Stanislavski, referred to by many in the world of theatre as ‘the dominant influence on actor training today’, had many views and techniques he believed were necessary for an actor to feel or follow in order to be fully prepared for a role. All of these ideas and approaches to acting were directly part of the ‘Stanislavski system’. Imagination was key in his system in order to ‘turn the play into a theatrical reality’ through invention. In conjunction with the ‘magic if’ which can be interpreted as belief.
For example, if this piece of paper was really an injured bird, then what would it look like? How would it feel? Why is it injured? It leads the actor to create details and facts about a certain object or character, which in turn make the situation easier to believe in. Personally when doing this exercise and watching as the ‘bird’ was passed around the room, each person adding more detail to the situation, my belief in the bird heightened and I became more involved in the situation.
Sympathy was evoked for the bird by one girl, showing that the exercise was working for many of us.
Every new fact acted as a fixation to the imagination and intensified out belief. The ‘If’ is ‘magic’ because it gives the imagination that stimulatory nudge which will excite the actor into action. What was interesting was that before we were told exactly what the piece of paper was, the group thought that we were going to have to imagine something for ourselves, which would have been a lot harder.
This showed me that I found it easier working with a preconceived idea, oppose to creating myself and entirely new one.
For me, this meant that although I began to believe in the bird, perhaps imagining situations is not as easy as one may think, which is why circumstances and the ‘magic if’ help a lot when imagining a situation. In ‘An Actor Prepares’, Stanislavski sets this out perfectly with ‘I am I; but if I were and old oak tree, set in certain surrounding conditions, what would I do? ‘ In the preparation of a role this is crucial. In order to establish the realistic style of acting Stanislavski wanted to achieve, an actor must draw upon the realistic reactions of himself, and incorporate them into the role.
Not only will this add to the depth of the character, it will make the audience relate more to the character. By asking questions about the role, it becomes explored until the actor knows and can understand why his character reacts in certain ways, or why he is there, how he came to be there etc. Therefore, the role becomes believed rather than pretended; the actor becomes the character. As Stanislavski said, ‘parts in the play are the invention of the author’s imagination, a whole series of ifs and given circumstances thought up by him.
There is no such thing as actuality on stage. ‘ And this is true even when acting events in history, as the actor still has to imagine what it would have been like and ask questions about the character, as with the bird i. e. why am I here? It is not merely about the actor learning his lines as these will give him no ideas of their thoughts, feelings or impulses. ‘All this must be made fuller and deeper by the actor. In this creative process imagination leads the actor. ‘ When preparing a role, research therefore had to be done into every aspect of the character.
Imagination helps to set up a background, setting and tone for every scene and most importantly an explanation that is crucial for an actor to realize. Stanislavski states that when creating a role, “you should first gather all the materials that have a bearing on it, and supplement them with more and more imagination”. For example, if I was preparing the role of Masha in Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’, I would want to explore the thoughts and motives and explanations behind Masha’s language and expression. In conjunctions with this would be the Russian culture and her standing within her family.
When fully satisfied with all that only the text could tell me, imagination would be set free and I could explore her tones in certain scenes and pace. I would imagine in some scenes like her triste with Vershinin, she would be very excited in her speech but in others with Kulygin, perhaps more melancholy and slow. Then would improvisation occur when I would imagine how she would move around e. t. c. Extending the “magic If” allows greater opportunity for character exploration as I would investigate Masha’s reactions to diverse situations.
Extending my imagination to the extent that I am completely at ease within my given circumstances allows me to become more relaxed on stage in the character. The use of “Emotion Memory” would be a vital part of preparing for playing the role of Masha. ‘Sincerity of emotions, feelings that seem true in the given circumstances – that is what we ask of a dramatist’ A fundamental part of creating the role would be in making the portrayal appear realistic and believable. By drawing experienced emotions together into a kind of reservoir, actually experiencing an emotion as I am acting would add to the appearance of Masha being real.
For example, when Masha argues with her sisters, she is feeling lonely, hurt and angry. On stage I would be really experiencing these emotions, but they would not necessarily stem from the same situations. That is to say, for instance, the feelings of pain would not have to be the result of my love leaving me to be with his wife. All of this linked to the idea of creating a natural character on stage, in order to step away from the unrealistic style of acting before the late 1880’s. Imagination can be used to create places familiar to ourselves, or to create fantasy situations.
Both are important for an actor to accomplish as often it is harder to act on something in which you have no experience and it is necessary to create a difference between pretending and believing in a role. For example, when given the scenario of cooking a meal in a kitchen, instantaneously I imagined my own kitchen and began cooking as I would there i. e. with the stove in the same place, cupboards and drawers. This was simple to believe as I know my kitchen very well and found myself nudging drawers closed and other habits that I do in my kitchen.
If I were to perform in a kitchen, I would most certainly use my own imagination to aid in a realistic portrayal of one as I see it. The situations in which we were put became more and more diverse, and as my experiences in those areas diminished, I found it much harder to imagine exactly as when in my kitchen what was happening or what the surroundings were like. Feeling the emotion in these situations was harder than believing or pretending the exercise was real, as although I had felt these emotions before, they were not as intense.
Therefore, imagination is key in order to recall and keep fresh past events in an actor’s mind so the feelings can be replicated in new circumstances when needed. Stanislavski dais, ‘Although our feelings and emotional experiences are changeable and incapable of being grasped exactly, images are much more easily and firmly fixed in our visual memories and can be recalled at will. ‘ One scenario placed us all on a train station in Brazil and asked us to create our own characters in an environment which is unfamiliar.
This was difficult to imagine the totally unfamiliar as I have never seen a station in Brazil so naturally reverted back to my local station which was more comfortable to imagine and therefore act. The character creation and hence reactions to certain situations we were given had to be in character. I found this simple to act as I imagined my own reactions to circumstances and then incorporated those into what the created character would have. This I definitely did when we were told that our younger brother had died in front of us.
It was hard to portray what my exact emotions would have been, however I did find myself on the brink of tears as undoubtedly I would be. As I have a younger brother, I found that the idea of his loss left me with intense emotions, however, if I were an only child I think it would have been harder to visualise such a feeling. The use of imagination and the ‘magic if’ to create these circumstances and add emotions and detail to a play or sketch were highlighted greatly here.
Concentration and attention helps the actor become completely absorbed in his work and therefore to forget the audience and other distractions, conquering their fear of ‘the black hole’ of the auditorium. Concentration is helped greatly by imagination, belief – ‘magic if’. If an actor can imagine completely that he is a certain character and become solely involved in it, it will seem as though nothing else is around. What is a performance will no longer seem so, and the actors attention remains fixed on what he is doing. The magnet of the audience is more powerful’ than many imagine. I myself know how fear of being ridiculed has made me more contained in my emotion when performing to others. When faced with an entire theatre full of people, watching your every move and prepared to criticise, it is no wonder that some find it hard to concentrate on their acting. As Stanislavski said, ‘In order to get away from the auditorium you must be interested in something on the stage’, be this the performance, your character, or point on your colleagues face.
Whatever it is, an actor must have a point of attention not in the auditorium in order to not be sucked into the ‘black hole’. Even simple acts can become forced or strained when repeated on stage in front of hundreds of people so for an actor, it is necessary to learn how to walk or talk without the self-conscious nature we are all born with, or wondering why is that person looking at me? Therefore, when next on stage, it was seem more of a normality to be there oppose to in the general public. However, in performances, actors act together not alone.
Stanislavski was aware that many performers tend to “stop acting,” or lose their concentration when they are not the main characters in a scene or when someone else is talking. Such performers make a great effort when they are speaking but not when they are listening. This tendency destroys the through line and causes the performer to move into and out of a role. That, in turn, weakens the sense of the ensemble – the playing together of all the performers. Therefore, concentration is about what is happening on stage also, not only to overcome audience fear.
Therefore, when preparing and rehearsing a role, an actor must become concentrated on being attentive to an object on stage and forgetting the auditorium/audience. However, there is a danger of becoming too concentrated on an object and therefore losing the realistic appearance on stage. Letting your attention wander around stage is more realistic than a singular stare. Stanislavski referred to the extent or range of concentration as a circle of attention. This circle of attention can be compared to a circle of light on a darkened stage.
The performer should begin with the idea that it is a small, tight, circle including only himself or herself and perhaps one other person or one piece of furniture. When the performer has established a strong circle of attention, he or she can enlarge the circle outward to include the entire stage area. In this way performers will stop worrying about the audience and lose their self-consciousness. As a result, concentration can help and actor to overcome fear of the audience, and as such make their performance more realistic.
Perhaps in ‘Three Sisters’ the piano would be good to let your attention wander upon, or out of the placed window. Especially for Irina who in the first Act is very nostalgic, concentration and attention would be crucial to have. Irina is supposed to look ‘far-away’ and lost in her own thoughts, so if I was playing her, I would be pausing upon objects to examine before turning my attention to something else. Concentration can make the actor seem more relaxed and therefore the character will be played more freely.
In conclusion, imagination and concentration/attention can greatly aid the preparation of a role. Together, they make the outward behaviour of the performer – gestures, voice, and the rhythm of movements- natural and convincing. The actor conveys the goals and objectives-the inner needs of a character. Even if all the visible manifestations of a character are mastered, a performance will appear superficial and mechanical without a deep sense of conviction and belief. The life of the character onstage is made not only dynamic but continuous.
Some performers tend to emphasize only the high points of a part; in between, the life of the character stops. In real life, however, people do not stop living. Imagination greatly helps the character to be continuous in conjunction with the ‘magic if’. Lastly they help to develop a strong sense of ensemble playing with other performers in a scene, and the interactions between them as all actins onstage have a purpose. The self-consciousness becomes lost and a more realistic portrayal of a character can be set free.