A Tribute To Stanislavski


“Human life is so subtle, so complex and multifaceted, that it needs an incomparably large number of new, still undiscovered ‘isms’ to express it fully.”

Konstantin Stanislavski

After working in theatre for more than 20 years I find myself compelled to acknowledge, that, no matter what great minds I have encountered on different stages of my career, I am a follower of Stanislavski. Why did it take me so long to discover this? It has been a difficult relationship, full of doubts and contradictions, swinging from blind repetition of his postulates to fierce rejection of his “old-fashioned” attachment to realism.

When I was six, I got the chance to participate in the Easter service at a large Orthodox church in Turkey. As a guest and a member of a wealthy Bulgarian family in Istanbul (which used to be a big contributor to the church community), my grandmother arranged my inclusion among the boys who were supposed to follow the procession of priests before and during the service. They dressed me up in my boy-sized heavy vestment, and instructed me on which way to go and how to carry the candle. It was a thick, tall candle, which I had never seen before. My garments were richly embroidered in gold, mysteriously sparkling in the semi-darkness of the interior. I felt like I was entering a dreamlike reality, full of the fairy creatures of my dreams. And I was one of them!

Then the chorus began singing, and we solemnly came out from behind the altar. I was so excited I could barely walk. The music, the dazzling garments, the glimmer of the burning candles, all made my head spin. But most impressive was the crowd filling the church and spilling onto the sidewalks, a constant sway of people each trying to catch a glimpse of our group. Those respectful and adoring eyes, as well as the stares of the saints from the paintings which covered the walls and the ceiling made me feel part of something beautiful and sacred, which I knew I would never relinquish for the rest of my life. I had never experienced anything even close to what I felt during those hours in the church.

This is how my self-centered love for acting began. The following year I enrolled in the drama group of the Children’s Palace in Sofia. The stage became my church. I was desperate for its grace and persistently attempted to dedicate more time there than my pupil’s schedule allowed. Yet I often grew annoyed with the rehearsals, especially with the exercises we practiced as preparation for our shows. Since all I wanted was to demonstrate my genius in front of an audience, I didn’t take any pleasure in repeating my actions over and over on stage. The only purpose of this, as it seemed to me at the time, was to impose restrictions on my artistry!

I was already several years into my “active acting” when Stanislavski, with his “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art” entered our vocabulary. I wasn’t quite aware of who he was, but because all of my teachers used his name, I embraced it as part of my process of becoming the greatest actor on the face of the earth.

I was about thirteen when I first read “My Life in Art”. I immediately fell in love with it. Every page revealed such a meticulous devotion to theatre that it didn’t take much effort to identify with the author and begin applying his attitudes wherever I could. I became so active that hardly a week passed without me offering to present a sketch to guests coming to our home or a poem to my class at school. Most of all I loved acting in front of my grandmother’s friends. No matter what I performed, by the end their eyes were heavy with tears, and their praises for my “shows” were beyond what even I could handle. I can only imagine the patience my parents had to exercise in coping with my acting mania. As for my classmates, I guess I was too weird to them to even get mocked.

Growing up only reinforced my obsession. I participated in any theatrical venture in sight. I loved the smell of the painted set, the colorful pile of costumes in the dressing room, and the bizarre makeup on my face (we used to play all kinds of creatures). I was crazy about the noise of the waiting audience before the shows. It promised me another hour of public adoration, which would reassert my significant presence in the world of art.

This was my state of mind and soul when I was accepted in the Theatre Academy at the age of 19. This seemed a logical development of my increasing influence upon the trends and tendencies of contemporary theatre. The first shock, though, came shortly afterwards. My initial “presentations” on stage were based on exercises given to us as an introduction to the realm of professional acting. From my very first attempts my professors started acutely criticizing me for overacting. Whatever behavior I chose to play, it was unflinchingly labeled as a consecution of clichés, serving as a substitute to real acting.

But the most painful and meanest (as I considered it back then) part of the criticism was the reference to Stanislavski’s system, which had consistently rejected approaches like mine. Certainly, I felt not only humiliated, but betrayed, even robbed of my most intimate artistic relationship. Instead of inspiration, the name of Stanislavski startled me and became a perpetual creative cul-de-sac. Since I couldn’t make a rational stand against his postulates, they piled up like boulders in my mind, becoming an insurmountable barrier. I began to feel less and less inspired, and the stage and its demands grew much higher for me than for my classmates. This resulted in a new quality in my acting: I became more shy, my performances subtler, my stage behavior more subdued, reserved, even minimalistic. What I got out of it, if not a better understanding of Stanislavski, was at least the approval of my teachers.

Within a year I was admitted as a student in theatre directing. Since I was the only student-director of that year, I got the chance to stay in the same class. I continued studying acting, working with my fellow students on my stage projects at the same time. Although I was still unsure how to put in practice my extensive readings of Stanislavski’s books, I received help from “my” actors, who, paradoxically, were truer to his system than I was because they were less obsessed by it. From my continuous work with them I was at least able to develop a sense of what “truth on stage” meant, and, following in my colleagues’ footsteps, tried to apply it in my evolution as an actor. Success was disputable, but gradually I eliminated my sense of self-importance while acting.

My demand for artistic truth grew stronger after my graduation, once I began working as a full-time director in theatres all over the country. Through my experience in dealing with professionals I began regarding the demand for truth as the cornerstone of Stanislavski’s teachings, and I cherished dearly the results it brought to my work.

For the time being I had stopped acting, but my memories of my first pathetic steps on stage assisted me as I attempted to lead the team of actors in the right direction. As it turned out a couple of years later, my initial frustrations with Stanislavski were now the province of others in theatre, some of them having transformed it into a new system of beliefs.

At that time one of my shows got invited to a national festival dedicated to contemporary drama for the youth. I was (and still am) very proud of our work. The confirmation had been coming from the audience, which continued to fill the small town theater for more than 40 consecutive performances. Yet, during the after-show discussions some critics accused us of following the path of psychological realism, which they viewed as obsolete and irrelevant to modern theatre. They were simply ignoring the play’s impact on spectators; unable to reject outright the results of our meticulous approach to truth of actions and emotions on stage, they simply denied the approach itself. The most inappropriate name one could mention in our defense was that of Stanislavski. In all likelihood this would have enraged the attending crowd even more. In my subsequent work I appropriated, in my own way, some of the criticism from that event. I became less timid in my experimentation and exploration of more provocative, often formalistic creative means, though never at the expense of scenic truth, and never at the expense of the actor’s belief in the imaginary stage reality.

Still, I didn’t feel that I was knowledgeable enough about Stanislavski’s principles, especially regarding the mechanism of turning an actor into a real artist. My first steps in teaching acting only confirmed my ill-preparedness. I was an arrogant young director, my students at the Theatre Academy just several years younger than me. What I intended to impose upon them was actually not my knowledge, but my sense on how things could work in theatre. Far from having a well established educational system, I hid behind the name of Stanislavski every time I had troubles explaining why something wouldn’t “fly”. Needless to say, the students didn’t like me, and I wasn’t thrilled with my job.

My next opportunity to become a lecturer in acting came from the Screenwriting Program at the Film Department of the Academy. This time I took the invitation under heavy consideration. My decision to accept the position came only after I made the simple agreement with myself to become way more tolerant and attentive to the students’ inquiries, and to forget about coming up with postulates I didn’t quite fully grasp. I applied this agreement by listening closely to what the students had to ask or say, and developing acting proposals based on their background and point of view. As a result, theories began mixing with real-life situations, analysis of characters overlapped with observations, abstract statements were substituted by facts and personal memories. Suddenly the name “Stanislavski” sprang back to life. The terminology both the students and I had been fed up with found its unexpected application not in movie quotes or dramaturgical reminiscences, but in instances from our everyday experience. Our lectures became fun sessions, where the liberty of artistic expression led us if not effortlessly, at least joyfully along the path of recreating “the life of the human spirit”.

In subsequent classes I deepened the newfound approach by placing the initial emphasis on discussing our everyday behavior rather than rushing forward with explanations on how to act on stage or in front of the camera. Our exercises gradually revealed the immense simplicity and effectiveness of Stanislavski’s principles. They became the most natural points of reference in our debates.

This methodology proved to be especially useful in the process of introducing kids and teenagers to acting. By the time the Young Acting Academy at our Free Theatre Company was created, I had become extremely aware of the potential dangers on the rich, yet fragile artistic nature of youngsters making their first steps on stage. That’s why, with the full support of the other educators, I established a teaching process that utilized games (“The Game” actually became the name of our school), to ensure the free, unimpeded and unforced self-expression of our students. This approach not only didn’t divert us from making the young acquainted with the natural laws of human behavior, but permitted them to become enthusiastically involved in analyzing and training in context with these laws. We were not shy in discovering together the true meaning of Stanislavski’s terminology, thus building up a common and fully comprehensible artistic language. Our annual productions bore the signs of joyful creativity that sparkled throughout the performances.

This chapter of my teaching experience was the “last straw” which made me fully fathom that Stanislavski didn’t actually invent anything. He merely discovered and formulated the existing laws of nature, and opened up a broad road to understanding how human behavior worked, and how to recreate it with all its complexity into the world of art. This revelation was reinforced once I began acting again. Over the following years I took roles in some of my own productions. I needed to check, to my own cost, the knowledge I gained. Throughout the performances I didn’t always achieve the “inner creative state” Stanislavski wrote about, and if I did, it wasn’t necessarily through following closely his directions. But knowing his teachings, I tried to find my personal actor’s approach to the character, and when it worked, somewhere down the road I inevitably struck a territory, already explored by Stanislavski, and used his suggested tools to enhance and deepen my performance.

This was possible only because he had based his theories on an extreme regard to the actor’s individuality. The very system is built on the notion that it is the actor, and him alone, who would use his mind, body and soul to play the character. Applying his knowledge of the laws that drive human nature, the actor has to “live through his own experiences”, which are “individual to him and analogous to those of the person he has to portray”. This is the natural path to reaching the threshold of the subconscious, when “he has no conscious realization of how he accomplishes his purpose” (“An Actor Prepares”). Thus I realized how open a theory Stanislavski has created. It provides every theatrical style and every new age with the tools to express their concepts and ideas. It emboldens every actor and every director to pursue their own approach to creativity and self-expression. It’s not by accident that every major Western theatre practitioner of the twentieth century has used Stanislavski as a starting point of his/her theories even if, in their development, they deviate from his system. It’s also not by accident that the first significant alternative theories on acting were authored by Stanislavski’s own students. The influential works of Meyerhold, Vakhtangov or Michael Chekhov would never have occurred, at least not to the extent of their innovative brilliance, were these great minds not participants in the process of establishing Stanislavski’s discoveries. The theatrical world still relies on these discoveries, and every memorable performance in the realm of theatre and film proves that.

This is what my journey towards Stanislavski went through. I know that I may never be able to grasp his system in its completeness. But perhaps I am not supposed to. Maybe time is the ultimate co-author, capable of disclosing full comprehension. As our lives, decade after decade, constantly change, so does our self-perception. Each level of the developing dynamics of our existence requires a relevant approach to mastering the laws driving human nature. Every generation has the justifiable right to deepen the knowledge it has been brought up with. Live theories can’t be put on a pedestal; they are powerful rivers, gaining their strength from the tributaries of every passing age. On their part tributaries are being formed by the streams and streamlets of creative personal contributions. Some dry out before reaching the main flow. But others persist winding down, through and around. Probably because their creator has revealed the right spring: that of his or her own unique individuality. 

© 2008 Peter Budevski

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