Emotion Memory | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 2)
An Actor Prepares
The noises in the chimney increased the sense of melancholy. With the coming of evening lights turned on, and the piano playing ceased. At some distance, a clock struck twelve. Midnight. Silence reigned. A mouse gnawed the floor. We could hear an occasional automobile horn or railroad whistle. Finally, all sounds stopped and the calm and darkness were absolute. In a little while, grey shadows heralded the dawn. As the first rays of sunlight fell into the 100m, I felt a great relief.
Vanya was the most enthusiastic of all about the effects.
“It was better than in real life,” he assured us.
“There the changes are so gradual,” added Paul, “that you are not aware of the changing mood. But when you compress twenty-four hours into a few minutes you feel the whole power over you of the varying tones of light.”
“As you have noticed,” said the Director, “surroundings have a big influence over your feelings. And this happens on the stage as well as in real life. In the hands of a talented director, all these means and effects become creative and artistic media.
“When the external production of a play is inwardly tied up with the spiritual life of the actors it often acquires more significance on the stage than in real life. If it meets the needs of the play and produces the right mood it helps the actor to formulate the inner aspect of his role, it influences his whole psychic state and capacity to feel. Under such conditions, the setting is a definite stimulus to our emotions.
Therefore if an actress is to play Marguerite, tempted by Mephistopheles while she is at prayer, the director must give her the means of producing the atmosphere of being in church. It will help her to feel her part.
“For the actor playing Egmont, in prison, he must create a mood suggestive of enforced solitary confinement.”
“What happens,” asked Paul, “when a director creates a splendid external production which, however, does not fit the inner needs of a play?”
“Unfortunately that is a rather frequent occurrence,” answered Tortsov, “and the result is always bad because his mistake leads the actors in the wrong direction and sets up barriers between them and their parts.”
“What if the external production is just plain bad?” asked someone.
“The result is even worse. The artists who work with the director, behind the scenes, will achieve the diametrically opposite effect from the right one. Instead of attracting the attention of the actors toward the stage they will repel them, and throw them into the power of the audience beyond the footlights. Consequently, the external production of a play is a sword in the hands of a director, that cuts both ways. It is equally capable of doing good and harm.
“Now I am going to put a problem to you,” the Director went on. “Does every good set help an actor and appeal to his emotional memory? For example: imagine a beautiful set, designed by some artist highly gifted in the use of colour, line and perspective. You look at the set from the auditorium and it creates a complete illusion.
And yet if you come up close to it you are disillusioned, you are ill at ease with it. Why? Because if a set is made from the painter’s point of view, in two and not in three dimensions, it has no value in the theatre. It has width and height but lacks depth, without which, as far as the stage is concerned, it is lifeless.
“You know from your own experience what a bare, empty stage feels like to an actor; how difficult it is to concentrate attention on it, and how hard it is to play even a short exercise or simple sketch.
“Just try to stand up in such a space and pour out the role of Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth! How difficult it is to do it without the help of a director, a scheme of movements, without properties that you can lean on, sit on, move towards or group yourselves around! Because each situation that is prepared for you helps you to give a plastic outward form to your inner mood. Therefore, we absolutely need that third dimension, a depth of form in which we can move, live, and act.”
“Why are you hiding away in a corner?” asked the Director of Maria, when he came on to the stage today.
“I . . . want to get away,—I—can’t stand it . . .” she muttered, as she tried to get farther and farther away from the distracted Vanya.
“Why are you sitting together here so cosily?” he asked, of a group of students clustered in the sofa near the table.
“We . . . er . . . were listening to some anecdotes,” stammered Nicholas.
“What are you and Grisha doing over there by the lamp?” he asked Sonya.
She was embarrassed and did not know what to say, but finally brought out something about reading a letter together. He then turned to Paul and me and asked:
“Why are you two pacing up and down?”
“We were just talking things over,” I replied.
“In a word,” he concluded, “you have all chosen appropriate ways of responding to the moods you were in. You have produced the right setting and used it for your purpose. Or, is it possible that the setting you found suggested the mood and the action?”
He sat down by the fireplace and we faced him. Several pulled up their chairs to be nearer him, to hear better. I settled myself at the table to take notes. Grisha and Sonya sat off by themselves so that they could whisper to each other.
“Now tell me just why each of you is sitting in that particular spot,” he demanded, and we were again obliged to account for our movements. He was satisfied that each one had made use of the setting in accordance with what he had to do, his mood and his feelings.
The next step was to scatter us in various parts of the room, with pieces of furniture to help form groups. Then he asked us to note whatever moods, emotional memories, or repeated sensations had been suggested to us by the arrangement. We also had to say under what circumstances we would use such a setting.
After that, the Director arranged a series of sets, and in each case, we were called upon to say: under what emotional circumstances, conditions, or in what moods, we would find it in keeping with our inner requirement to use the sets according to his indications. In other words: whereas we had, at first, chosen our setting to correspond to our mood and object, now he was doing that for us, and our part was to produce the right objective and induce the appropriate feelings.
The third test was one of responding to an arrangement prepared by someone else. This last problem is one that an actor is frequently called upon to solve; consequently, it is necessary for him to be capable of doing it.
Then he began some exercises in which he put us in positions that were in direct conflict with our purposes and moods. All of these exercises led us to appreciate a good, comfortable, full background arranged for the sake of the sensations it aroused. In summing up what we had accomplished, the Director said that an actor looks for a suitable mise-en-sce`ne to correspond to his mood, and his objective and that also those same elements create the setting. They are, in addition, a stimulus to emotional memory.
“The usual impression is that a director uses all of his material means, such as the set, the lighting, sound effects and other accessories, for the primary purpose of impressing the public. On the contrary. We use these means more for their effect on the actors. We try in every way to facilitate the concentration of their attention on the stage.
“There are still many actors,” he continued, “who in defiance of any illusion we can create, by means of light, sounds or colour, still feel their interest more centred in the auditorium than on the stage. Not even the play itself and its essential meaning can bring back their attention to our side of the footlights. So that this may not happen to you, try to learn to look at and see things on the stage, to respond and give yourselves up to what is going on around you. In a word, make use of everything that will stimulate your feelings.
“Up to this point,” the Director went on, after a slight pause, “we have been working from the stimulus to the feeling. Often, however, the reverse process is necessary. We use it when we wish to fix accidental inner experiences.
“As an example, I shall tell you about what happened to me at one of the early performances of Gorki’s Lower Depths. The role of Satin had been comparatively easy for me, with the exception of his soliloquy in the last act. That demanded the impossible of me,—to give a universal significance to the scene, to say the soliloquy with such profound implications of deeper meaning that it became the central point, the denouement of the whole play.
“Each time that I reached this dangerous spot, I seemed to put brakes
on my inner feelings. And that hesitation stopped the free flow of creative joy in my part. After the soliloquy, I invariably felt like a singer who has missed his high note.
“To my surprise, this difficulty disappeared at either the third or fourth performance. When I tried to find the reason for this, I decided that I must go over in detail everything that happened to me the entire day before my appearance in the evening.
“The first item was that I received a shockingly big bill from my tailor, and was upset. Then I lost the key to my desk. In an ugly mood, I sat down to read the review of the play and found that what was bad had been praised, while the good parts were not appreciated. This depressed me.
I spent the whole day mulling over the play—a hundred times I tried to analyse its inner meaning. I recalled every sensation I had at every point of my part, and I was so wrapped up that when evening came, instead of being all wrought up as usual, I was quite unaware of the public and indifferent to any idea of success or failure. I merely pursued my way logically and in the right direction, and found that I had gone past the danger spot of the soliloquy without ever noticing it.
“I consulted an experienced actor who is also an excellent psychologist and asked him to help me clarify what had occurred so that I could fix the experience of that evening. His attitude was:
“ ‘You cannot repeat an accidental sensation you may have on the stage, any more than you can revive a dead flower. It is better to try to create something new than to waste your effort on dead things. How to go about it? First of all, don’t worry about the flower, just water the roots, or plant new seeds.
“ ‘Most actors work in the opposite direction. If they achieve some accidental success in a part they want to repeat it and they go at their feelings directly. But that is like trying to raise flowers without the co-operation of nature, and you cannot do that unless you are willing to be satisfied with artificial blossoms.’ “So then what?
“ ‘Don’t think about the feeling itself, but set your mind to work on what makes it grow, what the conditions were that brought about the experience.
“ ‘You do the same,’ said this wise actor to me. ‘Never begin with results. They will appear in time as the logical outcome of what has gone before.’
“I did as he advised. I tried to get down to the roots of that soliloquy, to the fundamental idea of the play. I realized that my version had no real kinship at all with what Gorki had written. My mistakes had built up an impassable barrier between me and the main idea.
“This experience illustrates the method of working from the aroused emotion back to its original stimulus. By using this method an actor can at will repeat any desired sensation, because he can trace the accidental feeling back to what stimulated it, in order to retrace his path back from the stimulus to the feeling itself.”
The Director began, today, by saying:
“The broader your emotional memory, the richer your material for inner creativeness. That, I think, requires no further elaboration. It is, however, necessary, in addition to the richness of the emotional memory, to distinguish certain other characteristics; namely, its power, its firmness, and the quality of the material it retains, to the extent that these affect our practical work in the theatre.
“Our whole creative experiences are vivid and full in direct proportion to the power, keenness and exactness of our memory. If it is weak the feelings it arouses are pale, intangible and transparent. They are of no value on the stage because they will not carry across the footlights.”
From his further remarks, it appears that there are many degrees of power in emotional memory and both its effects and combinations are varied. On this point he said:
“Imagine that you have received some insult in public, perhaps a slap in the face, that makes your cheek burn whenever you think of it. The inner shock was so great that it blotted out all the details of this harsh incident. But some insignificant thing will instantly revive the memory of the insult, and the emotion will recur with redoubled violence. Your cheek will grow red or you will turn pale and your heart will pound.
“If you possess such sharp and easily aroused emotional material you will find it easy to transfer it to the stage and play a scene analogous to the experience you had in real life which left such a shocking impression on you. To do this you will not need any technique. It will play itself because nature will help you.
“Here is another example: I have a friend who is extraordinarily absent-minded. He dined once with some friends he had not seen for a year. In the course of the dinner, he made a reference to the health of his host’s adorable little boy.
“His words were greeted with stony silence, and his hostess fainted dead away. The poor man had completely forgotten that the boy had died since he last saw his friends. He says that he will never forget as long as he lives what he felt on that occasion.
“However, the sensations which my friend felt were different from those experienced by a person who had had his face slapped because in this case, they did not obliterate all the details attendant on the incident. My friend retained a very accurate memory not only of his feelings but of the happening itself and of the attending circumstances in which it occurred.
He definitely remembers the frightened expression on the face of a man across the table, the glazed eyes of the woman next to him, and the cry that broke from the other end of the table.
“In the case of really weak emotional memory, the psycho technical work is both extensive and complicated.
“There is one other of the many-sided aspects of this form of memory that we actors do well to take cognizance of, and I shall speak of it in detail.
“Theoretically you might suppose that the ideal type of emotion memory would be one that could retain and reproduce impressions in all the exact details of their first occurrence, that they would be revived just as they really were experienced. Yet if that were the case what would become of our nervous systems? How would they stand the repetition of horrors with all the original painfully realistic details? Human nature could not stand it.
“Fortunately things actually happen in a different way. Our emotional memories are not exact copies of reality—occasionally some are more vivid, but usually, they are less so, than the original. Sometimes impressions once received continue to live in us, grow and become deeper. They even stimulate new processes and either fill out unfinished details or else suggest altogether new ones.
“In a case of this kind a person can be perfectly calm in a dangerous situation and then faint away when he remembers it later. That is an example of the increased power of the memory over the original happening and of the continuing growth of an impression once had.
“There remains now—in addition to the power and intensity of these memories—their quality. Suppose that instead of being the person to whom something happened, you are merely an onlooker. It is one thing to receive an insult in public yourself and to experience a keen sense of embarrassment on your own account, and it is quite another thing to see this happen to someone else, to be upset by it, to be in a position to side freely with the aggressor or his victim.
“There is, of course, no reason why the onlooker should not experience very strong emotions. He may even feel the incident more keenly than the participating parties. But that is not what I am interested in at present. All I want to point out now is that their feelings are different.
“There is another possibility—a person might not participate in an incident either as a principal or an onlooker. He might only hear or read about it. Even that would not prevent his receiving deep and powerful impressions. It would all depend on the strength of the imagination of the person who wrote the description or told about it, and also on that of the person reading or hearing the story.
“Again, the emotions of a reader or hearer differ in quality from those of an onlooker or principal in such an event.
“An actor has to deal with all these types of emotional material. He works it over and adjusts it to the needs of the person whom he portrays.
“Now let us suppose that you were a witness when that man was slapped in public and that the incident left strong traces in your memory. It would be easier for you to reproduce those feelings if on the stage you played the part of a witness. But imagine that, instead, you were called upon to play the man who was slapped. How would you adapt the emotion you experienced as a witness to the role of the man insulted?
“The principal feels the insult; the witness can share only sympathetic feelings. But sympathy then might be transformed into a direct reaction. That is exactly what happens to us when we are working on a role. From the very moment when the actor feels that change takes place in him, he becomes an active principle in the life of the play—real human feelings are born in him—often this transformation from human sympathy into the real feelings of the person in the part occurs spontaneously.
“The actor may feel the situation of the person in the part so keenly and respond to it so actively, that he actually puts himself in the place of that person. From that point of view, he then sees the occurrence through the eyes of the person who was slapped.
He wants to act, to participate in the situation, to resent the insult, just as though it were a matter of personal honour with him. In that case, the transformation of the emotions of the witness to those of the principal takes place so completely that the strength and quality of the feelings involved are not diminished.
“You can see from this that we use not only our own past emotions as creative material but we use feelings that we have had in sympathizing with the emotions of others. It is easy to state a priori that it is utterly impossible that we should have sufficient emotional material of our own to supply the needs of all the parts we shall be called upon to play in a whole lifetime on the stage. No one person can be the universal soul in Chekhov’s Sea Gull, which has had all human experiences, including murder and one’s own death.
Yet we have to live all these things on the stage. So we must study other people, and get as close to them emotionally as we can until sympathy for them is transformed into feelings of our own.
“Isn’t that what happens to us every time we begin the study of a new role?
“(1) If you remember the exercise with the madman,” said the Director, “you will recall all the imaginative suggestions. Each contained a stimulus for your emotional memory. They gave you an inner impetus through things that had never happened to you in real life. You also felt the effect of the external stimuli.
“(2) Do you remember how we broke up that scene from Brand into units and objectives, and how the men and women in the class divided into furious opposition on it? That was another type of inner stimulus.
“(3) If you remember our demonstration of objects of attention, on the stage and in the audience, you will realize now that living objects can be a real stimulus.
“(4) Another important source of stimulation of emotion is a true physical action and your belief in it.
“(5) As time goes on you will become acquainted with many new inner sources of stimulation. The most powerful of them lies in the text of the play, the implications of thought and feeling that underlie it and affect the inter-relationship of the actors.
“(6) You are now aware too of all the external stimuli that surround us on the stage, in the form of settings, arrangement of furniture, lighting, sound and other effects, which are calculated to create an illusion of real-life and its living moods.
“If you total up all these and add to them those that you are still to learn about, you will find that you have many. They represent your psycho-technical store of riches, which you must learn how to use.”
When I told the Director that I was most anxious to do that very thing but did not know how to go about it, his advice was:
“Do as a hunter does in stalking game. If a bird does not rise of its own accord you could never find it among all the leaves of the forest. You have to coax it out, whistle to it, and use various lures.
“Our artistic emotions are, at first, as shy as wild animals and they hide in the depths of our souls. If they do not come to the surface spontaneously you cannot go after them and find them. All you can do is concentrate your attention on the most effective kind of lure for them. The very things for your purpose are those stimuli to your emotional memory we have just been discussing.
“The bond between the lure and the feeling is natural and normal and one that should be extensively employed. The more you test its effect and analyse its results in emotions aroused, the better you will be able to judge what your sensation memory retains, and you will be in a stronger position to develop it.
“At the same time, we must not overlook the question of the number of your reserves in this respect. You should remember that you must constantly be adding to your store. For this purpose, you draw, of course, principally upon your own impressions, feelings and experiences. You also acquire material from life around you, real and imaginary, from reminiscences, books, art, science, knowledge of all kinds, journeys, museums and above all from communication with other human beings.
“Do you realize, now that you know what is required of an actor, why a real artist must lead a full, interesting, beautiful, varied, exacting and inspiring life? He should know, not only what is going on in the big cities, but in the provincial towns, far-away villages, factories, and the big cultural centres of the world as well. He should study the life and psychology of the people who surround him, of various other parts of the population, both at home and abroad.
“We need a broad point of view to act the plays of our times and
of many peoples. We are asked to interpret the life of human souls from all over the world. An actor creates not only the life of his times but that of the past and future as well. That is why he needs to observe, to conjecture, to experience, to be carried away with emotion.
In some cases, his problem is even more complex. If his creation is to interpret current life he can observe his surroundings. But if he has to interpret the past, the future, or an imaginary epoch, he has either to reconstruct or recreate something out of his imagination—a complicated process.
“Our ideal should always be to strive for what is eternal in art. that which will never die, which will always remain young and close to human hearts.
“Our goal should be the heights of accomplishment built by the great classics. Study them and learn to use living emotional material for their rendering.
“I have told you all that I can at present about emotional memory. You will learn more and more about it as we pursue our programme of work.”