Stan’s the Man!

September 26, 2009

So, there’s a reason why virtually every approach to acting has its roots in some element of Stanislavsky’s methods and techniques.  He really made a study of it in a way that no one had done before, and I would venture to guess, no one has since.

First of all I love the approach he chooses to reveal his approach.  The fact that we get to see this whole process through the eyes of young theatre student is great.  We get to be inside the personal journal, even the mind, of our student.  It’s like we not only get the information, but we also get some response to its application, and it also has a specific perspective.  Now that perspective is not completely objective, but it is effective in for the reader to really get a sense of what the acting student experiences as they go through the training, from the total naivety of the beginner to someone who is approaching the place of being ready to truly go on stage.

Right away we see our student experience vocal and body tension from trying to “work” emotion and we see him unknowingly and by chance experience emotional memory as he finds his first tiny success.

I love how careful Stanislavsky is about placing a great deal of emphasis on finding, or at least distinguishing, beauty in art.  I suppose that if we know where, when and why art is beautiful, we are then free to create something that is not beautiful if that is what is called for.  However perhaps something that is created to not be beautiful, but is done so with exquisite care and precision, is still beautiful.  This might be an interesting point of discussion.

Stanislavsky’s notion of the art of experiencing is sheer brilliance.  What a goal to aspire to!  The dance an actor has with nature and uncontrollable inspiration.  How do we control something that is not controllable?  We strive to create, or recreate, the life of the life of the human spirit, and in doing that inspiration and nature have a place within which to play.  It’s interesting to think of this in terms of Diderot’s work.  It would seem that Stanislavsky is saying that the actor must use technique, and at the same time create a space where true experiencing can take place.  I could go on and on about forever because I really like this duel approach of technique and inspiration, but I will turn this a little bit now toward a practical application as it relates to Stanislavsky’s discussion about given circumstances.

What follows is a possible set of given circumstances for Yes from David Mamet’s Goldberg Street.  We’re looking at this little play in our Directing seminar and I’ve chosen to lay out some context for this script.  We don’t get a lot of background information here, so I will use the magic “if” and will extrapolate from there.  This will be as if it were a man and woman.  Again, this is not the only possible set of given circumstances, but one of an infinite number of possible choices for this script.  Here goes:


Alice is from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. She’s 25 years old, an actress living with her Grandmother because she can’t get work. She’s depressed because she tries very hard to be an actress and has no success and has no money. She won a trip to Cuba in the lottery. She bought the ticket because she found $5 on the ground and wanted to feel better about herself. And it worked! She’s never been outside of Alberta, let alone gone anywhere by herself. She’s very nervous and keeps pretty much to herself on the trip. She takes walks on the beach when nobody’s around so as not to meet anyone else.

Her and her parents lived in Calgary, and when she was finished high school she decided to go to Mount Royal and take a BFA in acting. But she got tired of it and quit because she thought she didn’t need schooling. She heard once that Mamet said that schooling for actors is redundant…so that’s why she quit. She then went out on her own to try to get work; however her parent died in a car accident a month later. She had to drop all acting pursuits and focus on dealing with this tragedy. A year later she decided to move on and pursue acting again, but to no avail! It was then that she moved to Sylvan Lake to be with her Grandmother.

Burton, from Vancouver B.C., is a real estate agent. He lives in West, Vancouver and he has a very nice house overlooking the water. He leads a very busy, stressful life. He is single, largely due to his lifestyle and the demands of his work. He works a lot because he wants to maintain a very expensive lifestyle. He enjoys the dividends of his work, but when it comes down to it he feels like he’s just wearing a mask, a role – one that he knows he plays well. So he likes his creature comforts and his “toys” (motorcycles, fast cars, sailboat). He enjoys skiing and ice climbing in Whistler. Burton takes a tropical trip at least once a year to decompress from his busy life. He finds that the warm, tropical air is good for his nerves. Burton was married and has one child, a girl named Mandy. Mandy is 7 years old. The marriage didn’t work out because of Burton’s dedication to work. Mandy lives with her mother but Burton cherishes the weekends he gets to spend with her. He sees her 2 weekends a month.

WHERE: A beach resort in Cuba called Royal Hideaway. We are on the beach facing west, watching a sunset which is full of reds and oranges- nothing like sunsets in Alberta, especially in the city. There are wooden, reclining beach chairs and palm leaf umbrellas stretched out along the beach. Palm trees line the beach and beautiful flowered bushes.

WHEN: Tuesday, February 17th 2009 in the early evening. The exact time is not known – does time really matter when on vacation?! Reports are heard on the new of the worst snow in London in twenty years – who knows what it is like in Canada.

WHAT: Burton is lounging on one of the wooden beach recliners under his palm leaf umbrella. He has una cerveza. He has spent the afternoon sailing. He came in and had a nice dinner by the pool and is now relaxing one the beach watching the sun set. He is wearing light pants, flip-flips, and a loose short sleeve shirt.

Alice has spent the day reading in her room. She has come from dinner alone and is now walking down the beach which she hasn’t spent a lot of time on because she only goes when everyone is gone. Then she sees Burton. She notices that he too is alone and summons up the courage to go and finally talk to someone else. Alice is wearing a sun dress with sunflowers on it and she is carrying her sandals and her hair is downs so that the wind can blow through it.


 The art of the mimic and the art of the actor. Are they the same thing? Clearly Diderot would like it to be so, although at the same time I’m not totally convinced of that. Reading this discourse made me wonder if Diderot actually just enjoys a good argument. It may not matter whether he fully believes in what he’s arguing, but to build a strong case and follow it through step-by-step is satisfying on all kinds of levels. I understand that Diderot used to be a strong proponent on the other side of the argument at one point in his life, so one wonders where he actually stands.

At any rate, I really did love this little reparte’, and I must say that Diderot puts down a compelling argument. In the final analysis though I feel he’s missing one of the essential elements of good theatre: the nature of story-telling.

Stories communicate in a way that lectures and facts do not. There is an experiential element of story-telling that allows both the teller and the listener to enter into a special kind of relationship where both assume a certain level of trust and vulnerability, and are therefore willing (for the most part) to go along for the ride. The listener is willing to be taken on a journey, and the teller is going to be the leader on this journey. Unless the leader is willing to actually engage the listener, and be prepared to really go on this journey, it must be authentic. If the leader does not authentically lead, the listener will not authentically listen. It is up to the teller (the actor) to boldly and transparently go where no actor and his audience has gone before! This is the only way to have an authentic experience in the theatre.

I remember being at small off-Broadway play a few years ago. It was a one-man show based on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a book I really enjoyed reading. The actor was a great orator, he had a fantastic resonant voice, and an overbearing presence…a natural choice for the role one would think. After seeing the show I was so disappointed. Where was no core connection with the audience at all, and this was in a theatre with only 99 seats! This actor was doing all the right things with his voice and body (sort of), but his core was empty, and subsequently so was his performance. Everyone left the theatre feeling the same way.

I actually agree with some of the points that Diderot makes. I agree that when an actor is self-indulgent where the emotions are concerned, we wind up with a performance that is there just so the actor can have a catharsis, but the audience remains unmoved. An actor may not be able to sustain let’s say a complete emotional breakdown 8 times per week. What we can do however, is to create an environment where the creative process is allowed to live. Stanislavski talks about this when he refers to the actor’s inner creative state. When we work as story-tellers from this creative state, we’ve opened up an environment where the actor is able to be free enough to allow whatever amount of emotion or sensitivity there might be on a given night…and that won’t always be the same.

This is a fine line. How does the actor enter into the center of the work with all his/her heart but still remain first and foremost a story-teller. I believe that way to approach this balance is to keep the actual story-telling as the number one priority. Story-tellers are servants to something bigger. For the actor it must always be about the story. Once it becomes about them, we’re doomed! It becomes self-indulgent and we’re lost. All we want to do when we’re trapped in a theatre where this is happening is run for the door!

So, I applaud the mimic, but ultimately I want to be told stories by one who is willing to just be, and live authentically in the middle of the story.

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September 20, 2009

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