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(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 1/29/2021.)

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s ideas changed the face of theater as much as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the understanding of physics. Stanislavsky wrote his name in the history books as the most influential theater practitioner of the modern era and a central mover and shaker in the world of acting and dramatic training.  
Theater was a source of palpable joy and jubilation to the tall, handsome and charismatic Konstantin Stanislavsky. A foremost actor, director and theater practitioner, he devoted his entire life to the Moscow Art Theater, turning an intuitive idea of what art should be like into reality. Brimming with energy and ideas, Stanislavsky was a brilliant actor, who preferred to portray two-dimensional characters undergoing major transformations. Basically, to help himself, Stanislavsky developed his own dramatic training method, widely known as the ‘Stanislavsky’ system. Super-hyped across the world, it became the foundation for the so-called ‘Method’ acting style. 

Konstantin Stanislavsky as Benedick in 'Much Ado About Nothing' in 1897.

The system, developed over four decades, is an attempt to understand how an actor, no matter what he does on stage, how tired, scared or frustrated he or she is, can experience creative joy “right here, right now”. The system, which arose as an absolute necessity for a given person (and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky), proved to be extremely useful for a wide variety of people in a variety of practical ways in different environments worldwide. Its quintessential ingredient was faith. First of all, according to Stanislavsky, an actor has to fully believe in the “given circumstances” in which they find themselves in the play. The biggest challenge therefore is to learn to believe. Faith, fantasy and vivid imagination are the three pillars of the system (which Stanislavsky modestly described as “my so-called system”.)

Konstantin Stanislavsky as Gaev in 'The Cherry Orchard'.

One way or another, one thing is certain: Stanislavsky was an outstanding teacher, whose famous students included future theater legends Yevgeny Vakhtangov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. His acting techniques and ideas had a far-reaching influence in the United States through the contribution of Lee Strasberg (the “father of method acting in America”).  Strasberg used Stanislavsky’s fundamental guidelines and observations in New York’s famous Actors Studio. He coached Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, just to name a few. Stanislavsky’s observations about his artistic and directorial experience provided vital clues to acting techniques worldwide. 

“Stanislavsky did not invent anything. Using the example of the great artists of his time, he tried to understand, study and, if possible, master the nature of stage play,” one of Russia’s greatest theater directors, Lev Dodin, believes“Stanislavsky wanted to comprehend the nature of human life on the stage, the nature of the birth of a new human substance on the stage, the artistic perfection of this new human being created by the imagination, nerves, intellect and body of the artist. [Stanislavsky] was looking for ways to create this phenomenon. Therefore, when an artist plays well, i.e. convincingly, contagiously, authentically, deeply, with empathy, compassion and joy, the artist plays according to the Stanislavsky system, regardless of whether he knows it or not.”

Family roots

It all runs in the family, they say, and it’s true that Stanislavsky, who had nine brothers and sisters, inherited his undying love for the arts from his loving parents.

The Alekseyev family in 1879.

Stanislavsky was born into a large and prosperous merchant family in Moscow. His real last name was Alekseyev. Konstantin’s father was a third-generation manufacturer and his mother was the daughter of a French actress. 

“I was born in Moscow in 1863 – at the turn of two eras. I still remember the remnants of serfdom… I witnessed the emergence of railways with courier trains, steamships, electric searchlights, cars, airplanes, dreadnoughts, submarines, telephones – copper-wire and wireless – radio telegraphy and twelve-inch guns. Therefore, from serfdom to Bolshevism and Communism. A truly interesting life in an age of changing values and fundamental ideas,” Stanislavsky wrote in one of his best-known works, ‘My Life in Art’. 

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