Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian stage actor and director who developed the naturalistic performance technique known as the “Stanislavsky method,” or method acting.
Born in 1863 in Moscow, Russia, Constantin Stanislavski started working in theater as a teen, going on to become an acclaimed thespian and director of stage productions. He co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897 and developed a performance process known as method acting, allowing actors to use their personal histories to express authentic emotion and create rich characters. Continually honing his theories throughout his career, he died in Moscow in 1938.
Early Life and Career
Constantin Stanislavski was born Konstantin Sergeyevich Alekseyev in Moscow, Russia, in January 1863. (Sources offer varying information on the exact day of his birth.) He was part of a wealthy clan who loved theater: His maternal grandmother was a French actress and his father constructed a stage on the family's estate.
Alekseyev started acting at the age of 14, joining the family drama circle. He developed his theatrical skills considerably over time, performing with other acting groups while working in his clan's manufacturing business. In 1885, he gave himself the stage moniker of Stanislavski—the name of a fellow actor he'd met. He married teacher Maria Perevoshchikova three years later, and she would join her husband in the serious study and pursuit of acting.
Opening the Moscow Art Theatre
In 1888, Stanislavski founded the Society of Art and Literature, with which he performed and directed productions for almost a decade. Then, in June 1897, he and playwright/director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko decided to open the Moscow Art Theatre, which would be an alternative to standard theatrical aesthetics of the day.
The company opened in October 1898 with Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich by Aleksey K. Tolstoy. The theater's subsequent production of The Seagull was a landmark achievement and reignited the career of its writer Anton Chekhov, who went on to craft plays specifically for the company.
Over the following decades, the Moscow Art Theatre developed a stellar domestic and international reputation with works like The Petty Bourgeois, An Enemy of the People and The Blue Bird. Stanislavski co-directed productions with Nemirovich-Danchenko and had prominent roles in several works, including The Cherry Orchard and The Lower Depths.
In 1910, Stanislavski took a sabbatical and traveled to Italy, where he studied the performances of Eleanora Duse and Tommaso Salvini. Their particular style of performance, which felt free and naturalistic in comparison to Stanislavski's perception of his own efforts, would greatly inspire his theories on acting. In 1912, Stanislavski created First Studio, which served as a training ground for young thespians. A decade later, he directed Eugene Onegin, an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
During the Moscow Art Theatre's early years, Stanislavski worked on providing a guiding structure for actors to consistently achieve deep, meaningful and disciplined performances. He believed that actors needed to inhabit authentic emotion while on stage and, to do so, they could draw upon feelings they'd experienced in their own lives. Stanislavski also developed exercises that encouraged actors to explore character motivations, giving performances depth and an unassuming realism while still paying attention to the parameters of the production. This technique would come to be known as the "Stanislavski method" or "the Method."
Later Years and Legacy
The Moscow Art Theatre undertook a world tour between 1922 and 1924; the company traveled to various parts of Europe and the United States. Several members of the theater decided to stay in the United States after the tour was over, and would go on to instruct performers that included Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. These actors in turn helped to form the Group Theatre, which would later lead to the creation of the Actors Studio. Method acting became a highly influential, revolutionary technique in theatrical and Hollywood communities during the mid-20th century, as evidenced with actors like Marlon Brando and Maureen Stapleton.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Stanislavski faced some criticism for not producing communist works, yet he was able to maintain his company's unique perspective and not contend with an imposed artistic vision. During a performance to commemorate the Moscow Art Theatre's 30th anniversary, Stanislavski suffered a heart attack.
Stanislavski spent his later years focusing on his writing, directing and teaching. He died on August 7, 1938, in the city of his birth.