Stanislavski’s Legacy (Bella Merlin)

Interview with Bella Merlin

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Bella is an actor, writer, and singer-songwriter. She has been working for over twenty-five years in theatre, film, television and radio, and has directed both plays and opera. She is Professor of Acting and Directing in the department of Theatre, Film and Digital Production at the University of California, Riverside. She is also an actor-trainer and the author of six books on acting.

email: bella.merlin@hotmail.co.uk


Studying Stanislavski in Contemporary Russia

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • social, cultural, political and historical context
  • innovations
  • influence

PC: What led you to study Stanislavski?

BM: I did my degree at Birmingham University, then I did a year at Guildford School of Acting and after three and a half years in the industry I kept feeling as though there was this seam of creativity that I just wasn’t tapping. It was hard to ever do anything more than just use the same few colours in the palette. My habit with acting was learn the lines, do what the director tells me and get out every night. I began to think, “Is acting really this mundane? Is it really this simple or am I just not a very good actor?” Then I had the opportunity in 1993 to go to Moscow and study at the State Institute of Cinematography. I wanted to try and mine that creative seam more deeply. Little did I know I was going to become this complete convert to Stanislavski. It definitely wasn’t intentional: “I must know about Stanislavski.” It was, “I want to be a better actor. I want to be more three dimensional, four dimensional, holistic. I want to connect to a role and therefore connect to an audience hopefully.” In the back of my mind I thought maybe I could do a PhD. So on the day I arrived in Moscow I started asking questions and I started keeping journals. This was an inheritance from my time as an undergraduate at Birmingham. We kept working journals on every single acting class. To this day, I do the same, whether I’m in a production, directing or acting. The journals I kept in Moscow became research material for my PhD which got published as Beyond Stanislavsky: The Psycho-Physical Approach to Actor-Training when I got my first academic job.

PC: Did you want to find out anything in particular in Russia?

BM: My preliminary question was What relevance does Stanislavski have to the 21st century Russian actor? That was like saying: “Why should anybody know the ABC if they want to read Jane Austen?” I quickly realised that Stanislavski had just got into every single active molecule of the actors and the teachers and the audiences. Everybody just knew it. It is just there, it’s the air you breathe. I began to realize how naive I was about acting and how naive I was about Stanislavski.

PC: How were you naive about Stanislavski before Moscow?

BM: I knew the basics: objectives; actions; given circumstances. But they were these intellectual theories that didn’t mean much to me. My whole experience in Russia was this profoundly embodied, imaginative, playful, anarchic, energetic experience. The terminology wasn’t really spoken, it was just second nature to them. Whereas my British experiences of Stanislavski were very much, “What objective are you playing?” In Russia, they hardly even spoke about it, you just go up there and did it. They would just keep saying, “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.” Stanislavski was renowned for saying that. His actors would barely do anything and they’d hear “I don’t believe you.” My teachers in Russia did the same. It was all part of what I discovered was ‘Active Analysis’. We never sat down with the script in the way that I had during my time at university or drama school. In Moscow we read the scene, we discussed the scene, then looked over it again quietly on our own and then they’d say, “Okay, now do it.” It was terrifying at first because I didn’t know what my objectives were or my actions and I definitely hadn’t learned my lines. But the teachers would just say “That’s fine, you know what you need. You know what the scene is about and you know what you need from your partner, so just do it.” When I began the work on my PhD, I began to realize it was the method of physical actions. This is what Stanislavski had been doing at the end of this life. It was no longer about sitting around analyzing a text. It was about getting up and doing physical, energetic activities in connection with your partner. I went back to Moscow and shared my realisation that this was the method of physical actions. But they said, “No, no, no. This is active analysis.” That’s when I was introduced to Maria Knebel, who is becoming more and more part of how we’re looking at Stanislavski now.

Stanislavski and Active Analysis

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • innovations
  • influence
  • theatrical purpose

PC: Can you describe your experience of active analysis?

BM: It was about trust, logic and sequence. What’s the logic? What’s the sequence? How does one thing lead to the next, to the next, to the next? This wasn’t a logic in the sense of mathematical logic. There was a chaos involved in the logic. Our emotions have a sequence to them even if sometimes it doesn’t make logical sense or intellectual sense. It was about allowing the anarchy of feelings, sensations and expression to be what led you from one thing to the next. From the very first improvisations, we worked a lot with props. If a scene needed props you had them with you. Everything gives information – people, props, they are all partners to us. You become hyper-tuned sensually to everything in the space that’s giving you information. It will all affect how you feel or what you need. Whereas back in Britain it was this strict, diligent textual analysis: ‘What is the unit? What is my objective?’ You get up on stage and you’re thinking about the different units and how to play a predetermined action. It was so head led, whereas everything in my Russian training was sensation led, sense led. I don’t want to say emotion led, because they rarely talked about emotions.

PC: What is the distinction between the method of physical actions and active analysis?

BM: It is murky terrain. Historically Stanislavski was evolving the method of physical actions around about the same time that he was exploring and experimenting with what then became known as active analysis. The method of physical actions is a bit like how a conductor may go through a music score: here’s the crescendo, then there is pause. Instead of notes you are looking at actions. These are very physical, tangible, simple things that activate my bigger psychological intention. (For example, my intention is to impress you so I keep looking at the notes that I have surrounded myself with, I show you my book, I sip my coffee.) It didn’t have anything to do with emotions, it wasn’t emotion led; there was a sequence of actions that revealed my intention. This led the Soviet regime to fixate on the method of physical actions because it was a manageable utopia that fit the Marxist dialectic. The Soviet regime loved the idea of the method of physical actions to the extent that every drama school in Russia had to teach it. This connection with the Soviet regime appalled Stanislavski and was never what he wanted.

PC: Was there a shift to active analysis at the end of Soviet Russia?

BM: Yes, I was there when Russia was just coming out from under the iron curtain and my tutors welcomed the spiritual, energetic and emotional qualities of active analysis. The method of physical actions was action, action, action, action. Whereas active analysis was much more holistic, “impure” if you like. The murkiness of human mess becomes a tool with which you can create something. So they were very clear: the distinction is that the method of physical action was pragmatic, whilst active analysis much more unexpected, more human. The mechanics of each are very close: read the scene, discuss the scene, improvise the scene, discuss the improvisation. What’s the event? What’s the action? What’s the counteraction? How do the action and the counteraction rub against each other to create the dramatic event? But my tutors, who were as steeped in Michael Chekhov, Jerzy Grotowski and Maria Knebel as they were in Stanislavski, they were much more into the spiritual – that was compatible with active analysis. Spirituality was no longer something that was going to be squashed by the regime.

Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov 

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • innovations
  • influence
  • theatrical purpose
  • key collaborations with other artists

PC: In your own personal experiences in Russia, how did Michael Chekhov develop Stanislavski’s ideas?

BM: There are three things: imagination, power of language and there is spirit. I’ll begin with imagination: there is this apocryphal tale about Stanislavski working quite heavily on affective memory in its two aspects: sense memory and emotion memory. One day he is working with Michael Chekhov on a scene about his father dying and Chekhov breaks down weeping and wailing and Stanislavski says to him, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t have touched upon this if I had known your father died.” To which Michael Chekhov just stepped out of the improvisation and said, “He hasn’t died; he’s alive and kicking. I’m just using my imagination.” Michael Chekhov eventually had a nervous breakdown as a result of trawling into emotions and he didn’t act for some time. He then went on to set up his own studio. Michael Chekhov was into imagination and Stanislavski was into emotional memory. We use them both, they blur together so I don’t set them against each other. That was one particular experiment Stanislavski was doing at that particular moment and Chekhov happened to be a very accessible, thin-skinned person. I now work in Los Angeles in an environment where Americans are often “indulging” their emotions. So many American techniques are about trauma and emotion that actors get hung up crying. Whenever I find my own student actors saying (or I might even find myself saying), “I’m not feeling it”, I suggest instead, “You should just allow your imagination to go on the journey of these given circumstances. How would you feel if…?” That was the whole point of the magic if – it was supposed to springboard you into the world of the imagination. In many respects Michael Chekhov’s emphasis on imagination is an absolutely invaluable balance to your own emotional repertoires. Part of Michael Chekhov’s healing process after his nervous breakdown was his work with Rudolph Steiner, in particular his connection with Eurhythmy and Anthroposophy. Michael Chekhov was a fairly “out there” individual. Some people have often said that he was the real guru of acting. Yes, he was a genius but he was also a wee bit off his rocker – many artists are. So not everybody can operate on the same level as Michael Chekhov. It is not a good thing to have nervous breakdowns! I’m a huge fan of Michael Chekhov’s work, but I always hold it a little bit in kid gloves, because this was a man who was not 100 percent psychologically healthy.

PC: How about the power of language?

BM: Michael Chekhov’s ideas about language are great because they connect back to our own British heritage of Shakespeare. Chekhov worked with the sensory power of language and how consonants and vowels create feelings within us, actually within the apparatus of our mouths, but also in our hearts and breath.

PC: And Michael Chekhov’s ideas of spirit?

BM: Stanislavski had an interest in this. This aspect of his work is often played down, particularly in the latest translation of An Actor’s Work. It is the one big gripe I have with this brilliant tome. Jean Benedetti and Katya Kamotskaia (who was one of my teachers and a language adviser for this translation) sidestep the references that are in An Actor Prepares to spirit. It is talked about all the time in An Actor Prepares but you won’t find it much in Benedetti’s translation – An Actor’s Work. It’s a shame, because Stanislavski couldn’t talk about spirit under the Soviet regime because it was forbidden. He was exploring Eastern philosophies, yoga, prana and the chakras but he couldn’t talk about it very much.

PC: Did Michael Chekhov have the same restrictions?

BM: Yes, but Chekhov was exiled in 1928 and went to Europe before he went to America. He went to places where he could talk about it. All the exploration of spirit led back to one simple idea: how to listen. How do you listen to your own feelings? How do you listen to your own words? How do you listen to your partner or what the audience is giving you?

Stanislavski and Maria Knebel

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • innovations
  • influence
  • theatrical purpose
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: How does Maria Knebel fit in with Michael Chekhov and Stanislavski?

BM: Maria Knebel is a vital link between Stanislavski and Michael Chekov. She was Stanislavski’s assistant director at the time he died. She was also in Michael Chekhov’s first studio and was one of his students for a long time. When he was exiled in 1928, she used to secretly share his practices with her fellow students in secret little rooms. She’d teach Michael Chekhov stuff but it had to be kept under the radar because it was strictly forbidden. When glasnost came in the eighties, the new openness of Russia allowed Knebel to be the first to bring back Michael Chekhov’s work to Russia. James Thomas’ A Guide to Stanislavsky’s Active Analysis is a brilliant book that includes Maria Knebel’s formative essay On Active Analysis.

PC: Is active analysis the area that Maria Knebel focused her attention on?

BM: Well it’s certainly the baton she carries forward from Stanislavski. He asked her to be his assistant in 1936 and he died in 1938 so she was with him very intensively in the last two years of his life. It then took about another four years I believe before she dared to do a whole production just using active analysis. Rehearsing a play without ever having the paper script in your hand.

PC: Can you explain how that works in the rehearsal room?

BM: After every improvisation you come back and you read the script and you identify where you stayed close to and where you deviated from the script? The image I always use is the script is like a trellis, the actors are like ivy and the director’s job is to weave the ivy around that trellis. You’ve got to have the script. In the old-fashioned way of working, where you learn the lines, you learn the “blocking” (a word I cannot abide), you get up and do the same scene every night. To me, that is a bit like putting your coat on before you put your knickers and your bra on. You’re presenting the outside before you’re ready underneath. What you are doing with active analysis is you’re preparing the underneath bit by bit. I’ve directed five or six productions exclusively using active analysis. If you came and watched the opening night of one of those productions, I don’t think it would look any different to the same production with the old-fashioned approach to rehearsals. The difference is the feeling that is present: the actors are really talking to each other – because that’s all they’ve been doing from the very first rehearsal. It is never that the script is not your end result but rather you are exploring the connections underneath: bit by bit, you train the ivy around the trellis.

PC: Does it take twice as long to use active analysis?

BM: No! It is so time efficient. At the start it might sound terrifying and you may think that you need the play blocked in a week. “Blocked” does exactly what it says: it blocks creative flow and individual connections, it blocks everything. Active analysis has no blocks, it all flows. At the beginning I am always a bit terrified that we won’t get through it, but it isn’t like the actors don’t go away and learn their lines at some point. You only improvise the scene to the point at which you know the actors “get it”. When they really understand what the point of the scene is, what the bits of the scene are, what the structure is – then they can go away and learn the lines. But until you have worked on the inner life, there is no point fixing the outside life. Once you’ve got over the initial hurdle it is incredibly energy efficient. Yes, actors do want their scripts at the start, they want it as a safety blanket, but I tell them that their partner is their safety blanket: “You’ll help each other, you’ll get there”.

Stanislavski: Facing the Fear with a Partner

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: How do you emphasize the importance of partners at the start of a rehearsal process?

BM: There are four guiding principles: dynamic listening. I just want them to listen to each other, to listen to their pauses, to listen to each other’s fear. Whatever it is, listen to what is happening now: that is the raw material. Alongside that sense of dynamic listening comes playfulness: we’re just here to play, we’ll find what we are looking for. The second principle is willing vulnerability. This is really just being an actor. If you don’t want to be vulnerable, don’t be an actor. Willing vulnerability is, “I’m not afraid if I look stupid, I’m not afraid if I do something that the director wasn’t expecting. I’m just going to try it. If it doesn’t work, I have a hundred and one other ideas in my head.” The third principal is what I call psychophysical coordination: trusting that whatever is going on inside me will be expressed through my body, or that whatever information my body is receiving from the environment is going to affect how I feel inside. It is outward-to-inward or inward-to-outward – and the membrane between those is very porous. I am inviting them to really listen. If, at the end of an improvisation, I say, “How do you feel now?” And one of the actors says, “I feel like I don’t know anything.” I say, “That’s great. Why might your character not know anything at this point?” They might reply, “Because they’ve never been in this situation before.” “Great!” You’re constantly asking how they feel, how do they feel now? You’re always bringing the actors back to what they actually feel now. The fourth principle is a constant state of inner improvisation. No performance ever needs to be fixed; no performance ever needs to be absolutely the same each time. It is not quite as anarchic as Mike Alfred’s “different every night” with actors choosing different exits and entrances each time. My principle makes it possible to do the same physical score – if that’s what the director needs – but the actor is always awake, always playful. The same water doesn’t run through the river each time, no moment is repeatable.

PC: Is there a task that you turn to when your actors feel completely blocked?

BM: I think stage fright can be a massive block for many actors. In my book Facing the Fear I explore my own experiences of terrible stage fright and how I overcame it. When I was feeling nervous, I’d ask why my character was feeling nervous. If could justify my actual feelings within the realm of the play’s given circumstances, I could overcome them. If that is how I am feeling then let’s make it what my character is feeling. I would stop feeling afraid suddenly. What was a pejorative thing became valuable raw material. That is more of a frame of mind rather than an exercise or a task. Let’s celebrate how we feel, whatever it is.

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