An Actor Prepares Summary

Constantin Stanislavski

An Actor Prepares

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An Actor Prepares Summary

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An Actor Prepares is the first in a series of books about acting by Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski. The series continues with Building a Character and Creating a Role. His original plan was to publish a single volume work in Russian consisting of the first two books. The first, however, was published as a stand-alone text in English with World War II delaying the publication of the second for a decade. Stanislavski was a well-known character actor and director who developed a reputation as one of the top directors of his era. It was his approach to teaching actors how to train, prepare, and rehearse that became his legacy in his field. After performing in and directing productions for many years, Stanislavski became the co-founder, with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theater, the MAT. The company’s tours of Europe in 1906 and of the United States in the early 1920s, along with its groundbreaking productions of The Seagull and Hamlet, expanded the possibilities of the theatrical arts and established the MAT as a leader in the field. The company was instrumental in bringing acclaim and recognition to the work of Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, and Mikhail Bulgakov around the world.

An Actor Prepares is written in the form of the diary of Kostya, a fictional student. Kostya is in his first year of study using Stanislavski’s system. He and the other students have very little acting experience if any. As the class progresses, their teacher and theater director, Tortsov, attempts to help them move away from numerous assumptions they have that do not fit in with the system. The message is given through examples as Stanislavski avoids identifying his system as an individual method, but as what he considers to be an analysis of the “natural” order of truths in the theater.

The system that is discussed is a way of mastering the craft of acting and of encouraging the creativity and imagination of each individual actor. It has influenced the vast majority of stage and motion picture performances that followed it. There is an autobiographical component to the book as it covers many facets of acting skills. Among the topics dealt with are imagination, action, the focusing of attention, the use of muscles, objectives emotion, communion, the inner creative state, and the subconscious mind. Tortsov explains all of these as well as other components in detail, making the book a textbook as well as fiction and autobiography.

The literary structure of An Actor Prepares brings the book full circle. At the start, Kostya and the other students sit anxiously, albeit nervously, awaiting the first session with the director. They receive their first exercise which is to perform several scenes from a play. Kostya and two others select their scenes from Shakespeare’s Othello. Kostya plays the lead role. This exercise is followed by the director offering information about their mistakes. At the end of the book, the students think back about their first exercise.

An Actor Prepares is at the heart of what became known as method acting. In the 1940s and 1950s major figures emerging in Hollywood films and on the Broadway stage embraced the method. Among the performers who used it to strengthen the realism of their performances were Marlon Brando, Shelley Winters, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. This was in direct opposition to the prevailing belief that it was the actual personality of the actor that should be at the center of a performance for the screen. The method connected more closely to the traditions of Broadway productions which meant that actors who adapted the method into their approach to performing were at first more likely to be found on the stage than on the screen. The book was published in 1936 and although over time, the approach taught became known simply as the “Method” it was and sometimes is still referred to as the Stanislavsky System. The system goes beyond serving as an introduction to becoming a method actor. Through Kostya and Tortsov, both fictionalized versions of Stanislavsky, ways of improving concentration and becoming more introspective and connected to one’s personal unconscious motives are also instilled in the reader.

In describing Stanislavsky and his work for its American Masters series, PBS said, “To reach this ‘believable truth,’ Stanislavsky first employed methods such as ‘emotional memory.’ To prepare for a role that involves fear, the actor must remember something frightening, and attempt to act the part in the emotional space of that fear they once felt. Stanislavsky believed that an actor needed to take his or her own personality onto the stage when they began to play a character. This was a clear break from previous modes of acting that held that the actor’s job was to become the character and leave their own emotions behind. Later Stanislavsky concerned himself with the creation of physical entries into these emotional states, believing that the repetition of certain acts and exercises could bridge the gap between life on and off the stage.”