Within the Stanislavskian Tradition: The Work On Intentions

by Stefan Aquilina

On seeing a work such as TWO, many observers assume that what is most striking about it is its total negation of a realistic, traditional form of presenting theatre.(1) Observers tend to believe that the driving goal behind the research conducted within the Icarus Performance Project (Malta) is the search for a highly non-realistic form of presenting theatre. The lack of a conventional plot structure, storyline, characterisation, and life-like diction are usually the arguments brought forward to justify such claims.

Few of such claims are aware that the research carried out within the Icarus Project is rooted in an almost century-old tradition. It is the tradition which harks back to the work carried out by Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938). Many theatre researchers today argue that Stanislavski’s greatest contribution to theatre-making has been his ‘system’ and its emphasis on emotive memory. Although it is true that when working with actors throughout the middle phase of his career (c.1907-20), Stanislavski did give utmost importance to the recall of precise emotions, such statements seem to totally brush over Stanislavski’s last phase of work which focused exclusively on Physical Action. In his last years of activity, Stanislavski asserted that the actor’s work on Physical Action is a much more reliable path towards creativity than emotive research.(2)

The point that Stanislavski’s research is relevant only to one particular kind of presenting theatre, i.e. the realistic presentation of such dramas as Chekhov’s, Shakespeare’s, and Ibsen’s, has also been repeatedly mooted.(3) While it is true that Stanislavski’s chosen form of presenting dramas was generally realistic, many theatre researchers fail to realise that in his mature work, realistic presentation was never the goal which he was searching for. Stanislavski’s final years of research need to be defined in different terms. This is evident from the analysis he gives of the post-1917 Russian Revolution stagings. Although he gave credit to new and startling forms of stagings, adding that in some cases they had to be considered as ‘piquant and sometimes talented artistic forms’,(4) Stanislavski noted that the majority of these stagings were leaving audiences cold. The quality of the presentation was undoubtedly there, but the quality of the actor’s work, which is what touches the spectator, was lacking. The form of the presentation, remarks Stanislavski, can never be the ideal channel for the actor’s creativity: it can never substitute the long and persistent work on himself which the actor undertakes. Towards the end of his autobiography, therefore, Stanislavski writes that:

Having tried all the means and methods of creative work in the theatre; having been enthusiastic about all sorts of production along the costume drama, symbolic, ideological and other lines; having mastered production forms of various artistic tendencies – realistic, naturalistic, futuristic, statuary, schematised, exaggeratedly simple, with drapes, screens, tulle, and all sorts of lighting tricks, I have come to the conclusion that all these things do not constitute the background that the actor needs to show his creativeness in full.(5)

That Stanislavski did not emphasise the (realistic) form of presenting theatre accounts for the fact that his research is still relevant today. By turning his attention to the work of the performer rather than to the search for a particular form of presentation, Stanislavski made it possible for subsequent generations of theatre-makers to use his findings as the basis of their work. The perfect example here is Grotowski. Grotowski was a true heir of Stanislavski. While giving due respect to the great master, Grotowski did not slavishly imitate Stanislavski’s work, but rather sought to be influenced by its ethic.(6) Like Stanislavski, Grotowski believed that the form of presentation must never be the goal of the theatre-maker’s research, adding that no one form of presentation is necessarily better than the other.(7)

A better channel for creativity is, according to Stanislavski, the creation of a precise series of Physical Actions, each defined through an equally precise intention. The definition of every intention, which goes hand in hand with every action, is essential if the action is to be deemed as such rather than as a mere physical activity or movement. Toporkov gives several accounts of how Stanislavski directed the actors’ work towards the creation of the correct intention(s). In one rehearsal for The Embezzlers (1928), Toporkov was rehearsing the following scene. After years of wandering, Vanechka, the character Toporkov was playing, found himself in a village very near to his birthplace. Vanechka’s feelings are kindled: he finally has the opportunity to see his mother again. On realising this he enters into a discussion with some peasants at a tavern regarding his childhood and mother. Toporkov first approached this important scene through the emotive angle, by trying to tap the emotions evident in the monologue: nostalgia, anxiety and sadness. Stanislavski, however, directed Toporkov to take a diametrically opposite direction: ‘What does Vanechka do here? What does he want from the peasants? Only one thing: that they will tell him the way to where his mother lives.’(8)

‘To get directions in order to arrive to where Vanechka’s mother lives’ is the intention which will direct Toporkov’s actions.(9) It is the actor’s most important task to create a line of such actions and intentions, and then to execute them. Once these intentions were defined and structured in a precise line-of-action, Stanislavski deliberately chose to manifest them in a realistic form selected from a wide range of options available to him – like, for instance, Realism, Impressionism, Futurism, and Symbolism. The work on intention, however, remained Stanislavski’s greatest priority.

The work within the Icarus Project, especially the process leading to TWO, has various resonances with Stanislavski’s work on intentions. The emphasis of the Project’s investigation on the work of the performer, on the performative state of being rather than on the creation of an unconventional form of presentation is, similarly to Stanislavski, manifested in the importance we attribute to the work on intentions. In rehearsal, Caroline and I have become accustomed to Frank requesting over and over again that what is of utmost importance is not the mere execution of the design of a series of actions but the habitation of this form. To inhabit this form one needs to know exactly why that particular action is being carried out. One needs to be aware, in other words, of its intention. These intentions are not always directly linked with the way they are possibly read by an observer, e.g. Caroline’s ‘looking at the floor’ sequence of actions is not based on ‘searching for something’, but, rather, on ‘counting the grooves within and between each wooden plank of the parquet’.(10)

To illustrate in more detail the way we have worked in TWO, I would like to refer to the fragment of action with the chair. What are these actions? I drop on the chair, I lift my left leg, turn towards Caroline and shout ‘Ejj’ at her. Then I get up from the chair, lift it and turn to face the opposite side of the hall. In this position I slide my hands down the chair’s back, sit down and look towards Caroline. Finally, I fall from the chair to the floor and do a sequence of quick movements to get back on the chair.

The execution of these actions would simply result in the carrying out of a number of activities, movements: only on defining the layer of intentions would these activities turn into Physical Action. An entry from my diary shows how I tackled the issue of intentions:
I keep the communication going. I sit down on the chair. I look at her. She sings beautifully, one must say. I slowly look at her, as if I am seeing her giving a show or a concert. I relax a moment in order to concentrate on her singing. But hey, this other inhabitant of the space is not even acknowledging me. She has not even turned her head towards me. That is not how a ‘singer’ should behave. Let me therefore try to attract her attention. Let me play the fool in front of her; she must necessarily direct her attention at me if I do so. I slowly slide downwards from the chair, very slowly … until suddenly I drop to the floor. I turn rapidly, get my hips near the chair’s leg and in a quick succession of actions find myself back on the chair. I chose this fast tempo in order to attract her attention. On the chair I am with my back towards her and therefore I look backwards to see the impression I made on her.

This quotation testifies to the amount of detail a performer must put into the process of creating intentions: Why do I turn my head to the left? To watch the other performer singing. Why do I drop to the floor? To attract her attention. Why do I want to attract her attention? This is work on intention, not merely on the execution of a personalised choreography of physical movements.

This analysis leads me to tackle one final assumption that many people have when seeing works such as TWO. We live in a society which constantly seeks to put things in categories: this is also very much evident in theatre. We have, among others, ‘traditional theatre’, ‘abstract theatre’, ‘musical theatre’, and also the much-dreaded term, ‘physical theatre’. The latter is a term which is often used to describe presentations such as TWO. But all these and other categories obscure one very basic point: that all theatre is necessarily ‘physical’ in the sense that all theatre must be (though not necessarily is) founded on the presence of the performer. Both Stanislavski and Grotowski searched for this presence, the former adopting a realistic form to manifest it, while the latter moved in a different direction. In Icarus we are also searching for ways in which the performer’s habitation of a physical score leads to organised presence.


(1) In this essay, the term ‘realistic’ or ‘realism’ is used to refer to that form of presenting theatre that knowingly seeks to imitate life. This imitation lends itself both to inanimate objects (e.g. furniture, sceneries, architecture) and also to patterns of human behaviour (e.g. diction, relationships, movement).
(2) Whereas Stanislavski started experimenting with emotive memory in his production of A Month in the Country (1909), from as early as 1914, while working on a production of Woe From Wit, we already find him setting out ‘the basic principle on which all his later work was founded: that a performance is based on a definition of an action, not on a search for emotion’ (J. Benedetti, Stanislavski: His Life And Art, Great Britain: Methuen, 1999, p. 224). This approach towards Action and emotion would become even more drastic as Stanislavski furthered his research. For an account of how Stanislavski rejected the term ‘emotional states’ he himself had coined, in the process directing the actor’s attention to Action rather than emotion, see V.O. Toporkov, Stanislavski In Rehearsal, trans. by C. Edwards (New York: Routledge 1998), p. 157.
(3) See M. Gordon, The Stanislavski Technique (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1987), p. x.
(4) K. Stanislavski, My Life In Art, trans. by G. Ivanov-Mumijev (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, undated), p. 450.
(5) Stanislavski, My Life In Art, p. 458-59.
(6) J. Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 15-16.
(7) J. Grotowski in I Said Yes To The Past, an interview with M. Croyden, in The Grotowski Sourcebook, ed. by R. Schechner & L. Wolford (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 86.
(8) Toporkov, Stanislavski In Rehearsal, p. 54.
(9) Another, more direct example is worth citing. Opening the door is a mere physical activity, but opening the door with the intention to see whether a corpse is behind it is something totally different. The intention qualifies the action to be as such. (Gordon, The Stanislavski Technique, p. 193).
(10) Cf. Vahtangov definition of and work on intentions in Gordon, The Stanislavski Technique, p. 82-83.