Stanislavski & Brecht : Performance Theory

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Konstantin Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold are seminal figures within performance theory of the modern theatre, most notably for their individual development of systematic approaches to actor training during the turbulent period in Russia between 1898 and 1940.  In a superficial comparison of Stanislavski and Meyerhold’s performance techniques they appear to be polarized opposites.  Stanislavski established himself as a prominent figure in the modern theatre through his revolutionary investigations into psychology and its capacity to unite an actor with his character in order to produce psychological realism and emotional authenticity within performance; in contrast, Meyerhold approached performance from a more physiological perspective and was fundamentally concerned with symbolism and social commentary rather than emotional realism.   Although different in their stylistic concerns Stanislavski and Meyerhold share similarities in their practical methods of actor training. Both practitioners based their approaches to acting on the premise that mind and body actively engage in a psychophysical continuum, which they viewed as fundamental in the development of a performer. In the following paragraphs I will compare and contrast Stanislavski and Meyerhold’s varying approaches to the hybrid relationship between psychology and physiology within theatrical performance while acknowledging the social, philosophical and cultural movements which influenced their approaches. I will begin with an introduction to Stanislavski’s advocation for a psychological approach to performance through a discussion of his psychoanalytical approach to characterization and its capacity to inform physical action. I will then compare Stanislavski’s method to Meyerhold’s physiological approach to performance through an investigation into his use of biomechanics and objective psychology.

Konstantin Stanislavski was the first modern practitioner to investigate the hybrid relationship between psychology and physiology in theatrical performance and training. According to Sharon Marie Carnicke in her essay, Stanislavski's System: Pathways for the Actor, ‘Stanislavski rejected the Western conception that divides mind from body.[1]’ and embraced the concept of psychophysicality in his approach to theatrical expression. During his career Stanislavski developed a quasi-scientific approach to actor training informed by the study of Psychophysics, a science that investigates the duality of human experience as both psychological and physical. Psychophysics is essentially interested in the ways in which stimulation of either the body or mind affects its counter-part, that is, how psychological stimulation affects physiology and similarly how physical stimulation affects psychology. The concerns of psychophysics are relevant to theatrical performance because in order for an actor to perform convincingly he must have an acute understanding of the relationship between his body and mind as well as how to utilize this relationship. As noted by another seminal practitioner interested in psychophysics, Vsevold Meyerhold, ‘the arts differ according to the nature of their medium…the actors medium is himself. His own face, his body, his life is the material of his art; the thing he works and moulds to draw out from it his creation.’[2] Stanislavski was interested in psychological stimulation and its affects on physical action within the theatre. His psychological approach challenged traditional notions of theatrical performances such as pantomime, which focused primarily on physical expression. He stated, ‘One must give actors another path: One of these is the path of physical action. But there is also another path: you can move from feeling to action, arousing feeling first.’[3] His approach was largely informed by French psychologist Theodule Ribot, who believed that emotions never exist without physical consequence. Stanislavski thus developed a new ‘path’...
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