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an actor prepares


 

“Theoretically you might suppose that the ideal type of emotion memory would be one that could retain and reproduce impressions in all the exact details of their first occurrence, that they would be revived just as they were really experienced. Yet if that were the case what would become of our nervous systems? How would they stand the repetition of horrors with all the original painfully realistic details? Human nature could not stand it.

Fortunately things actually happen in a different way. Our emotion memories are not exact copies of reality—occasionally some are more vivid, but usually they are less so, than the original. Sometimes impressions once received continue to live in us, grow and become deeper. They even stimulate new processes and either fill out unfinished details or else suggest altogether new ones.

In a case of this kind a person can be perfectly calm in a dangerous situation and then faint away when he remembers it later.”

Constantin Stanislavski, from An Actor Prepares


 

I don’t know much about method acting. I admit it. When I think of method acting I think of Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter and she didn’t even have a very big part. But of course I know about Stanislavski. I like him automatically, because he is a Russian artist. He gets to coast on the power of the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. (Am I forgetting someone?)

What happened after the communists jailed and/or killed all the Russian artists. . . well, now I think of a Russian as a tall, pale oil billionaire who hangs out in the Gentleman’s Clubs near Wall Street. (These are just my thoughts, mind you. I don’t give them any credit and I don’t even really believe them myself.)

The Stanislavski acting book feels very . . . Eastern. It reminds me of teachy/preachy memoirs by Hindu gurus or mystic wanderers like Gurdjieff. This is how people speak after spending years alone in a cave. An Actor Prepares has a “samovar tone.”

Stanislavski apologizes for actors who are also liars, exaggerators, or “fabricators.” He claims that they can’t tell the difference anymore between what happened and what they think happened, what they have conjured up in their “emotion memory” in order to play a powerful scene.

Ain’t that just the thing, though, with all of us? Memory shouldn’t even be a word.

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