Theatre Practitioners

Theatre practitioners are actors, directors, and playwrights who create theatrical performances and discourses about theatre. They usually create, expand upon, or adapt existing styles of acting and creating theatre in general. Notable practitioners of theatre include Stanislavski, Brecht, Artaud, BerkoffMeyerhold, Boal, and Grotowski.

Obviously, each of the above practitioners have a rich history and complex techniques and views on theatre and acting. In this post, the aim is to give a brief overview of some and help you to understand a little more about each, as well as provide links for extra reading on others. Often, you may find yourself using one or more of these practitioners’ techniques when acting or directing. The practitioners’ themselves were often relatively strict about using their own methods, though in modern theatre it is common to find them combined to bring out the best in different types of performers.

Stanislavski’s System

Konstantin Stanislavski 1863-1938

Konstantin Stanislavski (stage name) was a renowned Russian character actor and director who lived during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, most well known for his “System” of rehearsing and training actors more than in just vocal and physical terms. He has become one of the most influential modern theatre practitioners. This system was known also as the art of experiencing, involving the use of emotional experiences and subconscious behaviours in order to search for the true inner motives of the character the actor is portraying. In this way, the actor should not only known the lines of the character and the motivation behind those lines, but also every aspect of the characters life offstage, producing a naturalistic performance. One way in which Stanislavski’s system and beliefs can be seen interpreted in popular culture is the increasing number of famous movie “method actors” who seem to try to live their character while on and off camera.

Bear in mind that Stanislavski was also often experimental in his work in the theatre  and often used things like symbolism effectively. It is all too easy when discussing Stanislavski to oversimplify his work as simply naturalism/realism.

In order to create realism, there are a number of important elements that are expected;

  • The fourth wall (usually set in a proscenium theatre with a three dimensional, real set, with action taking place realistically).
  • Ordinary conversations written and spoken realistically.
  • Often characters are middle or working class (“ordinary”).
  • Careful rehearsals to create reality.
  • Real settings (no fairytale or fantasy settings).

“Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors.” – Stanislavski

Aspects involved in Stanislavski’s system (taken from BBC website)

Emotional Memory: The use of real life past experiences when similar emotions were felt to the characters emotions at that point, and using those feelings in order to bring life to the character.

Method of Physical Actions: If you imagine the act of brushing teeth, and then imagine a husband carrying out this action whilst deciding on to tell his wife about a mistress. a simple exercise that can show how physical actions can release emotions.

Subtext: This is the meaning and motivation ‘between the lines’ of the lines and action in the text. For example, the delivery of a simple line such as “I love you” can create different connotations.

Given Circumstances: The information given to us about a character and the play as a whole. Ages, situation in the play, relationships to other characters, notes, stage directions. You can often glean more about a characters circumstances by examining the subtext in what they say or do.

“If”: A simple technique involving the question “what would I do in this situation?”. An actor places themselves in the character’s situation and imagines how they would truly react.

Objective: The reason for our/the characters actions – what is trying to be achieved? We often come up against barriers in life, and our objective is to get past these e.g. “I wish to…”. Actors can approach a script using objectives – splitting up the text where objectives of your own characters change.

Super-objective: Simply, an over-arching objective, likely linked to the plays outcome. This is the core of the character, their objectives leading to the super-objective.

Through Line: Characters often go on a journey with their objectives as stages. If this journey is a clear path to the super-objective, you have a through line.

Using various techniques, an actor can create a more Stanislavskian characterisation;

Circles of attention: In order to fully understand and realistically portray a character, an actor has to have a sense of isolation; a first circle of attention, within which only the actor is present and concentrated on themselves. In second and third circles, the actor may be aware of his/her own character, and the others in a production respectively.

Tempo/Rhythm: These should be both inside and out, and were, Stanislavski felt, vital to truthfully move and link to emotions.

Physical action: An actor, much like a musicians instrument, should be tuned/trained and ready to use in the demands of the role, whether physically athletic or emotionally intensive.

Improvisation: This allows the actor to delve into their own emotions and actions when acting a part, and allowing these natural aspects to influence the character portrayal.

Brecht’s Epic Theatre

Bertolt Brecht 1898-1956. Tysk forfatter. Dramatiker.Foto: SCANPIX
Bertolt Brecht 1898-1956

Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and director, who made contributions to dramaturgy and theatre production through the Berliner Ensemble; a post-war theatre company. He lived during the time of both World Wars and served as a medical professional in the first. Following the Nazis rise to power, Brecht fled Germany and his citizenship was removed. This time in which he lived meant he had a strong political viewpoint, and used his theatre work to express these views. Two of Brecht’s works acclaimed for their anti-war and anti-fascist messages are Mother Courage and Her Children and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. At a time when naturalism was at its height in theatre, Brecht used it as a force for change – making audiences think rather than switch off and watch a story unfold, losing the ability to judge and think critically. In order to do this, he used a variety of techniques to remind audiences they were watching theatre, a presentation of life, not real life, unfold. This type of theatre was known as Epic theatre and distances the audience using the verfremdungseffekt.

This ‘V’ effect is the action of distancing or alienating the audience from the action on stage. In order to do this correctly, the audience should be interested and engaged (in order to understand the message being presented) but not emotionally invested in the characters. His work is best used in a context of relaying a political, social, or moral message (think about TIE, theatre in education, and the work they do visiting schools to teach children about drugs or bullying). The most important thing to remember is that Epic theatre breaks the fourth wall that Stanislavski strives to upkeep.

“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect society, but a hammer with which to shape it .” – Brecht

The following techniques can be used in Brechtian theatre in order to create the ‘V’ effect:

Narration: Used to remind an audience they are watching a presentation of a story, often stating the outcome of the story in order to prevent the audience becoming emotionally invested.

Coming out of character: Commenting on a character, as an actor, can remind the audience they are not watching real life. For example, a character could speak their thoughts during an emotionally heightened scene to keep audiences judgemental.

Speaking stage directions: Used more often in rehearsals, speaking the stage directions as they are performed can prevent an actor becoming too emotionally invested in the character, as actors often find themselves wanting to truly become the character.

Placards/Signs: Can be as simple as holding a sign or banner, or using PowerPoint presentations or multimedia. These should be used to deepen audience understanding of the action, not just comment on it, and can be used to force the audience to think about motivations and emotions critically.

Multi-rolling: Where an actor plays more than one roll, marked by a change of voice, movement, or costume, but the change in character by the same actor is not hidden from the audience. Cross-sex casting is also possible.

Split-role: In a different turn to multi-rolling, here two actors portray the same character, keeping the character representational not real. 

Minimalism: In terms of props, set, and costume, they are kept simple and (again) representational. Despite the mise-en-scène being minimal, Brecht believed in authenticity and historicism, and in some cases props in Brecht’s plays are seen as important characters.

Symbolic props: Props used in various ways, such as a briefcase being a car door, a desktop, or a bomb.

Lighting: This is an odd one. In Brecht’s own work, he believed in harsh white lighting to “illuminate the truth”. In modern theatre, however, lighting is often used more creatively – but it is still important that the theatre is seen, such as stage hands moving set, rather than hidden.

Song and dance: This is a surefire way of ensuring audience distancing. Often in Brechtian theatre, the lyrics and melody of a song jar, such as “Ballad of Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, written in part by Brecht; note how the melody is bright and happy while the lyrics are dark and sinister.

Montage: Brecht borrowed this idea from silent movies, using a series of short scenes whose juxtaposition highlights important issues clearly.

Spass: Literally translated; ‘fun’. Brecht realised that while we laugh, we are thinking. Brechtian theatre does not have to be boring, or serious, even when the message is, humour can be used to engage the audience. Spass can also break tension to prevent emotional investment, often using humour in places where it could be called poor taste. The audience laugh, and then wonder why they laughed.

Gestus: A clear gesture or movement to capture a moment/attitude without delving into the character’s emotion. Using photographs of plays, Brecht made his actors think about whether audiences could decipher the meaning of the play through the actors gestures. This works well in the works where characters are not real but stereotypical versions of themselves and are referred to by Brecht simply as ‘The Boss’, ‘The Girl’, or ‘The Soldier’. Think about a soldier saluting proudly on an empty stage, this carries a far different social comment than a soldier saluting proudly over a stage of dead bodies.

Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty

Antonin Artaud 1896 – 1948

Antonin Artaud was a French dramatist, poet, essayist, actor, and director. Due to childhood illness, he suffered mental health issues and physical illnesses throughout his life. He spent a large amount of his later life inside insane asylums, and addicted to opium when outside. This commitment to asylums was due to his physical ticks and delusions, as well as his habit of crafting spells, creating astrology charts, and drawing disturbing images. It was during this period, when they used electroshock therapy on him, that Artaud began writing and drawing again after stopping for a time. Unfortunately, his techniques are not readily translatable, and it is often difficult to attain a true understanding of them. However, he should not be dismissed from modern theatre. Artaud was a part of the surrealism movement and later developed his own theatrical theories. Theatre of Cruelty is an assault on the senses of the audience using violent and confronting imagery, and causes them to feel to feel unexpressed emotions from the subconscious. Although Artaud only ever wrote one play that reflects the ideals of Theatre of Cruelty, the work of many other artists reflected his theories, including Jean Genet, Jerry Grotowski, and Peter Brook.

Artaud is often said to represent the opposite end of the scale from Stanislavski, despising realism, and allowing some of his work to stem from this hatred.

Within Artaud’s work movement, dance, and gesture were as important as text and speech. He investigated the relationship between performers and audience members, placing audiences at the centre of the performance – trapping them within the drama. This style was greatly misunderstood at the time of its conception, and is often misunderstood when applied today. Unlike other practitioners, Artaud left no way of working that can be used by actors to create the exact kind of theatre he wanted.

“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modelled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.” – Artaud

Artaud felt characterisation should harness energy around the actor to create and explore the soul. He believed an actor’s body is all important, like an athletes, and it is through breath that an actor can summon feelings. He broke away from the idea that theatre is a cosy room dominated by dialogue, breaking boundaries and exploring our reality of existence. His work caused performers to use the body, voice, mind, and spirit combined with the sounds and sights of the world – creating a very personal theatre coming from the performer. His theatre of the cruel was known to not only be cruel to the audience but cruel to his actors as well, often pushing themselves up to and past their limits.

A great number of playwrights and directors have been influenced by Artaud, especially the Theatre of the Absurd movement – which sometimes is quoted as originating with Artaud himself.

It is far more difficult to summarise the works and techniques of Artaud in the same way as other practitioners who have set rules or reproducible ideas. However, the following are meant as guidelines as to how performers can create Artaud inspired pieces of theatre:

Auditorium: The stage should be a single, undivided space like a barn or hanger allowing direct communication with the audience.

Audience: In the centre on swivel chairs, with a walkway for the actors above and around them – every part of the space should be used with different levels, engulfing the audience.

Sound: Focus on sounds rather than words, for example; screams were important as they represented the primal release of emotion, and musical instruments were used experimentally.

Costume/design: Costume should be devoid of contemporary relevance and specifically designed for each individual show, but influences should be taken from past designs and cultural rituals. Masks and puppet use was also encouraged.

Tech: All technical aspects should be used to their full extent. Artaud himself was limited by his time but felt the need for more technical equipment was necessary.

Plague: Artaud used the plague as a metaphor for his own ideas about theatre…

“Theatre action is as beneficial as the plague, impelling us to see ourselves as we are, making the masks fall…” – Artaud (Theatre and its Double)

Ritual: Artaud was fascinated by their mystical quality and their ability to generate a high level of engagement.

Double: Dream can be used as an effective tool when performing Artaudian theatre.

Berkoff’s Theatre Technique

Steven Berkoff 1937 – Present

Steven Berkoff is an English character actor, author, playwright, and director. He has a physical, exaggerated style defies the ‘norm’ of naturalistic theatre, proving at once both popular and controversial.

If you would like to read more about Berkoff and his techniques, follow the links below.

OCR Berkoff Information and Exercises

‘Drama and Such’ Berkoff Techniques 

Prezi Presentation on Berkoff

Meyerhold’s Biomechanics

Vsevolod Meyerhold 1874 – 1940

Vsevolod Meyerhold was a Russian director, actor, and producer. He became one of the strongest influences for modern international theatre, with his experiments dealing with physical being and symbolism.

Find out more information by following the links below:

‘The Drama Teacher’ – Meyerhold

A short video about Meyerhold’s biomechanics

Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed

Augusto Boal,
Augusto Boal 1931 – 2009

Augusto Boal was a Brazilian writer, director, and politician. He was the founder of a radical theatre form used in education movements; theatre of the oppressed. It uses theatre for liberation and empowerment of the people.

The following links have more information on Boal and his techniques:

Theatre of the Oppressed – Cardboard Citizens

Full Teaching Manual on Boal

Beautiful Trouble – Boal

Grotowski’s Theatre of the Poor

Jerzy Grotowski 1933 – 1999

Jerzy Grotowski was a Polish director and theorist. His attitude towards acting and theatre production significantly influenced today’s theatre; a key figure in avant-garde theatre. His approach to role has been said to be the most comprehensive since Stanislavski. Theatre of the poor removes excesses of theatre such as lavish costumes or detailed sets – focusing on the skill of the actor and using minimal props.

To learn more about Boal, follow the links below:

‘The Drama Teacher’ – Grotowski

Transpositions – Grotowski

Statements of Principles – Jerzy Grotoowski

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