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Theatre in Context

Konstantin Stanislavsky was born in Moscow, Russia in 1863 and later went on to contributing to the establishment of the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1897 (W. Bishop and Jones). From a young age, Stanislavsky had been involved with theatre and continued to do so throughout his entire life. Stanislavsky lived during the 19th and 20th Centuries, where art was very traditional and often did not break social norms or discuss political, social or cultural issues. Melodrama was very popular at the time, however Stanislavsky’s conventions of theatre broke away from this. His family inspired him initially as they put him on stage in an amateur performance when he was fourteen (Moore). Later in 1898, Stanislavsky watched a performance called ‘Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich’ and did not truly believe in the characters so decided to implement his own ideas. Later that year, he directed ‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov, which was a huge success. Stanislavsky was inspired by the melodrama at the time and decided he wanted to create a new Stanislavsky system that would be different to this form. This system adopts the ideas that “in every physical act there is an inner psychological motive which impels physical action” (Mitter). He believed in the reality of a performance and urged the actors to understand the inner thoughts of the characters they were playing in order to create believability in a performance. Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt were regarded as two of the greatest actresses of all time and also inspired Stanislavsky. Bernard Shaw reviewed their work and said that Bernhardt “does not enter the leading character: she substitutes herself for it”, which is exactly what the Stanislavsky system is about (Gillett). These actresses completely consume themselves into their characters and follow through with the technique of realism Stanislavsky developed. His system revolves around this idea of believability and the characters taking on this new character with “true inner emotion” (Callow).


Stanislavy’s ‘system’ was later coined by Lee Strasberg as ‘method acting’ after being inspired his work. The term created by Stanislavsky means to completely emotionally identify, which directly contrasts Melodrama because this form takes an over top plot, embelishing it using stock characters played in an exaggerated style, creating humour. Stanislavsky uses ‘the syetem’ to make theatre more realistic and created the theories of emotional memory and given circumstances. Emotion memory uses personal experiences in order to connect with the emotions of a specific memory. These real life experiences provide a greater understanding of the emotions felt which can attach more believability into the performance. Stanislavsky said in his book, ‘My Life in Art, “the discomfort of unreasonable presence on the stage, and the inner truth of reasoned presence and action on it” (Stanislavski, 24). What Stanislavsky is saying links back to emotion memory and believing in what you are acting. Without a purpose on stage, the acting becomes false and lacks real feelings. The actors must not question what is happening because then the actor is breaking out of character, which is all part of emotional memory. In the book, Stanislavsky in rehearsal: The Final Years, Toporkov explains the techniques of Stanislavsky and says, “when the actor starts to reason … the will is weakened” (Mitter). The actor must completely devour in the emotions and not think about why because then realism is taken away. This point is furthered in another one of Stanlislavsky’s works, published in 1936, ‘An Actor Prepares’. Without an objective, the actors face a “multitude of superficial, unrelated details” because they are unable to connect to their own emotions (Stanislavsky).


The second aspect of Stanislavsky I will be incorporating into my solo performance is given circumstances, which similarly to emotion memory provides greater purpose for characterisation. This involves an understanding of the character’s previous actions, the environmental factors as well as the polar actions that create conflict in the piece. This includes information such as age, gender, family situation and daily routine. This also includes the relationship this character has with other characters in a piece. It can also be described as “a single prompt”, which gives evidence of what the intentions and drive of each character is (Mitter). Given circumstance provide the motivation and context for an actor to be on stage and adds believability because otherwise an actor lacks purpose therefore “having no significance” (Mitter). This comes from, An Actor Prepares, by Stanislavsky. It provides a first hand experience of the acting and theatre he stood for. Something Stanislavsky learnt from one of his Directors was the question an actor must ask himself when taking on the role of another. An actor must “first of all [ask], what am I doing? … Gives you the key to your main objective” (Stanislavsky). The main objective being the given circumstances of a piece and what the character is trying to achieve. This again provides the actor with a sense of purpose and furthers believability.


These two major ideas of emotion memory and given circumstances encapsulate another one of the other important factors in the Stanislavsky system, which is the “magic if”. This “magic if” poses the question to any one of Stanislavsky’s actors asking them if this play were real, how would they act (Mitter)? It is important for an actor to understand through emotions and the circumstances they are given the realism of acting. They are to sell themselves into their characters and completely believe in what they are doing.


All of these approaches come from ‘The System’, which help contribute to the naturalistic way of acting. These approaches include emotion memory and given circumstances, however Stanislavsky also uses the “magic if”, objectives and super objectives to help create the Stanislavsky system of realism and honesty in acting.

Works Cited

Theatre Process

I wanted to use Stanislavsky’s theories to create a piece that was relevant and would have an impact on people. I initially wanted to write my own monologue based on challenges siblings go through together because it is something people can relate to. I then started exploring plays and investigating different themes within them. Through looking at ‘Death and the Maiden’ by Ariel Dorfman, I was intrigued by the deep and complex plot. The play tells the story of political prisoner, Paulina Salas who was raped and traumatically assaulted. When the regime ends, Paulina lives alone with her husband, Gerardo Escobar. One night Roberto Miranda helps Gerado with a flat tire. Paulina believes that Miranda was her interrogator, so captures him and forces him to confess. The end is ambiguous because it is not clear whether Miranda was her oppressor or if Paulina is insane.


I was interested with the themes of loss and tragedy, as I feel these are relevant ideas in our own lives. The intention for my piece is to be a performance that develops a sense of empathy towards a character that has experienced extreme trauma. I also want the audience to relate similar emotions from their own challenges to the journey that is created in my piece.


The first aspect of Stanislavsky’s theory I focused on was given circumstances, which means to fully develop the character, subtext and motivation. I began with an exercise where my peer mentor would give me a scenario, which would be the given circumstance I would take on as my character. This helped me develop a greater understanding of the subtext behind my character and her motivations when in different situations.


After researching, I found that there are three types of given circumstances (The Given Circumstances). Previous action is what has happened before the chosen moment in the play. Paulina’s drive for power and revenge is her motivation, which then carries into my performance. Environmental factors are another type of given circumstances. For the piece, I drew a floor plan (see below), which would help me physically see what this moment looked like and put myself in her position.  

Finally, polar actions are the thoughts a character has that contradict the world they live in. The conflict in a person’s life that causes suffering and raises the stakes of a performance. Paulina is trying to gain revenge against what has happened to her, which creates conflict.

The Given Circumstances for my piece are, 

  • Name: Paulina Salas

  • Age: 38 / 40

  • Where does she live: In an isolated country house with her husband 

  • Career: Paulina does not have a career. She lives an isolated life in this home with her husband and does not develop any of her own aspirations. She is very much haunted by the horrors of her past and is unable to move forward about it and forget what has happened. Her paranoia traps her and she does not develop her own passions because of this.

  • Relationship with other characters: Gerardo Escobar’s wife. Doctor Roberto Miranda – it is ambiguous whether he is her interrogator or not

  • How does your character feel about other characters within the play: Paulina is extremely grateful for her relationship with Gerardo because she really needed someone after everything she endured. He was able to save her, but it means Paulina has grown to be reliant on him. Her relationship with Roberto is complicated. She feels excessive bitterness and is full of revenge which acts as motivation for her actions.

  • Personal life: Paulina has suffered extreme trauma after being captured by this political regime. She lives an isolated life and very rarely spends time with other people unless she has to.

  • The moment (my solo performance): Paulina has just woken up, seen the doctor and then starts to tie him up out of fear and the desire to claim power.

  • Life before this moment: Years before this moment, Paulina had initially been studying medicine at university. Her studies ended when she was captured by the regime, meaning she never finished her degree.

  • What was at stake for your character: She is now being faced with her “interrogator” and the stakes are very high in this moment because it is the first time she is seeing him after what has happened. She reacts to her trauma in a revenge seeking maner by tying him up.


My intention was to create a performance that develops a sense of empathy towards a character that has experienced extreme trauma and also to allow the audience to relate similar emotions from their own challenges. I began to develop these intentions by having a journey of emotions throughout the performance. This development was demonstrated through distinct moments in the piece that changed as a result of the given circumstances I had identified when characterising Paulina. The piece started off with a sense of calmness as Paulina had collected her confidence facing her oppressor. However, as the piece developed the emotional journey begins to change when memories from the regime start to be remembered. Paulina builds up a sinister tone of voice when bringing back these memories, seeking revenge to make her oppressor feel mass guilt. There is also a slight moment of disgust when thinking about how Paulina had suffered, which demonstrates a clear change in emotions. It is slight because I have characterised Paulina to be desperate in her ways of maintaining power as she tries hard not to give her emotions away easily. Although, as even deeper memories are brought up, the audience is able to see the way Paulina has truly suffered because she starts getting lost in her thoughts. I also represented this through her desperate attempt to once again hide her emotions. This emotional journey represents the attempted emotional recovery process people try go through when dealing with challenge, however often these issues still remain unsolved. This is something relateable even though the situation is different, which is why I wanted to build on these emotions in my performance.


The Audience:

I received feedback from my audience about some stronger and weaker moments. One audience member commented on how they liked the change of emotions from the calm and collectiveness to the outburst of deep sadness because they were able to see the progress and development. This was a very valuable point to me because it demonstrated that my characterisation built up through given circumstances and emotional memory had been recognised and was effective. She also said that the focus I had built up with the Doctor was really effective as I had positioned a chair in front of me in place of his character.


Another audience member had commented on the use of setting as a way for my character to protect herself and hide her emotions. They continued this by mentioning how they liked the moment where I laughed as a way of also trying to hide my emotions because they felt that this made my character who she was supposed to be.


What I have learnt and the Challenges Faced:

What I have learnt through this experience of creating a solo piece of theatre is the significance of understanding purpose and theory. Understanding and being aware of the purpose of a performance makes such a difference because it means that it has a greater sense of structure. The research into these theories was also an important part of this experience because I am now able to take this understanding with me and apply it to theatre I do in the future. I understand the way that this theorist has worked to create theatre, which was an essential part of my learning in being able to go deeper with the practice of theatre.


The entire process of creating this performance was both interesting but also challenging at certain times. The most challenging part of this experience was finding a starting point. I knew that I wanted to have a performance that was meaningful, where I could develop a character and involve relevant themes, however I found it difficult to know where this would begin. This is why I had several different performance ideas that I worked on before I began working on the final solo performance I have now. I discovered through this challenging phase, the importance of performance intentions and also the theories regarding the theorist. It was important to create a performance that not only achieved the intentions for the piece but also worked well with demonstrating the aspects of the theory being studied. I learnt about how to develop knowledge of a theory into the practical exploration of that theory that would work to create a performance. I found it fascinating to see how a theory was brought to life as it went beyond the reading and research becaming real and also something that would mean something to my audience and I.


I demonstrated Stanislavsky’s theory of given circumstances in specific moments during my performance, creating a realistic depiction of Paulina’s situation. To build on the given circumstance of Paulina’s past, I had a moment in my performance where Paulina listens to the music that reminds her of the regime. I have a long pause that allows Paulina to think about what has happened to her and the audience is able to see the trauma in her face. Another given circumstance is how Paulina is so haunted by her past that she does not develop any aspirations or passions of her own, which I demonstrated though calming down every time Gerardo was mentioned. To demonstate her dependency on him and how she does not develop herself because of her reliance that comes from the trauma and need to feel protected by someone.

I developed the depth of my character through an emotional development and journey. I began the performance very collected to show Paulina’s desire to be in control, however her emotions later overcome her. When I say the word “gag”, there is a change in tone and I develop a new emotion of fear and hatred because of what Paulina has suffered. This word triggers this feeling because it brings up memories from the past that I use emotions to build on. Physical movement also helped develop the emotional memory because they were used as protection mechanisms. The table was something Paulina could hide behind because of how her emotions often control her, creating the need for her to feel protected by something. The gun and the cassette were also props used to protect her in an attempt to try and claim the power she was never able to. It demonstrates deep despair and how emotionally, Paulina protecting herself in the face of fear.


After this, I began hot seating and used this to create my character. It forces someone to consider things about the character they may not have before, such as daily routine or the impact of subcontext and the past. I then looked at the monologue and started to incorporate what I had learnt through the hot seating and investigating given circumstances in my piece.

This play investigates psychological impact on a character, but also contains many other themes the audience will be able to relate to. Using emotion memory, I summarised a few emotions in a mindmap that Paulina would also feel by attaching personal memories to them. This mindmap allowed a more authentic portrayal of emotions because of the connections made with my own experiences. I remembered a time in my life where I had felt oppressed by someone and had no control over my situation. Even though I have not experienced what Paulina has, I also know what it means to be oppressed, so I could connect this experience with Paulina’s feelings.

Hot seating also helped with emotion memory because it developed characterisation. I started to build up more emotions I could relate to and that worked in my performance. Both emotion memory and given circumstances were effective in being something that helps make a performance realistic and meaningful, making the audience consider similar emotions.


Feedback from my peer mentor was also a crucial part of the developmental process. I leant that I needed to develop Paulina’s relationship with Gerardo even further by considering day to day encounters and how we behaved when together. It helped enhance my performance because character development is not only about the character themselves, but also about their relationships with others. It was important  to receive feedback so I could focus on specific areas that went even deeper with characterisation.

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