How Stanislavski Reinvented the Craft of Acting

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In the 1950s, a wave of “method actors” took Hollywood by storm.

Actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift, brought a whole new toolset and perspective on the actor’s craft to the films they performed in.

The foundation of their work, however, was laid in Russia more than fifty years prior to their stardom.

Stanislavski’s conception of “psychological realism” in performance challenged ideas about the essential features of the actor’s craft that had been held for centuries.

In theatre before Stanislavski, acting was defined as a craft of vocal and gestural training. The role the actor played was to give life to the emotions of the text in a broad illustrative fashion. Formal categories such as melodrama, opera, vaudeville, and musicals, all played to this notion of the actor as chief representer of dramatic ideas.

Stanislavski’s key insight was in seeing the actor as an experiencer of authentic emotional moments.

Suddenly the craft of performance could be about seeking out a genuine internal experience of the narrative’s emotional journey.

From this foundation, realism in performance began to flourish. This not only changed our fundamental idea of the actor but invited a reinvention of the whole endeavor of telling stories through drama.

Teachers would adopt Stanisvlaski’s methods and ideas and elaborate upon them in American theatre schools. The result, in the 1950s, would be a new wave of actors and a style of acting that emphasized psychological realism to a greater degree than their peers in motion pictures.

This idea of realism grew to dominate our notion of successful performances in cinema. Stanislavskian-realism is now central to the DNA of how we direct and read performances, whether we are conscious of it or not.

I think it is important to know this history and consider its revolutionary character. Understanding the nature of Stanislavski’s insights allows us to look at other unasked questions, other foundational elements of our craft that we might take for granted. I think it can give us perspective into the ways we might push the craft forward and challenge ourselves to seek a greater truth in the stories we tell.

Visual References: A Place in the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire, Anatomy of a Murder, Baby Doll, Before Sunset, Blue Valentine, Carol, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Daisies, East of Eden, Giant, Grandmother, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Moonlight, On the Waterfront, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Splendor in the Grass, Taxi Driver, The Breaking Point, The Heiress, The Conversation, The Misfits, There Will Be Blood, Twentieth Century, Vaudeville: Early American Entertainment, Wild River

Stanislavski’s books are still fascinating explorations of the craft of performance.

Check them out:

An Actor Prepares:
Building a Character:
Creating a Role:
The Stanislavsky System: