Imagination An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

Imagination An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski

Imagination An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski

THE DIRECTOR ASKED us to come to his apartment today for our lesson. He seated us comfortably in his study and began: “You know now that our work on a play begins with the use of it as a lever to lift us out of everyday life onto the plane of imagination. The play, the parts in it, are the invention of the author’s imagination, a whole series of ifs and given circumstances thought up by him. There is no such thing as actuality on the stage. Art is a product of the imagination, as the work of a dramatist should be. The aim of the actor should be to use his technique to turning the play into a theatrical reality. In this process, imagination plays by far the greatest part.”

He pointed to the walls of his study, which were covered with every conceivable design for theatre sets.

“Look,” he said to us, “all these are the work of a favorite artist of mine, now dead. He was a strange person, who loved to make sets for plays that had not yet been written. Take for instance this design for the last act of a play Chekhov was planning to write just before his death: about an expedition lost in the icy North.

“Who would believe,” said the Director, “that this was painted by a man who, in all his life, never stirred beyond the suburbs of Moscow? He made an arctic scene out of what he saw around him at home in winter, from stories and scientific publications, from photographs. Out of all that material his imagination painted a picture.”

He then turned our attention to another wall, on which were a series of landscapes, seen in varying moods. There, in each one, was the same row of attractive little houses near a pine grove—except that the time of year, the hour of the day, and the conditions of the weather were different. Further along, the wall was the same spot without houses, with only a clearing, a lake, and various kinds of trees. Evidently, the artist enjoyed rearranging nature and the attendant lives of human beings. In all his pictures he built and tore down houses and villages, changed the face of the locality, and moved mountains.

“And here are some sketches for a non-existent play about life between the planets,”—pointing out other drawings and watercolors. “To paint such a picture the artist must have not only imagination but fantasy as well.”

“What is the difference between them?” asked one of the students.

Imagination An Actor Prepares

“Imagination creates things that can be or can happen, whereas fantasy invents things that are not in existence, which never have been or will be. And yet, who knows, perhaps they will come to be. When fantasy created the Flying Carpet, who could have thought that one day we should be winging our way through space? Both fantasy and imagination are indispensable to a painter.” “And to an actor?” asked Paul.

“What do you think? Does the dramatist supply everything that the actors need to know about the play? Can you, in a hundred pages, give a full account of the life of the dramatis personae? For example, does the author give sufficient details of what has happened before the play begins? Does he let you know what will happen when it is ended, or what goes on behind the scenes? The dramatist is often a miser in a commentary. In his text, all that you find may be ‘the same and Peter’; or, ‘exit Peter’. But one cannot appear out of the air, or disappear into it. We never believe in any action taken ‘in general’: ‘he gets up,’ ‘he walks up and down in agitation,’ ‘he laughs,’ ‘he dies.’ Even characteristics are given in the laconic forms, such as a young man of agreeable appearance, smokes a great deal.’ Hardly a sufficient basis for creating his entire external image, manners, and way of walking.

“And what about the lines? Is it enough merely to learn them?

“Will, what has given paint the character of the dramatis personae and give you all the shadings of their thoughts, feelings, impulses, and acts?

“No, all this must be made fuller and deeper by the actor. In this creative process, imagination leads the actor.”

Our lesson was interrupted at this point by an unexpected call from a famous foreign tragic actor. He told us all about his triumphs, and after he left the Director said with a smile:

“Of course he romances, but an impressionable person of his sort really believes in his fabrications. We actors are so accustomed to embroidering facts with details drawn from our own imaginations, that the habit is carried over into ordinary life. There, of course, the imagined details are as superfluous as they are necessary for the theatre.

“In talking about a genius you would not say that he lies; he sees realities with different eyes from ours. Is it just to blame him if his imagination makes him wear rose-colored, blue, grey, or black glasses?

“I must admit that I myself have to lie quite frequently when as an artist, or as a director, I am dealing with a part of a play that does not attract me. In such a case my creative faculties are paralyzed.

I must have some stimulant, so I begin to tell everyone how thrilled I am over my work. I am compelled to hunt for whatever there may be of interest and to boast about it. In this way, my imagination is spurred on. If I were alone, I would not make this effort, but when working with others one must back up one’s lies substantially. It often happens that one can use these lies as material for a role or production.”

Imagination An Actor Prepares

“If imagination plays such an important part in an actor’s work,” asked Paul rather shyly, “what can he do if he lacks it?”

“He must develop it,” answered the Director, “or else leave the theatre Otherwise he will fall into the hands of directors who will make up for his lack by using their own imaginations, and he would become a pawn. Wouldn’t it be better for him to build up an image of his own?”

“That, I am afraid,” said I, “is very difficult.”

“It all depends on what kind of an imagination you have,” said the Director. “The kind that has an initiative of its own can be developed without special effort and will work steadily and untiringly, whether you are awake or asleep. Then there is the kind that lacks initiative, but is easily aroused and continues to work as soon as anything is suggested to it. The kind that does not respond to suggestions presents a more difficult problem. Here the actor takes in suggestions in a merely external, formal way. With such equipment, development is fraught with difficulty, and there is very little hope of success unless the actor makes a great effort.”

Has my imagination initiative?

Is it suggestible? Will it develop by itself?

These questions give me no peace. Late in the evening, I closed myself in my room, settled myself comfortably on my sofa with pillows all around me, shut my eyes, and began to improvise. But my attention was distracted by round spots of color that kept passing across my closed eyelids.

I put out my light, as I supposed it was causing these sensations.

What should I think about? My imagination showed me trees in a large pine forest, gently and rhythmically stirring in a soft breeze. I seemed to smell the fresh air.

Why . . . in all this serenity . . . can I hear a ticking clock?. . I had fallen asleep!

Why, of course, I realized, I should not imagine things without a purpose.

So I went up in an airplane, above the tree-tops, flying over them, over the fields, rivers, cities, . . . tick, tick, goes the clock. . . . Who is that snoring? Surely not I . . . did I drop off . . . have I been asleep long . . . the clock strikes eight . . .

I was so discomfited by the failure of my attempts to exercise my imagination at home, that I told the Director about it at our lesson today.

“You did not succeed because you made a series of mistakes,” he explained. “In the first place, you forced your imagination, instead of coaxing it. Then, you tried to think without having any interesting subject. Your third mistake was that your thoughts were passive. Activity in imagination is of utmost importance. First comes internal, and afterward external action.”

I pointed out that in a sense I had been active since I was flying over the forests at a high rate of speed.

“When you are reclining comfortably in an express train, are you active?” asked the Director. “The engineer is working, but the passenger is passive. Of course, if you are engaged in some important business, conversation, or discussion, or are writing a report, while on the train, then you would have some basis for talking about action. Again, in your flight in the airplane, the pilot was working, but you were doing nothing. If you had been at the controls or taking topographical photographs, you might say you were active.

“Perhaps I can explain by describing my little niece’s favorite game.

“ ‘What are you doing?’ the little girl asks.

“ ‘I am drinking tea,’ I answer.

“ ‘But,’ she says, ‘if it were castor oil, then how would you drink it?’

“I am forced to recall the taste of castor oil, to show her the disgust I feel, and when I succeed the child fills the room with her laughter. “ ‘Where are you sitting?’ “ ‘On a chair,’ I reply.

“ ‘But if you were sitting on a hot stove, then what would you do?’

“I am obliged to think of myself on a hot stove and try to decide how I can save myself from being burned to death. When I succeed the child is sorry for me, and cries, ‘I do not want to play anymore.’ If I go on, she ends by bursting into tears. Why don’t you think up some such game as an exercise for arousing activity?”

Here I broke in to point out that this was elementary, and to ask how to develop the imagination in subtler ways.

“Don’t be in a hurry,” said the Director. “There will be plenty of time. Just now we need exercises bound up with the simple things that actually surround us.

“Take our class here as an example. This is an actual fact. Suppose the surroundings, the teacher, and the students, remain as they are. Now with my magic if I shall put myself on the plane of make-believe, by changing one circumstance only: the hour of the day. I shall say, it is not three o’clock in the afternoon, but three o’clock at night.

Imagination An Actor Prepares

“Use your imagination to justify a lesson that lasts so late. Out of that simple circumstance there follows a whole series of consequences. At home, your family will be anxious about you. As there is no telephone you cannot notify them. Another student will fail to appear at a party where he is expected. A third live in the outskirts and has no idea how he will get home, the trains have stopped.

“All this brings external changes and inner ones as well and gives a tone to what you do.

“Or try another angle.

“The time of day remains at three in the afternoon, but suppose the time of year has changed. Instead of winter, it is spring, the air is wonderful, and it is hot out even in the shade.

“I see you are smiling already. After your lesson, you will have time for a stroll. Decide what you intend to do; justify your decision with the necessary suppositions, and again you have the fundamentals of an exercise.

“This is merely one of the countless examples of how you can use forces within you to change the material things about you. Do not try to get rid of these things. On the contrary, include them in your imaginary lives.

“That sort of transformation has a real place in our more intimate kind of exercises. We can use ordinary chairs to outline anything the imagination of an author or director can ask us to create; houses, city squares, ships, forests. It will do no harm if we find ourselves unable to believe that this chair is a particular object, because even without the belief we may have the feeling it arouses.”

In opening the lesson today the Director said: “Up to this point our exercises for the development of the imagination have, to a greater or lesser degree, touched on material facts, like furniture, or on realities of life, like the seasons. Now I shall transfer our work to a different plane. We give up time, place, and action, as far as their external accompaniments are concerned, and you will do the whole thing directly with your mind. Now,” he asked, turning to me,

“where would you like to be, and at what time?”

“In my own room,” I said, “at night.”

“Good,” said he. “If I were to be carried into those surroundings, it would be absolutely necessary for me first to make an approach to the house; to climb the outer steps; to ring the bell; to go through, in short, a whole series of acts leading up to my being in my room.

“Do you see a door-knob to grasp? Do you feel it turn? Does the door swing open? Now what is in front of you?”

“Straight before I is a closet, a bureau.”

“What do you see on the left?”

“My sofa, and a table.”

“Try walking up and down; living in the room. What are you thinking about?”

“I have found a letter, remember that it is not answered, and am embarrassed.”

“Evidently you are in your room,” the Director declared. “Now what are you going to do?”

“It depends on what time it is,” said I.

“That,” said he in a tone of approval, “is a sensible remark. Let us agree that it is eleven o’clock at night.”

“The very best time,” said I, “when everybody in the house is likely to be asleep.”

“Just why,” he asked, “do you particularly want this quiet?”

“To convince me that I am a tragic actor.”

“It is too bad you wish to use your time for such poor purpose; how do you plan to convince yourself?”

“I shall play, just for myself, some tragic role.”

“What role? Othello?”

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed. “I can’t play Othello in my own room. Every corner there has associations, and would only lead me to copy what I did before.”

“Then, what are you going to play?” the Director demanded.

I did not answer, because I had not decided, so he asked: “What are you doing now?”

“I am looking around the room. Perhaps some object, some accidental thing, will suggest a creative theme.”

“Well,” he prodded, “have you thought of anything yet?”

I began to think aloud. “Back in my closet,” I said, “there is a dark corner. One hook there is just right for a person to hang himself on. If I wanted to hang myself, how should I go about it?” “Yes?” urged the Director.

“Of course, first of all, I should need to find some rope, or belt, a strap . . .”

“Now what are you doing?”

“I am going over my drawers, shelves, and closets, to find a strap.”

“Do you see anything?”

“Yes, I have the strap. But unfortunately, the hook is too near the floor; my feet would touch.”

“That is inconvenient,” the Director agreed. “Look around for another hook.”

“There is not another hook that would hold me.”

“Then possibly you had better remain alive, and busy yourself with something more interesting, and less exciting.” “My imagination has dried up,” said I.

“There is nothing surprising in that,” said he. “Your plot was not logical. It would be most difficult to arrive at a logical conclusion to commit suicide because you were considering a change in your acting. It was only reasonable that your imagination should balk at being asked to work from a doubtful premise to a stupid conclusion.

Imagination An Actor Prepares

“Nevertheless this exercise was a demonstration of a new way of using your imagination, in a place where everything was familiar to you. But what will you do when you are called upon to imagine an unfamiliar life?”

“Suppose you take a journey around the world. You must not think it out ‘somehow,’ or ‘in general,’ or ‘approximately,’ because all those terms do not belong in art. You must do it with all the details proper to such a large undertaking. Always remain in close contact with logic and coherence. This will help you to hold unsubstantial and slippery dreams close to steady solid facts.

“Now I want to explain to you how you can use the exercises we have been doing in various combinations. You can say to yourself: ‘I will be a simple spectator, and watch what my imagination paints for me, while I take no part in this imaginary life.’

“Or if you decide to join in the activities of this imaginary life you will mentally picture your associates, and yourself with them, and again you will be a passive spectator.

“In the end, you will tire of being an observer, and wish to act. Then as an active participant in this imaginary life, you will no longer see yourself, but only what surrounds you, and to this, you will respond inwardly because you are a real part of it.”

Today the Director opened his remarks by telling us what we must always do when the author, the director, and the others who are working on a production, leave out things we need to know.

We must have, first of all, an unbroken series of supposed circumstances in the midst of which our exercise is played. Secondly, we must have a solid line of inner visions bound up with those circumstances so that they will be illustrated for us. During every moment we are on the stage, during every moment of the development of the action of the play, we must be aware either of the external circumstances which surround us (the whole material setting of the production), or of an inner chain of circumstances which we ourselves have imagined in order to illustrate our parts.

Out of these moments will be formed an unbroken series of images, something like a moving picture. As long as we are acting creatively, this film will unroll and be thrown on the screen of our inner vision, making vivid the circumstances among which we are moving. Moreover, these inner images create a corresponding mood, and arouse emotions, while holding us within the limits of the play.

“As to those inner images,” the Director asked, “is it correct to say that we feel them be inside of us? We possess the faculty to see things that are not thereby making a mental picture of them. Take this chandelier. It exists outside of me. I look at it and have the sensation that I am putting out, towards it, what you might call visual feelers. Now I close my eyes and see that chandelier again on the screen of my inner vision.

“The same process occurs when we are dealing with sounds. We hear imaginary noises with an inner ear, and yet we feel the sources of these sounds, in the majority of cases, to be outside of us.

“You can test this in various ways such as giving a coherent account of your whole life in terms of images you remember. This may sound difficult, but I think you will find that this work is actually not so complicated.”

“Why is that?” asked several students at once.

“Because, although our feelings and emotional experiences are changeable and incapable of being grasped, what you have seen is much more substantial. Images are much more easily and firmly fixed in our visual memories, and can be recalled at will.”

“The whole question then,” said I, “is how to create a whole picture?”

“That question,” said the Director, as he rose to leave, “we will discuss next time.”

“Let us make an imaginary moving picture,” said the Director as he came into class today.

“I am going to choose a passive theme because it will necessitate more work. At this point, I am not so much interested in the action itself as in the approach to it. That is why I suggest that you, Paul, are living the life of a tree.”

“Good,” said Paul with the decision. “I am an age-old oak! However, even though I have said it, I don’t really believe it.”

“In that case,” suggested the Director, “why don’t you say to yourself: ‘I am I; but if I were an old oak, set in certain surrounding conditions, what would I do?’ and decide where you are, in a forest, in a meadow, on a mountain top; in whatever place affects you most.”

Imagination An Actor Prepares

Paul knit his brows and finally decided that he was standing in an upland meadow near the Alps. To the left, there is a castle on a height.

“What do you see near you?” asked the Director.

“On myself, I see a thick covering of leaves, which rustle.”

“They do indeed,” agreed the Director. “Up there the winds must often be strong.”

“In my branches,” continued Paul, “I see some birds’ nests.”

The Director then pushed him to describe every detail of his imaginary existence as an oak tree.

When Leo’s turn came he made the most ordinary, uninspired choice. He said he was in a cottage in a garden in the Park.

“What do you see?” asked the Director.

“The Park,” was the answer.

“But you cannot see the whole Park at once. You must decide on one definite spot. What is there right in front of you?”

“A fence.”

“What kind of a fence?”

Leo was silent, so the Director went on: “What is this fence made of?”

“What material? . . . Cast iron.”

“Describe it. What is the design?”

Leo drew his finger around on the table for a long time. It was evident that he had not thought out what he had said.

“I don’t understand. You must describe it more clearly.”

Obviously, Leo was making no effort to arouse his own imagination. I wondered what use such passive thinking could possibly be, so I asked the Director about it.

“In my method of putting a student’s imagination to work,” he explained, “there are certain points which should be noted. If his imagination is inactive I ask him some simple questions. He will have to answer since he has been addressed. If he responds thoughtlessly, I do not accept his answer. Then, in order to give a more satisfactory answer, he must either rouse his imagination or else approach the subject through his mind, by means of logical reasoning. Work on the imagination is often prepared and directed in this conscious, intellectual manner. The student sees something, either in his memory or in his imagination: certain definite visual images are before him. For a brief moment, he lives in a dream. After that, another question, and the process is repeated. So with a third and fourth, until I have sustained and lengthened that brief moment into something approaching a whole picture. Perhaps, at first, this is not interesting. The valuable part about it is that the illusion has been woven together out of the student’s own inner images. Once this is accomplished, he can repeat it once or twice or many times. The more often he recalls it, the more deeply it will be printed in his memory, and the more deeply he will live into it.

“However, we sometimes have to deal with sluggish imaginations, which will not respond to even the simplest questions. Then I have only one course open, I not only propound the question, but I also suggest the answer. If the student can use that answer he goes on from there. If not, he changes it and puts something else in its place. In either case, he has been obliged to use his own inner vision. In the end, something of an illusory existence is created, even if the material is only partially contributed by the student. The result may not be entirely satisfactory, but it does accomplish something.

“Before this attempt has been made, the student has either had no image in his mind’s eye or what he had was vague and confused. After the effort, he can see something definite and even vivid. The ground has been prepared in which the teacher or the director can sow new seeds. This is the canvas on which the picture will be painted. Moreover, the student has learned the method by which he can take his imagination in hand and ply it with problems that his own mind will suggest. He will form the habit of deliberately wrestling with the passivity and inertia of his imagination, and that is a long step ahead.”

Today we continued the same exercises in developing our imaginations.

“At our last lesson,” said the Director to Paul, “you told me who you were, where you were, and what you saw, with your inner eye. Now describe to me what your inner ear hears as an imaginary old oak tree.”

At first, Paul could not hear anything.

“Don’t you hear anything in the meadow around you?”

Then Paul said he could hear the sheep and the cows, the munching of grass, the tinkle of the cowbells, the gossip of the women resting after their work in the fields.

“Now tell me when all this is happening in your imagination,” said the Director with interest.

Paul chose the feudal period.

“Then, do you, as an aged oak, hear sounds that are particularly characteristic of that time?”

Paul reflected for a moment and then said that he could hear a wandering minstrel on his way to a festival at the nearby castle.

“Why do you stand alone in a field?” the Director asked.

Imagination An Actor Prepares

In response, Paul gave the following explanation. The whole knoll on which the solitary old oak stands was formerly covered by a thick forest. But the baron of the nearby castle was constantly in danger of attack, and, fearing that this forest could hide the movements of his enemy’s forces, he cut it down. Only this one powerful old oak was allowed to stand. It was to protect a spring, which, rising in its shade, provided the necessary water for the baron’s flocks.

The Director then observed: “Generally speaking, this question—for what reason?—is extremely important. It obliges you to clarify the object of your meditations, it suggests the future, and it impels you to action. A tree, of course, cannot have an active goal, nevertheless, it can have some active significance, and can serve some purpose.”

Here Paul intervened and suggested: “The oak is the highest point in the neighborhood. Therefore it serves as a lookout, protection against attack.”

“Now,” the Director then said, “that your imagination has gradually accumulated a sufficient number of given circumstances, let us compare notes with the beginning of this piece of work. At first, all you could think of was that you were an oak standing in a meadow. Your mind’s eye was full of generalities, clouded like a poorly developed negative. Now you can feel the earth under your roots. But you are deprived of the action necessary on the stage. Therefore there is one more step to be taken. You must find some single new circumstance that will move you emotionally and incite you to action.”

Paul tried hard but could think of nothing.

“In that case,” said the Director, “let us try to solve the problem indirectly. First of all, tell me what you are most sensitive to in real life. What, more often than anything else, arouses your feelings—your fear or your joy? I am asking this quite apart from the theme of your imaginary life. When you know the inclinations of your own nature it is not difficult to adapt them to imaginary circumstances. Therefore, name someone’s trait, quality, or interest, which is typical of you.”

“I am very much excited by any kind of fight,” said Paul after a moment of reflection.

“In that case, a raid by the enemy is what we want. The forces of the hostile neighboring duke are already swarming up the meadow in which you stand. The fight will start here at any moment now. You will be showered with arrows from the enemy crossbows, and some will be pointed with flaming pitch—steady now, and decide before it is too late, what you would do if this really happened to you.”

But Paul could only storm inside of himself without being able to do anything. Finally, he broke out:

“What can a tree do to save itself when it is rooted in the earth and incapable of moving?”

“For me your excitement is sufficient,” said the Director, with evident satisfaction. “This particular problem is insoluble, and you are not to blame if the theme has no action in it.” “Then why did you give it to him?” was asked.

“Just to prove to you that even a passive theme can produce an inner stimulus and challenge to action. This is an example of how all of our exercises for developing the imagination should teach you to prepare the material, the inner images, for your role.”

At the beginning of our lesson today the Director made a few remarks about the value of imagination in freshening up and refurbishing something the actor has already prepared and used.

He showed us how to introduce a fresh supposition into our exercise with the madman behind the door which entirely changed its orientation.

“Adapt yourself to the new condition, listen to what they suggest to you, and—act!”

We played with spirit and real excitement and were complimented.

The end of the lesson was devoted to summing up what we had accomplished.

“Every invention of the actor’s imagination must be thoroughly worked out and solidly built on a basis of facts. It must be able to answer all the questions (when, where, why, how) that he asks himself when he is driving his inventive faculties on to make a more and more definite picture of a make-believe existence. Sometimes he will not need to make all this conscious, intellectual effort. His imagination may work intuitively. But you have seen for yourselves that it cannot be counted on. To imagine ‘in general’, without a well-defined and thoroughly founded theme is a sterile occupation.

“On the other hand, a conscious, reasoned approach to the imagination often produces a bloodless, counterfeit presentment of life. That will not do for the theatre. Our art demands that an actor’s whole nature be actively involved, that he gives himself up, both mind and body, to his part. He must feel the challenge to action physically as well as intellectually because the imagination, which has no substance or body, can reflexively affect our physical nature and make it act. This faculty is of the greatest importance in our emotional technique.

Imagination An Actor Prepares

“Therefore: Every movement you make on the stage, every word you speak, is the result of the right life of your imagination.

“If you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically, without fully realizing who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going, and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without imagination. That time, whether it be short or long, will be unreal, and you will be nothing more than a wound-up machine, automation.

“If I ask you a perfectly simple question now, ‘Is it cold out today?’ before you answer, even with a ‘yes,’ or ‘it’s not cold,’ or ‘I didn’t notice,’ you should, in your imagination, go back on to the street and remember how you walked or rode. You should test your sensations by remembering how the people you met were wrapped up, how they turned up their collars, how the snow crunched underfoot, and only then can you answer my question.

“If you adhere strictly to this rule in all your exercises, no matter to what part of our program they belong, you will find your imagination developing and growing in power.”


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