On The Threshold Of The Subconscious | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski (Part 1)
On The Threshold Of The Subconscious
An Actor Prepares
THE DIRECTOR BEGAN with the encouraging remark that we had the longest part of our inner preparatory work behind us. “All this preparation trains your ‘inner creative state,’ it helps you to find your ‘super-objective’ and ‘through-line of action,’ it creates a conscious psycho-technique, and in the end, it leads you”—this he said with a touch of solemnity—“to the ‘region of the subconscious.’ The study of this important region is a fundamental part of our system.
“Our conscious mind arranges and puts a certain amount of order into, the phenomena of the external world that surround us. There is no sharply drawn line between conscious and subconscious experience. Our consciousness often indicates the direction in which our subconscious continues to work. Therefore, the fundamental objective of our psycho-technique is to put us in a creative state in which our subconscious will function naturally.
“It is fair to say that this technique bears the same relation to subconscious creative nature as grammar does to poetry It is unfortunate when grammatical considerations overwhelm the poetic. That happens too often in the theatre, yet we cannot do without grammar.
It should be used to help arrange subconscious, creative material because it is only when it has been organized that it can take on an artistic form.
“In the first period of conscious work on a role, an actor feels his way into the life of his part, without altogether understanding what is going on in it, in him, and around him. When he reaches the region of the subconscious the eyes of his soul are opened and he is aware of everything, even minute details, and it all acquires an entirely new significance. He is conscious of new feelings, conceptions, visions, and attitudes, both in his role and in himself.
Beyond the threshold one’s inner life, of its own accord, takes on a simple, full form, because organic nature directs all the important centres of our creative apparatus. Consciousness knows nothing of all this: even our feelings cannot find their way around in this region—and yet without them, true creativeness is impossible.
“I do not give you any technical methods to gain control of the subconscious. I can only teach you the indirect method to approach it and give yourselves up to its power.
“We see, hear, understand and think differently before and after we cross the ‘threshold of the subconscious. Beforehand we have ‘true-seeming feelings’, afterward—‘sincerity of emotions’. On this side of it we have the simplicity of a limited fantasy; beyond—the simplicity of the larger imagination. Our freedom on this side of the threshold is limited by reason and conventions; beyond it, our freedom is bold, wilful, active, and always moving forwards. Over there the creative process differs each time it is repeated.
“It makes me think of the shore along the ocean. Big waves and small throw themselves up on the sand. Some play around our ankles, others reach our knees, or even sweep us off our feet, while the largest carry us out to sea, and eventually toss us up on the beach again.
“Sometimes the tide of the subconscious barely touches an actor, and then goes out. At other times it envelops his whole being, carrying him into its depths until, at length, it casts him up again on the shore of consciousness.
“All that I am telling you now is in the realm of the emotions, not of reason. You can feel what I say more easily than understand it. Therefore it will be more to the point if, instead of lengthy explanations, I tell you about an actual episode out of my own life which helped me to sense the state I have been describing.
“At a party one evening, in the house of friends, we were doing various stunts and they decided, for a joke, to operate on me. Tables were carried in, one for operating, the other supposedly containing surgical instruments. Sheets were draped around, bandages, basins, and various vessels were brought.
“The ‘surgeons’ put on white coats and I was dressed in a hospital gown. They laid me on the operating table and bandaged my eyes. What disturbed me was the extremely solicitous manner of the doctors. They treated me as if I were in a desperate condition and did everything with utmost seriousness. Suddenly the thought flashed through my mind: ‘What if they really should cut me open!’
“The uncertainty and the waiting worried me. My sense of hearing became acute and I tried not to miss a single sound. All around I could hear them whispering, pouring water, and rattling instruments. Now and then a large basin made a booming noise like the toll of a funeral bell.
“ ‘Let us begin!’ someone whispered.
“Someone took a firm hold on my right wrist. I felt a dull pain and then three sharp stabs. . . . I couldn’t help trembling. Something that was harsh and smarted was rubbed on my wrist, then it was bandaged, and people rustled around, handing things to the surgeon.
“Finally, after a long pause, they began to speak out loud, they laughed and congratulated me. My eyes were unbandaged and on my left arm lay . . . a new-born baby made out of my right hand, all swaddled in gauze. On the back of my hand, they had painted a silly, infantile face.
“The question is: were the feelings that I experienced true and was my belief in them real or were they what we call ‘true-seeming’?
“Of course, it wasn’t real truth and a real sense of faith,” Tortsov said as he recalled his sensations. “Although we might almost say that, for purposes of the theatre, I really did live those sensations. And yet there was no solid stretch of believing in what I was undergoing.
There was a constant wavering back and forth between belief and doubt, real sensations and the illusion of having them. All the while I felt that if I really did have an operation I should go through just such moments as I had during this mock operation. The illusion certainly was sufficiently lifelike.
“I felt at times that my emotions were just what they would have been in reality. They recalled sensations familiar to me in real life. I even had the presentiments of losing consciousness, if only for a few seconds. They disappeared almost as soon as they came. Yet the illusion left traces. And to this day I am convinced that what happened to me on that evening could happen in real life.
“That was my first experience in the condition which we call the ‘region of the subconscious,’ ” said the Director as he finished his story.
“It is a mistake to think that an actor experiences the second state of reality when he is doing creative work on the stage. If that were the case our physical and spiritual organism would be unable to stand the amount of work put on it.
“As you already know, on the stage we live on emotional memories of realities. At times these memories reach a point of illusion that makes them seem like life itself. Although such a thing as complete forgetting of self and unwavering belief in what is happening on the stage is possible, it occurs rarely. We know of separate moments, long or short in duration when an actor is lost in ‘the region of the subconscious.’ But during the rest of the time truth alternates with verisimilitude, faith with probability.
“The story I have just told you is an example of the coincidence of emotion memories with the sensations called for by the part. The analogy which results from this coincidence draws the actor closer to the person he is portraying. At such times a creative artist feels his own life in the life of his part and the life of his part identical with his personal life. This identification results in a miraculous metamorphosis.”
After a few moments of reflection, Tortsov continued:
“Other things besides such coincidences between real life and a role lead us into the ‘region of the subconscious.’ Often a simple external occurrence, having nothing at all to do with the play, or the part, or the peculiar circumstances of the actor, suddenly injects a bit of real-life into the theatre and instantly sweeps us into a state of subconscious creativeness.”
“What kind of an occurrence?” he was asked.
“Anything. Even the dropping of a handkerchief, or the overturning of a chair. A live incident in the conditioned atmosphere of the stage is like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. The actor must pick up the handkerchief, or the chair, spontaneously, because that wasn’t rehearsed in the play. He doesn’t do it as an actor but in an ordinary, human way and creates a bit of truth that he must believe in. This truth will stand out in sharp contrast to his conditioned, conventional surroundings.
It is in his power to include such accidental moments of reality in his part or to leave them out. He can treat them as an actor and, for that one occasion, fit them into the pattern of his part. Or, he can, for a moment, step out of his part, dispose of the accidental intrusion, and then go back to the convention of the theatre and take up his interrupted action.
“If he can really believe in the spontaneous occurrence and use it in his part, it will help him. It will put him on the road toward the ‘threshold of the subconscious.’
“Such occurrences often act as a kind of tuning fork, they strike a living note and oblige us to turn from falseness and artificiality back to truth. Just one such moment can give direction to all the rest of the role.
“Therefore, learn to appreciate any such occurrences. Don’t let them slip by. Learn to use them wisely when they happen of their own accord. They are an excellent means of drawing you closer to the subconscious.”
The Director’s opening remark today was:
“Up to now, we have been dealing with accidental occurrences which can serve as an approach to the subconscious. But we cannot base any rules on them. What can an actor do if he is not sure of success?
“He has no course open except to turn for assistance to a conscious psycho-technique. It can prepare ways and favorable conditions for the approach to the ‘region of the subconscious.’ You will understand this better if I give you a practical illustration.
“Kostya and Vanya! Please play for us the opening scene of the exercise with the ‘burnt money.’ You will remember that you begin all creative work by first relaxing your muscles. So please seat yourselves comfortably and rest, just as if you were at home.”
We went on to the stage and carried out his instructions.
“That’s not enough. Relax more!” called Tortsov from the auditorium. “Make yourselves even more at home. You must feel more at your ease than when you are at home because we are not dealing with reality, but with ‘solitude in public.’ So do loosen up your muscles more. Cut ninety-five percent. of that tenseness!
“Perhaps you think that I exaggerate the amount of your excess strain? No, indeed. The effort that an actor makes, when he stands before a large audience, is immeasurable. The worst of it is that all this effort and force is brought about almost unnoticed by, unwished for, and unthought of by the actor.
“Therefore, be quite bold in throwing off as much tenseness as you possibly can. You needn’t think for a moment that you will have less than you need. No matter how much you reduce tension, it will never be enough.”
“Where do you draw the line?” someone asked.
“Your own physical and spiritual state will tell you what is right. You will sense what is true and normal better when you reach the state that we call ‘I am.’ ”
I already felt that Tortsov could not ask for a more relaxed state than the one I was in. Nevertheless, he continued to call for still less tension.
As a result, I overdid and reached a state of prostration and numbness. That is another aspect of muscular rigidity and I had to struggle against it. To do that I changed poses and tried to get rid of pressure through action. I changed from a quick, nervous rhythm to one which was slow, almost lazy.
The Director not only noticed but approved of what I was doing.
“When an actor is making too much effort it is sometimes a good idea for him to introduce a lighter, more frivolous, approach to his work. That is another way of dealing with tenseness.”
But I still was unable to achieve the real sense of ease I feel when I am sprawling on my sofa at home.
At this point, Tortsov, in addition to calling for still more relaxation, reminded us that we should not be doing this for its own sake. He recalled the three steps: tenseness, relaxation, and justification.
He was quite right because I had forgotten about them, and as soon as I corrected my mistake I felt an entire change come over me. My whole weight was drawn towards the earth. I sank deep into the arm-chair in which I was half lying. Now, it seemed to me, the greater part of my tenseness had disappeared. Even so, I did not feel as free as I do in ordinary life. What was the matter? When I stopped to analyse my condition I found that my attention was strained and kept me from relaxing. To this the Director said:
“Strained attention shackles you every bit as much as muscular spasms. When your inner nature is in its grip your subconscious process cannot develop normally. You must achieve inner freedom as well as physical relaxation.”
“Ninety-five percent. off on that too, I suppose,” put in Vanya.
“Quite right. The excess of tension is just as great, only you must deal with it more subtly. In comparison with muscles, the figments of the soul are as cobwebs to cables. Singly they are easily broken, but you can spin them into stout cords. However, when they are first spun treat them with delicacy.”
“How can we handle inner spasms?” one student asked.
“In the same way, you deal with muscular contractions. You first search out the point of tension. Next, you try to relieve it and finally you build a basis for freedom from it in an appropriate supposition.
“Make use of the fact that in this case your attention is not allowed to wander all over the theatre but is concentrated inside of you. Give it some interesting object, something that will help your exercise. Direct it to some attractive objective or action.”
I began to go over the objectives in our exercise, all of its given circumstances; mentally I went through all the rooms. Then the unexpected happened. I found myself in an unfamiliar room, one I had not been in before. There was an aged couple, my wife’s parents.
This unprepared-for circumstance affected and stirred me because it complicated my responsibilities. Two more people to work for, five mouths to feed, not counting myself! This added significance to my work, to tomorrow’s checking of accounts, to my own going over of papers now. I sat in the arm-chair and nervously twisted a bit of string around my fingers.
“That was fine,” exclaimed Tortsov approvingly. “That was real freedom from tension. Now I can believe everything you are doing and thinking about even though I do not know exactly what is in your mind.”
He was right. When I checked over my body I found that my muscles were free from contraction. Evidently, I had reached the third stage naturally by sitting there and finding a real basis for my work.
“There you have real truth, faith in your actions, the state we call ‘I am.’ You are on the threshold,” he said softly to me. “Only don’t be in a hurry. Use your inner vision to see through to the end of each thing you do. If necessary, introduce some new supposition.
Stop! Why did you waver then?”
It was easy for me to get back on to track. I had only to say to myself:
“Suppose they find a large shortage in the accounts?! That would mean a re-checking of all the books and papers. What a ghastly job. And to have to do it all alone, at this hour of the night MM!”
Mechanically I pulled out my watch. It was four o’clock. In the afternoon or in the morning? For a moment I assumed it was the latter. I was excited and instinctively threw myself towards my desk and began to work furiously.
Out of the corner of my ear I heard Tortsov make some approving comments and explain to the students that this was the right approach to the subconscious. But I no longer paid any attention to encouragement. I did not need it because I was really living on the stage and could do anything I chose.
Evidently, the Director, having achieved his pedagogic purpose, was ready to interrupt me but I was eager to cling to my mood and I went right on.
“Oh, I see,” said he to the others. “This is a big wave.” Nor was I satisfied. I wanted to complicate my situation further and enhance my emotions. So I added a new circumstance: a substantial defalcation in my accounts. In admitting that possibility I said to myself: What would I do? At the very thought, my heart was in my mouth.
“The water is up to his waist now,” commented Tortsov.
“What can I do?” I cried excitedly, “I must get back to the office!” I rushed towards the vestibule. Then I remembered that the office was closed, so I came back and paced up and down trying to gather my thoughts. I finally sat down in a dark corner of the room to think things out.
I could see, in my mind’s eye, some severe persons going over the books and counting the funds. They questioned me but I did not know how to answer. An obstinate kind of despair kept me from making a clean breast.
Then they wrote out a resolution, fatal to my career. They stood around in groups, whispering. I stood to one side, an outcast. Then an examination, trial, dismissal, confiscation of property, loss of home.
“He is out in the ocean of the subconscious now,” said the Director. Then he leaned over the footlights and said softly to me: “Don’t hurry, go through to the very end.”
He turned to the other students again and pointed out that although I was motionless, you could feel the storm of emotions inside of me.
I heard all these remarks, but they did not interfere with my life on the stage or draw me away from it. At this point, my head was swimming with excitement because my part and my own life were so intermingled that they seemed to merge. I had no idea where one began or the other left off. My hand ceased wrapping the string around my fingers and I became inert.
“That is the very depth of the ocean,” explained Tortsov.
I do not know what happened from then on. I know only that
I found it easy and pleasant to execute all sorts of variations. I decided once more that I must go to the office, then to my attorney; or I made up my mind I must find certain papers to clear my name, and I hunted through all sorts of drawers.
When I finished playing, the Director said to me, with great seriousness:
“Now you have the right to say that you have found the ocean of the subconscious by your own experience. We can make analogous experiments by using any one of the ‘elements of the creative mood’ as a starting point, imagination and suppositions, desires and objectives (if they are well defined), and emotions (if naturally aroused).
You can begin with various propositions and conceptions. If you sense the truth in a play subconsciously, your faith in it will naturally follow, and the state of ‘I am.’ The important thing to remember in all these combinations is that whatever element you choose to start with you must carry to the limit of its possibilities. You already know that in taking up any one of these links in the creative chain you pull them all along.”
I was in a state of ecstasy, not because the Director had praised me but because I had again felt creative inspiration. When I confessed this to Tortsov he explained: “You are not drawing the right conclusion from today’s lesson. Something much more important took place than you think.
The coming of inspiration was only an accident. You cannot count on it. But you can rely on what actually did occur. The point is, that inspiration did not come to you of its own accord. You called for it, by preparing the way for it. This result is of far greater importance.
“The satisfying conclusion that we can draw from today’s lesson is that you now have the power to create favorable conditions for the birth of inspiration. Therefore put your thought on what arouses your inner motive forces, and what makes for your inner creative mood. Think of your super-objective and the through-line of action that leads to it. In short, have in your mind everything that can be consciously controlled, and that will lead you to the subconscious.
That is the best possible preparation for inspiration. But never try for a direct approach to inspiration for its own sake. It will result in physical contortion and the opposite of everything you desire.”
Unfortunately, the Director had to postpone further discussion of the subject until the next lesson.
Today Tortsov continued to sum up the results of our last lesson. He began:
“Kostya gave you a practical demonstration of the way conscious psycho-technique arouses the subconscious creativeness of nature. At first, you might think that we had not accomplished anything new. Work was begun, as it should be, with the freeing of muscles. Kostya’s attention was concentrated on his body. But he transferred it skilfully to the supposed circumstances of the exercise. Fresh inner complications justified his sitting there, motionless, on the stage.
In him, that basis for his immobility completely freed his muscles. Then he created all sorts of new conditions for his make-believe life. They enhanced the atmosphere of the whole exercise and sharpened the situation with possible tragic implications. This was a source of real emotion.
“Now you ask: What is new in all this? The ‘difference’ is infinitesimal and lies in my having obliged him to carry out each creative act to its fullest limit. That’s all.”
“How can that be all?” Vanya blurted.
“Very simply. Carry all of the elements of the inner creative state, your inner motive forces, and you’re through line of action to the limit of human (not theatrical) activity, and you will inevitably feel the reality of your inner life. Moreover, you will not be able to resist believing in it.
“Have you noticed that each time this truth and your belief in it is born, involuntarily, the subconscious steps in, and nature begins to function? So when your conscious psycho-technique is carried to its fullest extent the ground is prepared for nature’s subconscious process.
“If you only knew how important this new addition is!
“It is all very pleasant to think that every bit of creativeness is full of importance, exaltation, and complexities.
As a matter of actual fact, we find that even the smallest action or sensation, the slightest technical means, can acquire a deep significance on the stage only if it is pushed to its limit of possibility, to the boundary of human truth, faith and the sense of ‘I am.’ When this point is reached, your whole spiritual and physical make-up will function normally, just as it does in real life, and without regard to the special condition of your having to do your creative work in public.
“In bringing beginners like you to the ‘threshold of the subconscious’ I take a diametrically opposite view from many teachers. I believe that you should have this experience and use it when you are working on your inner ‘elements’ and ‘inner creative state,’ in all your drills and exercises.
“I want you to feel right from the start, if only for short periods, that blissful sensation which actors have when their creative faculties are functioning truly, and subconsciously. Moreover, this is something you must learn through your own emotions and not in any theoretical way. You will learn to love this state and constantly strive to achieve it.”
“I can readily see the importance of what you have just told us,” I said. “But you have not gone far enough. Please give us now the technical means by which we can push any one element to its very limit.”
“Gladly. On the one hand you must first discover what the obstacles are, and learn to deal with them. On the other hand, you must search out whatever will facilitate the process. I shall discuss the difficulties first.
“The most important one, as you know, is the abnormal circumstance of an actor’s creative work—it must be done in public. The methods of wrestling with this problem are familiar to you. You must achieve a proper ‘creative state.’ Do that first of all and when you feel that your inner faculties are ready, give your inner nature the slight stimulus it needs to begin functioning.”
“That is just what I don’t understand. How do you do it?” Vanya exclaimed.
“By introducing some unexpected, spontaneous incident, a touch of reality. It makes no difference whether it is physical or spiritual in origin. The one condition is that it must be germane to the super-objective and the through-line of action. The unexpectedness of the incident will excite you and your nature will rush forward.”
“But where do I find that slight touch of truth?” insisted Vanya.
“Everywhere: in what you dream, or think, or suppose or feel, in your emotions, your desires, your little actions, internal or external, in your mood, the intonations of your voice, in some imperceptible detail of the production, the pattern of movements.”
“And then what will happen?”
“Your head will swim from the excitement of the sudden and complete fusion of your life with your part. It may not last long but while it does last you will be incapable of distinguishing between yourself and the person you are portraying.”
“Then, as I have already told you, truth and faith will lead you into the region of the subconscious and hand you over to the power of nature.”
After a short pause, the Director continued:
“There are other obstacles in your way. One of them is vagueness.
The creative theme of the play may be vague, or the plan of the production may not be clear-cut. A part may be worked out wrong, or its objectives may be indefinite. The actor may be uncertain about the means of expression he has chosen. If you only knew how doubt and indecision can weigh you down! The only way of dealing with that situation is by clearing up all that is lacking in precision.
“Here is another menace: some actors do not fully realize the limitations placed on them by nature. They undertake problems beyond their powers to solve. The comedian wants to play tragedy, the old man to be a jeune premier, the simple type longs for heroic parts, and the soubrette for the dramatic. This can only result in forcing, impotence, stereotyped, mechanical action. These are also shackles and your only means of getting out of them is to study your art and yourself in relation to it.
“Another frequent difficulty arises from too conscientious work, too great an effort. The actor puffs; he forces himself to give an external expression to something he does not actually feel. All one can do here is to advise the actor not to try so hard.
“All these are obstacles that you must learn to recognize. The constructive side, the discussion of what helps you to reach the ‘threshold of the subconscious,’ is a complicated question for which we have not sufficient time today.”