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Theatre as Engineering – from Stanislavski to Cybernetics

March 3, 2011
Greenland – photo by Helen Warner ©National Theatre


Last week I saw two theatre plays. One of these was ‘Greenland’ at the National Theatre, London – a play that explored the scientific and social issues surrounding climate change. The other was Macbeth – performed by the celebrated Cheek by Jowl Theatre Company. Greenland was a brave but flawed production that didn’t quite manage to hold the attention of its audience. Macbeth on the other hand was thoroughly gripping. I felt that the success and failure of these diverse works had a common root. It wasn’t simply the themes, the writing, the costumes or the effects. It was to do with the authenticity of key dramatic moments, and the structured method – the dramatic ‘engine’ – that was being used by the actors and the play to drive the experiences we got while watching.

Methods? Engines? The idea of a strong methodological structure or mechanism to a live dramatic performance might seem a little surprising. After all, isn’t science supposed to be about rigid ‘method’, while theatre is all about free ‘creativity’? Well, no. Theory on the methodology and ‘mechanics’ of performance drama has some interesting history – including insights from disciplines that lie far beyond drama, such as psychology, control theory and cybernetics.

Constantin Stanislavski - photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the greatest drama theorists was Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938). In Stanislavski’s day, theatre plays and performances could be rather histrionic and melodramatic. The actors used emotions and gestures lacking any real human authenticity. Stanislavski believed that theatre must become more ‘real’ if it was truly to move an audience. So he developed a universal system to enable actors to produce a more realistic and connective performance on stage. This is now more commonly known as “method acting”.

A key idea of Stanislavski’s was about motivation. Every single thing an actor does on stage needs to have a motive, and an active goal. That goal is constantly driven and adjusted by experiences, conflicts, emotions. Stanislavski believed that these motivations were important because they were a feature of life, not just of theatre. He claimed that “Life on stage, as well as off it, consists of an uninterrupted series of objectives and their attainment”, and referred to “inner motive forces” driving the attainment of objectives as a fusion of feeling, mind and will. Crucially, these inner forces are constantly being adjusted by feedback with the world.

Now when I say everything on stage needs a motive, I mean everything. Every line. Every gesture. Every movement. If you smile, a director can ask – “Why are you smiling?” – and there needs to be a reason for the smile relevant to your character’s situation and goals. Action has to be “for” and “because” of something – however internal or subconscious that may be. A scene or a line in a play is not about the words or movements in the script. It is about what is motivating characters to say, or stand, or think, or feel, or move. And this changes – sometimes second by second. So a rehearsed scene has an inner topology – a map of what are known as “beats” – motivational junction points which occur throughout the scene to shift the performers’ dramatic states from one thought and action to the next. In Stanislavski’s model, it is feelings combined with the rational mind that guides human will, and it is the will that produces external action.

Stanislavski's motivational model - from Stanislavsky & Hapgood (2004)

In 2004, psychologists Dyer Bilgrave and Robert Deluty noticed a remarkable similarity between this Stanislavskian motivational model and frameworks being put forward by Social Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier. Carver and Scheier drew on systems theory, information-processing theory, and cybernetics to develop their own model of human motivation, emotion, and behaviour. They likened this to the classic control theory of engineering, where there is a desired outcome of a system called a reference. This reference is then used to adjust observable system state – by negative feedback – towards the state desired.

Carver & Scheier (2002, p305) Schematic description of a feedback loop

They took Norbert Weiner’s ideas of negative feedback in cybernetic systems and applied them to the wider aspects of human personality. Carver and Scheier stated that -“human life is a continual process of establishing goals and intentions and adjusting current patterns of behaviour so as to more closely match these goals”.

Sound familiar? Bilgrave and Deluty certainly thought so. If you combine Stanislavski’s ideas with Carver and Scheier’s, then it’s possible to construct a single dynamic model for human motivational behaviour:-

Integration of the Stanislavski model for motivation with Carver & Scheier’s feedback loop

It is this model, they say, that forms the ‘map’ an actor uses to make an authentic and dynamic connection with an audience through their character. And it is the same mechanism used by the audience to respond and empathise with what they see based upon their own life experiences.  But does this model work?

Responses to the plays I saw last week offer some interesting pointers. My fellow-student and blogmeister David Robertson wrote a critical but thoughtful review on ‘Greenland’, which you can read here.

Macbeth, Cheek by Jowl 2009 © Cheek by Jowl

In it he explains that the reason he went to the theatre to see a climate change drama was “to see characters brought to life, with depth and emotion, to examine the human condition in the face of what may be the greatest challenge to civilisation yet”. What is interesting is that – even as an informed environmentalist – David is clear about the primary need for human authenticity in the performance a theatre play exploring environmental issues. If this narrative authenticity is lacking, then the production will fail to tell its story. Stanislavski would have agreed. Likewise, theatre critic Jennifer Shelton of Cambridge Evening News has praised the production of Macbeth in her review as exposing the “raw drive of each of its characters”.

“Authenticity” and “drive”. The very heart of Stanislavski’s motivation engine.

So next time you go to the theatre, bear this in mind. An actor may be haphazard in life, but at least there’s a method to their madness on stage 😉


Bilgrave, D. P & Deluty R.H. (2004) “Stanislavski’s Acting Method and Control Theory: Commonalities across Time, Place, and Field”. Social Behavior and Personality. 2004, 32(4), 329-340

Carver, C., & Scheier, M. (2002). ‘Control Processes and Self-Organization as Complementary Principles Underlying Behavior’. Personality & Social Psychology Review (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 6(4), 304-315

Stanislavski K., Hapgood. E.R. (2004) An actor’s handbook: an alphabetical arrangement of concise statements on aspects of acting Taylor & Francis, 2004 ISBN: 087830181X, 9780878301812

Wiener, N (1948), Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Hermann & Cie Editeurs, Paris, The Technology Press, Cambridge, Mass., John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, 1948

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