The Stanislavsky System

Elements of the Russian Master's method

Constantin Stanislavsky
Constantin Stanislavsky developed the theory of acting called the 'Stanislavsky System'. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Constantin Stanislavsky, famed Russian actor, director, and teacher, profoundly influenced the theater of the 20th century and beyond. Throughout his long life, he developed a variety techniques that became known as "The Stanislavsky System" or "The Method." His books My Life in Art (an autobiography), An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role are still studied today.

What is the Stanislavsky System?

Although very complex, one of the basic goals of the "Stanislavsky System" was to portray believable, natural people on stage.

This notion was a striking contrast to the thespians in 19th century Russia. Most of the actors during that era spoke in a grandiose tone, and gestured in an over-the-top manner. Stanislavsky (also spelled "Konstantine Stanislavski") helped to change much of that. In many ways, Stanislavsky is the father of today's style of Method Acting, a process in which actors immerse themselves into their characters as much as possible.

The Life of Stanislavsky

Born: January 17, 1863

Died: August 7, 1938

Before he adopted the stage name "Stanislavsky," he was Constantin Sergeyvich Alekseyev, a member of one of the wealthiest families in Russia. According to his autobiography, My Life in Art, he was enchanted by the theater at an early age. During his childhood, he adopted a love of puppet theater, ballet, and opera. During adolescence he developed a love of the theater; he defied the expectations of family and social class by becoming an actor.

He dropped out of drama school after only several weeks of instruction. The style of the day called for unrealistic, over-dramatic performances. It was a style he loathed because it did not truly convey human nature. Working with directors Alexander Fedotov and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky would eventually co-found the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.

His international success in the early 1900s is tied to the rise of Anton Chekhov's popularity as a playwright. Chekhov, already a beloved storyteller, vaulted to higher levels of fame with his unique comedic dramas, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. Each production of Chekhov's major plays was overseen by Stanislavsky, who realized early on that Chekhov's characters could not be effectively brought to life on stage by traditional means. Stinslavsky felt that the best performances were the most natural and realistic ones. Hence, his method developed, revolutionizing acting techniques throughout Europe, and eventually the world.

Elements of his Method

Although the Stanislavsky System cannot be thoroughly explored in a brief article such as this, here are a few defining aspects of the this famous teacher's method:

The "Magic If": A simple way of beginning the Stanislavsky Method is to ask yourself "What would I do if I were in this situation?" This is a good way to consider natural reactions to the events in the story. However, Stanislavsky also realized that these types of "what if" questions do not always lead to the best characterization. "What would I do?" might be a very different question from "What would Hamlet do?" Still, it's a good place to begin.

Re-Education: Actors must rethink the way they move and talk while onstage. Being onstage in front of a large audience can be an intimidating experience -- certainly not part of most people's everyday lives. Theater began in Ancient Greece with masks and choreographed sequences; styles may have changed in subsequent centuries, but they were still characterized by an actor's over-emphasis found in early theater. However, in real life, we don't behave that way. Stanislavsky compelled actors to find ways to exhibit true-to-life human nature, while still being able to project loudly enough for audiences to hear.

Observation: Stanislavsky was the ultimate people-watcher. He encouraged his students to carefully observe others, focusing on their phsyical traits just as much as their personalities.

After studying everday people, he would often disguise himself as a peasant or an old man, and interact with the townspeople to see how well he could fit in. Every person is unique. Therefore, every character should exhibit unique traits -- many of which can be inspired and adapted from an actor's observation.

Motivation: It's become a cliche actor's question -- What is my motivation? Yet, that is precisely what Stanislavsky expected his actors to consider. Why does the character say this? Why does the character move to this part of the stage? Why does she turn on the lamp light? Why does he take a gun out of the drawer? Some actions are obvious and easy to explain. Others can be mysterious. Maybe the playwright doesn't even know. (Or maybe the playwright was just lazy and needed someone to move a chair across the stage for the sake of convenience.) The actor must study the text thoroughly to determine the motivation behind a character's words and actions.

Emotional Memory: Stainslavskly didn't want his actors to simply create a facsimile of an emotion. He wanted his actors to actually feel the emotion. So, if a scene called for extreme grief, actors needed to put themselves in the mindset of the character's situation so that they genuinely experience the feelings of intense sadness. (The same goes for all the other emotions.) Sometimes, of course, the scene is so dramatic and the character so human that these intense emotions come naturally to the actor. However, for actors not able to connect with the character's emotional state, Stanislavsky advised performers to reach into their personal memories and draw upon a comparable life experience.

Stanislavsky's Legacy

Stanislavsky's Moscow Theater thrived during the days of the Soviet Union, and it even continues today. His method of acting has influenced many other renowned drama teachers including:

  • Stella Adler
  • Lee Strasberg
  • Uta Hagen

​This video, Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre, provides a little more background information via words and photos.