Realism was introduced as the primary theatrical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the same time, the playwright Anton Chekhov and the actor-director Constantin Stanislavski began their famous working partnership. Realism, in theatre, demands that the performance represent life as truthfully as possible and requires actors to behave as if the play is happening in real time. Stanislavski’s techniques created the foundation of modern, realistic acting.
Rather than relying on an idea of emotions and character behavior, realistic acting, as described by Stanislavski, requires the actor to deal with what is happening onstage and within himself to create the character. The actor must not ignore the reality of his own state of mind and the actions of his fellow actors onstage. In this way, what transpires becomes the cornerstone of the actor’s work. The actor’s character, as described by Stanislavski, is the essence of the actor himself filtered through the situation and circumstances of the character, thereby joining together the qualities of the actor with the character described by a playwright. This alchemy, stressed Stanislavski, is what brings a character to real life.
The External Circumstances
To achieve a realistic performance, an actor must constantly observe and concentrate upon what is happening onstage around him. The immediate circumstances might vary from performance to performance for a stage actor, so he must never assume that what happened in the last performance will again take place. Rather, he must allow his focus to remain upon the circumstances of the moment – his fellow actors, the set, the props, the lights, the audience’s reaction – in order for his acting to be considered realistic. If, for example, a prop malfunctions or drops and breaks, the actor is obliged to take this into account as he continues his performance, acknowledging the reality of his circumstances.
Stanislavski’s techniques stress the actor's devotion to discovering the details of the character. Earlier acting styles encouraged large dramatic gestures and showy, bombastic behavior. However, with the advent of the more intimate theatrical venues of the 20th century, actors needn’t worry so much about playing to a huge crowd and could focus on the smaller, more realistic details of behavior. Stanislavski taught that the way an actor carries a prop or wears a costume can give an audience significant information about the details of the character’s life. For example, an actor who chooses to always wear shoes untied, or who checks his watch every few minutes, gives the audience detailed, realistic character information that makes the actor’s interpretation more believable, more like real life.
The actor’s emotional life, as theater moved into the 20th century, no longer had to reach audiences of up to 1000 or more. As theatrical venues became more intimate, the craft of the actors became more personally demanding. For the audience to believe that the character is real, asserted Stanislavski, the actor must call upon his own emotional response to the situation of the character. Rather than assume that the character is happy, angry, sad or in love in some general way, Stanislavski’s realistic methods require an actor to behave as if the situation of the character is happening to him and from that magic as if to respond truthfully to the events of the play from his personal perspective.