I just started reading Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, which is the first of his three seminal works on the acting process. I decided to read it when I saw a friend reading it to work on her acting career; I’m reading it because I have enjoyed acting when I’ve done it, also because I have found acting difficult when done right, and also because I thought it might be an interesting approach to writing. I think for that third thing to work, I might end up reading all three of his books, not just this one.
But I got it from the library in Tucson, which means I have to finish reading it by Tuesday night, as I leave Wednesday morning. I had trouble getting it from the Boston library. It’s quite interesting so far–somewhat fiction, somewhat like a diary, rather than just “Hi, let me teach you some shit about acting.” I think writers’ guides could take a note from that approach. But now that I’ve trained myself to be critical about fucking everything ever, I’m having trouble getting through it, and so I’m only on page 10.
This is partly because, at least for the kind of reader and thinker I am, this is a book that demands to be read with a notebook at your side for jotting down quotes you want to remember, activities you want to try, or ideas you come up with. It is not a book for bathtub reading, which is what I thought when I decided to Blanche DuBois out and take a bath this morning. My bigger problem, though, is that this book puts me in the position of deciding whether it is worth it to read a good book and just ignore its problematic parts (lots of racism going on already for 10 pages), or if I should read it, love it, and then go back and criticize it on a different level, or throw it away in a fit of rage already.
I can tell I’m going to really enjoy this book as a riff on the creative process. Take, for example, this:
Many of these movements I felt to be in a high degree successful. I had worked almost five hours without noticing the passage of time. To me this seemed to show that my inspiration was real.1
When I worked at home today I still went over the old ground without finding anything new. Why do I keep on repeating the same scenes and methods? Why is my acting of yesterday so exactly like today’s and tomorrow’s? Has my imagination dried up, or have I no reserves of material? Why did my work in the beginning move along so swiftly, and then stop at one spot? As I was thinking things over, some people in the next room gathered for tea. In order not to attract attention to myself, I had to move my activities to a different part of my room, and to speak my lines as softly as possible, so as not to be overheard.
To my surprise, by these little changes, my mood was transformed. I had discovered a secret–not to remain too long at one point, for ever repeating the too familiar.2
See? Good stuff. I’m going to love it. But already, the narrator’s first project is to embody the character of Othello. First, that reminds me that I need to read that play. Second, though, the blackfacing and method acting techniques–“my general aspect was modern and civilized, whereas Othello was African in origin and must have something suggestive of primitive life, perhaps a tiger, in him”3–are obviously outdated (or not? that could be what’s scary). They reflect none of the things I find necessary to intellectual discussion–i.e. abandonment of offensive tropes and stereotypes in favor of recognizing privileged positions and being fair in descriptions of PoC; identification of the actor’s own background, identity, and physical description to qualify why these accoutrements or changes are considered necessary, or, hell, even basic political correctness would be a start.
So do I keep reading? I’m quite sure that this book is about much more than deciding how to be a white dude playing a Moor, but now I’ve been trained to look twice at these things. But how do I move on from there? Am I allowed to still love the book? (Years ago, in junior English, I wrote a paper defending the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, but I’m sure that was weak and it was pre-me reading Racialicious and taking ethnic studies classes in college.) Can I chalk the racism up to context, make sure I acknowledge it, but still appreciate the other merits of the book? Also, how can I identify with the ideas presented in the books when it clearly presents a worldview and intellectual position that presupposes that I and anyone like me is incapable of or at least uninvited to taking part in its ideas and practices?
I feel like somewhere in me I know the answer, but I can’t figure out how I am supposed to approach my continuation of reading. But I think I will really find the book valuable. Still, though. Generally, I feel like the more education and training I receive in reading and criticism and media and art, the more I want to explore and think and try and continue learning. But also, the more skills I get in criticism, the more confused I get as to how I apply them. Help.
All footnotes, obvi:
Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares New York: Routledge, 2003.