Emotion Memory | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)

Emotion Memory | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)

Emotion Memory

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski

 

OUR WORK BEGAN today by going over the exercise with the madman. We were delighted because we had not been doing exercises of this sort.

We played it with increased vitality, which was not surprising because each one of us had learned what to do and how to do it. We were so sure of ourselves that we even swaggered a bit. When Vanya frightened us we threw ourselves in the opposite direction, as before. The difference here, however, lay in the fact that we were prepared for the sudden alarm. For that reason, our general rush was much more clearly defined, and its effect was much stronger.

I repeated exactly what I used to do. I found myself under the table, only I was clutching a large book instead of an ashtray. The others did about the same. Sonya, for instance, ran into Dasha the first time we ever did this scene and accidentally dropped a pillow. This time she did not collide with her but let the pillow fall anyway, in order to have to pick it up.

Imagine our amazement when both Tortsov and Rakhmanov told us that, whereas our playing of this exercise used to be direct, sincere, fresh, and true, today it was false, insincere, and affected. We were dismayed at such an unexpected criticism. We insisted that we really felt what we were doing.

“Of course, you were feeling something,” said the Director. “If you were not you would be dead. The point is what were you feeling? Let us try to disentangle things and to compare your former with your present acting in this exercise.

“There can be no question but that you preserved the whole staging, the movements, external actions, the sequence, and every little detail of grouping, to an amazingly accurate degree. One could easily be led to think that you had photographed the set. Therefore you have proved that you have remarkably keen memories of the external, factual side of a play.

“Yet, was the way you stood around and grouped yourselves of such great importance? To me, as a spectator, what was going on inside of you was of much greater interest. Those feelings, drawn from our actual experience, and transferred to our part, are what give life to the play. You did not give those feelings. All external production is formal, cold, and pointless if it is not motivated from within. Therein lies the difference between your two performances.

 

Emotion Memory

 

In the beginning, when I made the suggestion about the madman, all of you, without exception, became concentrated each on your own problem of personal safety, and only after that did you begin to act. That was the right and logical process,—the inner experience came first and was then embodied in an external form. Today, on the contrary, you were so pleased with your acting that you never thought about anything except going over and copying all the externals of the exercise.

The first time there was a deathly silence—today, it was all jollity and excitement. You were all busy getting things ready: Sonya with her pillow, Vanya with his lampshade, and Kostya with a book instead of an ashtray.”

“The property man forgot the ashtray,” I said.

“Did you have it prepared in advance the first time you played the exercise? Did you know that Vanya was going to yell and frighten you?” asked the Director, with a certain amount of irony. “It’s very queer! How did you foresee today that you were going to need that book? It ought to have come into your hand accidentally. It’s a pity that that accidental quality could not be repeated today. Another detail: originally, you never relaxed your gaze on the door, behind which the madman was supposed to be.

Today you were instantly taken up with our presence. You were interested to see what impression your acting was making on us. Instead of hiding from the crazy man you were showing off to us. The first time you were impelled to act by your inner feelings and your intuition, your human experience. But just now you went through those motions almost mechanically. You repeated a successful rehearsal instead of recreating a new, living scene.

Instead of drawing from your memory of life, you took your material from the theatrical archives of your mind. What happened inside of you in the beginning naturally resulted in action. Today that action was inflated and exaggerated in order to make an effect.

“The same thing happened to you as to the young man who came to ask V. V. Samoilov whether or not he should go on the stage.

“ ‘Go out,’ said he to the young man. ‘Then come back and say over again what you have just told me.’

“The young man came and repeated what he had said the first time, but he was incapable of reliving the same feelings.

“However, neither my comparison to the young man nor your lack of success today should upset you. It is all in the day’s work, and I shall explain to you why. The unexpected is often the most effective lever in creative work. During your first performance of the exercise that quality was obvious. You were genuinely excited by the injection of the idea of a possible lunatic.

In this recent repetition the unexpectedness had worn off because you knew ahead all about it, everything was familiar and clear, even the external form through which you pour your activity. Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem worthwhile, did it, to reconsider the whole scene afresh, to let yourselves be guided by your emotions? A ready-made external form is a terrible temptation to an actor.

It is not surprising that novices like you should have felt it and at the same time that you should have proved that you have a good memory for external action.

As for emotional memory: there was no sign of it today.” When he was asked to explain that term, he said:

“I can best illustrate it as did Ribot, who was the first person to define this type of memory, by telling you a story:

“Two travelers were marooned on some rocks by high tide. After their rescue, they narrated their impressions. One remembered every little thing he did; how, why, and where he went; where he climbed up and where he climbed down; where he jumped up or jumped down. The other man had no recollection of the place at all. He remembered only the emotions he felt. In succession, came delight, apprehension, fear, hope, doubt, and finally panic.

“The second is just what happened to you the first time you played this exercise. I can clearly recall your dismay, your panic when I introduced the suggestion about the madman.

“I can see you rooted to the spot, as you tried to plan what to do. Your whole attention was riveted on the make-believe objective behind the door, and once you had adjusted yourselves to it you broke out with real excitement and real action.

“If, today, you had been able to do as the second man in Ribot’s story did—to revive all the feelings you experienced that first time, and act without effort, involuntarily—then I would have said that you possess exceptional emotional memories.

 

 

“Unfortunately, such is all too seldom the case. Therefore, I am obliged to be more modest in my demands. I admit that you may begin the exercise and allow its external plan to lead you. But after that, you must let it remind you of your former feelings and give yourselves up to them as a guiding force throughout the rest of the scene. If you can do that, I shall say your emotional memories are not exceptional, but that they are good.

“If I must cut down my demands even more, then I should say: play the physical scheme of the exercise, even though it does not recall your former sensations, and even though you do not feel the impulse to look at the given circumstances of the plot with a fresh eye. But then let me see you use your psycho technique to introduce new imaginative elements that will arouse your dormant feelings.

“If you succeed in this I shall be able to recognize evidence of emotional memory in you. So far, today, you have not offered me any of these possible alternatives.”

“Does that mean we have no emotion memory?” I asked.

“No. That is not what you must conclude. We shall make some tests at our next lesson,” said Tortsov calmly, as he stood up and prepared to leave the class.

Today I was the first to have emotion memory checked.

“Do you remember,” asked the Director, “that you once told me about the great impression Moskvin made on you when he came to your town on a tour? Can you recall his performance vividly enough so that the very thought of it now, six years later, brings back the flush of enthusiasm you felt at the time?”

“Perhaps the feelings are not as keen as they once were,” I replied, “but I certainly am moved by them very much even now.”

“Are they strong enough to make you blush and feel your heart pound?”

“Perhaps, if I let myself go entirely, they would.”

“What do you feel, either spiritually or physically, when you recall the tragic death of the intimate friend you told me about?”

“I try to avoid that memory because it depresses me so much.”

“That type of memory, which makes you relive the sensations you once felt when seeing Moskvin act, or when your friend died, is what we call emotion memory. Just as your visual memory can reconstruct an inner image of some forgotten thing, place, or person, your emotional memory can bring back feelings you have already experienced. They may seem to be beyond recall, when suddenly a suggestion, a thought, a familiar object will bring them back in full force.

Sometimes the emotions are as strong as ever, sometimes weaker, sometimes the same strong feelings will come back but in a somewhat different guise.

“Since you are still capable of blushing or growing pale at the recollection of an experience since you still fear recalling a certain tragic happening, we can conclude that you possess an emotional memory. But it is not sufficiently trained to carry on unaided a successful fight with the theatrical state you allow yourself to get into when you appear on the stage.”

Next Tortsov made the distinction between sensation memory, based on experiences, connected with our five senses, and emotion memory. He said that he would occasionally speak of them as running along parallel to one another. This, he said, is convenient although not a scientific description of their relation to one another.

When he was asked to what extent an actor uses his sensation memories, and what the varying value of each of the five senses is, he said:

“To answer that let us take up each one in turn:

“Of our five senses, sight is the most receptive of impressions. Hearing is also extremely sensitive. That is why impressions are readily made through our eyes and ears.

“It is a well-known fact that some painters possess the power of inner vision to such a degree that they can paint portraits of people they have seen but who are no longer alive.

“Some musicians have a similar power to reconstruct sounds inwardly. They play over in their minds an entire symphony they have just heard. Actors have this same kind of power of sight and sound. They use it to impress upon themselves, and then later recall, all sorts of visual and audible images—the face of a person, his expression, the line of his body, his walk, his mannerisms, movements, voice, intonations, dress, racial characteristics.

“Moreover, some people, especially artists, are able not only to remember and reproduce things they have seen and heard in real life, but they can also do the same with unseen and unheard things in their own imagination. Actors of the visual memory type like to see what is wanted of them and then their emotions respond easily. Others much prefer to hear the sound of the voice, or the intonation, of the person they are to portray. With them, the first impulse to feel comes from their auditive memories.”

“What about the other senses?” someone asked. “Do we need them, too?”

“Of course we do,” said Tortsov. “Think of the opening scene with the three gluttons, in Chekhov’s Ivanov, or where you have to work yourself up into ecstasy over a paper maˆche´ ragout that is supposed to have been prepared with impressive culinary art by Goldoni’s Mistress of the Inn. You have to play that scene so that both your mouth and our water. To do this you are obliged to have an extremely vivid memory of some delectable food.

Otherwise, you will overdo the scene and not experience any gustatory pleasure.” “Where would we use the sense of touch?” I asked.

“In a scene such as we find in Oedipus, where the king is blinded and uses his sense of touch to recognize his children.

“Yet the most perfectly developed technique cannot be compared with the art of nature. I have seen many famous technical actors in many schools and many lands, in my day, and none of them could reach the height to which artistic intuition, under the guidance of nature, is capable of ascending. We must not overlook the fact that many important sides of our complex natures are neither known to us nor subject to our conscious direction. Only nature has access to them.

Unless we enlist her aid we must be content with only a partial rule over our complicated creative apparatus.

“Although our senses of smell, taste, and touch are useful, and even sometimes important, in our art, their role is merely auxiliary and for the purpose of influencing our emotion memory . . .”

Our lessons with the Director have been suspended temporarily because he has gone away on tour. For the present we are working on dancing, gymnastics, fencing, voice placing, and diction. Meantime something important has happened to me, which throws great light on the very subject we have been studying—emotional memory.

 

Action An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

 

Not long ago I was walking home with Paul. On a boulevard, we ran into a large crowd. I like street scenes, so I pushed into the center of it, and there my eyes fell on a horrible picture. At my feet lay an old man, poorly dressed, his jaw crushed, both arms cut off. His face was ghastly; his old yellow teeth stuck out through his bloody mustache. A street car towered over its victim. The conductor was fussing with the machinery to show what was wrong with it, and why he was not to blame.

A man in a white uniform, with his overcoat thrown over his shoulders, was listlessly dabbing the dead man’s nostrils with a bit of cotton on which he poured something out of a bottle. He was from a neighboring drug store. Not far away some children were playing. One of them came across a bit of bone from the man’s hand. Not knowing how to dispose of it he threw it in an ash can. A woman wept, but the rest of the crowd looked on with indifference and curiosity.

This picture made a deep impression on me. What a contrast between this horror on the ground and the light blue, clear, cloudless sky. I went away depressed and it was a long time before I could shake off the mood. In the night I awoke, and the visual memory was even more terrifying than the sight of the accident itself had been. Probably that was because at night everything seems more fearful. But I ascribed it to my emotional memory and its power to deepen impressions.

A few days later I passed by the scene of the accident and involuntarily stopped to recall what had happened so recently. All traces were obliterated. There was one human life less in the world and that was all. However, a small pension would be paid to the family of the deceased and so everyone’s sense of justice would be satisfied. Therefore, everything was as it should be. Yet his wife and children were perhaps starving.

As I thought, my memory of the catastrophe seemed to become transformed. At first, it had been raw and naturalistic, with all the ghastly physical details, the crushed jaw, the severed arms, the children playing with the stream of blood. Now I was shaken as much by my memory of it all but in a different way. I was suddenly filled with indignation against human cruelty, injustice and indifference.

It is just a week since the accident and I passed the scene of it again on my way to school. I stopped for a few moments, to think about it. The snow was white then as now. That’s—life. I remembered the dark figure stretched out on the ground—that is—death. The stream of blood is the flow of man’s transgressions.

All around, in brilliant contrast, I see the sky, sun, and nature. That’s—eternity. The street cars rolling by, filled with passengers, represent the passing generations on their way into the unknown. The whole picture, which was so horrible, so terrifying, has now become majestic, stern . . .

Today I happened accidentally on a strange phenomenon. In thinking back to that accident on the boulevard I find that the street car tends now to dominate the picture. But it is not the street car of this recent happening—it is one that dates back to a personal experience of my own. This past autumn, late one evening, I was coming back to town from a suburb, on the last trolley. As it was passing through a deserted field it ran off its tracks.

The passengers had to combine forces and help to get it back again. How big and heavy it seemed to me then and how weak and insignificant we were in comparison!

Why was this early sensation memory more powerfully and deeply impressed on me than the more recent one? And here is another angle—when I begin to think of the old beggar lying in the street with the apothecary bending over him, I find that my memory turns to quite another happening. It was long ago—I came upon an Italian, leaning over a dead monkey on the sidewalk. He was weeping and trying to push a bit of orange rind into the animal’s mouth. It would seem that this scene affected my feelings more than the death of the beggar.

It was buried more deeply in my memory. I think that if I had to stage the street accident I would search for emotional material for my part in my memory of the scene of the Italian with the dead monkey rather than in the tragedy itself.

I wonder why that is?

Our lessons with the Director were resumed today and I told him about the process of evolution in my feelings about the street accident. First, he praised me for my power of observation and then he said:

“That is a capital illustration of what does take place in us. Each one of us has seen many accidents. We retain the memories of them, but only outstanding characteristics that impressed us and not their details. Out of these impressions, one large, condensed, deeper, and broader sensation memory of the related experience is formed. It is a kind of synthesis of memory on a large scale. It is purer, more condensed, compact, substantial, and sharper than the actual happenings.

 

The First Test | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

 

Time is a splendid filter for our remembered feelings—besides it is a great artist. It not only purifies, but it also transmutes even painfully realistic memories into poetry.

“Yet the great poets and artists draw from nature.”

“Agreed. But they do not photograph her. Their product passes through their own personalities and what she gives them is supplemented by living material taken from their store of emotional memories.

“Shakespeare, for example, often took his heroes and villains, like Iago, from the stories of others and made living creatures of them by adding his own crystallized emotional memories to the picture. Time had so clarified and poetized his impressions that they became splendid material for his creations.”

When I told Tortsov about the exchange of persons and things that had taken place in memories, he remarked:

“There is nothing surprising in that—you cannot expect to use your sensation memories the way you do books in a library.

“Can you picture to yourself what our emotional memory is really like? Imagine a number of houses, with many rooms in each house, in each room innumerable cupboards, shelves, boxes, and somewhere, in one of them, a tiny bead. It is easy enough to find the right house, room, cupboard, and shelf. But it is more difficult to find the right box. And where is the sharp eye that will find that tiny bead that rolled out today, glittered for a moment, and then disappeared from sight?—only luck will ever find it again.

“That is what it is like in the archives of your memory. It has all those divisions and sub-divisions. Some are more accessible than others. The problem is to recapture the emotion that once flashed by like a meteor. If it remains near the surface and comes back to you, you may thank your stars. But do not count on always recovering the same impression. Tomorrow something quite different may appear in its place. Be thankful for that and do not expect the other.

If you learn how to be receptive to these recurring memories, then the new ones as they form will be more capable of stirring your feelings repeatedly. Your soul in turn will be more responsive and will react with new warmth to parts of your role whose appeal had worn thin from constant repetition.

“When the actor’s reactions are more powerful, inspiration can appear. On the other hand, don’t spend your time chasing after an inspiration that once chanced your way. It is as unrecoverable as yesterday, as the joys of childhood, as first love. Bend your efforts to create new and fresh inspiration for today. There is no reason to suppose that it will be less good than yesterday.

It may not be as brilliant. But you have the advantage of possessing it today. It has risen, naturally, from the depths of your soul to light the creative spark in you. Who can say which manifestation of true inspiration is better? They are all splendid, each in its own way, if only because they are inspired.”

When I pressed Tortsov to say that, since these germs of inspiration are preserved within us, and do not come to us from the outside, we must conclude that inspiration is of secondary rather than primary origin, he refused to commit himself.

“I do not know. Matters of the subconscious are not my field. Moreover, I do not think that we should try to destroy the mystery that we are accustomed to wrapping around our moments of inspiration.

The mystery is beautiful in itself and is a great stimulus to creativeness.”

But I was not willing to let it go at that and asked him if everything we felt while on the stage was not of secondary origin.

 

 

“Do we, as a matter of fact, ever feel things there for the first time? I want to know too, whether or not it is a good thing to have original, fresh feelings come to us while we are on the stage—feelings we have never experienced at all in real life?”

“It depends upon the kind,” was the answer. “Suppose you are playing the scene in the last act of Hamlet where you throw yourself with your sword on your friend Paul here, who enacts the role of the king, and suddenly you are overwhelmed for the first time in your life with a lust for blood. Even though your sword is only a dull property weapon, so that it cannot draw blood, it might precipitate a terrible fight and cause the curtain to be rung down.

Do you think that it would be wise for an actor to give himself up to such spontaneous emotions as that?”

“Does that mean that they are never desirable?” I asked.

“On the contrary, they are extremely desirable,” said Tortsov. “But these direct, powerful and vivid emotions do not make their appearance on the stage in the way you think. They do not last over long periods or even for a single act. They flash out in short episodes, individual moments. In that form, they are highly welcome. We can only hope that they will appear often, and help to sharpen the sincerity of our emotions, which is one of the most valuable elements in creative work.

The unexpected quality of these spontaneous eruptions of feelings is an irresistible and moving force.” Here he added a note of warning:

“The unfortunate part about them is that we cannot control them. They control us. Therefore we have no choice but to leave it to nature and say: ‘If they will come, let them come. We will only hope that they will work with the part and not at cross purposes to it.’ Of course, an infusion of unexpected, unconscious feelings is very tempting. It is what we dream about, and it is a favorite aspect of creativeness in our art.

But you must not conclude from this that you have any right to minimize the significance of repeated feelings drawn from emotional memory—on the contrary, you should be completely devoted to them, because they are the only means by which you can, to any degree, influence inspiration.

“Let me remind you of our cardinal principle: Through conscious means, we reach the subconscious.

“Another reason why you should cherish those repeated emotions is, that an artist does not build his role out of the first thing at hand. He chooses very carefully from among his memories and culls out of his living experiences the ones that are most enticing. He weaves the soul of the person he is to portray out of emotions that are dearer to him than his everyday sensations. Can you imagine a more fertile field for inspiration? An artist takes the best that is in him and carries it over to the stage.

The form will vary, according to the necessities of the play, but the human emotions of the artist will remain alive, and they cannot be replaced by anything else.”

“Do you mean to say,” broke in Grisha, “that in every kind of role, from Hamlet to Sugar in The Blue Bird, we have to use our own, same, old feelings?”

“What else can you do?” said Tortsov. “Do you expect an actor to invent all sorts of new sensations or even a new soul, for every part he plays? How many souls would he be obliged to house? On the other hand, can he tear out his own soul, and replace it with one he has rented, as being more suitable for a certain part? Where can he get one? You can borrow clothing, a watch, and things of all sorts, but you cannot take feelings away from another person. My feelings are inalienably mine, and yours belong to you in the same way.

You can understand a part, sympathize with the person portrayed, and put yourself in his place so that you will act as he would. That will arouse feelings in the actor that are analogous to those required for the part. But those feelings will belong, not to the person created by the author of the play, but to the actor himself.

Never lose yourself on the stage. Always act in your own person, as an artist. You can never get away from yourself. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks the departure from truly living your part and the beginning of exaggerated false acting. Therefore, no matter how much you act, and how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings.

To break that rule is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying because you deprive him of a palpitating, living, human soul, which is the real source of life for a part.”

Grisha could not bring himself to believe that we must play ourselves always.

“That is the very thing you must do,” affirmed the Director. “Always and forever, when you are on the stage, you must play yourself. But it will be in an infinite variety of combinations of objectives, and given circumstances which you have prepared for your part, and which have been smelted in the furnace of your emotional memory. This is the best and only true material for inner creativeness. Use it, and do not rely on drawing from any other source.”

“But,” argued Grisha, “I cannot possibly contain all the feelings for all the roles in the world.”

“The roles for which you haven’t the appropriate feelings are those you will never play well,” explained Tortsov. “They will be excluded from your repertory. Actors are not in the main divided by types. The differences are made by their inner qualities.”

 

 

When we asked him how one person could be two widely contrasting personalities he said:

“To begin with the actor is not one or the other. He has, in his own person, either a vividly or indistinctly developed inner and outer individuality. He may not have in his nature either the villainy of one character or the nobility of another. But the seed of those qualities will be there because we have in us the elements of all human characteristics, good and bad.

An actor should use his art and his technique to discover, by natural means, those elements which it is necessary for him to develop for his part. In this way, the soul of the person he portrays will be a combination of the living elements of his own being.

“Your first concern should be to find the means of drawing on your emotional material. Your second, that of discovering methods of creating an infinite number of combinations of human souls, characters, feelings, passions for your parts.”

“Where can we find those means and those methods?”

“First of all, learn to use your emotion memory.”

“How?”

“By means of a number of inner and outer stimuli. But this is a complicated question, so we shall take it up next time.”

We had our lesson today on the stage, with the curtain down. It was supposed to be in “Maria’s apartment,” but we could not recognize it. The dining room was where the living room had been. The former dining room had been converted into a bedroom. The furniture was all poor and cheap. As soon as the students recovered from their surprise they all clamored to have the original apartment back because they said they were depressed by this one, and could not work in it.

“I am sorry nothing can be done about it,” said the Director. “The other furniture was needed for a current play, so they gave us in exchange whatever they could spare, and they arranged things as best they knew how. If you don’t like it the way it is, change anything you wish to make it more comfortable.”

This started a general moving, and soon the place was torn to pieces.

“Stop!” cried Tortsov, “and tell me what sensation memories all this chaos brings to the surface in you.”

“When there is an earthquake,” said Nicholas, who had been a surveyor, “they move furniture around this way.”

“I don’t know how to define it,” said Sonya, “but somehow it makes me think of the time when the floors are being done over.”

As we continued to push the furniture around, various arguments arose. Some were searching for one mood, others for another, according to the effect produced on their emotional memories by this or that grouping of the things in the room. In the end, the arrangement was tolerable. But we asked for more light. Whereupon we were given a demonstration in lighting and sound effects.

First, we had the light of a sunny day, and we felt very cheerful. Off stage, there was a symphony of noises, automobile horns, street car bells, factory whistles, and the far-away sound of an engine—all the audible evidence of a day in a city.

 

 

Gradually the lights were dimmed. It was pleasant, calm, but slightly sad. We were inclined to be thoughtful, our lids grew heavy. A strong wind came up, then a storm. The windows rattled in their frames, the gale howled and whistled. Was it rain or snow beating on the panes? It was a depressing sound. The street noises had died away. A clock ticked loudly in the next room. Somebody began to play the piano, fortissimo at first and then more softly and sadly.

 

Read More…

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