STANISLAVSKI’S ACTING METHOD AND CONTROL THEORY: COMMONALITIES ACROSS TIME, PLACE, AND FIELD
Bilgrave, Dyer P
Constantin Stanislavski revolutionized 20th century theater by developing a highly articulated and practical system of acting, now referred to simply as “the method.” Stanislavski’s method presents a model of human behavior and motivation that is strikingly similar to the “control theory” of psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier. These similarities are in the areas of (a) the regulation of behavior by goals, (b) the process of goal formation, (c) the hierarchical organization of behavior, (d) the disruption of goals by obstacles, (e) outcome expectancies, (f) the sequencing of behavior into units, and (g) the formation of identity. These commonalities provide something akin to “construct validity” for the basic assertions of each model.
Carver and Scheier (Carver, 1979; Carver & Scheier, 1981,1982, 1985,199Oa, 199Ob; Scheier & Carver, 1988; Scheier, Weintraub, & Carver, 1986) have drawn from systems theory, information-processing theory, cybernetics, and control theory to develop a comprehensive and integrated model of human motivation, emotion, and behavior. They have asserted that the “variables and processes” they have considered “might be very basic indeed” (Scheier & Carver, 1987, p. 204).
Approximately 100 years ago in Moscow, Constantin Stanislavski, director and actor, set himself the task of representing realistic human behavior on stage, a goal in keeping with the new emphasis in the literature of the period on naturalism, a goal directly opposing the highly representational, conventionalized acting style of his day. To accomplish this task, he too created a complex and cohesive model of human motivation, emotion, and behavior, and he too believed that he had distilled some of the basic processes that inform human behavior, both on and off the stage, saying that his acting method “is a part of our organic natures. It is based on the laws of nature” (Stanislavski, 1949, p. 279).
His attempts to isolate these fundamental laws bore great fruit: his theater, the Moscow Art Theater, became arguably the most important, influential theater in the world, and his investigations into the processes of acting revolutionized the field. Today, virtually all training programs for the professional actor in both Europe and the United States are based on his work (Barton, 1989, pp. 104-106), and his concepts and techniques are so basic to acting that theater professionals universally refer to them as “the method.”
These two models of human emotion, motivation, and behavior were articulated in different fields, in different eras, in different countries, and for different purposes. Yet, they are strikingly similar in their descriptions, propositions, and conclusions. These commonalities across profession, time, and place offer something akin to “construct validity” for the basic assertions of each model – these commonalities suggest that both models offer a useful and important perspective on human functioning.
Both models propose that much behavior is purposeful and is regulated by goals and objectives. Scheier and Carver (1988) claimed, “Human life is a continual process of establishing goals and intentions and adjusting current patterns of behavior so as to more closely match these goals” (p. 308). Stanislavski (1961) made a highly similar claim, asserting, “Life on the stage, as well as off it, consists of an uninterrupted series of objectives and their attainment” (p. 51) and observing, “Whatever happens on stage must be for a purpose. Even keeping your seat must be for a purpose, a specific purpose” (1936/1948, p. 33).
EXPERIENCES, SCHEMAS, GOALS, AND BEHAVIOR
Having claimed the centrality of goals in regulating much human behavior, Carver and Scheier as well as Stanislavski then faced the questions of where these goals come from, of how they become embedded in an individual’s psyche. Carver and Scheier (Carver, 1979; Carver & Scheier, 1981) answered these questions by describing how individuals gradually develop mental constructs or schemas to categorize recurring classes of perceptual events. Some of these schemas include information that serves to specify responses to the events, that constitutes behavioral standards. Once one of these behavioral standards is evoked, it automatically becomes a goal or reference value (Scheier & Carver, 1988, p. 303). In sum, according to Carver and Scheier, an individual extracts schemas from raw experience; these schemas frequently include behaviorspecifying information; and this information serves to establish reference values or goals by which an individual regulates his or her behavior.
Stanislavski (1936/1948, 1961) urged actors to undergo a highly similar process of goal-formation as they prepared for their roles. he directed them to extract and articulate the goals of their characters from their scripts, but he also considered this extraction and articulation insufficient to produce realistic behavior on stage. he stressed the importance of “justifying” these goals, of making them deeper, more necessary, more embedded in inner life. he asked his actors to invest considerable time and energy into imagining vividly the relevant experiences and “given circumstances” of their characters – the matrix of time and place, economic background, work history, medical history, social history, and key formative experiences within which their goals were formed. In essence, Stanislavski directed an actor both to articulate his or her character’s goals and objectives and to imagine with as much vividness and detail as possible the character’s raw experience that led to the coalescing of these goals.
Interestingly, Stanislavski described a process that is, in large part, the inverse of the process described by Carver and Scheier. According to Carver and Scheier, an individual “abstracts,” moving from raw experience to goals. As described by Stanislavski, an actor “deepens,” moving from goals to raw experience. In both models, however, the end result is behavior.
OBJECTIVES, BEHAVIOR, ADJUSTMENTS, AND THE NEGATIVE FEEDBACK LOOP
In Stanislavski’s method, behavior is stimulated by desire, by meaningful objectives: desiring to return to Kansas, Dorothy wants an audience with the Wizard of Oz; Chekhov’s three sisters want to get to Moscow; the three ghosts of Christmas want Scrooge to embrace a new, more generous life. Dorothy, the three sisters, and the three ghosts work very hard to achieve these deeply felt desires. These objectives then stimulate effort; the effort changes the situation; and the changed situation then demands an adaptation or adjustment of effort. Dorothy does gain her conference with the Wizard, but he then demands the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy must now adjust. This process of (a) objective, (b) effort, (c) changed circumstance, and (d) adjustment to that changed circumstance continues until the objective is achieved or relinquished, until the final curtain falls.
Carver and Scheier (1990b) would call these examples from theater specific instances of the operation of a negative feedback loop. In this loop, individuals perceive their present conditions, compare these conditions to the reference values or goals embedded in their schemas, and then act to decrease the discrepancy between their present conditions and their reference values and goals. In addition, as they act, they use the consequences of their actions to guide their progress to their goals, making necessary adjustments as their conditions change. Because the purpose of behavior is to reduce perceived deviations from a goal or reference value, the loop is described as “negative.”
In the language of control theory, then, actors play characters who are engaged in especially vivid instances of actively reducing the discrepancies between their perception of their current circumstances and their reference values, between their current realities and their objectives.
HIERARCHICALLY ORGANIZED BEHAVIOR
Carver and Scheier (1981, 1982, 199Ob; Scheier & Carver, 1988) and Stanislavski (1936/1948, 1949, 1961) asserted that human behavior is organized hierarchically, and they postulated similar levels on the hierarchy, these levels varying in degrees of abstraction. Building upon the work of Powers (1973), Carver and Scheier defined nine levels, ranging from muscular tension to system concept. Stanislavski defined five levels, ranging from tension to superobjective. Selected aspects of these two hierarchies are compared in Table 1.
THE LEVEL OF TENSION – THE LOWEST LEVEL OF ABSTRACTION
At the lowest rung in their respective hierarchies, Carver, Scheier, and Stanislavski placed the changes in tension that allow an individual to move and speak. Carver and Scheier (1981) commented, “Only at the very lowest level is the output of the system actually a behavioral output. And at that level the outputs are very basic elements of behavior: changes in muscle tensions” (p. 129). Likewise, Stanislavski (1936/1948, 1961) repeatedly stressed the actor’s need to develop a keen sensitivity to the optimum degree of tension involved in moving and speaking, especially under the intensity and excitement of a performance, to communicate most successfully to an audience the character’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions.
THE LEVEL OF SEQUENCE OR HABIT
To move toward a goal, an individual must engage in a chain of actions; to move efficiently toward the goal, an individual should be able to execute many of the actions making up these chains seamlessly, effortlessly, mindlessly, and in the correct order. To put a fine dinner on the table when time is tight, a cook needs to have already mastered the techniques of dicing and chopping. Carver and Scheier (1981, p. 61; 1982, p. 116) referred to such chains as sequences (level five in their hierarchy). These sequences can be thought of as a series of specific actions that have been sufficiently well learned and integrated to have become automatic habits.
When describing his method, Stanislavski (1949) also stressed the importance of habits. he asked,
What indeed would happen should he [the actor], when he comes to a public performance, still be obliged to be conscious of every movement of hand or foot, of his exact muscular action? That is why the virtuoso pianist or dancer will hammer away at a passage or a “pasa” until it is fixed forever in his muscles, until it has been converted into a simple, mechanical habit. Thereafter he never needs to give another thought to what in the beginning was so difficult to learn, (p. 283)
Carver, Scheier, and Stanislavski all asserted that, through habit, an individual frees his or her attention for the tasks demanded at higher levels of the hierarchy.
THE LEVEL OF RELATIONSHIP OR COMMUNION
Carver and Scheier (1982, p. 116; 199Ob, p. 12) stated that, when pursuing a goal, an individual must enter into a complex relationship with the environment (level four in their hierarchy), including other people with their own goals and perceptions. Likewise, Stanislavski (1936/1948) charged that actors, in striving toward their characters’ objectives, “must make every effort to maintain an uninterrupted exchange of feelings, thoughts, and actions among themselves,” and he also stressed the need to be able to relate deeply and consciously to the objects on the stage. He called this web of relationships with objects and people communion (p. 186).
THE LEVEL OF PROGRAM OR OBJECTIVE
Although Carver, Scheier and Stanislavski agreed that behavior is executed at the level of changing muscular tension, they asserted that behavior is regulated by levels higher up in the hierarchy, most commonly at the level of program or objective.
Carver and Scheier (1982, 199Ob) described a program (level three in their hierarchy), and Stanislavski (1936/1948) described an objective as a goal that stipulates a course of action for its attainment. Carver and Scheier (1982) stated, “Most human activity can probably proceed with nothing more complex than programs at work” (p. 82), and Stanislavski (1936/1948) asserted, “Rehearsals are taken up, in the main, with the task of finding the right objectives, getting control of them and living with them” (p. 113). Stanislavski (1961) further encouraged actors to analyze each scene to find their character’s objective within that scene and to keep their focus squarely on that objective whenever playing the scene (pp. 51, 257).
In addition, Carver and Scheier, as well as contemporary teachers of Stanislavski’s method, have emphasized the “generalized” nature of these programs and objectives. At this level in the hierarchy, an individual possesses a goal and has a sense of the general types and sequences of behavior needed to achieve this goal, but the individual must then make an evolving series of decisions regarding how best to achieve that goal given the specific exigencies of the moment. Carver and Scheier (1982) described a program as “a complex standard, unspecified in many respects, because what happens next depends upon what happened last” (p. 131), and they noted (1982, p. 118) that executing a program involves the choosing of behavioral strategies according to the conditions of the moment. Likewise, in their book on acting based on the Stanislavski method, Brader et al. (1986) broke down acting (and human behavior) into two areas: action and moment. They defined action as “the physical process of trying to obtain a specific goal and moment as what is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it at any given instant”, with each moment needing to be linked to – and strongly conditioned by – the moment preceding it (p. 8). Finally, Brader et al. emphasized that actors must choose and modify their strategies according to the “truth of the moment,” according to “that which is actually happening in the scene” and to “that which is actually happening in the other person” (p. 40).
THE LEVEL OF SYSTEM CONCEPT OR SUPEROBJECTIVE – THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF ABSTRACTION
Carver and Scheier (1982, p. 118) postulated a tendency in humans toward an increasing organization and abstraction of goal systems, this tendency permitting more adaptive and functional behavior in response to an increasing variety of circumstances. They borrowed from Powers (1973) when they named this most abstract goal system the system concept. They claimed that an individual may, at times, attend to this system concept, thereby using it as a superordinate reference value to set the reference values for all the other levels in their hierarchy, including the most concrete level of overt behavior. As such, they argued that when the system concept is well developed and functioning, it is the most potent of all levels in regulating behavior. Carver and Scheier (199Ob) described the system concept as capable of containing several types of global values such as an idealized sense of self, or society, or relationship.
Similarly, Stanislavski (1961) spoke passionately about developing, after much exploration and experimentation, an idealized sense of the role that he called the superobjective:
In this innermost center, this core of the role, all the remaining objectives of the score converge, as it were, into one superobjective. That is the inner essence, the all-embracing goal, the objective of all objectives, the concentration of the entire score of the role, of all its major and minor units. The superobjective contains the meaning, the inner sense, of all the subordinate objectives of the play. In carrying out this one superobjective you have arrived at something even more important, superconscious, ineffable. . . . One superobjective planted in the spiritual core of an actor, naturally and of its own accord, creates and manifests thousands of separate small objectives on the external plane of a part. This superobjective is the main foundation of an actor’s life and part, and all the minor objectives are corollaries to it, the inevitable consequence and reflection of the basic one. (pp. 77-78)
It is significant that Stanislavski stated as strongly as he did that once an actor realizes the superobjective of a role, he experiences all the other objectives and behaviors of the role as “inevitable consequences” of the superobjective. This dynamic is in keeping with Carver and Scheier’s assertion that the idealized values found in the system concept are the most potent and far-reaching, the most central of all the behavior-regulating values.
OBSTACLES AND OUTCOME EXPECTANCY
Both Carver and Scheier’s control theory and Stanislavski’s method address conflict and obstacles. Both acknowledge that attempts to reduce discrepancies between the current state of affairs and the desired state of affairs are often blocked by circumstances or by others with conflicting agendas (Carver & Scheier, 199Ob; Stanislavski, 1961).
Carver and Scheier (Carver, 1979; Carver & Scheier, 1981, 1982, 199Ob; Scheier & Carver, 1987, 1988) traced the events that occur when an individual confronts an obstacle: an individual evaluates the situation and makes a prediction – or outcome expectancy – of whether or not continued effort will prove successful in obtaining an objective. This outcome expectancy involves an analysis of the balance of constraints and resources. If this outcome expectancy is negative, an individual disengages from the effort. If, on the other hand, the outcome expectancy is positive, an individual intensifies his or her effort to overcome the obstacle. In addition, Carver and Scheier (199Ob) claimed that an individual will sustain intense effort longer for more valued goals than for less valued ones. In other words, an individual must have both a highly valued goal and a strongly positive outcome expectancy to sustain intense conflict, to continue striving for valued goals and values against great odds.
This same dynamic is also emphasized by Stanislavski in his method. All drama is predicated on conflict. In the course of a play, this conflict must actually increase to provide for the rising action of the play and the advancement of the plot. As such, the characters in a play must remain fully engaged in the conflict of the play; if they should disengage, the play would be over. Stanislavski (1936/1948, 1961) asserted that the clash of purposes, obstacles, counteractions, and struggle are essential for the rising action in the dramatic situation-and integral to life itself.
To provide for that clash of purposes, Cohen (1984), a contemporary teacher of
the Stanislavski method, charged beginning actors:
It is not that your character just “wants” something; people have all sorts of petty wants that are rarely worth dramatizing. Look at any fine play, and the chances are that the author was thinking of characters who not only “wanted” their victories, they craved them: They were excited and enthusiastic about them; deep in their hearts they were even sure (often mistakenly) that they were going to get them! Expectation, excitement, enthusiasm, and even energy . . . define characters who have not only wants, but passions! You are playing one of those characters. The victory you seek is not just an ordinary whim; it is the prime goal of your life, and it is within your reach if you try hard enough, (p. 47)
In this passage, Cohen spoke of highly valued goals coupled with high outcome expectancies, the same factors that Carver and Scheier postulated as necessary if an individual is to remain fully engaged in striving for a goal in the face of difficult, obstructing circumstances.
UNITS OF BEHAVIOR: BEATS AND BREAK POINTS
Stanislavski saw any role as essentially a long sequence of behavior. To help an actor make sense of this sequence, he instructed the actor to divide this long sequence of behavior into units, each with a single objective. Over time in the United States, each behavioral unit came to be called a beat. ‘
Stanislavski (1961) instructed actors, when first working with a part, to segment the script into as many beats as needed but then, later in the rehearsal process, to try to resolve the part into about 10 beats to serve as the “marked channel” of the play, all 10 directly serving the superobjective. he called this sequence of major beats the through line of action (p. 283). he believed that a well-developed through line of action would exert an essential and organic influence on the many thousands of movements, gestures, and inflections, most of them outside the conscious control of the performing actor, that must coalesce – and coalesce at the proper moments – to create an effective portrayal of a character.
Carver and Scheier (1981, pp. 90-93) also discussed segmenting behavioral sequences. They followed the lead of Newtson (1973) in referring to the perceived boundaries between action units as breakpoints. They observed that there is no single way to segment a given sequence, that “segmentation strategies” can be fine grained or global. However, they noted that the breaks are indeed “objective,” occurring when one meaningful action ends and another begins.
In Stanislavski’s model, a beat occurs when a character must change what he or she is doing because new information has surfaced or a significant event has occurred that demands a new response (Bruder et al., 1986). In Carver and Scheier’s model, a breakpoint occurs when one action ends and another begins. In both models, this division of a given action sequence into beats or breakpoints can be finely or broadly subdivided.
Both models also broach, in their respective fashions, the question of personal identity, the question of “who is it that is doing the acting?”. Stanislavski (1961) spoke about “feeling a kind of creative joy,” a state he called “I am,” a state he described as the endpoint and goal of his method.2 Stanislavski described this state as the consequence of being in a living, active relationship with “an object, especially a live one,” as the consequence of being in the relationship formed when two actors, each pursuing his or her character’s goals, genuinely encounter each other (p. 27). His “I am” comes into being through the push and pull of relationship. Carver and Scheier (1982) seemed to describe the same dynamic when they stated:
Interaction between and among persons constitutes an important (perhaps the critical) contributor to the tendency toward increased organization and abstraction of goal systems. … A great many theorists over the years have held that the self comes to be known, or is even created, through interaction with others, (p. 131)
Carver and Scheier (1981) based their control theory on a most basic assertion – that “people behave” (p. 119). Stanislavski (1936/1948; see also Adler, 2000; Bruder et al., 1986) based his method on the fundamental observation that the job of an actor is “to act” (p. 35). Carver, Scheier, and Stanislavski then proceeded to develop comprehensive models to describe purposeful human behavior. Carver and Scheier (1981) wrote:
How do we feel and act, for example, when we confront obstacles in the course of trying to attain goals? How do we respond to unforeseen occurrences in our personal environments? How aware are we of our feelings and intentions? And to what degree are those feelings, attitudes, and intentions actually reflected in our overt actions and verbalizations? These are some of the central questions of our field, (p. 3)
Stanislavski would add that these are precisely the questions explored by theater and asked by any actor undertaking a new role.
The answers proposed by Carver and Scheier and by Stanislavski in their respective models are highly similar. Both models address:
1. How individuals come to perceive the world and make sense of their perceptions.
2. How these perceptions, coalesced from a lifetime of unique and specific interactions with the world and its people, contain certain behavioral prescriptions.
3. How human actions are often purposeful: how they are executed sometimes consciously and sometimes not – to nudge or wrestle aspects of the world into closer conformity to important values, to personally meaningful objectives.
4. How behavior is guided by hierarchies of objectives and value: how the output of one hierarchy sets the reference value or objective for the ones below it. Most behavior is usually guided by programs or objectives at an intermediate level of abstraction that leaves the details of action unspecified to allow room for responding to the exigencies of the given circumstances. At the top of the hierarchy are highly generalized, core values or goals. At the bottom – at the level of observable behavior and speech – are the muscles, their tensing and releasing.
5. How a given segment or chain of action can be subdivided into smaller units of action of various lengths, each unit characterized by its own objective.
6. And how personal identity most fully emerges from interaction with others.
These two models of human behavior – Stanislavski’s method and Carver and Scheier’s control theory – were developed in different places, at different times, for different purposes, by innovators in different fields. These differences make their many similarities all the more striking. Stanislavski (1963) believed he had succeeded in articulating some of “the laws of nature” (p. 160). Scheier and Carver (1987) felt optimistic that they were describing something “very basic indeed” (p. 204). That their models of human behavior, so different in origin, are so similar in conclusion gives credence to the possibility that their confidence in their work may indeed be justified. Perhaps the commonalities of these two models will also demonstrate to psychologists that they would do well to turn to the arts to augment their study of science in their quest to more fully understand human behavior.
1 The word “beat,” so the story goes, came into use when Stanislavski first came to the United States with the Moscow Art Theater. When explaining his system to American actors and directors, he spoke of breaking down a script into its component “bits.” Because of his Russian accent, however, the Americans perceived him to be saying “beats.” Americans have referred to “beats” ever since.
2 In Carver and Scheier’s language, Stanislavski’s state of “I am” would be his “superordinate reference value” when acting, his “system concept” for the art of acting.
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DYER P. BILGRAVE
Villa Julie College, Stevenson, MD, USA
ROBERT H. DELUTY
University of Maryland, Baltimore County, MD, USA
Dyer P. Bilgrave, Department of Psychology, Villa ju lie College, Stevenson, Maryland, USA; Robert H. Deluty, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA. The authors wish to extend their appreciation to Dr. Leon Levy. This manuscript is based on a paper written for a seminar that he taught on systems perspectives in psychology.
Appreciation is due to reviewers including: James M. Diefendorff, PhD, Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University, 204 Audubon Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA. Email:
Please address correspondence and reprint requests to: Dyer P. Bilgrave, PhD, Department of Psychology, Villa ju lie College, Stevenson, Maryland 21153, USA. Phone: 410-486 7000; Fax: 410486 3552; Email:
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