Communion An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 2)
Communion An Actor Prepares
“Today we shall check your external equipment for inter-communication,” announced the Director. “I must know whether you really appreciate the means at your disposal. Please go up on the stage, sit down in pairs, and start some kind of an argument.”
I reasoned that Grisha would be the easiest person with whom to pick a quarrel, so I sat down by him, and it was not long before my purpose was accomplished.
Tortsov noticed that in making my points to Grisha I used my wrists and fingers freely, so he ordered them to be bandaged.
“Why do that?” I asked.
“So that you will understand how often we fail to appreciate our tools. I want you to be convinced that whereas the eyes are the mirror of the soul, the tips of the fingers are the eyes of the body,” he explained.
Having no use of my hands I increased my intonation. But Tortsov requested me to speak without raising my voice or adding extra inflections. I had to use my eyes, facial expression, eyebrows, neck, head, and torso. I tried to replace the means I had been deprived of. Then I was bound down to my chair and only my mouth, ears, face, and eyes were still free.
Soon even these were bound up and all that I could do was a roar. Which did not help.
At this point, the external world ceased to exist for me. Nothing was left to me except my inner vision, my inner ear, and my imagination.
I was kept in this state for some time. Then I heard a voice that seemed to come from far off.
It was Tortsov, saying:
“Do you want someone’s organ of communication back? If so, which one?”
I tried to indicate that I would think about it.
How could I choose the most necessary organ? Sight expresses feelings. Speech expresses thought. Feelings must influence the vocal organs because the intonation of the voice expresses inner emotion, and hearing, too, is a great stimulus to them. Yet hearing is a necessary adjunct of speech. Besides, they both direct the use of the face and the hands.
Finally, I exclaimed angrily, “An actor cannot be crippled! He has to have all his organs!”
The Director praised me and said:
“At last you are talking like an artist who appreciates the real value of each one of those organs of communication. May we see disappear forever the actor’s blank eye, his immobile face, and brow, his dull voice, speech without inflection, his contorted body with its stiff backbone and neck, his wooden arms, hands, fingers, and legs in which there are no motion, his slouching gait and painful mannerisms!
“Let us hope our actors will devote as much care to their creative equipment as a violinist does to his beloved Stradivarius or Amati.”
“Up to this point we have been dealing with the external, visible, physical process of communion,” the Director began. “But there is another, an important aspect which is inner, invisible, and spiritual. “My difficulty here is that I have to talk to you about something I feel but do not know. It is something I have experienced and yet I cannot theorize about it. I have no ready-made phrases for something I can explain only by a hint, and by trying to make you feel, for yourselves, the sensations that are described in a text.
“ ‘He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;
At last, a little shaking of my arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
That it did seem to shatter all his bulk And end his being: that done, he lets me go: And with his head over his shoulder turn’d,
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes; For out o’doors he went without their help,
And to the last bent their light on me.’
“Can you sense, in those lines, the wordless communion between Hamlet and Ophelia? Haven’t you experienced it in similar circumstances, when something streamed out of you, some current from your eyes, from the ends of your fingers or out through your pores?
“What name can we give to these invisible currents, which we use to communicate with one another? Some day this phenomenon will be the subject of scientific research. Meantime let us call them rays. Now let us see what we can find out about them through study and making notes of our own sensations.
“When we are quiescent this process of irradiation is barely perceptible. But when we are in a highly emotional state these rays, both given and received, become much more definite and tangible. Perhaps some of you were aware of these inner currents during the high spots of your initial test performance, for example when Maria called for help, or when Kostya cried out ‘Blood, Iago, blood!’, or during any one of the various exercises you have been doing.
“It was only yesterday that I was witness to a scene between a young girl and her fiance´. They had quarreled, were not speaking and they were seated as far apart as possible. She pretended she did not even see him. But she did it in a way to attract his attention. He sat motionlessly and watched her with a pleading gaze.
He tried to catch her eye so that he might guess her feelings. He tried to feel out her soul with invisible antennae. But the angry girl withstood all attempts at communication. Finally, he caught one glance as she turned for an instant in his direction.
“This, far from consoling him, depressed him more than ever. After a while, he moved to another place, so that he could look straight at her. He longed to take her hand, to touch her and transmit the current of his feelings to her.
“There were no words, no exclamations, no facial expressions, gestures, or actions. That is direct, immediate communion in its purest form.
“Scientists may have some explanation of the nature of this unseen process. All I can do is to describe what I myself feel and how I use these sensations in my art.”
Unfortunately, our lesson was interrupted at this point.
We were divided into pairs and I sat with Grisha. Instantly we started to send rays to each other in a mechanical way.
The Director stopped us.
“You are already using violent means when that is what you should avoid in such a delicate, susceptible process. Your muscular contraction would preclude any possibility of accomplishing your purpose. “Sit back,” said he in a tone of command. “More! Still more! Much, much more! Sit in a comfortable, easy position! That is not relaxed enough! Nor that! Arrange yourselves restfully. Now, look at each other. Do you call that looking? Your eyes are popping out of your heads. Ease up! More! No tenseness.
“What are you doing?” Tortsov asked Grisha.
“I am trying to carry on our dispute about art.”
“Do you expect to express such thoughts through your eyes? Use words and let your eyes supplement your voice. Perhaps then you will feel the rays that you are directing towards each other.”
“We continued our argument. At one point Tortsov said to me: “During that pause, I was conscious of your sending out rays. And you, Grisha, we’re preparing to receive them. Remember, it occurred during that long drawn-out silence.”
I explained that I had been unable to convince my partner of my point of view and I was just preparing a new argument.
“Tell me, Vanya,” said Tortsov, “could you feel that look of Maria’s? Those were real rays.”
“They were shot at me!” was his wry response.
The Director turned back to me.
“Besides listening I want you now to try to absorb something vital from your partner. In addition to the conscious, explicit discussion and intellectual exchange of thoughts, can you feel a parallel interchange of currents, something you draw in through your eyes and put out again through them?
“It is like an underground river, which flows continuously under the surface of both words and silences and forms an invisible bond between subject and object.
“Now I wish you to make a further experiment. You will put yourself in communication with me,” said he, taking Grisha’s place.
“Fix yourself comfortably, don’t be nervous, don’t hurry, and don’t force yourself. Before you try to transmit anything to another person you must prepare your material.
“A little while ago this type of work seemed complicated to you. Now you do it easily. The same will be true of this present problem. Let me have your feelings without any words, just through your eyes,” he ordered.
“But I cannot put all the shadings of my feelings into the expression of my eyes,” I explained.
“We can’t do anything about that,” he said, “so never mind all the shadings.”
“What will remain?” I asked with dismay.
“Feelings of sympathy, respect. You can transmit them without words. But you cannot make the other person realize that you like him because he is an intelligent, active, hardworking, and high-minded young man.”
“What am I trying to communicate to you?” I asked Tortsov, as I gazed at him.
“I neither know nor care to know,” was his reply.
“Because you are staring at me. If you want me to sense the general meaning of your feelings, you must be experiencing what you are trying to transmit to me.”
“Now can you understand? I cannot present my feelings more clearly,” I said.
“You look down on me for some reason. I cannot know the exact cause for this without words. But that is beside the point. Did you feel any current issuing from you freely?”
“Perhaps I did in my eyes,” I replied, and I tried to repeat the same sensation.
“No. This time you were just thinking about how you could push that current out. You tensed your muscles. Your chin and neck were taut and your eyes began to start from their sockets. What I want from you you can accomplish much more simply, easily, and naturally. If you want to envelop another person in your desires you don’t need to use your muscles. Your physical sensation from this current should be barely perceptible, but the force you are putting behind it would burst a blood vessel.”
My patience crumbled and I exclaimed:
“Then I do not understand you at all!”
“You take a rest now and I shall try to describe the type of sensation I want you to feel. One of my pupils likened it to the fragrance of a flower. Another suggested the fire in a diamond. I have felt it when standing at the crater of a volcano. I felt the hot air from the tremendous internal fires of the earth. Does either of these suggestions appeal to you?”
“No,” I said stubbornly, “not at all.”
“Then I shall try to get at you by an inverse method,” said Tortsov patiently. “Listen to me.
“When I am at a concert and the music does not affect me I think up various forms of entertainment for myself. I pick out a person in the audience and try to hypnotize him. If my victim happens to be a beautiful woman I try to transmit my enthusiasm. If the face is ugly I send over feelings of aversion. In such instances, I am aware of a definite, physical sensation. That may be familiar to you. In any case that is the thing we are looking for at present.” “And you feel it yourself when you are hypnotizing someone else?” asked Paul.
“Yes, of course, and if you have ever tried to use hypnosis you must know exactly what I mean,” said Tortsov.
“That is both simple and familiar to me,” said I with relief.
“Did I ever say it was anything extraordinary?” was Tortsov’s surprised rejoinder.
“I was looking for something very—special.”
“That is what always happens,” remarked the Director. “Just use a word like creativeness and immediately you all climb up on your stilts.
“Now let us repeat our experiment.” “What am I radiating?” I asked.
“You want to caress me.”
“That again is a friendly feeling, but it has a touch of irony in it.” I was delighted at his having guessed my intentions. “Did you understand that feeling of an out-going current?” “I think I did,” I replied, with slight indecision.
“In our slang, we call that irradiation.
“The absorbing of those rays is the inverse process. Suppose we try it.”
We exchanged roles: he began to communicate his feelings to me and I to guess them.
“Try to define in words your sensation,” he suggested after we had finished the experiment.
“I should express it by a simile. It is like a piece of iron being drawn by a magnet.”
The Director approved. Then he asked me if I had been conscious of the inner bond between us during our silent communion.
“It seemed to me that I was,” I replied.
“If you can establish a long, coherent chain of such feelings it will eventually become so powerful that you will have achieved what we call grasp. Then you’re giving out and absorption will be much stronger keener, and more palpable.”
When he was asked to describe more fully what he meant by grasp Tortsov continued:
“It is what a bulldog has in his jaw. We actors must have that same power to seize with our eyes, ears, and all our senses. If an actor is to listen, let him do it intently. If he is called upon to smell, let him smell hard. If he is to look at something, let him really use his eyes. But of course, this must all be done without unnecessary muscular tension.”
“When I played that scene from Othello, did I show any grasp?” I asked.
“There were one or two moments,” admitted Tortsov. “But that is too little. The whole role of Othello calls for a complete grasp. For a simple play, you need an ordinary grasp, but for a Shakespeare play, you have to have an absolute grasp.
“In everyday life, we don’t need a complete grasp, but on the stage, above all in playing tragedy, it is a necessity. Just make the comparison. The greater part of life is devoted to unimportant activities. You get up, you go to bed, and you follow a routine that is largely mechanical. That is not stuff for the theatre. But there are purple patches of terror, supreme joy, high tides of passion, and outstanding experiences. We are challenged to fight for freedom, for an idea, for our existence, and our rights.
That is material we can use on the stage if, for its expression, we have a powerful inner and outer grasp.
Grasp does not in any way signify unusual physical exertion, it means greater inner activity.
“An actor must learn to become absorbed in some interesting, creative problem on the stage. If he can devote all of his attention and creative faculties to that he will achieve true grasp.
“Let me tell you a story about an animal trainer. He was in the habit of going to Africa to pick out monkeys to train. A large number would be gathered together at some point and from these he would choose those he considered the most promising for his purpose. How did he make his choice? He took each monkey separately and tried to interest it in some object, a bright handkerchief, which he would wave before him, or some toy that might amuse him with its color or sound.
After the animal’s attention was centered on this object the trainer would begin to distract him by presenting some other thing, a cigarette, perhaps, or a nut. If he succeeded in getting the monkey to switch from one thing to another he would reject him. If, on the other hand, he found that the animal could not be distracted from the first object of his interest and would make an effort to go after it when removed, the trainer would buy him. His choice was established by the monkey’s evident capacity to grasp and hold something.
“That is how we often judge our students” power of attention and ability to remain in contact with one another—by the strength and continuity of their grasp.”
The Director began our lesson by saying:
“Since these currents are so important in the interrelationship of actors, can they be controlled by technical means? Can we produce them at will?
“Here again we are in the situation of having to work from the outside when our desires do not come spontaneously from the inside. Fortunately, an organic bond exists between the body and the soul. Its power is so great that it can all but recall the dead to life. Think of a man apparently drowned. His pulse has stopped and he is unconscious.
By the use of mechanical movements, his lungs are forced to take in and give out the air! That starts the circulation of his blood, and then his organs resume their customary functions, so life is revived in this man practically dead.
“In using artificial means we work on the same principle. External aids stimulate an inner process.
“Now let me show you how to apply these aids.”
Tortsov sat down opposite me and asked me to choose an object, with its appropriate, imaginative basis, and to transmit it to him. He allowed the use of words, gestures, and facial expressions.
This took a long time until finally I understood what he wanted and was successful in communicating with him. But he kept me for some time watching and becoming accustomed to the accompanying physical sensations. When I had mastered the exercise he restricted, one after another, by means of expression, words, gestures, and so on, until I was obliged to carry on my communication with him solely by giving out and absorbing rays.
After that he had me repeat the process in a purely mechanical, physical way without allowing any feelings to participate. It took time for me to separate the one from the other and when I succeeded he asked how I felt.
“Like a pump bringing up nothing but air,” I said. “I felt the out-going currents, principally through my eyes, and perhaps partly from the side of my body towards you.”
“Then continue to pour out that current, in a purely physical and mechanical way, as long as you possibly can,” he ordered.
It was not long before I gave up what I called a perfectly “senseless” proceeding.
“Then why didn’t you put some sense into it?” he asked. “Weren’t your feelings clamoring to come to your aid and your emotion memory suggesting some experience you could use as material for the current you were sending out?”
“Of course, if I were obliged to continue this mechanical exercise, it would be difficult not to use something to motivate my action. I should need some basis for it.”
“Why don’t you transmit what you feel at this very moment, dismay, helplessness, or find some other sensation?” suggested Tortsov. I tried to transmit my vexation and exasperation to him.
My eyes seemed to say: “Let me alone, will you? Why persist?
Why torture me!”
“How do you feel now?” asked Tortsov.
“This time I feel as though the pump had something besides air to bring up.”
“So your ‘senseless’ physical giving out of rays acquired a meaning and purpose after all!”
Then he went on to other exercises based on receiving rays. It was the inverse procedure and I shall describe only one new point: before I could absorb anything from him I had to feel out, through my eyes, what he wanted me to draw from him. This required attentive search, feeling my way into his mood and making some kind of connection with it.
“It is not simple to do by technical means what is natural and intuitive in ordinary life,” said Tortsov. “However, I can give you this consolation, that when you are on the stage and playing your part this process will be accomplished far more easily than in a classroom exercise.
“The reason is: for our present purpose you had to scrape together some accidental material to use, while on the stage all your given circumstances have been prepared in advance, your objectives have been fixed, your emotions ripened and ready for the signal to come to the surface. All you need is a slight stimulus and the feelings prepared for your role will gush out in the continuous, spontaneous flow.
“When you make a siphon to empty water out of a container, you suck the air out once and the water flows out by itself. The same thing happens to you: give the signal, open the way and your rays and currents will pour out.”
When he was asked about developing this ability through exercises he said:
“There are the two types of exercises that we have just been doing:
“The first teaches you to stimulate a feeling which you transmit to another person. As you do this you note the accompanying physical sensations. Similarly, you learn to recognize the sensation of absorbing feelings from others.
“The second consists of an effort to feel the mere physical sensations of giving out and absorbing feelings, without the accompanying emotional experience. For this, great concentration of attention is imperative. Otherwise, you might easily confuse these sensations with ordinary muscular contractions. If these occur choose some inner feeling that you wish to radiate. But above all avoid violence and physical contortion. Radiation and absorption of emotion must take place easily, freely, naturally, and without any loss of energy.
“But do not do these exercises alone, or with an imaginary person. Always use a living object, actually with you, and wishing to exchange feelings with you. Communion must be mutual. Also do not attempt these exercises except under the supervision of my assistant. You need his experienced eye to keep you from going wrong and from the danger of confusing muscular tenseness with the right process.” “How difficult it seems,” I exclaimed.
“Difficult to do something that is normal and natural?” said Tortsov. “You are mistaken. Anything normal can be done easily. It is much more difficult to do something which is contrary to nature. Study its laws and do not try for anything that is not natural.
“All the first stages of our work seemed difficult to you, the relaxation of muscles, the concentration of attention, and the rest, yet now they have become second nature.
“You should be happy because you have enriched your technical equipment by this important stimulus to communion.”