An Actor's Work: A Student's Diary

June 12, 2008

The publication of Jean Benedetti's translation of Konstantin Stanislavski's An Actor's Work on Him/Herself: Part 1 - In the Creative Process of Experiencing and Part 2 - In the Creative Process of Embodiment represents a landmark achievement in Stanislavski studies and provides a valuable new resource for practitioners. This material has previously been available in English only through Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood's translations, An Actor Prepares (1936) and Building a Character (1949). These texts were edited substantially, with misleading translations of key terms and missing extensive sections of the Russian texts, which were published after the English editions, in 1938 and 1955.

Benedetti has done an excellent job, respecting the original Russian while tweaking Stanislavski's wordy and often ponderous style so that the writing flows, telling the story of drama student Kostya under the tuition of Tortsov (both alter-egos of Stanislavski) through two years of a course in acting. His journey takes him from naive enthusiasm through a series of practical experiments with Stanislavski's system, enabling him to gain depth in his acting and tools of analysis and to recognise the false trails an inexperienced actor can take. Chapter by chapter, the students are introduced to the main elements of the acting system, the focus in part one being the inner aspects or "experiencing", and in part two "embodiment". In putting the two books together Benedetti aims to fulfil Stanislavski's desire to present the system as a "unified, coherent psycho-physical technique".

An Actor's Work is not a complete or literal translation. In part two, Benedetti has edited and combined two chapters, "Singing and diction" and "Speech and its laws", into one: "Voice and speech". He omits sections that he deems repetitious and a section on Russian pronunciation. However, he includes materials not previously published in English such as excerpts from the original draft preface to the first part, and supplementary material including lists of exercises. It was a difficult editorial task, as the second volume was assembled from incomplete drafts after Stanislavski's death. It is to be hoped that all the material in Stanislavski's complete works will become available sooner rather than later, but the choices made here have resulted in an elegantly presented and valuable volume.

There are translations with which one could take issue. The translation of the Russian khvatka as "grip" rather than "grasp" obscures the origin of the term in Ernest Wood's Concentration, published in Russia in 1917. Referring to mind, will and feeling as "inner psychological drives" rather than "motivators" may suggest Freudian psychology which Stanislavski hardly knew. The equation of "concentration and attention" obscures the fact that Stanislavski talks almost exclusively about attention, influenced by psychologist Theodule Ribot on the subject. The use of "miming" to translate the idea of working with imaginary objects, an essential part of the sense memory exercises, may add a different nuance to that originally intended. But these are minor points compared with Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood's translation of Stanislavski's phrase describing "the process by which an actor engages actively with the situation in each performance" as "living the part", which has significantly contributed to misunderstanding of the system for generations in the West.

The translations are introduced by Declan Donellan, joint founder and joint artistic director of the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, who pinpoints Stanislavski as promoting acting "brimming with life", and Anatoly Smeliansky relates all too briefly in an afterword how Russian directors have made use of the system since Stanislavski's death. Benedetti contextualises the translations in his foreword. This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in acting, practically or academically, at all levels from schools to the industry.

An Actor's Work: A Student's Diary

By Konstantin Stanislavski, translated by Jean Benedetti
Routledge
736pp
£19.99
ISBN 9780415422239
Published 7 February 2008

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