Stanislavski’s Productions (Rose Whyman)

Interview with Rose Whyman

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Rose Whyman is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts. Her main teaching and research interests are in actor-training and Russian Theatre. She has worked particularly on Constantin Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov. Rose has written Stanislavski: The Basics; The Stanislavsky System of Acting; legacy and influence in modern performance and Anton Chekhov (Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists). Before her academic career, Rose worked in community and experimental theatre in London and the West Midlands, most recently with Open Theatre Company and with Hocus Pocus Theatre Company. Her training includes work with members of Grotowski’s Teatr Laboratorium and with Augusto Boal.

email: r.whyman@bham.ac.uk

Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov

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

  • key collaborations with other artists
  • theatrical style
  • use of theatrical conventions
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: Could you give us a sense of why the Chekhov productions were so important for Stanislavski?

RW: The approach that you’re taking is a significant one. Stanislavski was innovative as a director, an actor, and an actor trainer but he wouldn’t have made the discoveries that he made about acting and directing unless he’d worked with Chekhov. Chekhov’s plays were what made the Moscow Art Theatre and really what made Stanislavski’s reputation as a director. This is partly because Chekhov was articulating what was going on in Russian society at the time and partly because he was developing a Russian version of the new drama which was surfacing in Europe. The rise of Naturalism and Realism brought the need for new production methods and new ways of directing. It was Chekhov’s ground-breaking writing that led Stanislavski to his new ideas about acting. Stanislavski’s work on Chekhov’s major plays, some of which were premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre and which were an important part of the early repertoire gave him the chance to leap forward in his own research and questions about acting.

PC: Was it a positive working relationship?

RW: Yes, but there were conflicts between them; Chekhov was quite scathing about Stanislavski sometimes. But Chekhov nudged Stanislavski into making discoveries that then became the foundation for his later directing methods and the development of the System. Stanislavski recognized the need for contemporary Russian writing and appreciated Chekhov’s influence on theatre. In later life, his response to the Revolution reveals his respect for Chekhov. He wrote in My Life in Art, that Chekhov had captured the essence of Russian life at the beginning of the Moscow Art Theatre and that after the revolution it was important also to capture the essence of life, its “suffering, struggle, acts of bravery amid disasters, hunger and revolutionary turmoil of unprecedented cruelty,” [K. Stanislavski, My Life in Art, trans. and ed. Jean Benedetti (London: Routledge, 2008) p.336] and that there was as yet no dramatist who could capture this, as Chekhov had. In 1929 he also wrote in a letter, that as well as new writers he envisages ‘authentic’ actors along with new staging methods. However, he said, “where is one to find this Actor?” [K. Stanislavsky, Stanislavsky: A Life in Letters, trans. and ed. Laurence Senelick (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 524-5]

PC: I understand that Stanislavski was quite dictatorial in his approach to directing in the early days of the Moscow Art Theatre. How did he approach those Chekhov productions?

RW: He had developed a method of directing with the Society of Art and Literature and he continued that, working with Nemirovich-Danchenko at the Moscow Art Theatre. His emphasis was always on the idea of truth and how one could practice to perform in a truthful way. He had very specific aesthetic beliefs about how to communicate truthfully to the audience which he maintained all through his career. He was influenced by the aesthetic of the Saxe-Meiningen Court Theatre and thought that a meticulous approach to researching the authentic elements of staging, costume and set would be enough for the actors to engender this sense of reality; helping them believe they as the character were in the given circumstances at the time. But the detailed research also led him to think the actors must conform to his vision of the play. He believed that he needed to be the person who was responsible for the actor’s truthful expression of emotion. In the early production plans, he wrote out the character’s moves and tones of voice and then provided them with the exact given circumstances to deliver those ideas. These detailed and informative notes characterised his early approach and it wasn’t until later stages of his career that he began to see more how to work with the actors as creative collaborators.

PC: Are the given circumstances his phrase?

RW: It is a phrase from the famous poet Aleksander Pushkin.

‘The truth concerning the passions, a verisimilitude in the feelings experienced in given situations – that is what our intelligence demands of a dramatist.’

Notes on popular drama and M. P. Pogodin’s Martha, the Governor’s Wife

PC: What were the conflicts with Chekhov during the productions?

RW: Chekhov was famously enigmatic, this was because he didn’t want people to interpret his work literally. He was also a great humourist and he was always playing around with people and joking. However, Stanislavski was in some ways quite a literal thinker and quite dogmatic and, as I say, tended to think he was right. At the same time, he was tremendously in awe of writers who he considered to be great artists. At the beginning of their work, I wrote that he thought of Chekhov and Tolstoy as superior human beings and he was quite frightened by how to approach them. So there may have been difficulties with communicating with them and there were also problems of interpretation. Chekhov said that Stanislavski made his characters into cry-babies and with The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov insisted that he had written not simply a comedy but even a farce or vaudeville whereas Stanislavski said that the play, if it belonged to any genre, was a tragedy and he didn’t initially find what Chekhov thought was the balance with the humour in the production. There is a very good article by Nick Worrall, ‘Stanislavsky’s Production Score for Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904)’ on how Stanislavski’s interpretation really was based on an intuition of the play’s symbolic aspects as well as particular staging ideas he had in relation to the characters linked to his ideas about acting.

PC: How did the conflict continue during other productions?

RW: During The Seagull the conflict arose from his difficulty in understanding how to make the play work because there was so little action compared with other plays that he tended to direct. At first, he didn’t understand how you could achieve dramatic tension through undramatic happenings: silences and subtext. The change in ideas about what is the dramatic was also a process that Chekhov went through, with the plays becoming less dramatic as they went along, less dependent on dramatic endings. His different uses of a gun is a great example of how Chekhov played with dramatic action. Ivanov ends with Ivanov shooting himself onstage; the gun moves offstage in The Seagull; in Uncle Vanya, Vanya waves a gun about but doesn’t actually shoot it; Tuzenbach gets shot in Three Sisters, but again it’s off stage; then in The Cherry Orchard, Charlotta Ivanova comes on with a gun but it’s never actually used. He took this fundamental emblem of 19th century historical and romantic dramas and plays with its dramatic importance.

PC: Was Stanislavski’s style of direction more easily connected with tragedy?

RW: No, he developed his style in relation to what he was working on and he had always worked with comedies. He performed in Russian vaudevilles when he was young and always saw Russian vaudeville as essential for training new actors. There were difficulties in interpreting Chekhov’s plays and sometimes in seeing the humour. He did succeed with the plays but there were these points of difference between them. Chekhov would never be specific and wouldn’t help Stanislavski by spelling it out. He wanted people to arrive at their own process of understanding.

Stanislavski’s Actors

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

  • key collaborations with other artists
  • theatrical style
  • influence
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: Who were the key actors working with him on the Chekhov productions?

RW: His wife Maria Lilina and Olga Knipper, whom Chekhov married were the main female actors. Meyerhold was an actor in the company at the beginning. Some famous Moscow Art Theatre actors involved in the Chekhov productions include V.V. Luzhskii, A.R. Artyem, E.M. Raevskaya, Maria Andreeva, Vasily Kachalov, Ivan Moskvin.

PC: How did they respond to him giving them the precise notes? Was there any conflict between him and them?

RW: Yes, Stanislavski’s relationship with actors was often a conflicted one for different reasons at different times. He had a famous temper and thought that his view of acting, his idea of truth, was right. This would tend to lead to all sorts of fiery incidents with actors. In the beginning of the Moscow Art Theatre he was working with actors who he hadn’t trained but who were sometimes established actors and there were conflicts when he tried to introduce The System.

PC: There must have been real conflict with Meyerhold if that was Stanislavski’s approach.

RW: The whole conflict with him (before the emergence of the System) was to do with Meyerhold wanting to develop his own ideas and Stanislavski seeing his way of doing things as the legitimate one. Maria Ignatieva has written a book called ‘Stanislavsky and Female Actors: Women in Stanislavsky’s Life and Art’ which gives a detailed description of how he worked with female actors looking at the influence of his mother Elizaveta Alekseyeva; his artistic mother, Glikeria Fedotova; his wife Maria Lilina; as well as, Maria Andreyeva and Olga Knipper.

PC: Were Stanislavski’s productions the first time truthful acting had been seen on the Russian stage?

RW: No, he didn’t think he was bringing truthful acting to the Russian stage. He had been influenced by Shchepkin and the Maly Theatre. He was against the old declamatory style of acting, the sort of romantic style of acting that had been popular and used classical and romantic plays that were the traditional fare of the Russian stage before the Moscow Art Theatre started. Shchepkin was a serf actor who had on one occasion, instead of declaiming something, spoken a speech in his natural voice. This was seen as highly significant and a big breakthrough. The main so-called ‘Golden Age’ writers for the Russian theatre, Pushkin and Gogol, wrote for Shchepkin and he became popular for his truthful acting.

Stanislavski, Naturalism and Realism

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

  • key collaborations with other artists
  • theatrical style
  • theatrical purpose
  • influence
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: How do these changes tie in with Stanislavski’s ideas on Naturalism and Realism?

RW: It was changing quite rapidly. People always want one definition of naturalism and one definition of realism Stanislavski’s own ideas were very fluid and open to artistic interpretation. At the beginning of the Moscow Art Theatre, Stanislavski was very aware of what had been happening in France with Emile Zola and André Antoine. He also saw the Naturalism of the German Saxe-Meiningen Theatre as a model of historical detail, specifically in terms of how it could help the actors to immerse themselves in the given circumstances of the play in order to achive ‘truth and belief’. Nemirovich-Danchenko despised this ‘crude’ naturalism as he saw it and there were often arguments about Stanislavski getting actors to find details from their life in order to fulfil a role. Nemirovich-Danchenko believed acting to be much more artistic and inspired. But they both quite quickly moved away from naturalism to thinking about realism. Working on Chekhov introduced them to the notion of ‘refined realism’. They looked at Chekhov’s plays in a very realistic, accurate socio-political context but this was refined in a way that moved towards the symbolic. Chekhov referred to his own work as ‘poetic realism’. At the end of The Cherry Orchard, you get the sound of the breaking strings happening but none of the characters are aware of it, suggesting a kind of symbolic dimension to this play whereas the characters are aware of everything else that happens on stage in all Chekhov’s plays. By all accounts, Chekhov’s work was going to become more symbolic if he had lived. Stanislavski used the term ‘spiritual naturalism’, in relation to Chekhov’s work. They began to talk about ‘refined realism’ and also this term of ‘artistic realism’, both far from the more contemporary ideas of ‘kitchen-sink realism’.

PC: Was there a connection with painters?

RW: Yes, Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko had quite a lot of discussions related to realist painters of the time; their realism was always painterly, an interpretation of realism according to that particular painter. They all might paint the same bowl of fruit, or landscape but the painting will have that particular painter’s perception. That’s exactly how they thought about realism and the realist plays that they were working on. Stanislavski includes this very useful definition in My Life in Art.

“We moved away from this crude naturalism of attention to surface detail into other ideas, into realism being something that depicts what’s going on underneath the surface of life.”

There is not one realism, there is still this artistic interpretation.

Stanislavski and Improvisation

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

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

PC: What was unique about the development of the Woe from Wit production?

RW: With the development of Active Analysis and what is known as the Method of Physical Action, the actors would essentially would use improvisation after Stanislavski had done some blocking; they knew what the moves were and then they added in the actors’ tasks. It was a move away from around the table analysis to a more practical approach. Again, this caused conflict with Nemirovich-Danchenko and some actors who were very much used to a more literary analysis. But Stanislavski came to feel there was no point sitting around discussing everything and trying to plan everything in detail because things are going to evolve as you work with the actors. He no longer felt the need to start with the whole text but instead took certain aspects from the text and fed more and more things in through improvisation and discussion with the actors.

PC: Was the improvisation within a set or were they using mimed objects?

RW: It’s difficult to know exactly what happened on a production set but in the training they do at this point there is lot of improvisation with imaginary objects and that was tremendously important in the development of the system. It was not just to do with authentically creating a reality, but also what kind of quality created that reality. Actors needed to be able to experience the world as it was and then translate it into the stage experience because they haven’t become numb to it. The work with imaginary objects is not just to be able to replicate what you do in real life, but it’s about rediscovering it. It’s so easy for people to become so habituated to what’s going on: to walk the same streets all the time; not really looking; having conversations with people but not really listening to them. A lot of Stanislavski’s work is about being in the moment and responding in the here and now, the present. Part of that is responding to objects as you did when you learned to handle them: being sensitive to the weight of a door rather than just barging through it, instead you’ve stopped to think about what you need to do to open the door. This was meant to lead to a very fine acting with a precision of movement. Stanislavski really emphasized improvisation and so did Lee Strasberg, who I think is beginning to be recognized as much truer to Stanislavski than has been thought. Stanislavski thought for an actor to be truthful, it must be formed by authentic emotion which draws on the actor’s experiences and I think that’s the key thing that Strasburg picked up on.

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