Under the Influence: A Survey

By Istel, John | American Theatre, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Under the Influence: A Survey


Istel, John, American Theatre


Educators assess the challenges of teaching acting in the digital age

Aldous Huxley...believed that we are in a race between education and disaster...and wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Constantin Stanislavsky set out with the Moscow Art Theatre to tour the world in 1922. At the first stop in Berlin, the Company's arrival was greeted by a crowd of welcomers, photographers and cameramen hired by American producer Morris Gest. Gest had arranged to film Stanislavsky's arrival to promote MAT's upcoming tour in the U.S., a tour that would help initiate a profound sea-change in the training of professional American actors.

Coming down the steps of the station, Stanislavsky and his son greeted the polite crowd, accepted flowers and stepped into the waiting car. Suddenly, panic broke out among the cameramen: no one could find the director's wife, an actress in the company, and their daughter in order to present them with their floral bouquets.

After Stanislavsky informed the American manager that they had been held up in Latvia, he was led back to the front door of the train station and told to make a new entrance. As he and his son again descended the station steps, they were accompanied this time by a plump, well-dressed woman and a thin young girl. The crowd smiled and applauded once more while the cameras whirred and clicked. Stanislavsky was whisked away, accompanied by the strange women. Before he could introduce himself, however, the car stopped, the two women got out and abruptly disappeared. The next day, Berlin's movie houses were filled with a newsreel entitled "The Arrival of the Moscow Art Theatre Director Constantin Stanislavsky with His Wife Maria Lilina, an Actress in the Theatre, and His Son and Daughter."

Stanislavsky describes his reaction to this media onslaught with detached bemusement in his Selected Writings. More than 70 years later, however, the affect of the media on reality and our perception of it has intensified exponentially, and Stanislavsky would probably no longer be amused.

The Moscow Art Theatre's 1923 tour not only introduced American audiences and theatre professionals to a new approach to acting, but inspired the founding of the Group Theatre less than a decade later, modeled on the Russian company's collective spirit and ensemble-driven aesthetic. Eventually, Stanislavsky's theories would be disseminated by Group members Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasburg. And in emphasizing Stanislavsky's focus on character development through "genuine and creative emotional assimilation" with the role, ensuing acting teachers created generations of performers whose goal of duplicating the inner emotional reality of a character would, ironically, be ideally suited to performance mediums dependent on close-ups, zoom lenses and reaction shots.

Now, on the cusp of the 21st century, theatre and society is changing, in large part as a response to media technology. Although the "Broadway revival is as popular as ever," according to Cheryl Faver, artistic director of Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre and a pioneer in the use of computer applications on stage, the future may witness an "epic theatre of technology, a new form of incredible richness and depth."

So what happens to poor Constantin and other "classic" acting theorists in the studio and classrooms of the future? Perhaps more important, how has the media-drenched environment affected the fundamental human emotional animal on which so many acting techniques were based? Are today's students, routinely exposed to the repeated performance of extreme emotional situations on film and television, the same as a generation ago? …

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