety of relationships and also as an aid in effecting an object.”
He further explained what he meant by adjusting or conforming oneself to a problem.
“It is what Vanya has just done. To get out of his classes early he used a contrivance, a trick, to help him solve the situation he was in.” “Then adaptation means deceit?” asked Grisha.
“In a certain way, yes; in another, it is a vivid expression of inner feelings or thoughts: third, it can call the attention to you of the person with whom you wish to be in contact: fourth, it can prepare your partner by putting him in a mood to respond to you: fifth, it can transmit certain invisible messages, which can only be felt and not put into words. And I could mention any number of other possible functions, for their variety and scope is infinite.
“Take this illustration:
“Suppose that you, Kostya, hold some high position and I have
to ask a favor of you. I must enlist your aid. But you do not know me at all. How can I make myself stand out from the others who are trying to get help from you?
“I must rivet your attention on me and control it. How can I strengthen and make the most of the slight contact between us? How can I influence you to take a favorable attitude toward me? How can I reach your mind, your feelings, your attention, your imagination? How can I touch the very soul of such an influential person?
“If only I can make him conjure up a picture in his mind’s eye that in any way approximates the dreadful reality of my circumstances, I know his interest will be aroused. He will look into me more attentively, his heart will be touched. But to reach this point I must penetrate into the being of the other person, I must sense his life, I must adapt myself to it.
“What we are primarily aiming at, in using such means, is to express our states of mind and heart in higher relief. There are, however, contrasting circumstances in which we make use of them to hide or mask our sensations. Take a proud sensitive person who is trying to appear amiable to hide his wounded feelings. Or, a prosecuting attorney who covers himself most cleverly with various subterfuges in order to veil his real object in cross-examining a criminal.
“We have recourse to methods of adaptation in all forms of communion, even with ourselves, because we must necessarily make allowances for the state of mind we are in at any given moment.”
“But after all,” argued Grisha, “words exist to express all these things.”
“Do you suppose that words can exhaust all the nicest shadings of the emotions you experience? No! When we are communing with one another words do not suffice. If we want to put life into them, we must produce feelings. They fill out the blanks left by words, they finish what has been left unsaid.”
“Then the more means you use, the more intense and complete your communion with the other person will be?” someone suggested.
“It is not a question of quantity but of quality,” explained the Director.
I asked what qualities were best suited to the stage.
“There are many types,” was his answer. “Each actor has his own special attributes. They are original with him, they spring from varied sources and they vary in value. Men, women, old people, children, pompous, modest, choleric, kind, irritable, and calm people all have their own types.
Each change of circumstance, setting, place of action, or time—brings a corresponding adjustment. You adjust yourself differently in the dead of night, alone, from the way you do in daylight and in public. When you arrive in a foreign country you find ways of adapting yourself in a way suitable to the surrounding circumstances.
“Every feeling you express, as you express it, requires an intangible form of adjustment all its own. All types of communication, such as, for example, communication in a group, with an imaginary, present or absent object, require adjustments peculiar to each.
We use all of our five senses and all the elements of our inner and outer makeup to communicate. We send out rays and receive them, we use our eyes, facial expression, voice and intonation, our hands, fingers, our whole bodies, and in every case we make whatever corresponding adjustments are necessary.
“You will see actors who are gifted with magnificent powers of expression in all phases of human emotions and the means they use are both good and right. Yet they may be able to transmit all this only to a few people, during the intimacy of rehearsals. When the play goes on and their means should grow in vividness, they pale and fail to get across the footlights in a sufficiently effective, theatrical form.
“There are other actors who possess the power to make vivid adjustments, but not many. Because they lack variety their effect loses strength and keenness.
“Finally there are actors whom nature has maltreated by endowing them with monotonous and insipid, although correct, powers of adjustment. They can never reach the front rank of their profession.
“If people in ordinary walks of life need and make use of a large variety of adaptations, actors need a correspondingly greater number because we must be constantly in contact with one another and therefore incessantly adjusting ourselves. In all the examples I have given the quality of the adjustment plays a great part: vividness, colorfulness, boldness, delicacy, shading, exquisiteness, and taste.
“What Vanya did for us was vivid to the point of boldness. But there are other methods of adaptation. Now let me see Sonya, Grisha and Vassili go up on the stage and play me the exercise of the burnt money.”
Sonya stood up rather languidly with a depressed look on her face, apparently waiting for the two men to follow her example. But they sat tight. An embarrassing silence ensued.
“What is the matter?” asked Tortsov.
No one answered and he waited patiently. Finally, Sonya could not stand the silence any longer, so she made up her mind to speak. To soften her remarks she used some feminine mannerisms because she had found that men were usually affected by them. She dropped her eyes and kept rubbing the number plate on the orchestra seat in front of her to disguise her feelings. For a long time, she could not bring out any words. To hide her blushes she put a handkerchief to her face and turned away.
The pause seemed endless: to fill it up and to lessen the embarrassment caused by the situation, also to lend a humorous touch to it, she forced out a little mirthless laugh.
“We are so bored by it. Really we are,” she said. “I don’t know how to tell you—but please, give us another exercise—and we will act.”
“Bravo! I agree! And now you don’t have to do that exercise because you have already given me what I wanted,” exclaimed the
“What did she show you?” we asked.
“While Vanya showed us a bold adaptation, Sonya’s was more exquisite, fine-grained, and contained both internal and external elements. She very patiently used all the gamut of her powers of persuasion to get me to take pity on her. She made effective use of her resentment and tears. Whenever she could, she put in a touch of flirtation to gain her objective. She kept readjusting herself in order to make me feel and accept all the shadings of the changing emotions she was experiencing.
If one did not succeed, she tried another and a third, hoping to find the most convincing way to penetrate to the heart of her problem.
“You must learn to adapt yourselves to circumstances, to time, and to each individual person. If you are called upon to deal with a stupid person you must adjust yourself to his mentality, and find the simplest means with which to reach his mind and understanding. But if your man is shrewd, you should proceed more cautiously and use subtler means so that he won’t see through your wiles.
“To prove to you how important these adaptations are in our creative work, let me add that many actors of limited emotional capacity produce greater effects through their vivid powers of adjustment than those who feel more deeply and powerfully yet cannot transmit their emotions in any but pale forms.”
“Vanya,” ordered the Director, “go up on the stage with me and play a variation of what you did last time.”
Our lively young friend bounced off and Tortsov slowly followed, whispering to us as he went: “Watch me draw him out!” Out loud he added: “So you want to get away from school early. That is your main, fundamental objective. Let me see you accomplish it.”
He sat down near a table, took a letter out of his pocket, and became wholly absorbed in reading it. Vanya stood close by, his whole attention concentrated on finding the most ingenious possible way to outwit him.
He tried the most varied kinds of stunts but Tortsov, as if on purpose, paid no attention to him. Vanya was indefatigable in his efforts. For a long while, he sat absolutely motionless with an agonized expression on his face. If Tortsov had even so much as looked at him then he must have taken pity on him.
Suddenly Vanya got up and rushed off into the wings. In a little while, he came back, walking with the uncertain step of an invalid and wiping his brow as if a cold sweat were pouring from it. He sat down heavily near Tortsov, who continued to ignore him. But he was acting truthfully and we responded with approval to all he did.
After that Vanya nearly passed out with fatigue: he even slid out of his chair onto the floor and we laughed at his exaggerations.
But the Director was unmoved.
Vanya thought up more things to make us laugh harder. Even so, Tortsov was silent and paid no attention to him. The more Vanya exaggerated, the louder we laughed. Our merriment encouraged him to think of more and more amusing things to do until finally, we roared.
That was just what Tortsov was waiting for.
“Do you realize what has just happened?” he asked as soon as he could quiet us. “Vanya’s central objective was to get out of school ahead of time. All of his actions, words, and efforts to appear ill and to gain my sympathetic attention were means that he was using to accomplish his main purpose.
In the beginning what he did conform properly to that purpose. But alas! As soon as he heard the laughter from the audience he changed his whole direction and began to adapt his actions, not to me who was paying no attention to him, but to you, who showed your delight in his stunts.
“His objective now became, how to amuse the spectators. What basis could he find for this? Where would he look for his plot? How could he believe in and live in it? His only resort must be to the theatrical—that is why he went wrong.
“At this point, his means became false by being used for their own sakes instead of in their proper role of auxiliaries. That sort of wrong acting is frequently seen on the stage. I know any number of actors who are capable of making brilliant adjustments and yet who use these means to entertain the public rather than to convey their feelings. They turn their powers of adaptation, just as Vanya did, into individual vaudeville numbers. The success of these separate entities turns their heads.
They are willing to sacrifice their role, as a whole, to the excitement of obtaining a burst of applause, and shouts of laughter. Very often these particular moments have nothing to do with the play. Naturally, under such circumstances, these adaptations lose all meaning.
“So you see they can even be a dangerous temptation to an actor. There are whole roles that are permeated with opportunities for misusing adaptations. Take Ostrovski’s play Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man and the role of old man Mamayev. Because he has no occupation he spends all his time giving advice to anyone he can get hold of. It is not easy to stick to a single objective throughout a five-act play: to preach and preach to others and to convey to them constantly the same thoughts and feelings.
Under the circumstances, it is extremely easy to lapse into monotony. To avoid that, many actors, in this part, concentrate their efforts on all sorts of changing adaptations of the main idea of preaching to others. This endless variety of adjustments is, of course, valuable, but it can be harmful if the emphasis is put on the variations rather than on the objective.
“If you study the inner workings of an actor’s mind you will find that what happens is that instead of saying to himself, ‘I shall aim at such and such an objective by means of a severe tone,’ what he really says is: ‘I want to be severe.’ But as you know, you must not be severe, or anything else, just for its own sake.
“If you do your true feelings and actions will disappear and be replaced by artificial, theatrical ones. It is all too typical of actors that in the presence of the persons whom the play gives them to communicate with, they seek out some other object for their attention, on the other side of the footlights, and proceed to adjust themselves to that object. Their external communication may seem to be with the persons on the stage, but their real adjustments are being made to the spectators.
“Suppose you live on the top floor of a house and across the wide street lives the object of your affections. How can you tell her of your love? You can blow kisses, and press your hand to your heart. You can appear to be in a state of ecstasy, sadness, or longing. You can use gestures to enquire whether or not you may call on her and so on. All these adjustments to your problem must be expressed in strong colors, otherwise, they will never get across the intervening space.
“Now comes an exceptionally favorable opportunity: there is not a soul in the street; she stands, alone, at her window; in all the other windows the blinds are down. There is nothing to keep you from falling over. Your voice must be pitched to bridge the distance.
“The next time you meet her she is walking along the street on the arm of her mother. How can you make use of this close encounter to whisper a word, perhaps to beg her to come to some rendezvous? To be in keeping with the circumstances of the meeting you will need some expressive but barely perceptible gesture of the hand, or perhaps only the eyes. If you must use words let them be scarcely audible.
“You are just about to act when you suddenly see your rival across the street. You are seized with a desire to show him your success. You forget the mamma and shout loving words at the top of your lungs.
“Most actors constantly do with impunity what we would look upon as inexplicably absurd in an ordinary human being. They stand side by side with their partners on the stage and yet they adjust their whole facial expressions, voices, gestures, and actions to the distance, not between them and the other actor, but between them and whoever is sitting in the last row of the orchestra.”
“But I really should consider the poor devil who can’t afford to sit in the front rows, where he can hear everything,” broke in Grisha. “Your first duty,” answered Tortsov, “is to adapt yourself to your partner. As for the poor people in the last rows, we have a special way of reaching them. We have our voices placed properly and we use well-prepared methods of pronouncing vowels and consonants.
With the right kind of diction, you can speak as softly as if you were in a small room and those poor people will hear you better than if you yell, especially if you have aroused their interest in what you are saying, and have made them penetrate the inner meaning of your lines. If you rant, your intimate words, which should be conveyed in a gentle tone, will lose their significance and the spectators will not be inclined to look beyond them.”
“Nevertheless the spectator has to see what is going on,” persisted Grisha.
“For that very purpose, we make use of sustained, clear-cut, coherent, logical action. That is what makes the spectator understand what is happening. But if the actors are going to contradict their own inner feelings by gesticulations and poses that may be attractive but are not truly motivated, then the public will tire of following them because they have no vital relation either to the spectators or to the characters in the play, and they become easily bored by repetition.
I say all this by way of explaining that the stage, with all its attendant publicity, tends to lead actors away from natural, human adaptations to situations, and tempts them to conventional, theatrical ways. Those are the very forms that we must fight against with every means at our disposal until we have chased them out of the theatre.”
Tortsov prefaced his remarks today by the statement:
“Adaptations are made consciously and unconsciously.
“Here is an illustration of intuitive adjustment as an expression of supreme sorrow. In My Life in Art, there is a description of how a mother received the news of the death of her son. In the very first moments, she expressed nothing but began hurriedly to dress. Then she rushed to the street door and cried, ‘Help!’
“An adjustment of that sort cannot be reproduced either intellectually or with the aid of any technique. It is created naturally, spontaneously, and unconsciously, at the very moment when emotions are at their height. Yet that type, so direct, vivid, and convincing, represents the effective method we need. It is only by such means that we create and convey to an audience of thousands all the finer, barely perceptible shades of feeling. But to such experiences, the only approach is through intuition and the subconscious.
“How such feelings stand out on the stage! What an ineradicable impression they make on the memories of the spectators!
“In what does their power lie?
“In their overwhelming unexpectedness.
“If you follow an actor through a role, step by step, you may expect him, at a certain important point, to give his lines in a loud, clear-cut, serious tone of voice. Suppose that instead of that, he quite unexpectedly uses a light, gay, and very soft tone as an original way of handling his part. The surprise element is so intriguing and effective that you are persuaded that this new way is the only possible way of playing that bit.
You say to yourself: ‘How is it I never thought of that nor imagined that those lines were so significant?’ You are amazed and delighted by this unexpected adaptation by the actor.
“Our subconscious has its own logic. Since we find subconscious adaptations so necessary in our art I shall go into some detail in discussing them.
“The most powerful, vivid, and convincing adaptations are the product of that wonder-working artist—nature. They are almost wholly of subconscious origin. We find that the greatest artists use them. However, even these exceptional people cannot produce them at any given time. They come only in moments of inspiration.
At other times their adaptations are only partially subconscious. Take into consideration the fact that as long as we are on the stage we are in unending contact with one another, therefore our adjustments to each other must be constant. Then think of how many actions and moves this means, and guess what proportion of subconscious moments they may include!”
After a pause the Director went on:
“It is not only when we are concerned with a constant interchange of thoughts and feelings and adjustments that the subconscious comes into the picture. It comes to our aid at other times as well. Let us test this out on ourselves. I suggest that for five minutes you do not talk about or do anything.”
After this period of silence, Tortsov questioned each student as to what took place inside of him, and what he was thinking about and feeling during that time.
Someone said that for some reason he suddenly remembered his medicine.
“What has that to do with our lesson?” Tortsov enquired.
“Perhaps you felt a pain and that reminded you of the medicine?” he pursued.
“No, I was not aware of any pain.” “How did such an idea pop into your head?” There was no answer.
One of the girls had been thinking about a pair of scissors.
“What relation did they have to what we are doing?” asked Tortsov. “None that I can think of.”
“Perhaps you noticed some defect in your dress, decided to remedy it, and that put you in mind of the scissors?”
“No, my clothes are all in order. But I left my scissors in a box with some ribbons and I locked the box up in my trunk. It suddenly flashed through my mind, I hope I don’t forget where I put them.”
“Then you just thought about the scissors and afterward reasoned out why that happened?”
“Yes, I did think about the scissors first.”
“But you still do not know where the idea came from in the first place?”
Pursuing his investigations Tortsov found that Vassili, during the period of silence, had been thinking about pineapple and it occurred to him that its scaly surface and pointed leaves made it very similar to certain types of palm trees.
“What put pineapple into the foreground of your mind? Had you eaten some recently?”
“Where did you all get such thoughts, about medicines, scissors, and pineapple?”
When we admitted that we did not know, the Director said:
“All of these things come out of the subconscious. They are like shooting stars.”
After a moment’s reflection, he turned to Vassili and said:
“I do not yet understand why, when you were telling us about that pineapple, you kept twisting yourself into such strange physical positions. They did not add anything to your story about the pineapple and the palm. They were expressing something else.
What was it? What lay behind the intensely reflective expression in your eyes and the somber look on your face? What was the meaning of the pattern you drew in the air with your fingers? Why did you look at us all in turn so significantly and shrug your shoulders? What relation had all this to the pineapple?”
“Do you mean to say I was doing all those things?” asked Vassili. “I certainly do, and I want to know what you meant.” “It must have been astonishment,” said Vassili.
“Astonishment at what? At the miracles of nature?”
“Then those were the adjustments to the idea suggested by your mind?”
But Vassili was silent.