Communion An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)
Communion An Actor Prepares
WHEN THE DIRECTOR came in he turned to Vassili and asked:
“With whom or with what are you in communion at this moment?”
Vassili was so absorbed in his own thoughts that he did not immediately recognize the purport of the question.
“I?” he replied, almost mechanically. “Why, not with anyone or anything.”
“You must be a marvel,” was the Director’s joking remark, “if you are able to continue in that state for long.”
Vassili excused himself by assuring Tortsov that since no one was either looking at or addressing him he could not be in contact with anyone.
It was now Tortsov’s turn to be surprised. “Do you mean,” said he, “that someone must look at or talk with you to be in communication with you? Close your eyes and ears, be silent and try to discover with whom you are in mental communication. Try to find one single second when you will not be in some contact with some object.” I tried that myself and noted what went on inside of me.
I visualized the previous evening when I had heard a famous string quartet and I followed my movements step by step. I went into the foyer, greeted some friends, found my seat, and watched the musician’s tune-up. They began to play and I listened. But I could not put myself into a state of emotional relationship with them.
That, I concluded, must have been a blank space in the flow of communion between me and my surroundings. But the Director was firm in his disagreement with that conclusion.
“How can you,” said he, “look upon a time when you were absorbing the music, as a blank space?”
“Because although I listened,” I insisted, “I really did not hear the music, and although I tried to penetrate its meaning I did not succeed. So I felt that no contact was established.”
“Your association with and acceptance of the music had not yet begun because the preceding process had not yet been achieved and it distracted your attention. When that was done you would either give yourself up to the music or become interested in something else. But there was no break in the continuity of your relationship to something.”
“Perhaps that was so,” I admitted, and pursued my recollections. Absent-mindedly I made a movement which, it seemed to me, attracted the attention of the concert-goers near me. After that I sat very quiet and pretended to be listening to the music but as a matter of fact, I really did not hear it because I was watching what was going on around me.
My eye wandered over in the direction of Tortsov and I noticed that he had not been aware of my accidental movement. I looked around the hall for the elder Shustov, but neither he nor any of the other actors from our theatre were there. Then I tried to visualize all of the audience, but by this time my attention became so scattered that I was unable to control or direct it. The music was conducive to all sorts of imaginings. I thought about my neighbors, my relatives, who live far away in other cities, and my dead friend.
The Director told me afterward that all those things came into my head because I felt the need either of sharing my thoughts and feelings with the objects of my meditation or of absorbing them from these objects.
Finally my attention was drawn to the lights on the chandelier overhead and I gave myself up to a lengthy contemplation of them. That, I was convinced, must have been a blank moment because, by no stretch of the imagination, could you call looking at those lights a form of intercourse.
When I told Tortsov about it he explained my state of mind in this way:
“You were trying to find out how and of what that object was made. You absorbed its form, its general aspect, and all sorts of details about it. You accepted these impressions, entered them in your memory, and proceeded to think about them. That means that you drew something from your object, and we actors look upon that as necessary. You are worried about the inanimate quality of your object.
Any picture, statue, photograph of a friend, or object in a museum, is inanimate, yet it contains some part of the life of the artist who created it. Even a chandelier can, to a certain degree, become an object of lively interest, if only because of our absorption in it.”
“In that case,” I argued, “we can be in association with any old thing that our eye happens to fall on?”
“I doubt if you would have the time to absorb from or to give out even a particle of yourself to everything that flashes by you. Yet without absorbing from others or giving of yourself to others there can be no intercourse on the stage. To give to or to receive from an object something, even briefly, constitutes a moment of spiritual intercourse.
“I have said more than once that it is both possible to look at and to see, and to look at and not to see. On the stage, you can look at, see and feel everything that is going on there. But it is also possible to look at what surrounds you on this side of the footlights, while your feelings and interest are centered in the auditorium, or in some place beyond the walls of the theatre.
“There are mechanical tricks which actors use to cover up their inner lack but they only emphasize the blankness of their stare. I need not tell you that that is both useless and harmful. The eye is the mirror of the soul. The vacant eye is the mirror of the empty soul. It is important that an actor’s eyes, his look, reflect the deep inner content of his soul.
So he must build up great inner resources to correspond to the life of a human soul in his part. All the time that he is on the stage he should be sharing these spiritual resources with the other actors in the play.
“Yet an actor is only human. When he comes on the stage it is only natural that he should bring with him his everyday thoughts, personal feelings, reflections, and realities. If he does this, the line of his own personal, humdrum life is not interrupted. He will not give himself up wholly to his part unless it carries him away. When it does so, he becomes completely identified with it and is transformed.
But the moment he becomes distracted and falls under the sway of his own personal life, he will be transported across the footlights into the audience or beyond the walls of the theatre, wherever the object is that maintains a bond of relationship with him. Meanwhile, he plays his part in a purely mechanical way. When those lapses are frequent and subject to interpolations from the actor’s personal life, they ruin the continuity of the role because they have no relation to it.
“Can you imagine a valuable necklace in which, after every three golden links, there is one of tin, and then two golden links tied together with string? What would anyone want with such a necklace? And who can want a constantly breaking line of communication on the stage, which either deforms or kills acting? Yet if communication between persons is important in real life, it is ten times more so on the stage.
“This truth derives from the nature of the theatre, which is based on the inter-communication of the dramatis personae. You could not possibly conceive of a playwright who would present his heroes either in a state of unconsciousness or asleep or at any time when their inner life was not functioning.
“Nor could you imagine that he would bring two people on to the stage who not only did not know each other but who refused to become acquainted, to exchange thoughts and feelings, or who would even conceal these from each other by sitting in silence at opposite ends of the set.
“Under those circumstances, there would be no reason for a spectator to come into the theatre at all since he could not get what he came for; namely, to sense the emotions and discover the thoughts of the people participating in the play.
“How different it is if, when those same actors come on to the stage, one of them wants to share his feelings with another, or to convince him of something he believes, while the other is making every effort to take in those feelings and those thoughts.
“When the spectator is present during such an emotional and intellectual change, he is like a witness to a conversation. He has a silent part in their exchange of feelings and is excited by their experiences. But the spectators in the theatre can understand and indirectly participate in what goes on on the stage only while this intercourse continues among the actors.
“If actors really mean to hold the attention of a large audience they must make every effort to maintain an uninterrupted exchange of feelings, thoughts and actions among themselves. And the inner material for this exchange should be sufficiently interesting to hold spectators. The exceptional importance of this process makes me urge you to devote special attention to it and to study with care its various outstanding phases.”
“I shall start with self-communion,” began Tortsov. “When do we talk to ourselves?
“Whenever we are so stirred up that we cannot contain ourselves; or when wrestling with some idea difficult to assimilate; when we are making an effort to memorize something, and trying to impress it on our consciousness by saying it aloud; or when we relieve our feelings, either gay or sad, by voicing them.
“These occasions are rare in ordinary life, yet frequent on the stage. When I have the occasion to commune with my own feelings on the stage, in silence, I enjoy it. It is a state familiar to me off the stage, and I am quite at home in it. But when I am obliged to pronounce long, eloquent soliloquies I have no notion what to do.
“How can I find a basis for doing on the stage what I do not do off it? How can I address my very self? A man is a large creature. Should one speak to his brain, his heart, his imagination, his hands or feet? From what to what should that inner stream of communication flow?
“To determine that we must choose a subject and an object. Where are they? Unless I can find those two inwardly connected centers I am powerless to direct my roving attention, always ready to be drawn toward the public.
“I have read what the Hindus say on this subject. They believe in the existence of a kind of vital energy called Prana, which gives life to our bodies. According to their calculation, the radiating center of this Prana is the solar plexus. Consequently, in addition to our brain which is generally accepted as the nerve and psychic center of our being, we have a similar source near the heart, in the solar plexus.
“I tried to establish communication between these two centers, with the result that I really felt not only that they existed, but that they actually did come into contact with one another. The cerebral center appeared to be the seat of consciousness and the nerve center of the solar plexus—the seat of emotion.
“The sensation was that my brain held intercourse with my feelings. I was delighted because I had found the subject and the object for which I was searching. From the moment I made the discovery I was able to commune with myself on the stage, either audibly or in silence, and with perfect self-possession.
“I have no desire to prove whether Prana really exists or not. My sensations may be purely individual to me, the whole thing may be the fruit of my imagination. That is all of no consequence provided I can make use of it for my purposes and it helps me. If my practical and unscientific method can be of use to you, so much the better.
If not, I shall not insist on it.” After a slight pause, Tortsov continued:
“The process of mutual intercourse with your partner in a scene
is much easier to achieve. But here again, we run into difficulty. Suppose one of you is on the stage with me and we are in direct communication. But I am extremely tall. Just look at me! I have a nose, mouth, arms, legs, and a big body. Can you communicate with all of these parts of me at once? If not, choose someone part that you wish to address.”
“The eyes,” someone suggested, and added, “because they are the mirror of the soul.”
“You see, when you want to communicate with a person you first seek out his soul, his inner world. Now try to find my living soul:
the real, live me.”
“How?” I asked.
The Director was astonished. “Have you never put out your emotional antennae to feel out the soul of another person? Look at me attentively, try to understand and sense my inner mood. Yes, that is the way. Now tell me how you find me.”
“Kind, considerate, gentle, lively, interested,” I said.
“And now?” he asked.
I looked at him closely and suddenly found not Tortsov but Famusov (the famous character in the classic play Woe From Too Much Wit), with all his familiar earmarks, those extraordinarily naı¨ve eyes, fat mouth, puffy hands and soft gestures of a self-indulgent old man.
“And now with whom are you in communication?” asked Tortsov with Famusov’s voice.
“With Famusov, of course,” I answered.
“And what has become of Tortsov?” he said, returning instantly to his own personality. “If you had not been addressing your attention to the Famusov nose or hands which I had transformed by a technical method, but to the spirit within, you would have found that it had not changed. I can’t expel my soul from my body and hire another to replace it. You must have failed to get into communication with that living spirit. In that case, what were you in contact with?”
That was just what I was wondering, so I set myself to remembering what change my own feelings underwent as my object was transformed from Tortsov to Famusov, how they turned from the respect that the one inspires, to the irony and good-humored laughter that the other causes. Of course, I must have been in contact with his inner spirit throughout and yet I could not be clear about it.
“You were in contact with a new being,” he explained, “which you may call Famusov-Tortsov or Tortsov-Famusov. In time you will understand these miraculous metamorphoses of a creative artist. Let it suffice now that you understand that people always try to reach the living spirit of their object and that they do not deal with noses, eyes, or buttons the way some actors do on the stage.
“All that is necessary is for two people to come into close contact and a natural, mutual exchange takes place. I try to give out my thoughts to you, and you make an effort to absorb something of my knowledge and experience.”
“But that does not mean that the exchange is mutual,” argued Grisha. “You, the subject, transmit your sensations to us, but all we, the objects, do is to receive. What is reciprocal in that?”
“Tell me what you are doing this minute,” Tortsov replied. “Aren’t you answering me? Aren’t you voicing your doubts and trying to convince me? That is the confluence of feelings you are looking for.”
“It is now, but was it, while you were talking?” Grisha clung to his point.
“I don’t see any difference,” answered Tortsov. “We were exchanging thoughts and feelings then and we are continuing to do so now. Obviously, in communicating with one another the giving out and the taking in occurs alternately. But even while I am speaking and you were merely listening I was aware of your doubts. Your impatience, astonishment, and excitement all carried over to me.
“Why was I absorbing those feelings from you? Because you could not contain them. Even when you were silent, there was a meeting of feelings between us. Of course, it did not become explicit until you began to speak. Yet it proves how constant the flow of these interchanging thoughts and feelings is. It is especially necessary on the stage to maintain that flow unbroken because the lines are almost exclusively in dialogue.
“Unfortunately, that unbroken flow is all too rare. Most actors, if indeed they are aware of it at all, use it only when they are saying their own lines. But let the other actor begin to say his and the first one neither listens nor makes an attempt to absorb what the second is saying.
He ceases to act until he hears his next cue. That habit breaks up constant exchange because that is dependent on the give and take of feelings both during the speaking of the lines, and also during the reply to those already spoken, and even during silences when the eyes carry on.
“Such fragmentary connection is all wrong. When you speak to the person who is playing opposite you, learn to follow through until you are certain your thoughts have penetrated his consciousness. Only after you are convinced of this and have added with your eyes what could not be put into words, should you continue to say the rest of your lines. In turn, you must learn to take in, each time afresh, the words and thoughts of your partner.
You must be aware today of his lines even though you have heard them repeated many times in rehearsals and performances. This connection must be made each time you act together, and this requires a great deal of concentrated attention, technique, and artistic discipline.”
After a slight pause, the Director said that we would now pass to the study of a new phase: communion with an imaginary, unreal, non-existent object, such as an apparition.
“Some people try to delude themselves into thinking that they really do see it. They exhaust all of their energy and attention on such an effort. But an experienced actor knows that the point does not lie in the apparition itself, but in his inner relation to it. Therefore he tries to give an honest answer to his own question: what should I do if a ghost appeared before me?
“There are some actors, especially beginners, who use an imaginary object when they are working at home because they lack a living one. Their attention is directed towards convincing themselves of the existence of a non-existent thing, rather than concentrating on what should be their inner objective. When they form this bad habit they unconsciously carry the same method over onto the stage and eventually become unaccustomed to a living object.
They set an inanimate make-believe one up between themselves and their partners. This dangerous habit sometimes becomes so ingrained that it may last a lifetime.
“What torture to play opposite an actor who looks at you and yet sees someone else, who constantly adjusts himself to that other person and not to you. Such actors are separated from the very persons with whom they should be in the closest relationship. They cannot take in your words, your intonations, or anything else. Their eyes are veiled as they look at you. To avoid this dangerous and deadening method. It eats into you and is so difficult to eradicate!” “What are we to do when we have no living object?” I asked.
“Wait until you find one,” answered Tortsov. “You will have a class in the drill so that you can exercise in groups of two or more.
Let me repeat: I insist that you do not undertake any exercises in communication except with living objects and under expert supervision.
“Even more difficult is mutual communion with a collective object; in other words, with the public.
“Of course, it cannot be done directly. The difficulty lies in the fact that we are in relation with our partner and simultaneously with the spectator. With the former our contact is direct and conscious, with the latter it is indirect and unconscious. The remarkable thing is that with both our relationship is mutual.” Paul protested, and said:
“I see how the relation between actors can be mutual, but not the bond between the actors and the public. They would have to contribute something to us. Actually, what do we get from them? Applause and flowers! And even these we do not receive until after the play is over.”
“What about laughter, tears, applause during the performance, hisses, excitement! Don’t you count them?” said Tortsov.
“Let me tell you of an incident that illustrates what I mean. At a children’s matinee of The Blue Bird, during the trial of the children by the trees and the animals, I felt someone nudge me. It was a ten-year-old boy. ‘Tell them that the Cat is listening. He pretended to hide, but I can see him,’ whispered an agitated little voice, full of worry and concern for Mytyl and Tyltyl. I could not reassure him, so the little fellow crept down to the footlights and whispered to the actors playing the parts of the two children, warning them of their danger.
“Isn’t that a real response?
“If you want to learn to appreciate what you get from the public let me suggest that you give a performance in a completely empty hall. Would you care to do that? No! Because to act without a public is like singing in a place without resonance. To play to a large and sympathetic audience is like singing in a room with perfect acoustics. The audience constitutes the spiritual acoustics for us. They give back what they receive from us as living, human emotions.
“In conventional and artificial types of acting this problem of relation to a collective object is solved very simply. Take the old French farces. In them, the actors talk constantly to the public. They come right out in front and address either short individual remarks or long harangues which explain the course of the play. This is done with impressive self-confidence, assurance and aplomb. Indeed, if you are going to put yourself in direct relation to the public, you had better dominate it.
“There is still another angle: dealing with mob scenes. We are obliged to be in a direct, immediate relationship with a mass object. Sometimes we turn to individuals in the crowd; at others, we must embrace the whole in a form of extended mutual exchange. The fact that the majority of those making up a mob scene is naturally totally different from one another and that they contribute the most varied emotions and thoughts to this mutual intercourse, very much intensify the process.
Also, the group quality excites the temperament of each component member and of all of them together. This excites the principals and that makes a great impression on the spectators.”
After that Tortsov discussed the undesirable attitude of mechanical actors towards the public.
“They put themselves in direct touch with the public, passing right by the actors playing opposite them. That is the line of least resistance. Actually, that is nothing more nor less than exhibitionism. I think you can be trusted to distinguish between that and a sincere effort to exchange living human feelings with other actors. There is a vast difference between this highly creative process and ordinary mechanical, theoretical gestures. They are both opposite and contradictory.
“We can admit all but the theatrical type, and even that you should study if only to combat it.
“One word, in conclusion, about the active principle underlying the process of communication. Some think that our external, visible movements are a manifestation of activity and that the inner, invisible acts of spiritual communion are not. This mistaken idea is more regrettable because every manifestation of inner activity is important and valuable. Therefore learn to prize that inner communion because it is one of the most important sources of action.”
“If you want to exchange your thoughts and feelings with someone you must offer something you have experienced yourself,” the Director began. “Under ordinary circumstances, life provides these. This material grows in us spontaneously and derives from surrounding conditions.
“In the theatre it is different, and this presents a new difficulty. We are supposed to use the feelings and thoughts created by the playwright. It is more difficult to absorb this spiritual material than to play at external forms of non-existing passions in the good old theatrical way.
“It is much harder truly to commune with your partner than to represent yourself as being in that relation to him. Actors love to follow the line of least resistance, so they gladly replace real communion by ordinary imitations of it.
“This is worth thinking about, because I want you to understand, see and feel what we are most likely to send out to the public in the guise of exchange of thoughts and feelings.”
Here the Director went up on the stage and played a whole scene in a way remarkable for talent and mastery of theatre technique. He began by reciting some poetry, the words of which he pronounced hurriedly, effectively, but so incomprehensibly that we could not understand a word.
“How am I communicating with you now?” he asked.
We did not dare criticize him, so he answered his own question. “In no way at all,” he said. “I mumbled some words, scattered them around like so many peas, without even knowing what I was saying.
“That is the first type of material often offered to the public as a basis of relationship—thin air. No thought is given either to the sense of the words themselves or to their implications. The only desire is to be effective.”
Next, he announced that he would do the soliloquy from the last act of Figaro. This time his acting was a miracle of marvelous movements, intonations, changes, infectious laughter, crystalline diction, rapid speech, and brilliant inflections of a voice with an enchanting timbre. We could hardly keep from giving him an ovation. It was all so theatrically effective. Yet we had no conception of the inner content of the soliloquy as we had grasped nothing of what he said.
“Now tell me in what relation I was to you this time,” he asked again. And again we were unable to answer.
“I showed you myself, in a part,” Tortsov answered for us, “and I used the Figaro soliloquy for that purpose, its words, gestures, and everything that went with it. I did not show you the role itself, but myself in the role and my own attributes: my form, face, gestures, poses, mannerisms, movements, walk, voice, diction, speech, intonations, temperament, technique—everything except feelings.
“For those who have an externally expressive apparatus what I did just now would not be difficult. Let your voice resound, your tongue emit words and phrases distinctly, your poses be plastic, and the whole effect will be pleasing. I acted like a diva in a cafe´ chantant, constantly watching you see whether I was making good. I felt that I was so much merchandise and that you were the buyers.
“This is a second example of how not to act, despite the fact that this form of exhibitionism is widely used and immensely popular.” He went on to a third example.
“You have just seen me presenting myself. Now I shall show you a part, as prepared by the author, but this does not mean that I shall live the part. The point of this performance will lie not in my feelings but in the pattern, the words, external facial expressions, gestures, and business. I shall not create the role. I shall merely present it in an external manner.”
He played a scene in which an important general accidentally found himself alone at home with nothing to do. Out of boredom, he lined up all the chairs in the place so that they looked like soldiers on parade. Then he made neat piles of everything on all the tables. Next, he thought of something rather spicy; after that, he looked aghast over a pile of business correspondence. He signed several letters without reading them, yawned, stretched himself, and then began his silly activities all over again.
All the while Tortsov was giving the text of the soliloquy with extraordinary clarity; about the nobility of highly placed persons and the dense ignorance of everyone else. He did it in a cold, impersonal way, indicating the outer form of the scene without any attempt to put life or depth into it. In some places he rendered the text with technical crispness, in others he underscored his pose, gesture, and play, or emphasized some special detail of his characterization.
Meantime he was watching his public out of the corner of his eye to see whether what he was doing carried across. When it was necessary to make pauses he drew them out. Just the boring way actors do when they play a well-made part for the 500th time. He might as well have been a gramophone or a movie operator showing the same film ad infinitum.
“Now,” he continued, “there remains the illustration of the right way and means to be used in establishing contact between the stage and the public.
“You have already seen me demonstrate this many times. You know that I always try to be in direct relation to my partner, to transmit to him my own feelings, analogous to those of the character I am playing. The rest, the complete fusion of the actor with his part, happens automatically.
“Now I shall test you. I shall make a note of incorrect communication between you and your partners by ringing a bell. By incorrect I mean that you are not in direct contact with your object, that you are showing off the part of yourself, or that you are recording your lines impersonally. All such mistakes will get the bell.
“Remember that there are only three types which will get my silent approval:
“(1) Direct communication with an object on the stage, and indirect communication with the public.
“(3) Communication with an absent or imaginary object.”
Then the test began.
Paul and I played well as we thought and were surprised to have the bell rung on us frequently.
All the others were tested in the same way. Grisha and Sonya were last, and we thought the Director would be ringing incessantly, yet actually he did it much less than we expected that he would.
When we asked him why he explained:
“It just means that many who boast are mistaken and others, whom they criticize, prove capable of establishing the right contact with one another. In either case, it is a matter of percentage. But the conclusion to be drawn is that there is no completely right or completely wrong relationship. The work of an actor is mixed; there are good and bad moments in it.
“If you were to make an analysis you would divide your results by percentages, allowing the actor so much for contact with his partner, so much for contact with the public, so much for demonstrating the pattern of his part, so much for showing himself off.
The relation of these percentages to one another in the final total determines the degree of accuracy with which the actor was able to achieve the process of communion. Some will rate higher in their relations with their partners, others in their ability to commune with an imaginary object, or themselves. These approach the ideal.
“On the negative side some types of relation between subject and object are less bad than others. It is, for example, less bad to exhibit the psychological pattern of your role impersonally than to exhibit yourself or give a mechanical performance.
“There are an infinite number of combinations. Consequently, it is best for you to make a practice of (1) finding your real object on the stage and getting into active communication with it, and (2) recognizing false objects, and false relationships, and combating them.
Above all give special attention to the quality of the spiritual material on which you base your communication with others.”