Constantin Stanislavski

Constantin Stanislavski

Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theatre director (1863-1938) created his own system of acting. Of the fundamental principles, this system was built on what he called communication.

Constantin Stanislavski

Constantin Stanislavski

According to Stanislavski, communication happens when a subject (the person speaking) transmits thoughts or feelings to an object (the person spoken to). In everyday life, communication or interaction is not always exciting unless something unusual takes place. For example, an exchange or communication between an attendant at the gas station and a customer is not very interesting to observe. On the other hand, if the customer plans to rob the gas station, the communication or interaction becomes much more interesting. It rests with the actor to inject excitement into a role and turn it around from just begin ordinary to something extraordinary. Stanislavski lists three central types of interaction that can take place during a performance. They are:

  • Direct communication to an object
  • Self-communication
  • Communication with an imaginary object

Direct communication to an object will mean actors communicating with other actors. Self-communication is about thought versus feeling and can be understood as when the head “speaks” to the heart and vice-versa. An example of communication with an imaginary object would be talking to a ghost.

Stanislavski attached a lot of importance in the matter of being aware of the other, so-called bad, forms of communication. The first bad form deals with paying more attention to yourself in the role instead of your character. As an example, you are playing your part on stage/or in front of the camera using all the technique at your command, delivering lines with a lot of energy and moving about the space with flashy precision. But you are getting so lost in yourself that without realizing you have eclipsed the character altogether.

The second bad form of communication arises from showing the role in one’s self. Here, the part being enacted is executed by the actor with good precision, conforming to what the play demands. However, the life of the character is totally missing, reducing the performance to a mechanical one. In the first instance, the actor is more concerned with impressing the audience. In the second case, the actor wants to ensure that he is being understood by the audience.

These instances, where communication suffers, results in the actor’s losing contact with his with fellow actors. Very often, the actor ends up “mailing in” his performances, similar to your sending someone a birthday greeting card by post and not actually being there for the event. When an actor’s performance is described as something that has been ‘mailed in’, it means the actor is present only physically without any spirit because of which the role lacks energy, it lacks vigor and feels like the actor isn’t really living the moment.

Stanislavski knew only too well that a flawless performance in terms of communication was almost impossible to achieve. All performances will have good moments and bad moments of interaction or communication. This is the mixed nature of an actor’s career.

Communication has another aspect to it where the actor becomes both the subject and the object when interacting with other actors. Communication is about thoughts, ideas and feelings. In most interactions, communication flows freely among or between the actors even with just one actor speaking. This is because while one actor is talking, the other actor may be responding using gestures. In the course of verbal interplay, an actor’s role keeps alternating between subject and object. It becomes important for actors to remember that they must never let their attention wander after they have delivered their lines. If this happens, they will not be able flow in and out of their constantly changing states of subject and object. Something like this will result in energy or life of the scene being compromised. It will also become increasingly difficult for the audience to believe the truth within the scene.

It is only natural for the audience to become involved in the onstage exchange of thoughts and feelings between actors (the degree of audience involvement is a measure of an actor’s convincing performance) like someone accidentally overhearing a conversation. The audience participates through a silent involvement and finds itself almost caught up in the events the actors are enacting. This two-way communication works if the actors are able to use all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to interact. All the senses need to be harnessed as each of them carries equal importance. Excellent communication uses all the senses, often at the same time. As an actor’s role keeps alternating between subject and object, activities such as watching and listening become vital for good communication. Similarly, speaking and gesturing are also equally important.

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