Stanislavsky's Actor Cultivation

Stanislavsky the Russian drama theorist was an internationally renowned performing arts instructor in late 19th and early 20th centuries. In China, Asia and even Eastern Europe, from students in drama schools and departments to established actors, almost everybody knew about Stanislavsky. He had become a subject for worship and study for actors ˇV and even directors, producers, and drama theorists. His performing theory had formed itself into a comprehensive system deeply influencing stage performances.

Even when Kuo Hsiao-chuang was with Ta Peng Opera Troupe, she had heard about Stanislavsky's name. It was Professor Yu Ta-kang who told her and gave a concise introduction of Stanislavsky's theory. She had admired Stanislavsky even then, but it was a great pity that she could not get to read his works. It was still the age of "Anti Communism and Repulsing Russia". All Russian works were banned and not in public circulation. It was not until 2 years ago when she went to the USA that she chanced to see Stanislavsky's works at a friend's house. It was like seeking an old friend known for many years. In great excitement, Kuo Hsiao-chuang borrowed both Stanislavsky's "Actors' Self Cultivation" and "Actors Create Roles" and took them back to the hotel where she was staying to read in detail.

"Actors' Self Cultivation" was indeed a classic work in performing art. It set forth a complete and rigorous training method for the nurturing and development of an actor. This training method of Stanislavsky's was the "system" he established. It emanated from teaching experience and stage performance in practice. His theory was therefore structured on actual performances, and revised and enriched time and again. As early as 1907 he commenced with preparation work for the book "Actors' Self Cultivation". It took 30 years before revision was completed and the book was published in 1938. He kept revising the materials collected, the actual examples and the creative moving force of acting, enriching the most effective experience and content. It was especially the case that in late 19th century, the direction of development for European drama had shown degeneration. Shakespeare, Ibsen and Moliere had gradually retreated from the theater. Works from classicism to realism took turns to fall into difficulties. Actors' performance had become formula-driven with no breakthrough. The emergence of Stanislavsky's theory was precisely for revolutionizing actors' performing, saving the crisis of conventional drama, and taking the step forward to enhance the stage life.

As an outstanding actress of traditional Chinese opera, Kuo Hsiao-chuang had known from an early stage how she should do and learn to enhance her own cultivation, so as to be able to stride on toward a bright and correct avenue at the crossroads of the new and old changeover. With her many years of performing experience, now she could compare it with the theoretical system of Stanislavsky, make painstaking sorting out and do systematic summing up. She was indeed greatly moved inside. From Ta Peng's performances, to independent performances of founding Ya Yin Ensemble, and even playing in movies or TV serials, Hsiao-chuang's acting had happened to agree with the Stanislavsky "System". Hence when she read the books she felt a pleasure of "this is speaking my heart". Of course, comparing with Ya Yin Ensemble's performances, some had not yet attained the requirements of Stanislavsky's system; others had taken a step further to develop it. She sketched time and again in the book and made notes. She really had her own ideas about this "Actors' Self Cultivation".

Kuo Hsiao-chuang had done some sorting out of Stanislavsky's theory. She understood most deeply that an actor had to establish proper "self feeling of creativity". This had to start with comprehension in the knowledge of psychology, physiology, aesthetics and drama and then proceed into this specialist territory. In Stanislavsky's teaching training, he paid special attention to the relaxation and tension of muscles, passionate experiences, and analysis of passionate memories, thoughts, feelings, languages and interaction. He also grouped the creative performing process of an actor into 6 main stages:

The first was the process of will: one had to arouse oneself to generate the desire to perform.

The second was the process of seeking: one had to think by oneself how to perform, and collect materials that could help oneself to perform creatively.

The third was the process of experiencing: one had to create for oneself under circumstances of being "unseen" by others, i.e. "imagine" by oneself the mental state and action state of the part one was playing.

The fourth was the process of expression: one had to create for oneself under circumstances of being "seen" by others, i.e. "observe" the living and actions of real people one was playing.

The fifth was the process of convergence: the actor had to combine what he gathered from "experiencing" and "observation" into an integral creation.

The sixth was the process of affecting the audience: This was in actual fact the phenomenon of an actor making use of his creative acting to effect high standard performing, making the audience empathize, and showing emotions of being moved.

These were the six stages of the process of cultivating acting for an actor, all the way to creative performance. It can be said to be the establishment of a theoretical system and a structure of scientific function. Kuo Hsiao-chuang compared it to her performances after she grew up, in particular every show after she made her fame and founded Ya Yin. Whatever role she played, first she would concentrate her thoughts on the part's thinking, emotions, language and behavior, and she also looked for a moving force to make herself interested, passionate and purposeful in playing the part. In the Ya Yin shows, she took part from the very beginning in discussions on the script and even gave suggestions. Sometimes she even insisted on where the emphasis should be for the whole show. This was all because she had entered deeply into the part. At this time, the writing of the script was echoing with her intention in acting.

In research work, Kuo Hsiao-chuang's earnest attitude was commendable. In gathering materials, she read, asked, listed and ultimately turned it all into materials for her creation. Take the opera "Tou O", in order to play the part of Tou O to perfection and give it a new interpretation, she strengthened the scenes on family relations to evince the theme of filial piety. So she reread all sorts of scripts on "Tou O", in particular she collected and carefully read articles on Kuan Han-ching's background and motive in writing, and critical essays on Kuan's works throughout the ages. She then studied and discussed with Meng Yao the playwright. These formed the focus of her performance. Strictly speaking, this was also the special characteristic of her performance.

In acting, she followed the script's design of the part, from emotional rises and falls in joy, anger, sorrow and happiness, and matching songs or dialogues, she created different actions. From movements of hands and fingers, turning of the waist and limbs, changes in steps, to movement of eyes, etc., Kuo Hsiao-chuang had to immerse in the part and envision its inevitable acts, thus creating a whole series of actions, making them express also the part's thoughts, words and deeds on the foundation of aesthetics.

Experience and expression were the mainstay of the Stanislavsky system, and important self-cultivation for actors training up their acting. After reading and familiarized with the script, having completely grasped the special characteristics of the part, at this point the actor had to do some thinking and designing for the performance. First of all, imagine the part's characteristics in the mind to make it a concrete entity, and perform according to one's own creative command. In fact, such virtual and imaginary performance was entirely the product of one's own experience and wisdom. In this experience of virtual reality, one could revise time and again to make it attain the realm of the best and the most perfect.

Having completed the process of experiencing, there would be certain circumstances in the plot in which one could not design the action just on the basis of imagination, but which had to be observed and figured out in real life before one could produce more realistic and more moving performances. For instance, in the opera "Return to Yueh", Hsi Shih played by Kuo Hsiao-chuang returned to her native country after destroying the Wu State. She was received as a hero in triumph. In particular Fan Li her old flame was most tender and affectionate to her and a happy ending was expected. At this juncture, Hsi Shih was unexpectedly found to be pregnant, carrying the baby of Fu Cha the late King of Wu. This was new creative plot, leading to a whole series of conflicts, including natural enmities and conflicts, personal loves and mother's love. The entanglement of these subplots strengthened the dramatic nature and was something new for the audience. In order to play the part of Hsi Shih well, during the process of creative expression, Kuo Hsiao-chuang kept imagining and designing in her heart to prepare for the performance of the part. In the past there had never been any performance in Chinese opera of a pregnant woman. This time Hsiao-chuang made up specially to emphasize the part of pregnancy. But the movement and real feelings of a pregnant woman had to be meticulously fathomed through detailed observation of pregnant women in general in everyday life. Then the movements were beautified before it completed this part of the drama for Hsi Shih.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang paid special attention to the process of convergence. Stanislavsky had repeatedly stressed in his lectures that, on the one hand, the actor himself should systematically assemble the results of experience and expression to form a complete image of performing, and decide on the model of creative acting for this time after communication with the director. On the other hand, one should take one's own moods, feelings and thoughts and transmit them to the others after designing their beautification by oneself. At the same time one had to appreciate other people's moods, feelings and thoughts and make organic responses to further manifest sustained performing. The former was design of one's own part. And the latter meant he had to face the other actors and be affected by playing together with them in the same scene. What Stanislavsky stressed was that an actor should have his own independent performance, his own self being an entity of performing art. But at the same time a performance of two people together or even a whole group of people on stage displayed the beauty of harmony.

Affecting the audience and rousing their emotions was a dramatic effect of a high degree. Traditional Chinese opera and the theater both held the audience in high regard. Applause throughout the auditorium accompanied the development and growth of Chinese opera. On issues about actors and audience raised by Stanislavsky and on Chinese opera's overall development, Kuo Hsiao-chuang expressed her unique view as follows.

"As an actor one could not do without the audience. You may allow the audience to blend with you as one owing to your stage performance. But you absolutely must not merge as one with the audience in order to appeal to them. That is to say, only you can lead the audience to enter into your space of acting, but you cannot enter into their space of appreciation just to appeal to them."

These words of Kuo Hsiao-chuang's mainly explained that an actor should use his own mature and moving acting to lead the audience to enter into the dramatic world of the role. But one must not use actions and expressions that attract audiences in particular in order to cater to and please the audience. In the past, in a conventional theater, audiences who had tea and melon seeds were the mainstream in theaters. The hustle and bustle represented a full house. At that time, during shows of Peking opera and other regional operas, it was often seen that when the female lead came on stage she would always make beckoning smiles to the audience, or throw amorous looks, or purposely pointed at the house in a most seductive manner, hoping to win the cheering and applause of the house. Male parts would also very often deliberately stand still in a theatrical stance and turn to face the house after doing an eye catching action. The audience would understand that this was the actor demanding applause as encouragement. This interaction between actor and audience was a common practice in Chinese opera. But if one was not careful it would easily lapse into currying favor with the audience. The renowned Peking opera actor Kai Chiao-tien had once said the following:

"My beard swinging and beard stirring is at every point thinking of the audience, always fearing that the audience cannot see my own forte. But I am not showing off skills. I am acting."

Kai Chiao-tien did not forget the audience in acting. This was a tradition for Chinese opera players, and in fact a spiritual tradition of stage drama.Aimed at the process of affecting the audience, Stanislavsky had many times required that a good stage actor had to "forget the audience". But forgetting the audience did not mean doing without the audience, but rather that in the actor's heart there must only be the part, the entire self completely merged into the second self of the part, before a whole set of complete acting could be perfectly created. One must not go on stage still thinking of the audience down there, or even be distracted every now and then by waiting for cheers and applause from the audience. If an actor could not focus his thoughts and selflessly enter into the part, there could hardly be any moving acting. Hence in Stanislavsky's system he strictly required actors to forget the audience. Just create.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang could well appreciate Stanislavsky's famous words "Forget the audience. Just create." Especially for the Chinese opera field and opera players, there was only life when there was applause in this archaic world of traditions. And for opera players, whether they could make a living and get a meal from the Old Masters would entirely depend on the audience's applause. In such a traditional art form entirely dependent on immediate reactions of the audience, to want to break through traditional habits now and persist in innovative efforts would require not just courage, but also wisdom and vision! In fact, Stanislavsky's theory gave an encouraging energy to the performance of Chinese opera. Kuo Hsiao-chuang had very early felt averse to the entrance and exit appearances in Chinese opera, for the purpose of winning immediate ovation from the audience, but in practice unable to create overall dramatic effects. The two almost went separate ways and were difficult to blend into one. Ya Yin Ensemble had tried to reform this several times and fulfilled this wish only in the staging of Tou O. Kuo Hsiao-chuang, mindful of the point "Just create", boldly eliminated the traditional entrances and exists, to be replaced by curtain rises and falls. In the first scene of "Night Weaving", the curtain rose slowly, showing a stage scene of one solitary lamp with Tou O weaving. One saw a scene of serenity, without the cheering when conventional Chinese opera characters appeared on stage. The whole auditorium was quiet and noiseless, completely wrapped in the stage scenery and atmosphere. From the very start, the audience were drawn into the drama. This feeling filled with dramatic tension was the creativity Kuo Hsiao-chuang was seeking.

What could spark even more creative momentum in Kuo Hsiao-chuang was Stanislavsky's "Highest mission theory". Stanislavsky wished to elevate an actor's cultivation to the level of an artist, hence he linked performing closely with literature, from novels to scripts, from scripts to performing. He created the theory of "Author's highest mission". What was the "highest mission"? Tolstoy went through a lot of trials and tribulations in his life, devoted to seeking the supreme goodness and love in human life. His immortal work "War and Peace" was exactly manifesting such a theme. And Dostoevsky's famous work "Brothers Karamazov", on the other hand, depicted in depth the good and evil in human nature. These spiritual themes were the writers' highest mission.

Similarly, a play must possess such literary spirits of humanity. That was the playwright's highest mission. For example, in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", the theme embodied in the work was to show how love could thaw hatred. This was a theme praised through the ages, because he used the tragedy to illustrate and develop it from the opposite angle, and was very touching. This was the playwright's highest mission. Since the work had strong attraction, it could attract the actors to love the parts they play, and to try their utmost to act out the highest mission endowed by the playwright, displaying perfectly the script's intentions and spirits.

What Stanislavsky emphasized here was that the theme displayed by the script was the "highest mission" of the whole play. The director, the actors and the stage designer had to express themselves in concert with it. Kuo Hsiao-chuang understood completely the relationship between the actor and the script. Even though everybody understood the importance of a script to an actor, Stanislavsky had theorized it and given it the steps and ways for implementing it, to the great benefit of posterity. In every show of Ya Yin's, Kuo Hsiao-chuang always gave high regard to the script. Especially to her own part, she would not miss any detail. But Stanislavskyˇ¦s "Highest mission theory" meant studying and discussing with the playwright the theme and meaning of the script time and again. What in fact should it show? What was in fact the whole spirit of the play? She would ask herself again and again, then asked the playwright to strengthen arrangements of the plot, and required actors to make this the main point in performing. In Tou O, her creative "highest mission" for this play was placed in filial piety. Hence in the court torture scene, she saw her mother-in-law suffering all the tortures and could not help coming forward and "confessed" her own guilt in order to rescue her mother-in-law from the ordeal. When Kuo Hsiao-chuang was performing, she strengthened the communication through Tou O's facial expressions and movements, to depict the filial piety of a frail woman. Hence later on when she faced her execution there was snow fall in the hot summer of the sixth month. Even the heavens were crying great wrong for the filial daughter. This successful fulfillment of the highest mission was in fact the successful creation of an artistic work.