A Look at Stanislavski's System Part Two
While many actors, directors and acting teachers to this day find great worth in Stanislavski’s System, there are many critics of his techniques. Of the critics I have looked at I found David Mamet’s ideas on acting of the most interest. David Mamet is an American film maker, playwright and screenwriter, who criticizes much of what Stanislavski taught. Mamet goes so far to insult Stanislavski’s system and call it a ‘cult’.
‘The Stanislavski “Method” and the techniques of the schools derived from it, is nonsense. It is not a technique out of the practice of which one develops a skill – it is a cult.’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p6
David Mamet argues against everything Stanislavski taught. He thinks it was rubbish, and there was nothing to gain from it, and there were no worthwhile skills actors could learn from it. Mamet is extremely negative towards Stanislavski’ system, and the further techniques it influenced, like method acting. He goes so far as to describe emotional memory, which is the main component of Stanislavski’s system as ‘hogwash’.
'Emotional memory,” “sense memory,” and the tenets of the Method back to and including Stanislavski’s trilogy are a lot of hogwash. This “method” does not work; it cannot be practiced; it is, in theory, design, and supposed to execution supererogatory – it is as useless as teaching pilots to flap their arms while in the cockpit in order to increase the the lift of the plane…It is the job of the actor to show up, and use the lines and his or her will and common sense, to attempt to achieve a goal similar to that of the protagonist. And that is the end of the actor’s job.’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p12
Mamet’s book ‘True and False, Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor’ completely refutes Stanislavski’s teachings in his three books: “Building a Character,” “Creating a Role,” and “An Actor Prepares.” Mamet argues against emotional memory, as he believed that Stanislavski’s system was useless as it could not be practiced. Mamet favored a more practical approach, which is to be admired, and criticizes Stanislavski’s more theoretical approach to acting. He favours an approach of doing, not theorizing, and of practice not talk. Mamet compliments Stanislavski with weak praise, although it is clear he had no time for the man or his teachings.
'Stanislavski was certainly a master administrator, may have been a brilliant director and/or actor, and was widely heralded as a theoretician. But I say that his contribution as a theoretician was that of a dilettante, and has, since his day, been a lodestone for the theoretical, I will say the anti-practical, soul. For amateurs. For his theories cannot be put into practice.’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p15
Mamet argues Stanislavski was known for his theory on acting, which was flawed in Mamet’s opinion, and not to be followed. Mamet claimed it was for amateurs, and no professional actor would find any worth in it. Mamet preferred a more heroic outward facing just do it approach to acting. He did not think actors should display their own thoughts or emotions, and it is disrespectful to expect the actors to do so.
'The professional performs for pay. Her job is to play the piece such that the audience may understand it – the self-respecting person keeps her thoughts and emotions to herself.’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p15
Mamet’s arguments that it is disrespectful to expect an actor to put his or her own emotions and memories into a performance are the polar opposite to that of Stanislavski’s teachings. Stanislavski believed an actor should ask themselves ‘what would I do?’ and to put their own emotions and memories into the character and performance. I would tend not agree with Mamet on this point. I believe some of the best performances are because an actor can identify with the character, and puts some of themselves into the performance. In my opinion, this more personal approach makes it become more real to the actor and therefore the audience. If an actor relates to a role because there are elements of the character or the character’s situation that is relevant to the actor, they can give a more truthful performance as they can relate to the material and put themselves into the performance.
‘Most actor training is directed at recapitulating the script. Actors are told to learn how to “be happy,” “be sad,” “be distracted,” at those points in the script or performance where it would seem the “character” would be so. Such behavior is not only unnecessary, it is harmful to both the actor and the audience’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p10
Mamet then goes on to argue that the mere act of trying to create an emotion on demand is not possible, and is damaging to the actor and the audience
'The very act of striving to create an emotional state in oneself takes one out of the play. It is the ultimate self-consciousness in the service of an ideal, it is no less boring for that. The actor on stage, looking for or striving to create a “state” in himself can think only one of two things: (a) I have not reached the required state yet; I am deficient and must try harder; or (b) I have reached the required state, how proficient am I!… Both (a) and (b) take the actor right out of the play…Our emotional-psychological makeup is such that our only response to an order to think or feel anything is rebellion.’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p11
This is a fair point by Mamet. Yes, the actor is taken momentarily out of the moment, and out of the play, but as actors, I would argue, this is something they must overcome. These thoughts will always be in an actor’s head although, I would argue, it is the actor’s job to ignore them and get on with the performance. It is hard for actors to produce a desired emotion to order, however, if they are able to recall emotions from their past, they can do so. And this is what Stanislavski’s system and the schools derived from it taught and practiced.
'The Method got it wrong. Yes, the actor is undergoing something on stage, but it is beside the point to have him or her “undergo” the supposed trials of the character upon the stage. The actor has his own trials to undergo, and they are right in front of him…His challenge is not to recapitulate, to pretend to the difficulties of the written character; it is to open the mouth, stand straight, and say the words bravely – adding nothing, denying nothing, and without the intent to manipulate anyone himself, his fellows, the audience. To learn to do that is to learn to act.’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p22
This, I feel, is a very clinical approach to acting. Acting requires emotion, and time investment into creating a character that is believable. It should come from the heart, not the head. Stanislavski’s ideas of finding truth in a performance is a way of creating believable performances. It is a way of working which, although being difficult, produces good results. An actor might not want to re-visit emotions or emotions from his or her past, and put them into their performance, as its highly personal. Mamet doesn’t believe this is necessary, he believes the job of the actor is to merely deliver the lines to the audience. I couldn’t disagree more with this. While Mamet has some good points on acting, I would tend to agree with the ideals of Stanislavski’s system. By putting their own memories into a performance actors connect to the role and character in a highly personal way, and it becomes more believable and complex.
'The actor does not need to “become” the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page. They are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character upon the stage. To create this illusion the actor has to undergo nothing whatever. He or she is as free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers. The magician creates an illusion in the mind of the audience. So does an actor’
Mamet, David. True and False. Faber and Faber Limited, UK, 1977, p9
I would agree with this notion by Mamet. It is true an actor creates the illusion of a character to the audience, he cannot become that person, therein lies madness. The actor will always be just portraying another person, and not actually be that person. It is not possible to become another person, and that is not what the actor’s job is. However I disagree with Mamet’s notion that an actor does not need to put anything into it, and not undergo anything. For me, I believe the more an actor connects emotionally with a character and the more they put of themselves into the performance, the more deep and layered and believable a performance becomes.
Many actors follow the Stanislavski approach to acting, including some of the finest living actors such as Robert DiNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Daniel Day Lewis. All these actors have put in some stunning performances and are some of the best actors in the world. So I would argue against Mamet’s views that this system is to be discouraged, and is useless. Although many actors choose not to use these methods, there is still much actors can learn from Stanislavski’s system and his ideals of truth in a performance.
While Stanislavski’s system is not seen as the bible of acting, it is still to this day studied in acting colleges, and actors, directors and teachers still find great worth in his exercises. While many, like David Mamet, disagree with this method of creating believable performances, it has helped many actors achieve truly stunning performances. While many actors will not use Stanislavski’s system, it is clear many find it the only way to work in acting. Its ideals of finding truth in a performance was taken and then Method Acting was formed.
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