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Theatre Topics 12.2 (2002) 163-175
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Rethinking Feminism, Stanislavsky, and Performance
J. Ellen Gainor
Since the mid-1990s, a series of books devoted to reconsiderations of acting, informed by contemporary critical and performance theory, has begun to challenge longstanding ideas about actor training and technique. Acting (Re)Considered: Theories and Practices (1995), Feminist Theatre Practice (1999), and Method Acting Reconsidered: Theory, Practice, Future (2000), as their titles suggest, reflect new engagements with the interplay of theory and practice. These texts provide particularly compelling evidence, among a number of important debates, of current thinking about and by women actors regarding the intersections of feminism and theatre. These works are equally significant, however, for their reflections of received understanding about feminist theory and performance. In other words, they are not only works about acting but also documents demonstrating how feminist theory of the last half century has been understood and applied in the theatre. For purposes of my analysis here, I want to focus specifically on these works' discussions of the Stanislavsky System and the Method (at times conflated) as techniques for actors, as well as on their sense of these techniques' impact on feminist performance practice. We know that many actors and directors—male and female—were rejecting older styles and beginning to explore new performance modes in the latter part of the nineteenth century, simultaneous with the emergence of other aspects of theatrical modernism. Nevertheless, the techniques developed by Stanislavsky and those strongly influenced by him have come to dominate our historical and practical understanding of acting, especially in the United States. It has become a commonplace assumption that resistance to these traditions spurred women artists into the feminist theatre movement from the 1960s forward.
In her 1996 study Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A., Charlotte Canning summarizes these received ideas, identifying two primary sets of women who participated in this movement in the States: those already working in the theatre who sought alternative venues for their artistry, and those not previously working in the field who discovered theatre as a locus for political agency. For the former, the rejection of "the standard 'Method' approach" by the experimental theatre movement of the early 1960s was quickly followed by the recognition that "the labor of women was devalued" within these new companies, which in turn led to the women's departure from them to form their own groups (60). Canning observes, "When moving from male-defined experimental theaters or traditionally [End Page 163] oriented academic training programs, women regarded their inherited tools and techniques with the greatest suspicion" (33). Now that we also have these recent published analyses of the intersections of theory and practice, we can examine this historical argument about the relationship between women actors and performance traditions more fully. Additionally, these works provide evidence of how feminist theatre theory, itself emerging from this same understanding of history, has come to inform and influence a new generation of feminist theatre artists. Elaine Aston's Feminist Theatre Practice exemplifies these developments and can thus provide a useful starting point for discussion.
Aston, a noted theatre scholar, offers clear and accessible suggestions for creating feminist theatre, with an emphasis on developing acting techniques and dramatic material for workshops or productions. In her Introduction, Aston also summarizes the perspective of the earlier women artists who launched the feminist theatre movement. According to Aston, they
objected to the objectification of women in the realist tradition, and in particular, to the character-based, Method-acting, derived from the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski, attendant upon it. The character roles made available for women to "get into" in this "method" invite the actress to identify with the oppression of the female character to whom she has been assigned. (7)
It may be significant to note that Aston is a British scholar, and that her examples of praxis are drawn mainly from events in England. She speaks of pedagogical and some performance practices from both England and the States, and appears to envision a readership from both those locales. But she does not address either the distinctive development of...