THE COMPLETE STANISLAVKSY TOOLKIT: Bella Merlin
Nick Hern Books
First Published: 2007
ISBN: 978 – 1 – 85459 – 793 – 9 / 9 781854 597939
Review: Rod Dungate: July 2007
A link to buy a copy of this book from Amazon is at the end of the review
I’ll go back to this time and time again
Bella Merlin’s is a great achievement. Her title encapsulates it all – a Toolkit. And that’s what this book is – no waffle, no esoteric sophistry. It’s a serious, no-nonsense interpretation of Stanislavsky’s thinking written by an actor-teacher with considerable experience of the ideas both in the UK and in Russia.
Let’s own up, shall we? – How much do we really know about Stanislavsky’s ideas? – Motivations, subtext – yes; objectives, actions, bits (or is it beats?) – perhaps. Six Fundamental Questions; Logic and Coherence? – Possibly not.
Merlin approaches her complex subject methodically and with mind-boggling clarity. She manages to make this acting preparation sound easy, natural; though there is never any doubt about the commitment you need and the seriousness with which you have to approach it. Speaking of performance and INNER CREATIVE MOOD Merlin says: ‘For Stanislavsky, the INNER CREATIVE MOOD was an entirely normal state and yet at the same time a better than normal state, and he was very clear about how to create it . . . : [quotes Stanislavsky] Arrive two hours ahead of your first entrance onto the stage . . .’
As you read you are confident that the writer truly knows the Stanislavsky model: ‘As we know’ [she says casually] ‘Stanislavsky never asked his actors to believe in the reality of what was going on to the stage: he actually asked them to believe in the possibility of that reality.’
Explaining Stanislavsky’s beliefs (or should we call them discoveries?) Merlin often examples her own work, to great effect. Talking for instance about Relaxation, she speaks of her experience in Hare’s The Permanent Way in which she had to break down in mid-sentence twice in 20 minutes, and sustain this over nearly a year’s touring. ‘During this time, I discovered that the less I worried about whether or not the tears would actually flow, the more readily they did. If I went on stage with the relaxed attitude of, ‘Well, maybe I’ll cry tonight, maybe I won’t,’ then – no problem: the tears sprung forth. If I wound myself up into a physical and mental knot, fretting, ‘Oh, Christ, I’ve got to cry in ten minutes!’, I was emotionally as dry as a bone.’
Big Things are explored – Truth, Imagination – richly explored. So, too, are there revelations about the things we half know (or thought we knew until now) like the MAGIC ‘IF’. On preparing to play a bereaved mother in The Permanent Way Merlin says, movingly, ‘I knew that the real-life mother went there every year on the anniversary of the crash: . . . I needed to stand where she stood each year and ask myself, ‘What would I do if someone close to me had been killed?’ As Merlin describes her thoughts, her imagination at work, you have a real sense of the value of this ‘research’, of the richness and ‘truth’ it helps bring to a performance.
And how about this for a marvellous bit of debunking? Here, Merlin speaks of TRUTH, COHERENCE, LOGIC: ‘I repeat, the TRUTH doesn’t have to be a realistic TRUTH. It can be absurd, abstract, science-fiction, horror. As long as there’s a LOCIC AND COHERENCE to the rules and the context of the piece, I can ‘believe’ in an episode of StarTrek, or Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, just as I can believe in an episode of E.R. or Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
The Toolkit Bella Merlin opens is one I shall be going back to again and again for years to come.
Here’s the link to the book at Amazon: