6/6/2018: AWS Class Recap: Stanislavsky Free-For-All!

Greetings, advanced ones!

Actually, greetings to you all, whether you’re advanced or not. 🙂 See how inclusive I am..?

We had a fun, whirlwind class on D-Day. I want to thank everyone for participating – we did some Stanislavsky-based exercises, some of which may have seemed a little “out there” for some of you. But we’ll never know which acting tools will work for you, specifically, unless we try them out, right? That’s the hope, anyway. To help you each build your own Acting Toolboxes, catered to your individual style, so you can approach each role effectively, whether it be for stage or screen.

We began class with the Coach’s Notes, and then dove deeper into Constantine Stanislavsky, the Moscow Art Theater, and the genesis of Realism in theater. I spoke briefly about the eerily-strong correlations between Stanislavsky’s impact on theater history, and Martin Luther’s impact on church history (vis. the Protestant Reformation) – how they each realized that, for centuries, the focus had been on outward, demonstrative theatricality, and that the focus on the inner work was missing. Stanislavsky pushed realism, to get people to focus on the missing emotional elements in acting, and Luther pushed faith, to get people to focus on their hearts/spirits.

Of course, then in each case, the new “movements” fragmented and spun themselves out into numerous “denominations”, each competing with one another and forming camps… each believing that they are “more correct” than the others, often evolving way out of balance from the original vision of the pioneer.

The reason it’s important to ponder is that every acting technique available for you to study and pursue can trace it’s roots back to Stanislavsky. Whether it’s Adler, Meisner, Strassberg, Hagen, Spolin, Mamet, or even Chubbuck and Linklater, they all find their way back to good ol’ Constantine. Know your roots!

I showed a quick video essay on Stanislavsky from YouTuber “Lux”…

We then began going through Stanislavsky’s four major tenets:

  • Imagination
  • Actions v Emotions
  • Relaxation/Concentration
  • Sense Memory



We talked about the “Magic If”, where we are encouraged to flex our imaginations by asking ourselves a series of questions about our character, in the form of a stream of “what if” questions (What if I was in this person’s place, faced with this situation? What would I do?), and then to shift into asking our characters questions, as though he/she could answer us (Why would you say this? Why didn’t you reply this way? How does this impact you?).

In this way, we begin to fill in the blanks, and dig out the story, the mindset, the motives, the undercurrent. Much like a lawyer taking on a new client to defend. You take the time to get to know the client and his/her story, connect emotionally with him/her, and prepare your case. When the trial begins, you present your case to the jury (the audience, in this analogy) for their verdict. And “Belief” falls under Imagination as well – if you (as the lawyer) believe your client’s story, you will present it more effectively. Your performance will be more believable to the audience if you believe what you are doing/saying in the part.

To illustrate this, I brought one of you up, and suggested that I had hidden a $20 in the classroom somewhere, and gave you a minute to try and find it. Thinking it was merely a hypothetical situation, the search was kind of rote and mechanical. But then I let you know that I actually did, in fact, hide $20, and that if you found it you could keep it – and that kicked things up a few notches, as far as the intensity of the search. You believed that there was actually $20 to be found, and it effected your “performance” as you searched for it, and it was far more captivating than when you merely thought it was a simple exercise.

Ultimately, I had hidden it too well, and the $20 wasn’t found! I even invited everyone up to search for it together! I’ll hide it again next week, and see if someone finds it…

We did other exercises to work on imagination, including fabricating details about the backstory of one of your fellow students, and also creating entirely new imaginary locations in the room, describing them in detail to us, and then inviting others up to wander around in the environments you described.


Actions vs Emotions:

While Stanislavsky brought the spotlight onto the importance of emotions in your craft work, he also stressed that emotions should never trump actions. What you do on stage is always more important than what you are feeling. Emotions are important, but they support activity, the don’t replace it. Remember: “ACT” is a 3-letter word with a 2-letter definition. Maintaining the balance between the outer work and the inner work is an important skill to develop, and it’s a different ratio for stage and film. If you sway too far in one direction or the other, the performance will suffer. I used a recent play I performed as an example of what happens when emotions swing out of balance – the performance was large on the inside (the emotions were overwhelming), and so my impulse was always to pull back, to avoid overdoing it – the result was a very small performance externally, and the play suffered for it. The focus became me, and what I was feeling, and I got in the way of the storytelling.



We discussed the importance of being able to relax in your performance, whether on stage or on film. We compared it to combat training, and the importance of relaxing when you spar/fight. When you tense up, it causes no end of problems in a fight – and if you imagine acting a scene with a partner as a type of spar/fight, then the same observations apply. For concentration we played “Mirror Speech”, which was fun, though awkward for many of you.


Sense Memory:

We discussed the two major facets of the Stanislavsky’s sense work: affective memory, and sense memory. I’m not the biggest fan of affective memory work, which advocates remembering details surrounding a traumatic event in your life, making the experience fresh again, for the purpose of using it on stage in your performance to elicit genuine emotional responses by “re-living” it. I think this can lead to long-term emotional problems in the actor. You can read more about this controversial technique by a quick Google search, if you’d like. There are videos on YouTube showing Lee Strassberg taking actors through this type of work.

However, sense memory work, I am a fan of. To illustrate this, I had you each sit in class and imagine you were in a stairwell. The sights, smells, sounds, feel, undercurrent of the place – build it around you using your imaginations. Then I took you out of the classroom and into the stairwell of the building, where we sat a while on the steps and absorbed the actual details in the real setting. Then we returned to class and imagined the stairwell again, and reflected on how this new version compared to the first imagining – the benefit of going to the actual location and making new sense memories to bring into the stage/set.


With all of these exercises in mind, I passed out scenes from the BBC TV show Sherlock, with instructions to you each to learn both roles. When we meet next week, you’ll each get a chance to perform both parts, and we’ll film them. As you worked on familiarizing yourselves with the scenes, I brought you up in pairs to co-create the settings that your scenes will take place in. Using your imaginations, you decided between yourselves how the set will look. I strongly encouraged you each to walk around and talk about the things you were describing, interacting with the settings as you did.

We watched a scene from the 2012 Paul Thomas Anderson film The Master, which I used to illustrate the amazing physical acting that Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman achieved. [WARNING: strong language]

I also mentioned how this was all grabbed in one take (with a 2-camera set-up) and on the very first attempt, with minimal direction ahead of time. Amazing. They were both so embedded within their characters that they could take scripted material, mix it heavily with improvised dialog elements, and fire through the whole scene in one go like that. Talk about “Masters”…

We ended class by watching a last video, a round-table interview that included Billy Bob Thornton discussing his method of playing a variation of himself in each of his roles – an approach I strongly advocate.

We played a round of NINJA, and I turned you loose for the week, encouraging each of you to go out there into the real world and DO STUFF! Everything you learn, experience, dabble with, will only enhance you and what you bring to the table, as an actor.

SNEAK PEEK for 6/13/2018 class:

  • We’ll do a bit more Stanislavsky next class, but will also move on to Michael Chekov and Richard Boleslavsky.
  • Sherlock Scenes.
  • If time permits, we’ll do monologue work.
  • And More!

Take care,

Dave Wagner
AWS Staff

By |2018-06-11T04:38:44-07:00June 7th, 2018|Advanced Acting Blog|