Faith and a Sense of Truth | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)

Faith and a Sense of Truth | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)

 

Faith and a Sense of Truth

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski

 

“FAITH AND A SENSE OF TRUTH” was inscribed on a large placard on the wall at school today.

Before our work began we were up on the stage, engaged in one of our periodic searches for Maria’s lost purse. Suddenly we heard the voice of the Director who, without our knowing it, had been watching us from the orchestra.

“What an excellent frame, for anything you want to present, is provided by the stage and the footlights,” said he. “You were entirely sincere in what you were doing. There was a sense of truthfulness about it all, and a feeling of believing in all physical objectives which you set yourselves.

They were well defined and clear, and your attention was sharply concentrated. All these necessary elements were operating properly and harmoniously to create—can we say art? No! That was not art. It was actuality. Therefore repeat what you have just been doing.”

We put the purse back where it had been and we began to hunt it. Only this time we did not have to search because the object had already been found once. As a result, we accomplished nothing.

“No. I saw neither objectives, activity nor truth, in what you did,” was Tortsov’s criticism. “And why? If what you were doing the first time was actual fact, why were you not able to repeat it? One might suppose that to do that much you would not need to be an actor, but just an ordinary human being.”

 

 

We tried to explain to Tortsov that the first time it was necessary to find the lost purse, whereas the second time we knew there was no need for it. As a result, we had reality at first and a false imitation of it the second time.

“Well then, go ahead and play the scene with truth instead of falseness,” he suggested.

We objected and said it was not as simple as all that. We insisted that we should prepare, rehearse, live the scene . . .

Live it?” the Director exclaimed. “But you just did live it!”

Step by step, with the aid of questions and explanation, Tortsov led us to the conclusion that there are two kinds of truth and a sense of belief in what you are doing. First, there is the one that is created automatically and on the plane of actual fact (as in the case of our search for Maloletkova’s purse when Tortsov first watched us), and second, there is the scenic type, which is equally truthful but which originates on the plane of imaginative and artistic fiction.

“To achieve this latter sense of truth, and to reproduce it in the scene of searching for the purse, you must use a lever to lift you onto the plane of imaginary life,” the Director explained. “There you will prepare a fiction, analogous to what you have just done in reality. Properly envisaged ‘given circumstances’ will help you to feel and to create a scenic truth that you can believe while you are on the stage.

Consequently, in ordinary life, truth is what really exists, what a person really knows. Whereas on the stage it consists of something that is not actually in existence but which could happen.”

“Excuse me,” argued Grisha, “but I don’t see how there can be any question of truth in the theatre since everything about it is fictitious, beginning with the very plays of Shakespeare and ending with the paper maˆche´ dagger with which Othello stabs himself.”

“Do not worry too much about that dagger being made of cardboard instead of steel,” said Tortsov, in a conciliatory tone. “You have a perfect right to call it an impostor. But if you go beyond that, and brand all art as a lie, and all life in the theatre as unworthy of faith, then you will have to change your point of view. What counts in the theatre is not the material out of which Othello’s dagger is made, be it steel or cardboard, but the inner feeling of the actor who can justify his suicide.

What is important is how the actor, a human being, would have acted if the circumstances and conditions which surrounded Othello were real and the dagger with which he stabbed himself were metal.

“Of significance to us is: the reality of the inner life of a human spirit in a part and a belief in that reality. We are not concerned with the actual naturalistic existence of what surrounds us on the stage, the reality of the material world! This is of use to us only in so far as it supplies a general background for our feelings.

“What we mean by truth in the theatre is the scenic truth which an actor must make use of in his moments of creativeness. Try always to begin by working from the inside, both on the factual and imaginary parts of a play and its setting. Put life into all the imagined circumstances and actions until you have completely satisfied your sense of truth, and until you have awakened a sense of faith in the reality of your sensations. This process is what we call justification of a part.”

As I wished to be absolutely sure of his meaning, I asked Tortsov to sum up in a few words what he had said. His answer was:

Truth on the stage is whatever we can believe in with sincerity, whether in ourselves or in our colleagues. Truth cannot be separated from belief, nor belief from the truth. They cannot exist without each other and without both of them, it is impossible to live your part, or to create anything. Everything that happens on the stage must be convincing to the actor himself, his associates, and to the spectators.

It must inspire belief in the possibility, in real life, of emotions analogous to those being experienced on the stage by the actor. Each and every moment must be saturated with a belief in the truthfulness of the emotion felt, and in the activities carried out, by the actor.”

The Director began our lesson today by saying: “I have explained to you, in general terms, the part that truth plays in the creative process. Let us now talk about its opposite.

“A sense of truth contains within itself a sense of what is untrue as well. You must have both. But it will be in varying proportions. Some have, let us say, seventy-five percent. sense of truth, and only twenty-five percent. of sense of falseness; or these proportions reversed; or fifty percent. of each. Are you surprised that I differentiate and contrast these two senses? This is why I do it,” he added, and then, turning to Nicholas, he said:

“There are actors who, like you, are so strict with themselves in adhering to truth that they often carry that attitude, without being conscious of it, to extremes that amount to falseness. You should not exaggerate your preference for truth and your abhorrence of lies, because it tends to make you overplay truth for its own sake, and that, in itself, is the worst of lies. Therefore try to be cool and impartial. You need truth, in the theatre, to the extent to which you can believe in it.

“You can even get some use from falseness if you are reasonable in your approach to it. It sets the pitch for you and shows you what you should not do. Under such conditions, a slight error can be used by an actor to determine the line beyond which he may not transgress.

“This method of checking up on yourself is absolutely essential whenever you are engaged in creative activity. Because of the presence of a large audience an actor feels bound, whether he wishes to or not, to give out an unnecessary amount of effort and motions that are supposed to represent feelings. Yet no matter what he does, as long as he stands before the footlights, it seems to him that it is not enough. Consequently, we see an excess of acting amounting to as much as ninety percent.

That is why, during my rehearsals, you will often hear me say, ‘Cut out ninety percent.’

“If you only knew how important is the process of self-study! It should continue ceaselessly, without the actor even being aware of it, and it should test every step he takes. When you point out to him the palpable absurdity of some false action he has taken he is more than willing to cut it. But what can he do if his own feelings are not able to convince him? Who will guarantee that, having rid himself of one lie, another will not immediately take its place? No, the approach must be different.

A grain of truth must be planted under the falsehood, eventually to supplant it, as a child’s second set of teeth pushes out the first.”

Here the Director was called away, on some business connected with the theatre, so the students were turned over to the assistant for a period of the drill.

When Tortsov returned a short time later, he told us about an artist who possessed an extraordinarily fine sense of truth in criticizing the work of other actors. Yet when he himself acts, he completely loses that sense. “It is difficult to believe,” said he, “that it is the same person who at one moment shows such a keen sense of discrimination between what is true and what is false in the acting of his colleagues, and at the next will go on the stage and himself perpetrate worse mistakes.

“In his case, his sensitiveness to truth and falseness as a spectator and as an actor is entirely divorced. This phenomenon is wide-spread.”

 

 

We thought of a new game today: we decided to check falseness in each other’s actions both on the stage and in ordinary life.

It so happened that we were delayed in a corridor because the school stage was not ready. While we were standing around Maria suddenly raised a hue and cried because she had lost her key. We all precipitated ourselves into the search for it.

Grisha began to criticize her.

“You are leaning over,” said he, “and I don’t believe there is the basis for it. You are doing it for us, not to find the key.”

His carpings were duplicated by remarks of Leo, Vassili, Paul, and by some of mine, and soon the whole search was at a stand-still.

“You silly children! How dare you!” the Director cried out.

His appearance, catching us unaware in the middle of our game, left us in dismay.

“Now you sit down on the benches along the wall, and you two,” said he brusquely to Maria and Sonya, “walk up and down the hall.

“No, not like that. Can you imagine anyone walking that way? Put your heels in and turn your toes out! Why don’t you bend your knees? Why don’t you put more swing into your hips? Pay attention! Look out for your centers of balance. Don’t you know how to walk? Why do you stagger? Look where you’re going!”

The longer they went on the more he scolded them. The more he scolded the less control they had over themselves. He finally reduced them to a state where they could not tell their heads from their heels and came to a standstill in the middle of the hall.

When I looked at the Director I was amazed to find that he was smothering his laughter behind a handkerchief.

Then it dawned on us what he had been doing.

“Are you convinced now,” he asked the two girls, “that a nagging critic can drive an actor mad and reduce him to a state of helplessness? Search for falseness only so far as it helps you to find the truth. Don’t forget that the carping critic can create more falsehood on the stage than anyone else because the actor whom he is criticizing involuntarily ceases to pursue his right course and exaggerates truth itself to the point of its becoming false.

“What you should develop is a sane, calm, wise, and understanding critic, who is the artist’s best friend. He will not nag you over trifles but will have his eye on the substance of your work.

“Another word of counsel about watching the creative work of others. Begin to exercise your sense of truth by looking, first of all, for the good points. In studying another’s word limit yourself to the role of a mirror and say honestly whether or not you believe in what you have seen and heard, and point out, particularly the moments that were most convincing to you.

“If the theatre-going public were as strict about truthfulness on the stage as you were here today in real life we poor actors would never dare show our faces.”

“But isn’t the audience severe?” someone asked.

“No, indeed. They are not carping, as you were. On the contrary, an audience wishes, above all, to believe everything that happens on the stage.”

“We have had enough of theory,” said the Director when he began work today. “Let us put some of it into practice.” Whereupon he called on me and on Vanya to go up on the stage and play the exercise of burning the money. “You do not get hold of this exercise because, in the first place, you are anxious to believe all of the terrible things I put into the plot. But do not try to do it all at once; proceed bit by bit, helping yourselves along by small truths. Found your actions on the simplest possible physical bases.

“I shall give you neither real nor property money. Working with air will compel you to bring back more details, and build a better sequence. If every little auxiliary act is executed truthfully, then the whole action will unfold rightly.”

I began to count the non-existent bank notes.

“I don’t believe it,” said Tortsov, stopping me as I was just reaching for the money.

“What don’t you believe?”

“You did not even look at the thing you were touching.”

I had looked over to the make-believe piles of bills, and seen nothing; merely stretched out my arm and brought it back.

 

Action An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

 

“If only for the sake of appearance you might press your fingers together so that the packet won’t fall from them. Don’t throw it down. Put it down. And who would undo a package that way? First, find the end of the string. No, not like that. It cannot be done so suddenly. The ends are tucked in carefully so that they do not come loose. It is not easy to untangle them.

That’s right,” said he approvingly at last. “Now count the hundreds first, there are usually ten of them to a packet. Oh, dear! How quickly you did all that! Not even the most expert cashier could have counted those crumpled, dirty old banknotes at such a rate!

Now do you see to what extent of realistic detail you must go in order to convince our physical natures of the truth of what you are doing on the stage?

He then proceeded to direct my physical actions, movement after movement, second by second, until a coherent sequence was achieved.

While I was counting the make-believe money I recalled the exact method and order in which this is done in real life. Then all the logical details suggested to me by the Director developed an entirely different attitude on my part toward the air I was handling as money. It is one thing to move your fingers around in the empty air. It is quite another to handle dirty, crumpled notes which you see distinctly in your mind’s eye.

The moment I was convinced of the truth of my physical actions, I felt perfectly at ease on the stage.

Then, too, I found little additional improvisations cropping out. I rolled up the string carefully and laid it beside the pile of notes on the table. That little bit encouraged me, and it led to many more.

For example, before I undertook to count the packets I tapped them for some time on the table in order to make neat piles.

“That is what we mean by completely, fully justified physical action. It is what an artist can place his whole organic faith in,” Tortsov summed up, and with that, he intended to conclude the work of the day. But Grisha wished to argue.

“How can you call activity based on thin air physical or organic?”

Paul agreed. He maintained that actions concerned with material, and those concerned with imaginary objects, were necessary of two differing types.

“Take the drinking of water,” said he. “It develops a whole process of really physical and organic activity: the taking of the liquid into the mouth, the sensation of taste, letting the water flow back on the tongue and then swallowing it.”

“Exactly,” interrupted the Director, “all these fine details must be repeated even when you have no water because otherwise, you will never swallow.”

“But how can you repeat them,” insisted Grisha, “when you have nothing in your mouth?”

“Swallow your saliva or air! Does it make any difference?” asked Tortsov. “You will maintain that it is not the same thing as swallowing water or wine. Agreed. There is a difference. Even so, there is a sufficient amount of physical truth in what we do, for our purposes.”

“Today we shall go on to the second part of the exercise we did yesterday, and work on it in the same way as we did in the first,” said the Director at the beginning of our lesson.

“This is a much more complicated problem.”

“I dare say we shall not be able to solve it,” I remarked as I joined Maria and Vanya to go up to the stage.

“No harm will be done,” said Tortsov, comfortingly. “I did not give you this exercise because I thought you could play it. It was rather because by taking something beyond your powers you would be able better to understand what your shortcomings are, and what you need to work on. For the present, attempt only what is within your reach. Create for me the sequence of external, physical action. Let me feel the truth in it.

“To start with, are you able to leave your work for a while and, in response to your wife’s call, go into the other room and watch her give the baby his bath?”

“That’s not difficult,” said I, getting up and going toward the next room.

“Oh, no, indeed,” said the Director as he stopped me. “It seems to me that it is the very thing you cannot properly do. Moreover, you say that to come on to the stage, into a room, and go out again, is an easy thing to do. If so it is only because you have just admitted a mass of incoherence and lack of logical sequence into your action.

 

The First Test | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

 

“Check up for yourself how many small, almost imperceptible, but essential physical movements and truths you have just omitted. As an example: before leaving the room you were not occupied with matters of small consequence. You were doing work of great importance: sorting community accounts and checking funds. How could you drop that so suddenly and rush out of the room as though you thought the ceiling was about to fall? Nothing terrible has occurred. It was only your wife calling.

Moreover, would you, in real life, have dreamed of going in to see a newborn baby with a lighted cigarette in your mouth? And is it likely that the baby’s mother would even think of letting a man with a cigarette into the room where she is bathing him? Therefore you must, first of all, find a place to put your cigarette, leave it here in this room, and then you may go. Each one of these little auxiliary acts is easy to do by itself.”

I did as he said, laid down my cigarette in the living room, and went off the stage into the wings to wait for my next entrance.

“There now,” said the Director, “you have executed each little act in detail and built them all together into one large action: that of going into the next room.”

After that my return into the living room was subjected to innumerable corrections. This time, however, it was because I lacked simplicity and tended to string out every little thing. Such overemphasis is also false.

Finally, we approached the most interesting and dramatic part. As I came into the room and started towards my work, I saw that Vanya had burned the money to amuse himself, taking a stupid half-witted pleasure in what he had done.

Sensing a tragic possibility I rushed forward, and, giving free rein to my temperament, wallowed in overacting.

“Stop! You have taken the wrong turning,” cried Tortsov. “While the trail is still hot, go over what you have just done.”

All that it was necessary for me to do was simply to run to the fireplace and snatch out a burning packet of money. To do it, however, I had to plan and push my moron brother-in-law aside. The Director was not satisfied that such a wild thrust could result in death and a catastrophe.

I was puzzled to know how to produce and justify such a harsh act.

“Do you see this slip of paper?” he asked. “I am going to set fire

to it and throw it into this large ash tray. You go over there and as soon as you see the flame, run and try to save some of the paper from burning.”

As soon as he lighted the paper I rushed forward with such violence that I nearly broke Vanya’s arm on the way.

“Now can you see whether there is any resemblance between what you have just done and your performance before? Just now we might actually have had a catastrophe. But before it was a mere exaggeration.

“You must not conclude that I recommend breaking arms and mutilating one another on the stage. What I do wish you to realize is that you overlooked a most important circumstance: which is that money burns instantaneously. Consequently, if you are to save it you must act instantaneously. This you did not do. Naturally, there was no truth in your actions.”

After a short pause, he said: “Now let us go on.”

“Do you mean that we are to do nothing more in this part?” I exclaimed.

“What more do you wish to do?” asked Tortsov. “You saved all that you could and the rest was burnt up.” “But the killing?”

“There was no murder,” he said.

“Do you mean there was no one killed?” I asked.

“Well, of course, there was. But for the person whose part you were playing, no murder exists. You are so depressed by the loss of the money that you are not even aware that you knocked the half-witted brother down. If you realized that, you would probably not be rooted to the spot, but would be rushing help to the dying man.”

Now we came to the most difficult point for me. I was to stand as though turned to stone, in a state of “tragic inaction.” I went all cold inside, and even I realized that I was overacting.

“Yes, there they all are, the old, old, familiar cliche´s that date back to our ancestors,” said Tortsov.

“How can you recognize them?” I asked.

“Eyes starting with horror. The tragic mopping of the brow. Holding the head in both hands. Running all five fingers through the hair. Pressing the hand to the heart. Any one of them is at least three hundred years old.

“Let us clear away all of that rubbish. Clean out all of that and play with your forehead, your heart, and your hair. Give me, even if it is very slight, some action that has belief in it.”

 

 

“How can I give you movement when I am supposed to be in a state of dramatic inaction?” I asked.

“What do you think?” he countered. “Can there be activity in dramatic or any other inaction? If there is, of what does it consist?”

That question made me dig into my memory and try to recall what a person would be doing during a period of dramatic inaction. Tortsov reminded me of some passages in My Life in Art and added an incident of which he had personal knowledge.

“It was necessary,” he countered, “to break the news of her husband’s death to a woman. After a long and careful preparation, I finally pronounced the fateful words. The poor woman was stunned. Yet on her face, there was none of that tragic expression that actors like to show on the stage.

The complete absence of expression on her face, almost deathly in its extreme immobility, was what was so impressive. It was necessary to stand completely motionless beside her for more than ten minutes in order not to interrupt the process going on within her. At last, I made a movement that brought her out of her stupor. Whereupon she fainted dead away.

“A long time afterward, when it became possible to speak to her about the past, she was asked what went through her mind in those minutes of tragic immobility. It seems that a few moments before receiving the news of his death she was preparing to go out to do some shopping for him. . . . But since he was dead she must do something else.

What should it be? In thinking about her occupations, past, and present, her mind ran over the memories of her life up to the impasse of the actual moment, with its great question mark. She became unconscious from a sense of complete helplessness.

“I think you will agree that those ten minutes of tragic inaction were full enough of activity. Just think of compressing all of your past life into ten short minutes. Isn’t that action?”

“Of course, it is,” I agreed, “but it is not physical.”

“Very well,” said Tortsov. “Perhaps it isn’t physical. We need not think too deeply about labels or try to be too concise. In every physical activity there is a psychological element and a physical one in every psychological act.”

The later scenes where I am roused from my stupor and try to revive my brother-in-law proved to be infinitely easier for me to play than that immobility with its psychological activity.

“Now we should go over what we have learned in our last two lessons,” said the Director. “Because young people are so impatient, they seek to grab the whole inner truth of a play or a role at once and believe in it.

“Since it is impossible to take control of the whole at once, we must break it up and absorb each piece separately. To arrive at the essential truth of each bit and to be able to believe in it, we must follow the same procedure we used in choosing our units and objectives. When you cannot believe in the larger action you must reduce it to smaller and smaller proportions until you can believe in it. Don’t think that this is a mean accomplishment. It is tremendous.

You have not been wasting the time you have spent, both in my classes and in Rakhmanov’s drills, in centering attention on small physical actions. Perhaps you do not even yet realize that from believing in the truth of one small action an actor can come to feel himself in his part and have faith in the reality of a whole play.

“I could quote innumerable instances which have occurred in my own experience, where there has been something unexpected injected into the stale, routine acting of a play. A chair falls over, an actress drops her handkerchief and it must be picked up, or the business is suddenly altered. These things necessarily call for small but real actions because they are intrusions emanating from real life.

Just as a breath of fresh air will clear the atmosphere in a stuffy room these real actions can put life into stereotyped acting. It can remind an actor of the true pitch that he has lost. It has the power to produce an inner impetus and it can turn a whole scene down a more creative path.

“On the other hand, we cannot leave things to chance. It is important for an actor to know how to proceed under ordinary circumstances. When a whole act is too large to handle, break it up. If one detail is not sufficient to convince you of the truth of what you are doing, add others to it until you have achieved the greater sphere of action which does convince you.

A sense of measure will also help you here.

“It is to these simple but important truths that we have dedicated our work in recent lessons.”

“This last summer,” said the Director, “I went back, for the first time in a number of years, to a place in the country where I used to spend my vacations. The house where I boarded was some distance from the railway station. A shortcut to it led through a ravine, past some beehives and a wood. In the old days, I came and went so often by this shorter route that I made a beaten track. Later this was all overgrown with tall grass. This summer I went through it again.

At first, it was not so easy to find the path. I often lost my direction and came out onto a main high road, which was full of ruts and holes, because of heavy traffic. Incidentally, it would have led me in the opposite direction from the station. So I was obliged to retrace my steps and hunt for the shortcut. I was guided by old memories of familiar landmarks, trees, stumps, little rises, and falls in the path. These recollections took shape and directed my search.

Finally, I worked out the right line and was able to go and come to the station along it. As I had to go to town frequently I made use of the shortcut almost daily and it soon became a distinct path again.

“During our last few lessons, we have been blocking out a line of physical actions in the exercise of the burned money. It is somewhat analogous to my path in the country. We recognize it in real life but we have to tread it down all over again on the stage.

“The straight line for you is also overgrown with bad habits which threaten to turn you aside at every step and mislead you onto the rutted and worn highway of stereotyped mechanical acting. To avoid this you must do as I did and establish the right direction by laying down a series of physical actions. These you must tread down until you have permanently fixed the true path of your role. Now go up onto the stage and repeat, several times, the detailed physical actions that we worked out last time.

“Mind you, only physical actions, physical truths, and physical belief in them! Nothing more!”

We played the exercise through.

“Did you notice any new sensations as a result of executing a whole sequence of physical acts without an interruption?” asked Tortsov. “If you did, the separate moments are flowing, as they should, into larger periods and creating a continuous current of truth.

“Test it by playing the whole exercise from beginning to end, several times, using just the physical actions.”

We followed his instructions and really did feel that the detailed bits dovetailed into one continuous whole. This sequence was strengthened by each repetition and the action had the feeling of pushing forward, with increasing momentum.

As we repeated the exercise I kept making one mistake which I feel I ought to describe in detail. Each time I left the scene and went off stage I ceased to play. The consequence was that the logical line of my physical action was interrupted. And it should not have been interrupted. Neither on the stage nor even in the wings should an actor admit such breaks in the continuity of the life of his part. It causes blanks. These in turn become filled with thoughts and feelings which are extraneous to the role.

“If you are unaccustomed to playing for yourself while off stage,” said the Director, “at least confine your thoughts to what the person you are portraying would be doing if he were placed in analogous circumstances. This will help to keep you in the part.”

After making certain corrections, and after we had gone over the exercise several more times, he asked me: “Do you realize that you have succeeded in establishing, in a solid and permanent manner, the long sequence of individual moments of the true physical action of this exercise?

“This continuous sequence we call, in our theatre jargon, ‘the life of a human body.’ It is made up, as you have seen, of living physical actions, motivated by an inner sense of truth, and a belief in what the actor is doing. This life of the human body in a role is no small matter. It is one half of the image to be created, although not the more important half.”

faith and a sense of truth

 

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