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Reflections on the S Word at DAMU

Reflections on the S Word at DAMU

Dr Joseph Dunne, Research Associate, Rose Bruford College.


What is it about Stanislavski? We cannot get away from him. In the eight decades since his death, scores of people have innovated theatre practice and actor training methodologies: Peter Brook, Anne Bogart, Augusto Boal, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques LeCoq, Viola Spolin, Stella Adler, Arianne Mnouchkine, Stanford Meissner, Joan Littlewood, Robert Wilson, Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, Michael Chekhov, Pina Bausch…all brilliantly singular artists of the stage, yet none of whom have quite the same hold on the public imagination as Stanislavski. His name is never far from one’s lips when we talk about theatre’s nature, the values and principles by which we articulate the artistry of performance in distinction from other art forms. The incredibly diverse range of subjects covered in the papers presented at The S Word conference at DAMU, Merging Methodologies, demonstrated the almost unprecedented influence of Stanislavski’s work, most notably in his search for articulating a transposable set of concrete principles covering the fundamentals of theatre and performance.

Stanislavski’s legacy imbricates itself in the contemporary moment through his relentless commitment to experimentation. His legacy compels us to imagine the theatre of the future. In his keynote lecture on the opening night of the symposium, Professor Smeliansky offered a provocative image of Stanislavski’s body as a laboratory. This description neatly addresses the diffuseness of knowledge all investigations into theatre must attend to. The diffuseness or unknowability of truth in the theatre is a result of socio-political realities as much as it is to do with issues of subjectivity. Smeliansky pointed out that the turbulent political climate of the Russian revolution and the Soviet Union Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre were forced to navigate through significantly affected his directorial choices and writings to avoid being associated with bourgeois theatre. It was not until the 1980s, when Gorbachov’s perestroika policy enabled scholars to access Stanislavski’s archive and read the uncensored versions of his theories, that the distortions and misinterpretations that occurred after his death could be revised. Jean Benedetti’s translation of The Actor’s Work occasioned new opportunities to re-visit key ideas in Stanislavski’s oeuvre.

Stanislavski’s dictum of theatre happening “here, today, now” has become codified into discourses concerning the “liveness” of performance. Liveness expresses the unrepeatability of performance and the embodied modes of communication between actors and spectators. It remains theatre’s primary distinctive attribute and therefore is a key part of what constitutes truth for spectators. This search for truth in theatre is the keystone of the system.

In his paper The Accidental Stanislavskian: Failure, Technique, and Performance in Contemporary Theatrical Practice, Martin Julien spoke of how acting in performances outside of the so-called mainstream evidenced a trend away from performing realistic characters towards a model that embraced the messiness inherent in human interaction. Martin contended that this shift was particularly notable in immersive and participatory theatre pieces, both of which are increasingly popular formats. “There is a strain of discourse that strives to valorize such qualities as failure, accident, and a shifting performer/audience immersion as the unlikely saviours of a withering and irrelevant theatre”. In this paradigm of acting, a performance is considered successful by the degree to which a performer can effectively respond to the impulses given to them by the spectator(s). This is not to say “anything goes” because actors continue to work inside of a structured dramaturgy. However, Martin made the point that embracing an amateurish attitude to a performance, as opposed to the type of mastery espoused by Stanislavski, allows the actor to perform “themselves”.

In charting the course of Stanislavski’s legacy, we can see, here, a significant shift away from the highly systematised methods of actor training described in An Actor’s Work, and by the many teachers of the system, towards something far more chaotic and, arguably, alive. This understated performance style is the signature of Forced Entertainment, whose post dramatic work arguably has little in common with the dramatic theatre most commonly associated with Stanislavski. Meanwhile, the immersive works of companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt foreground the sensorial aspects of live performance over the flattened visual of the proscenium arch. Yet whilst shows like Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess and Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man may differ wildly from Stanislavski’s productions at the MAT on an aesthetic level, the actor’s capacity to communicate successfully with spectators remains the essential factor in establishing a truthful onstage reality.

Practitioners over the decades have used many metaphors to describe how the actor communicates through their body. Stanislavski, and later Michael Chekhov, used “radiation” to express how a character’s inner-life must be emitted through the actor’s entire body out into the auditorium. But character is a slippery, hard to pin down referent, particularly in the age of the post dramatic. Training actors to effectively communicate is no longer contingent on the successful embodiment of a fictional persona. Certain theatrical forms, such as one-to-one performances, require the actor to have skills in building intimate relationships with spectators, whose capacity to directly affect the sequence of events a piece is composed of requires a level of improvisation and responsiveness not necessarily concomitant with the theatre Stanislavski trained his actors to work in.

Does this mean Stanislavski’s theories are losing their potency? No. It is important to note here that it was Stanislavski’s deep dissatisfaction with nineteenth century acting styles that spurred him to create his system in the first place. Marine Theunissen drew a direct line between Dutch painters of the 17th century with Stanislavski in their interest in “temporal realism”: a representation of chains of causality between humans, objects, time, and place, producing a “natural temporal rhythm”. Marine argued the system evidences the first major attempt to move away from analogous to naturalistic art in theatre. Mimetic acting is the worst kind; this as true today as it was one hundred years ago. What has changed is how audiences perceive mimesis in distinction to the theatre of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A thread running throughout the conference was the necessity to return Stanislavski to his rightful status as the grand experimenter, not the sage, of theatre. The sometimes confusing and contradictory passages in An Actor’s Work and An Actor’s Work on a Role are a result of his Stanislavski’s ceaseless revision of exercises. There is no elusive truth “out there”; genuine actor training is a process of relentless discovery. The goal of all performer training can still be meaningfully articulated in terms of searching for truthful performances, which the system provides a rich vocabulary for, but Stanislavski scholarship must be rooted in practice, not in history, if we are to avoid its entombment. This requires us to dare to challenge the orthodoxies that have grown up around Stanislavski’s work and embrace the fragmented, messy, and ultimate unknowability of theatre. Dogma is the death of art. Stanislavski will cease being relevant if we treat acting as a sacrament and theatre as a church, with Stanislavski as a high priest. I can think of no better way of honouring the old man’s legacy than by injecting some healthy anarchy and even disrespect into today’s discourse.

I have Martin Julien to thank for introducing me to Jordan Tannahill, whose words I shall leave you with: “[O]nly by understanding what theatre truly does best, by emphasizing, promoting and celebrating the very fact of its liveness – the full, messy experience of human connection – can theatre reclaim its relevance and vitality in our mediated age”.

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