The First Test | An Actor Prepares | Constantin Stanislavski
The First Test
An Actor Prepares
WE WERE EXCITED as we waited for our first lesson with the Director, Tortsov, today. But he came into our class only to make the unexpected announcement that in order to become better acquainted with us, he wished us to give a performance in which we should act bits from plays chosen by us. His purpose is to see us on the stage against the background of scenery, in make-up, in costume, behind footlights, with all the accessories. Only then, said he, will it be possible to judge our dramatic quality.
At first, only a few favored the proposed test. Among these were a stocky young fellow, Grisha Govorkov, who had already played in some small theatre; a tall, beautiful blonde, called Sonya Veliaminova; and a lively, noisy chap named Vanya Vyuntsov.
Gradually we all became accustomed to the idea of the coming tryout. The shining footlights grew more tempting and the performance soon seemed interesting, useful, even necessary.
In making our choices I, and two friends, Paul Shustov and Leo Pushchin were at first modest. We thought of vaudeville or light comedy. But all around us we heard great names pronounced—Gogol, Ostrovski, Chekhov, and others. Imperceptibly we found that we had stepped ahead in our ambitions and would play something romantic, in costume, in verse.
I was tempted by the figure of Mozart; Leo by that of Salieri; Paul thought of Don Carlos. Then we began to discuss Shakespeare, and my own choice fell on Othello. When Paul agreed to play Iago, everything was decided. As we were leaving the theatre we were told that the first rehearsal was fixed for the next day.
When I reached home, late, I took down my copy of Othello, settled myself comfortably on the sofa, opened my book, and began to read. Hardly had I read two pages when I was seized with a desire to act. In spite of myself, my hands, arms, legs, face, facial muscles and something inside me all began to move. I declaimed the text. Suddenly I discovered a large ivory paper-cutter. I stuck it into my belt like a dagger. My fuzzy bath towel served as a white headcloth. Out of my sheets and blankets, I made a kind of shirt and gown. My umbrella was pressed into service as a scimitar, but I had no shield. Here it occurred to me that in the dining room which adjoined my room there was a big tray. With the shield in my hand, I felt myself to be a genuine warrior. Yet my general aspect was modern and civilized, whereas Othello was African in origin and must have something suggestive of primitive life, perhaps a tiger, in him. In order to recall, suggest, and fix the walk of an animal, I began a whole new set of exercises.
Many of these movements I felt to be a high degree successful. I had worked almost five hours without noticing the passage of time.
To me, this seemed to show that my inspiration was real.
I awoke much later than usual, rushed into my clothes, and dashed to the theatre. As I went into the rehearsal room, where they were waiting for me, I was so embarrassed that instead of apology I made the careless remark, “I seem to be a little late.” Rakhmanov, the Assistant Director, looked at me a long time reproachfully, and finally said:
“We have been sitting here waiting, our nerves on edge, angry, and ‘it seems I am a little late’. We all came here full of enthusiasm for the work waiting to be done, and now, thanks to you, that mood has been destroyed. To arouse a desire to create is difficult; to kill that desire is extremely easy. If I interfere with my own work, it is my own affair, but what right have I to hold up the work of a whole group? The actor, no less than the soldier, must be subject to iron discipline.”
For this first offense, Rakhmanov said he would limit himself to a reprimand, and not enter it on the written record kept of students, but that I must apologize immediately to all, and make it a rule in the future to appear at rehearsals a quarter of an hour before they begin. Even after my apology, Rakhmanov was unwilling to go on, because he said the first rehearsal is an event in an artist’s life, and he should retain the best possible impression of it. Today’s rehearsal was spoiled by my carelessness; let us hope that tomorrow’s will be memorable.
This evening I intended to go to bed early because I was afraid to work on my role. But my eye fell on a cake of chocolate. I melted it with some butter and obtained a brown mess. It was easy to smear it onto my face and make myself into a Moor. As I sat in front of my mirror I admired at length the flash of my teeth. I learned how to show them off and how to turn my eyes until the white showed. In order to make the most of my make-up I had to put on my costume, and once I was dressed I wanted to act, but I didn’t invent anything new; I merely repeated what I had done yesterday, and now it seemed to have lost its point. However, I did think I had gained something in my idea of how Othello ought to look.
Today was our first rehearsal. I arrived long ahead of time. The Assistant Director suggested that we plan our own scenes and arrange the properties. Fortunately, Paul agreed to everything I proposed, as only the inner aspects of Iago interest him. For me, the externals were of greatest importance. They must remind me of my own room. Without this setting, I could not get back my inspiration. Yet no matter how I struggled to make myself believe I was in my own room all my efforts did not convince me. They merely interfered with my acting.
Paul already knew the whole of his role by heart, but I had to read my lines out of the book, or else get by with approximations. To my astonishment, the words did not help me. In fact they bothered me so that I should have preferred to do without them entirely or to cut the number in half. Not only the words but also the thoughts, of the poet were foreign to me. Even the action as outlined tended to take away from me that freedom that I had felt in my own room.
Worse than that, I didn’t recognize my own voice. Besides, neither the setting nor the plan which I had fixed during my work at home would harmonize with the playing of Paul. For example, how could I introduce, into a comparatively quiet scene, between Othello and Iago, those flashes with my teeth, rollings of my eyes, which were to get me into my part? Yet I could not break away from my fixed ideas of how to act the nature I conceived of as savage, nor even from the setting, I had prepared. Perhaps the reason was that I had nothing to put in its place. I had read the text of the role by itself, I had played the character by itself, without relating the one to the other. The words interfered with the acting, and the acting with the words.
When I worked at home today I still went over the old ground without finding anything new. Why do I keep on repeating the same scenes and methods? Why is my acting of yesterday so exactly like today’s and tomorrows? Has my imagination dried up, or have I no reserves of material? Why did my work, in the beginning, move along so swiftly, and then stop at one spot? As I was thinking things over, some people in the next room gathered for tea. In order not to attract attention to me, I had to move my activities to a different part of my room, and speak my lines as softly as possible, so as not to be overheard.
To my surprise, by these little changes, my mood was transformed. I had discovered a secret—not to remain too long at one point, forever repeating the too familiar.
At today’s rehearsal, from the very start, I began to improvise. Instead of walking about, I sat on a chair and played without gestures or movement, grimaces, or rolling eyes. What happened? Immediately I became confused, I forgot the text and my usual intonations. I stopped. There was nothing for it but to go back to my old method of acting, and even to the old business. I did not control my methods; rather they controlled me.
Today’s rehearsal brought nothing new. However, I am becoming more accustomed to the place where we work, and to the play. At first, my method of portraying the Moor could not be harmonized with the Iago of Paul at all. Today it seemed as though I actually succeeded in fitting our scenes together. At any rate, I felt the discrepancies less sharply.
Today our rehearsal was on the big stage. I counted on the effect of its atmosphere, and what happened? Instead of the brilliancy of the footlights, and the bustle of the wings filled with all sorts of scenery, I found myself in a place dimly lighted and deserted. The whole of the great stage lay open and bare. Only near the footlights, there were a number of plain cane chairs, which were to outline our set. To the right, there was a rack of lights. I had hardly stepped onto the stage when there loomed up in front of me the immense hole of the proscenium arch and beyond it an endless expanse of dark mist. This was my first impression of the stage from behind.
“Begin!” someone called.
I was supposed to go into Othello’s room, outlined by the cane chairs, and take my place. I sat down in one of them, but it turned out to be the wrong chair. I could not even recognize the plan of our set. For a long time I could not fit myself into my surroundings, nor could I concentrate my attention on what was going on around me. I found it difficult even to look at Paul, who was standing right beside me. My glance passed by him and traveled out into the auditorium, or else backstage to the workrooms where people were walking around carrying things, hammering, arguing.
The astonishing thing was that I continued mechanically to speak and act. If it had not been for my long exercises at home, that had beaten into me certain methods, I must have stopped at the very first lines.
Today we had a second rehearsal on the stage. I arrived early and decided to prepare myself right on the stage, which today was quite different from yesterday. Work was humming, as properties and scenery were being placed. It would have been useless, amid all this chaos, to try to find the quiet in which I was accustomed to get into my role at home. First of all it was necessary to adjust me to my new surroundings. I went out to the front of the stage and stared into the awful hole beyond the footlights, trying to become accustomed to it, and to free myself from its pull; but the more I tried not to notice the place the more I thought about it. Just then a workman who was going by me dropped a package of nails. I started to help pick them up. As I did this I had the very pleasant sensation of feeling quite at home on the big stage. But the nails were soon picked up, and again I became oppressed by the size of the place.
I hurried down into the orchestra. Rehearsals of other scenes began. But I saw nothing. I was too full of excitement, waiting for my turn. There is a good side to this period of waiting. It drives you into such a state that all you can do is long for your turn to get through with the thing that you are afraid of.
When our turn did come I went up onto the stage, where a sketchy set had been arranged out of bits taken from various productions. Some parts were the wrong side up, and all the furniture was ill-assorted. Nevertheless, the general appearance of the stage, now that it was lighted, was pleasant, and I felt at home in this room that had been prepared for Othello. By a great stretch of the imagination, I could recognize a certain similarity to my own room. But the minute the curtain rose, and the auditorium appeared before me, I again felt possessed by its power. At the same time, some new unexpected sensations surged inside of me. The set hems in the actor. It shuts off the backstage area. Above him are large dark spaces. At the sides are the wings that outline the room. This semi-isolation is pleasant, but a bad aspect is, that it projects the attention out to the public. Another new point was that my fears led me to feel an obligation to interest the audience. This feeling of obligation interfered with my throwing myself into what I was doing. I began to feel hurried, both in speech and in action. My favorite places flashed by like telegraph poles seen from a train. The slightest hesitation and a catastrophe would have been inevitable.
As I had to arrange for my make-up and costume for the dress rehearsal, I reached the theatre today even earlier than usual. A good dressing-room was given to me, as well as a gorgeous gown, which is really a museum piece and is used by the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice. I sat down at the dressing table, on which were laid out various wigs, bits of hair, lacquer pots, grease paints, powder, and brushes. I started to put on some dark brown color with a brush, but it hardened so quickly that it left almost no trace. Then I tried a wash with the same result. I put the color on my finger, and thence on to my face, but had no luck, except with the light blue, the very color, it seemed to me, that was of no possible use in the makeup of Othello. I put some lacquer on my face and tried to attach some hair. The lacquer pricked my skin and the hair stuck straight up from my face. I tried one wig after another. All, put on a face without make-up, were too obvious. Next, I tried to wash off what little make-up I had on my face, but I had no idea how to do it.
About this time there came into my room a tall, very thin man with glasses, dressed in a long white smock. He leaned over and began to work on my face. First, he cleaned off with vaseline all that I had put on and then began again with fresh colors. When he saw that the colors were hard he dipped a brush into some oil. He also put oil on my face. On that surface, the brush could lay the colors smoothly. Then he covered my whole face with a sooty shade, proper to the complexion of a Moor. I rather missed the darker shade which the chocolate had contributed because that had caused my eyes and teeth to shine.
When my make-up was finished and my costume put on I looked into the mirror and was delighted with the art of my make-up man, as well as with the whole impression. The angles of my arms and body disappeared in the flowing robes, and the gestures I had worked up went well with the costume. Paul and some others came into my dressing-room, and they congratulated me on my appearance. Their generous praise brought back my old confidence. But when I went out on the stage I was disturbed by the changes in the position of the furniture. In one place an armchair was unnaturally moved forward from the wall almost into the middle o
f the scene, and the table was too near the front. I seemed to be put on exhibition right in the most conspicuous place. Out of excitement I walked up and down and kept catching my dagger in the folds of my costume, and my knives on the corners of the furniture or scenery. But this did not keep me from an automatic delivery of my lines and an incessant activity on the stage. In spite of everything it seemed as though I should get through to the end of the scene, yet when I came to the culminating moment in my role the thought flashed into my mind: “Now I’ll be stuck!” Whereupon I was seized with a panic and stopped speaking. I do not know what guided me back to an automatic rendering of my part, but once more it saved me. I had only one thought in my mind, to finish as quickly as possible, to take off my make-up, and get out of the theatre.
And here I am at home alone, where I am most unhappy. Fortunately, Leo came around to see me. He had seen me out in the audience and wanted to know what I thought of his performance, but I could not tell him because although I had watched his bit I did not notice anything, because of my own excitement in waiting for my turn.
He spoke familiarly about the play and the role of Othello. He was especially interested in his explanation of the Moor’s sorrow, shock, the amazement of the Moor, that such vice could exist in the lovely form of Desdemona.
After he left, I tried to go over some parts of the role, with his interpretation, and I almost wept, I was so sorry for the Moor.
This is the day of the exhibition performance. I thought I could see ahead precisely what was going to happen. I was filled with complete indifference until I reached my dressing-room. But once inside, my heart began to pound and I felt almost nauseated.
On the stage what first disturbed me was the extraordinary solemnity, the quiet and order that reigned there. When I stepped away from the darkness of the wings to the full illumination of the footlights, headlights, and spotlights, I felt blinded. The brightness was so intense that it seemed to form a curtain of light between me and the auditorium. I felt protected from the public, and for a moment I breathed freely, but soon my eyes became accustomed to the light, I could see into the darkness, and the fear and attraction of the public seemed stronger than ever. I was ready to turn myself inside out, to give them everything I had; yet inside of me, I had never felt so empty. The effort to squeeze out more emotion than I had, the powerlessness to do the impossible, filled me with a fear that turned my face and my hands to stone. All my forces were spent on unnatural and fruitless efforts. My throat became constricted, and my sounds all seemed to go to a high note. My hands, feet, gestures, and speech all became violent, I was ashamed of every word, of every gesture. I blushed, clenched my hands, and pressed myself against the back of the armchair. I was making a failure, and in my helplessness, I was suddenly seized with rage. For several minutes I cut loose from everything about me. I flung out the famous line, “Blood, Iago, blood!” I felt in these words all the injury to the soul of a trusting man. Leo’s interpretation of Othello suddenly rose in my memory and aroused my emotion. Besides, it almost seemed as though for a moment the listeners strained forward, and that through the audience there ran a murmur.
The moment I felt this approval a sort of energy boiled up in me. I cannot remember how I finished the scene, because the footlights and the black hole disappeared from my consciousness, and I was free of all fear. I remember that Paul was at first astonished by the change in me; then he became infected by it and acted with abandon. The curtain was rung down, out in the hall there was applause, and I was full of faith in myself.
With the airs of a visiting star, with assumed indifference, I went out into the audience during the intermission. I chose a place in the orchestra from which I could easily be seen by the Director and his Assistant and sat down, in the hope that they would call me over and make some pleasant comments. The footlights went up. The curtain was drawn, and instantly one of the students, Maria Maloletkova, flew down a flight of stairs. She fell to the floor, writhing, and cried: “Oh, help me!” in a way that chilled me to the heart. After that, she rose and spoke some lines, but so rapidly that it was impossible to understand them. Then in the middle of a word, as though she had forgotten her part, she stopped, covered her face with her hands, and dashed off into the wings. After a little, the curtain came down, but in my ears, I still heard that cry. An entrance, one word, and the feeling go across. The Director, it seemed to me, was electrified; but had I not done the same thing with that one phrase, “Blood, Iago, blood!” when the whole audience was in my power?
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