- Stanislavsky’s Threshold: Tracking a Historical Paradigm Shift in Acting
Toward the end of his life, Konstantin Stanislavsky gathered together a small number of actors to work on Molière’s Tartuffe.1 According to Vasili Toporkov, a member of that group, Stanislavki chose this play for its small cast and because it would allow him to prove that the acting technique he had spent a lifetime developing was not limited to the genre of realism.2 This project had a different goal from that of most rehearsals: it was to be a period of “work on technique, on the reeducation of the actor and the acquisition of a new method of working on oneself.” Stanislavsky had no intention of premiering Tartuffe, and indeed the production was not mounted until after his death in 1938. Toporkov explains: “Stanislavski had undertaken his work on Tartuffe purely for teaching purposes, and it was accordingly conducted with great rigour and purity of method. No concessions were made to the usual, traditional rehearsal procedures.”3 In addition to being an important site for the transmission of knowledge and a foundational moment in the history of actor training, this special period of Stanislavsky’s work can be seen as continuation of his lifelong research in acting technique. In Toporkov’s memoir, we therefore have not only an important historical document, but also one that can be used to test the notion of relatively pure research in acting technique—distinct from the more common occurrence of applied research in the context of theatrical production.
In this article, I reread Stanislavsky’s work from a specifically epistemological perspective. The idea that Stanislavsky conducted research in acting is commonplace, but its implications have not yet been thoroughly explored. If the work of the Russian master teacher and director can indeed be understood as research in a rigorous sense, then we should be able to: 1) articulate the results of that research in concrete terms; 2) identify the points at which it branched off from previous knowledge; and 3) compare the new knowledge Stanislavsky discovered with that produced by others before and since. I take the position that Stanislavsky’s research can be understood in relation to acting technique as a field of knowledge. This premise allows us to assess his work in terms of the development of new technique, which would then constitute a contribution to knowledge in exactly the same way as research [End Page 81] in other fields. A full theorization of technique as knowledge is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to recognize that the idea of acting technique as a field of knowledge is not intended as a metaphor. Rather, I argue that embodied technique (in this case, that of acting) can be understood as a field of knowledge in the same way that history or mathematics can be. Stanislavsky’s discoveries about the embodied possibilities of acting can thus be seen as heralding an epistemic paradigm shift in the sense established by Thomas Kuhn.4
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As Sharon Marie Carnicke observes, Stanislavsky “never envisioned his System as complete. He suggested no final answers, only various experiments. As he cautioned, ‘There is no system. There is only nature.’”6 In referring to nature, Stanislavsky points to a quasi-scientific dimension of his work, namely its thick engagement with material existence and in particular the materiality of the human body. This is realism not in the literary sense of a close resemblance between life and art (also called naturalism), but rather in the philosophical sense as an affirmation of the grounding of human thought and action in a necessary relationship with a world beyond the human. According to sociologist Laurent Thévenot the “realism” of any practice refers to “the relationship between human agency and material environment.”7 In the case of Stanislavsky’s work the relevant materiality is less that of external objects and forces than of human embodiment itself. However, I argue that the subtle tracking of reliabilities involved in embodied research is no less rigorous than that of material sciences, even if the patterns...