An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski is a book that teaches actors how to perform. It is an attempt to provide structure and framework to acting through instruction, thought processes and exercises. The book is part of a series of works, but due to publishing delays during the second world war, many are unaware it has companion pieces. This first book delves into the psychological aspects of creating a character. An Actor Prepares and its teachings have had a profound effect on many directors and actors.
Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian actor and director. He had reputation for remaining in character when not performing, presumably to rehearse for the role. This trait has been attributed to modern Method actors like James Woods. He co-founded what was to become the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897. This theatre and troupe gained acclaim performing the works of Checkov, who deliberately provided little insight to the characters. This allowed Stanislavski to apply his psychological techniques and flesh out the roles. The Moscow Art Theatre is where he taught and refined the “System”. In 1906, the first formal version of his System began to take shape. An Actor Prepares was first published in 1936.
The book itself is an imaginary diary of fictional student Kostya training under the director Tortsov. Tortsov is a stand in for Stanislavski, as he teaches the System. Kostya records the daily rehearsals and exercises Tortsov has the students in his class perform. The book indirectly teaches through these examples. For example, early on the students perform Othello and when finished Tortsov offers instruction on what they did incorrectly.
The System is what Stanislavski called his collective teachings. Within the System, you will find concepts such as emotion memory, substitution and the magic if. These concepts are related to psychology, which at the time was a mostly unknown field. Actors are encouraged to produce true emotions on stage by either recalling personal experiences the actor has had or by using imagination to elicit the appropriate response. The actor remains in character but is himself experiencing the real emotion, thus being truthful.
Method Acting is modern, American derivative of the System. Lee Strasberg created the Method, but others such as Stella Adler have made contributions. Emotional memory, substitution and the magic if remain the main focus of Method Acting. Both Method Acting and the System incorporate exercises for the actors to complete in order to practice the necessary mental skills. The Breakfast Drink is an example of one such exercise.