Secondary drama - Run the show

Getting the best out of young actors is easy if you look towards the work of Stanislavski, says Rachel Yarsley

Rachel Yarsley

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Konstantin Stanislavski, the Russian theatre practitioner, is considered the father of modern actor training in Europe and America. I teach his work for two reasons: one, it allows sixth formers to approach and interpret characters physically and emotionally leading to thoughtful, realistic performances and two, because his teachings can be applied to most texts, fulfilling A-level and Btec drama syllabuses.

I begin by showing the students two images of Stanislavski, an early one featuring a stern-faced young man, contrasted with an older, softer figure. As well as putting a face to the name, this acts as a metaphor for the changing, experimental and flexible nature of his work over 50 years.

The original Hapgood translations of Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares and Building a Character, are not easy books for students to access. Thankfully, recent publications such as Jean Benedetti's An Actor's Work and Bella Merlin's The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit, have made it easier to extrapolate his thought processes.

Although Stanislavski is strongly associated with system and method, I find it easier to describe his work as a toolkit, a term used by Merlin. Year 12s understand the word and associate it with something that is useful and flexible.

Imagination is a good place to start. Introductory lessons (maybe three or four) are devoted to imaginative play and improvisation in which concepts, such as the Magic If, Given Circumstances, Tempo Rhythm, Emotion Memory, and the Inner Motive Forces, are introduced and experienced in a practical context.

I give students a simple situation including a space with two chairs and a series of physical actions, such as "to enter", "to sit" and "to look at your partner". As we go through the scene I make suggestions and ask questions that change andor build the circumstances of the scene, thus altering the performance of the students.

From this process they understand that the more information you have about the scene and the characters, the more alive they become. Numerous exercises for these lessons can be found in the appendices of the new Benedetti translation and in both Merlin books (see panel above).

Once the students are familiar with the vocabulary and understand the concept of a realistic or truthful performance, I introduce text. By now students should be used to asking the question: "What would my character do if .?" When it comes to text and interaction between characters, new questions must be asked, such as: "What does my character want?" and "How do they go about getting what they want?"

At this point you can call upon the earlier imaginative work. The class can answer questions, such as: "Do the given circumstances change before the scene is over?" They can then re-run the scene as many times over, each time experimenting with new information or a new set of given circumstances.

If they are feeling brave, I may ask them to improvise a loose version of the scene while applying the changes. Liberated from the pages of their scripts, students often respond more creatively to my suggestions

Rachel Yarsley is a drama teacher from North Kesteven School in Lincoln


- Read the recommended books as they explain Stanislavski's work and provide a bank of exercises.

- Don't worry about the terminology; we are all working from translations so use the words that suit your students.

- Keep all your lessons practical. The toolkit is designed to be used, not studied in the abstract.

- Allow for experimentation and discovery; embrace flexibility.


- An Actor's Work by Konstantin Stanislavski.

- Konstantin Stanislavsky by Bella Merlin.

- The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit by Bella Merlin.

- Makers of Modern Theatre by Robert Leach.

- Playing Shakespeare by John Barton.

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Rachel Yarsley

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