Stanislavski and Chekhov: Head-to-Head
Below is a comparative analysis I have been working on between Stanislavski's System and Chekhov's Method. Let me know if you think I got something wrong or left something out.
Michael Chekhov began studying with Stanislavski when he was accepted into the Moscow Art Theatre at the age of 19. Stanislavski quickly recognized him as unusually gifted and would later refer to him as his “most brilliant student”. Chekhov was greatly influenced by Stanislavski’s System as well as by the teachings of his contemporaries, Vakhtanov and Meyerhold. From the former, Chekhov appropriated the ideas of Objective, Action, and Given Circumstances, from the latter two, he took the ideas of Fantastic Realism and Artistic Truth. Over time, Chekhov would incorporate ideas from Aristotle to Rudolph Steiner, as well as his own innovations to create his own unique approach to theatre and acting.
This is a brief attempt to compare the two techniques both in principal and in practice.
Stanislavski created his "System" because he was largely frustrated with the purely external approach that was prevalent in his day. His technique starts with the actor’s own psychology as a touchstone to create character. In practice, this leads to the actor’s self-evaluation in order to understand what might motivate him/herself to do the actions laid out in the script.
Chekhov discourages this discussion altogether. He believed we are a holistic system whose body is intertwined with thoughts and feelings. Chekhov believed in the actor’s psychology to create character, yes, but also felt that physical action has the potential to create psychological affects. Therefore, character creation need not begin with the actor’s conscious attempt at analysis and could start from internal or external stimuli.
In practice, the actor might explore a gesture or atmosphere in order to find a truthful emotion or create character. The actor would have to develop a sensitivity and receptivity to these external stimuli in order to achieve a level of success.
Stanislavski felt that it was important for an actor to actually feel the emotions they were portraying on stage. He was influential in creating the first school for actors’ training that included training of the conscious mind to achieve these feelings subconsciously onstage rather than solely voice and movement training.
In practice, many actors conflate “real” emotion with “true” emotion. Stanislavski, while warning against this to some degree, gives little guidance to the actor on actually HOW to separate the two.
Chekhov also felt that it was essential for the actor to experience TRUE feelings on stage. He felt that the actor must hone his body and imagination to create the greatest sense of receptivity to psychological impulses that create genuine feelings. For Chekhov, it is the work with the actor’s body that is entryway into the character’s psychology.
In practice, Chekhov emphasizes the use of “Crossing the Threshold” in order to give the actor a ritualized physical marker to separate “real” emotion from “artistic” emotion.
“The Magic If”
Stanislavski invented "The Magic If" in order to address the problem of acting being too impersonal and reliant on superficial qualities to create character and "emotion". "If this were to happen to me, what would I do?" is the ultimate question that personalizes the character's action and frees the subconscious mind to act with a feeling of truth on stage.
Chekhov felt that "The Magic If" was inherently flawed as it keeps the actor's focus solely on himself within the given circumstances of the character. Chekhov felt that this limited the character to only act within the actor's ego. His question might be, "If this were to happen to my character, what would my CHARACTER do?" Using the actor's creative imagination, the actor communicates with the character in order to find the answer.
In practice, the differences between the two approached are profound; although a good actor is always engaging in transformation no matter how he or she phrases the question. Chekhov felt that the focus must be on the character not on the self. Stanislavski felt the actor had to use his own subconscious as a garden for character development. Chekhov sought to create as much distance between the actor’s psychology and the character’s as possible. Again, a naturally gifted actor is engaging in a transformative experience whether they are consciously aware of this or not. However, Chekhov provides tools within the method to allow any actor to take the focus from their own personalities towards a more comprehensive transformation.
One can argue that Stanislavski always believed that the actor must get the work on it's feet as soon as possible. In his own work as a director, he began to shorten the length of table-talk at the beginning of rehearsals more and more for an increasingly active approach. Etudes are improvised sequences of the dramatic action of the play. This was used to ingrain the through-line of action into the actor's minds and bodies without becoming inhibited by the text.
In practice, this is a very useful technique but tends to be more helpful for the director than the actor. Some actors may still be very insecure about the text at this point and throughout and find themselves giving a “Cliff Notes” version of the play rather than exploring character development.
Chekhov called the rational, analytical part of the brain “The Little Intellect". Chekhov felt that the actor's job lay not in the "Why" of the character, but in the "How". Therefore it was typical for him to forsake table-talk altogether in favor of an exploration of the Atmospheres of the play. Modern Chekhovian directors tend to keep group analytical analysis of the play to a minimum in order to give greater focus at the beginning of rehearsals to Atmosphere, Tempo, and Rhythm.
In practice, the actors find the soul of the play. There is still a strong desire by the actor to get on with the events of the play and the director may feel pressured to do this. It takes a strong will for a director who is just beginning to use this process to trust it and allow it to take hold.
Affective Memory was an early element in Stanislavski's System. It called upon the actor to remember similar emotions or situations and import them into the feelings of their characters. He later distanced his teachings from this approach as his actors began complaining of psychological problems from this tool.
In practice, affective memory can be dangerous and destructive. Use with caution.
There is no use of Affective Memory in Chekhov's Technique. Chekhov found it more useful to act with the objective quality of an emotion in order to achieve truthful results. Chekhov felt that the use of personal memories and feelings inhibited the actor’s creativity and trapped the character in the actor’s personality and ego.
In practice, the actor may be relying on a two-dimensional approach to the emotion and not be playing the quality with a strong sense of truth. A good director must watch out for this and a good actor should try to hone their feeling of truth in order to address this.
Radiation and Receiving
It was Stanislavski who first experimented with the idea of Radiation with regards to an actor’s work. Stanislavski struggled to find a single word to define what he called an “internal, invisible, spiritual” current of energy, which he deemed necessary for actors to transmit during performance either to each other or to the audience. Ultimately he felt his experiments with honing Radiation and Irradiation (Receiving) were only intermittently successful.
Chekhov felt that the actor/artist, even in contemporary theatre, must hone his or her body, voice and imagination so that he or she can identify, work with, and radiate forth various kinds of energy. As such, radiation in an integral part of the training and incorporated into the Artistic Frame of the Psychological Gesture.
Chekhov clearly took much inspiration from Stanislavski’s teachings. However, the main differences lay with Chekhov’s emphasis on the character’s psychology over the actor’s psychology, the use of objective imagination and the actor’s body to tap into the character’s psychology, the ideas of theatrical truth over naturalistic realism, and his expanded emphasis on Radiation/Receiving. Chekhov’s approach tends to be less analytical even than Stanislavski’s late career process. Chekhov constantly sought to keep the creative process active and out of the actor’s head (the Little Intellect).
The Magic If: I've gotten some feedback on this and after sleeping on it, I feel that my original wording was poor. I originally stated that in practice, the difference is quite subtle. What I meant was that good actors are engaged in transformation whether they are conscious of it or not. So whether or not they asking the question for themselves or for their characters, they are still making decisions their characters would make. Upon reflection and discussion, I feel that this is inaccurate in many cases as many actors consistently say things like "my character wouldn't do that." when what they mean is "I wouldn't do that." So I changed it. Hey, a good teacher (something I aspire to be) is always learning. Cheers.