The Stanislavski Centre talk – Part I

NOTE: I’ve been invited to deliver a talk at the Stanislavski Centre at Rose Bruford College in London on October 20, and have chosen the title “Stanislavsky and the Singing Actor.” Below, a draft of the first part of my talk. I’d love to hear your comments; add them in the “Comments” section at the end of the post!

75 years after the death of Konstantin Stanislavski, the systematic approach to actor training that he devised has had a widespread and profound influence on the theater. His influence extends beyond the training of actors and extends even to the literature itself, as playwrights have come to count on the Stanislavski-trained actor’s ability to communicate texts and theatrical events of increasing complexity and subtlety.

Tonight I want to focus on the impact that Stanislavski has had upon the training of singing actors, which is my own field of professional endeavor. For over thirty years, I have taught musical theater performance classes in a studio setting, and had the happy experience of devising and implementing the undergraduate musical theater course at the University of the Arts over the past twenty years.

The connection between Stanislavski’s pedagogy and the work of the singing actor might appear a bit tenuous at first glance. We associate Stanislavski’s approach to actor training with the works of playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev and with a sort of nuanced approach to truthful realism on the stage that is a far cry from what many musicals seem to require. In the words of Bella Merlin, who has written extensively on Stanislavski and the value of his approach for the contemporary actor, “Stanislavsky’s ‘big thing’ was ‘truthful’ acting,” and it can be difficult to reconcile the notion of theatrical “truth” with the sort of heightened and stylized theatrical expressions that characterize the musical theater repertoire.

Yet it is precisely this paradox – finding a way to create and express oneself truthfully within the artificial strictures of song and dance – that lies at the heart of the training of the singing actor, and I am one of a number of pedagogues who are exploring this paradox in ways that will help young singing actors achieve technical proficiency, artistic excellence and professional success.

The importance of truthful singing acting and the role it plays in both artistic and professional success has changed considerably over the past decades, in parallel with changes in ways in which musicals are written and staged. David Craig observes that “up until the early forties the segregation between a ‘legit’ and a ‘musical’ career was total. In the late thirties, when I first dreamed of making my way in musical comedy, it was a light year apart from its other half, and fraternization was almost unknown. I do not ever recall meeting an actor professionally, and on the rare occasions when we met socially there was a benign disdain implicit in the greeting, the actor holding the opinion that he was considerably higher up the achievement ladder than the hoofer, the belter, the comic, and the denizens of Shubert operetta country.”

This began to change in the 1940’s, not least because of the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and their revolutionary “integrated” approach to creating a musical. Among Oscar Hammerstein’s innovations as a librettist and lyricist was his understanding of the importance of subtext, and in many Hammerstein songs, what is unsaid is far more important than what is said. Hammerstein’s protege, Stephen Sondheim, embraced that fundamental principle and built a remarkable body of work that challenges and inspires singing actors. Choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, who studied the acting techniques of Stanislavski and his American acolytes, effectively incorporated subtext and intention in their dances for works like “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity,” and Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line” was built on an ensemble of triple threats – performers who could act, dance and sing with compelling truthfulness.

College courses offering professional training for the musical stage began to appear in the 1970’s, with the goal of promoting excellence in singing, acting and dancing as well as the successful integration of those three component disciplines. As such artists entered the field and matured, they have inspired a new generation of writers to build works which demand virtuosic singing-acting and inspire performers to reach new heights of artistic achievement. Meanwhile, the segregation that David Craig observed in the forties has all but disappeared, and artists like Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison can have careers that span the range from musicals to plays to television and film.

Achieving integrated singing-acting begins by treating the song as a dramatic text. Whatever other delights a song may provide, whatever enchantment it may work upon the listener, it is also a text that can be investigated – “mined,” in the words of Bella Merlin – in ways that will provide the actor with useful guideposts for interpretation and performance. Stanislavski was a pioneer in his development of procedures for probing and investigating a dramatic text, and provided the world with an invaluable set of concepts and terminology to frame that investigation. Terms like “subtext,” “given circumstances,” “physical action,” “verbal action,” “intention” and “motivation,” all introduced by Stanislavski and now a permanent part of the vocabulary of the actor, are widely used by teachers, directors and students in the musical theater, and Stanislavski’s “six basic questions” can be as productively applied to song repertoire as they can to scenes and monologues.

A quick survey of the literature of singer-actor training will confirm this. Joe Deer and Rocco DalVera’s “Acting in Musical Theater” (published by Routledge in 2008) draws heavily upon Stanislavski’s terminology and procedures. When I queried Joe about his view of the importance of Stanislavski’s approach, he replied:

“I use Stanislavski’s fundamental precepts as the basis for integrating acting with singing, absolutely. Objective, obstacle, tactic, personalization. Whether strictly from Stan (sic), or assimilated from his many followers, it is the most practical and reliable means of “consciously accessing the unconscious” I’ve seen. And it continues to work with my students after almost twenty years of using it to directly address the issue of connecting the work they’ve done in traditional acting classes with that of the singing actor. Once they have a foundation of truthful, personalized, specific work, then we can move on to issues of style, performance, expanded expression, etc. that MT work invites and requires.”

Tracey Moore’s “Acting the Song,” published by Allworth Press in 2008, presents a variety of procedures for exploring the song as a dramatic text, and Tracey also acknowledges the influence of Stanislavski on her approach.

An interesting dissenting voice among the singing-acting teachers who valorize Stanislavsky’s system is H. Wesley Balk, whose work has been highly influential to my own development. Balk’s “The Complete Singer-Actor,” first published in 1977 (the same year I completed my graduate degree), hit me like a lightning bolt of revelation when I became familiar with it in the 1980’s. During the ensuing years, I made a close study of this book as well as his two subsequent books, “Performing Power” and “The Radiant Performer.”

Equally important, I had the opportunity to observe Wes teach and, eventually, to bring him to UArts for a guest artist residency. Though it was late in his life and his classroom demeanor was compromised by symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, I consider that residency to be one of the watershed experiences in my development as a teacher.

Balk writes, “Anyone teaching Acting in America, whether for singers or for actors, must finally come to terms with Stanislavski, or, more correctly, with the naturalistic doctrine based on his teaching. Every young person in our country seems to have acquired either educationally or osmotically an unconscious but voracious appetite for realism-naturalism, whether from films, television or acting classes. The confusion that exists about the terms realism, naturalism and believability has created a swamp of acting systems and jargon surpassed only by the morass of religiosity and terminology surrounding vocal pedagogy.” Balk goes on to discuss how Stanislavski’s precepts have been misinterpreted and oversimplified by a generation of teachers and misunderstood by a generation of simple-minded students.

Balk goes on to conclude that “one must acknowledge that inner truth is vital, as much as external truth. Stanislavski oversimplified does not invalidate Stanislavski. The best thing one can do is follow his example: that of a lifelong search for ways of achieving total artistic truth in the theater, knowing that although the goal will never be attained, it is the process of searching that is important.”

During the time that Balk was creating his book (and I was studying for a graduate degree), Theater Arts Books published “Stanislavski On Opera (1975).” Of course, it comes as no surprise to those schooled in the full scope of the life and work of Stanislavski that he dedicated considerable time and effort in the last twenty years of his life to the training of singing actors, notably at the Opera Studio of the Bolshoi Theater starting in 1919. But to those of us who (as Balk observed) mistakenly associated Stanislavski’s pedagogy with a naturalistic, hyper-personalized performance style, this book was a revelation.

The book consists of a detailed account kept by Pavel Rumyantsev, a student in the Bolshoi Opera Studio, of his experiences training under the master, along with extensive quotations from letters, articles, diary entries and manuscripts by Stanislavski himself. It details Stanislavski’s attempts to mentor his students in their efforts “to combine the art of living a role with its musical form and the technique of singing.” Although the examples cited in the book come from the operatic repertoire rather than the commercial musical theater, the precepts and procedures it describes are equally applicable to the training of singing actors in a wide range of styles.

I suppose at some point in any discussion about “musical theater,” one has to come to grips with the terminology used to define and describe the genre. How can accounts of acting instruction and analysis of scenes from La Boheme or Eugene Onegin be useful for the student who wants to perform in Rent or The Book of Mormon? My particular approach to musical theater is eclectic and wide in its embrace of a range of styles and musical languages, and I think that reflects our current cultural norms. The term “musical theater” is used to describe a wide range of works, ranging from pieces that require voices of operatic scale (Candide, Street Scene, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, Light in the Piazza) to pieces that embrace vernacular modes of expression like rock and soul music (Hair, Dreamgirls, Rent). Particularly fascinating to me are the works that mix elements of elite and vernacular musical theater, like Street Scene, Show Boat, Les Mis and so on. I have always maintained that stylistic open-mindedness and technical versatility are keys to a varied, interesting and successful professional career. People who limit their notion of musical theater (“It’s this but not that”) ultimately limit their own employability.

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