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Elijah Hall
Elijah Hall

An Actor Prepares: The Diary of a Student of Stanislavski's System

Constantin Stanislavsky - An Actor Prepares

If you are an actor or a theatre lover, you have probably heard of Constantin Stanislavsky. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of theatre, especially in the field of actor training. His system or method of acting has been adopted and adapted by countless actors, directors, teachers, and schools around the world. But who was Stanislavsky and how did he develop his system? In this article, we will explore his life, his work, and his legacy.

Constantin Stanislavsky - An Actor Prepares

The Early Years of Stanislavsky

Stanislavsky was born in Moscow in 1863 to a wealthy family of industrialists. His original name was Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev, but he adopted the stage name Stanislavsky in 1885. He grew up in a cultured environment, surrounded by music, literature, and art. He was also exposed to theatre from an early age, as his parents had an amateur stage in their house where they performed for their friends and relatives.

Stanislavsky was fascinated by theatre and wanted to become an actor. However, his parents did not approve of his artistic aspirations and wanted him to take over the family business. They also arranged a marriage for him with Maria Perevoshchikova, a schoolteacher who later became an actress under the name Lilina. Stanislavsky reluctantly agreed to both decisions, but he never gave up on his passion for theatre.

He joined a dramatic group organized by his family called the Alekseyev Circle. He was initially an awkward performer, but he worked hard to overcome his shortcomings of voice, diction, and body movement. He also studied various aspects of theatre production, such as directing, lighting, costume design, etc. He became the leader of the group and started to experiment with different styles and genres of theatre.

The Society of Art and Literature

In 1888, Stanislavsky founded a permanent amateur company called the Society of Art and Literature. He wanted to create a theatre that would be socially relevant and artistically innovative. He believed that theatre was a powerful influence on people and that actors should serve as educators for the public. He also wanted to improve his own acting skills and those of his fellow performers.

He recruited talented actors from various backgrounds and trained them according to his own principles. He emphasized the importance of realism, naturalism, and psychological truth in acting. He also encouraged his actors to research their roles thoroughly and to create detailed biographies for their characters. He directed many plays for the society, ranging from classical works by Shakespeare and Molière to contemporary dramas by Ibsen and Tolstoy.

The Society of Art and Literature gained recognition and respect from critics and audiences alike. However, Stanislavsky was not satisfied with the limitations of amateur theatre. He wanted to create a professional theatre that would have more artistic freedom and financial stability. He also wanted to collaborate with other theatre practitioners who shared his vision and goals.

The Moscow Art Theatre

In 1897, Stanislavsky met Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a playwright, director, and teacher who was also dissatisfied with the state of Russian theatre. They decided to join forces and co-found a new theatre company that would revolutionize the art of theatre. They had an 18-hour meeting where they discussed their ideas and plans for the new theatre. They agreed on the name, the repertoire, the staff, the budget, and the artistic policy of the new theatre.

The Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) opened in 1898 with a production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, which had been a failure when it was first staged in 1896. Stanislavsky directed the play and played the role of Trigorin, while Nemirovich-Danchenko supervised the production. The MAT's version of The Seagull was a huge success and marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, and Chekhov.

The MAT became famous for its realistic and artistic productions of Chekhov's plays, such as Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Stanislavsky directed and acted in most of them, creating memorable characters such as Astrov, Vershinin, and Gaev. He also developed a close friendship with Chekhov, who trusted him with his plays and appreciated his insights and suggestions.

The MAT also staged many other plays by Russian and European playwrights, such as Gorky, Bulgakov, Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, etc. The MAT became known for its high standards of acting, directing, design, and management. It also toured extensively in Europe and America, introducing its innovative style of theatre to international audiences.

The Stanislavsky System

While working at the MAT, Stanislavsky continued to refine his system or method of acting. He wanted to find a way to help actors achieve a consistent and truthful performance that would express the inner life of their characters. He also wanted to avoid mechanical or artificial acting that would break the illusion of reality on stage.

He based his system on his own experience as an actor and director, as well as on his observations of other actors and his studies of psychology, physiology, philosophy, etc. He experimented with various exercises and techniques that would help actors develop their physical, vocal, mental, and emotional skills. He also wrote several books and manuals that explained his system in detail.

The Principles of the System

Some of the main concepts and techniques of the Stanislavsky system are:

  • Relaxation: The actor should eliminate any physical or mental tension that would interfere with his or her performance.

  • Concentration: The actor should focus his or her attention on the given circumstances of the play and ignore any distractions from the audience or the environment.

  • Units and Objectives: The actor should divide the play into smaller sections (units) and identify his or her character's goal (objective) in each unit.

  • Subtext: The actor should understand what his or her character is thinking or feeling behind the words or actions that he or she expresses on stage.

  • Magic If: The actor should imagine how he or she would act or react if he or she were in the same situation as his or her character.

  • Emotional Memory: The actor should recall a personal experience that is similar to his or her character's emotion and use it to evoke that emotion on stage.

  • Communion: The actor should establish a connection with his or her partner on stage and respond to his or her words or actions spontaneously.

  • Adaptation: The actor should be flexible and adaptable to any changes or surprises that may occur during the performance.

  • Super-Objective: The actor should identify his or her character's overall goal or purpose in the play and use it to guide his or her actions throughout the performance.

The Reception and Influence of the System

it for its revolutionary approach to acting and its contribution to the development of modern theatre. Others criticized it for being too psychological, too complex, or too rigid. Some actors found it helpful and liberating, while others felt it was constraining and unnatural. Some directors welcomed it as a tool for creating coherent and realistic performances, while others rejected it as a threat to their artistic control or vision.

The system also underwent various adaptations and modifications by Stanislavsky's students and followers, who spread it across different countries and cultures. Some of the most notable practitioners who were influenced by the system include Vsevolod Meyerhold, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Michael Chekhov, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, and many others. Each of them developed their own version of the system or method, emphasizing or adding different elements according to their own preferences and contexts.

Today, the Stanislavsky system is still widely used and taught in many acting schools and workshops around the world. It is also a subject of ongoing research and debate among scholars and practitioners. The system is not a fixed or dogmatic set of rules, but rather a flexible and dynamic framework that can be adapted and applied to different situations and styles of theatre. It is also a source of inspiration and guidance for actors who seek to improve their craft and achieve artistic excellence.

The Later Years of Stanislavsky

Stanislavsky did not stop working or experimenting until the end of his life. He continued to direct, teach, and write about theatre, despite facing many challenges and difficulties. He suffered from poor health, political pressure, financial problems, artistic conflicts, and personal losses. He also witnessed the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and the outbreak of World War II.

He faced criticism and censorship from the Soviet authorities, who accused him of being bourgeois, formalist, or anti-revolutionary. He had to adapt his repertoire and his system to fit the demands of socialist realism, the official artistic doctrine of the regime. He also had to deal with the defection or persecution of some of his colleagues and friends, such as Meyerhold, Bulgakov, Chekhov, etc.

He also faced opposition and misunderstanding from some of his own students and collaborators, who disagreed with his ideas or methods. He had conflicts with some of his actors, who felt that his system was too demanding or restrictive. He also had disputes with some of his co-directors, who wanted more autonomy or influence in the MAT.

Despite these obstacles, Stanislavsky never gave up on his artistic vision and his passion for theatre. He kept exploring new ways of enhancing his system and his productions. He experimented with different genres and forms of theatre, such as opera, ballet, musical comedy, etc. He also developed a new method of rehearsal based on physical actions rather than psychological analysis.

He wrote several books that explained his system in detail, such as An Actor's Work (1938), An Actor's Work on a Role (1948), Creating a Role (1957), etc. He also founded several studios and schools that trained actors according to his system, such as the Opera Studio (1918), the First Studio (1919), the Second Studio (1925), etc.

He died in 1938 at the age of 75 in Moscow. He was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery with full honors. He was awarded several prestigious awards by the Soviet government, such as the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, and the title of People's Artist of the USSR.


Constantin Stanislavsky was a remarkable actor, director, teacher, and theorist who revolutionized the art of theatre in the 20th century. He founded the Moscow Art Theatre with Nemirovich-Danchenko and staged many acclaimed productions of Chekhov's plays and other classics. He developed a system or method of acting that aimed at achieving psychological realism and emotional truth on stage.

His system influenced many generations of actors and directors around the world, who adopted or adapted it according to their own needs and contexts. His system is still widely used and taught today as a valuable tool for actor training and performance. His legacy lives on in the works of his students, followers, and admirers, who continue to explore and expand his ideas and techniques.

Stanislavsky was not only a great artist, but also a great human being. He was dedicated, generous, humble, and curious. He loved theatre and he loved people. He devoted his life to his craft and to his mission. He was a true master of his art and a true servant of his audience.


Here are some frequently asked questions about Stanislavsky and his system:

  • What is the difference between the Stanislavsky system and the Method? The Stanislavsky system is the original name of the actor training approach developed by Stanislavsky himself. The Method is a term used to describe various adaptations or interpretations of the system by some of his students or followers, especially in America. The most famous example of the Method is the one developed by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

  • What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of using the Stanislavsky system? Some of the benefits of using the system are that it can help actors create realistic and believable performances, that it can help actors connect with their characters and their partners on stage, that it can help actors develop their imagination and creativity, and that it can help actors cope with stage fright or emotional blocks. Some of the drawbacks of using the system are that it can be too complex or confusing for some actors, that it can be too psychological or introspective for some actors, that it can be too rigid or limiting for some actors, and that it can be misused or abused by some actors or directors.

  • What are some of the best examples of performances or productions that use the Stanislavsky system? Some of the best examples of performances or productions that use the system are those by Stanislavsky himself and his colleagues at the MAT, such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, etc. Other examples are those by some of his students or followers, such as Michael Chekhov in Don Quixote (1935), Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice (1982), Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), etc.

  • How can I learn more about Stanislavsky and his system? You can learn more about Stanislavsky and his system by reading his books, such as An Actor's Work, An Actor's Work on a Role, Creating a Role, etc. You can also read books by other authors who have studied or applied his system, such as Jean Benedetti, Sonia Moore, Robert Lewis, John Gillett, etc. You can also watch videos or documentaries that feature interviews or demonstrations by Stanislavsky or his students or followers, such as An Actor Prepares (1955), The Stanislavski Method (1966), The Magic If (1979), etc.

  • How can I practice or apply the Stanislavsky system in my own work? You can practice or apply the system in your own work by following some of its principles and techniques, such as relaxation, concentration, units and objectives, subtext, magic if, emotional memory, communion, adaptation, super-objective, etc. You can also join a class or a workshop that teaches or uses the system, or find a coach or a mentor who can guide you through the system. You can also watch or study performances or productions that use the system and analyze how they achieve their effects.



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