61 pages 2 hours read

Constantin Stanislavski

An Actor Prepares

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide


Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), one of the most influential and formative practitioners in the history of western theatre, published An Actor Prepares in 1936. The text is based on his work and teachings at the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia. As translator Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood notes, Stanislavski dreamed of creating “a manual, a handbook, a working textbook” (v) for actors. Stanislavski’s technique, which incorporates the practices of many theatre artists that came before him, has become foundational in western acting training. Famously, the Moscow Art Theatre was a home for naturalist and realist plays in conjunction with Stanislavski’s emphasis on truth in performance. Stanislavski directed the premiere productions of plays by Anton Chekhov and staged many other major works. The practice of the Moscow Art Theatre emphasized the ensemble, rather than encouraging stars and celebrity.

Stanislavski wrote An Actor Prepares as a fictional journal, detailing a year-long course in Stanislavski’s acting method. Both Tortsov, the expert instructor, and Kostya, the beginning acting student, represent Stanislavski and his experiences as both an actor and a director. The work details their journey as Kostya moves from an inexperienced and undisciplined actor to one who is beginning to discover truth and access his subconscious. The method emphasizes work and rehearsal, and each step is a process that may not yield immediate results. Tortsov uses the Socratic method, questioning and prodding his students to discover the answers themselves through trial, error, and repetition. The purpose of the method is to provide actors with a reliable process to act truthfully without relying on inspiration or luck. Stanislavski emphasizes the hard work that is necessary to create a character, showing that quality takes time but is worth the effort.

Throughout the class, the students pose their questions and voice their doubts, standing in for the reader or acting student who is taking this master class by proxy. This includes Grisha, a particularly adversarial student who argues with nearly every lesson Tortsov offers. This text, however, is an abridged version of a much larger, multi-volume work. The full work, including An Actor’s Work on Himself, Volume I, An Actor’s Work on Himself Volume II (published in English as Building a Character), and An Actor’s Work on a Role (published in English as Creating a Role), were not published until after Stanislavski’s death in 1938. The abridged text of An Actor Prepares has become a primary manual for actors in the United States, leading many readers to believe erroneously that the work constitutes Stanislavski’s entire system. The full versions of Stanislavski’s tomes were finally published in English in 2008 and 2010.