What is 'the system'?

The list of things I don’t know is, of course, infinite; it does at least give a constant flow of little discoveries.

One of these was learning that ‘Russia’ and ‘The System’ will have meaning, for many, many people – but they will think of Konstantin Stanivlasky and his ‘Systema‘, not of Ryabko or Kadochnikov.

I’d heard of Stanislavsky, but only in terms of Method acting; I’m intrigued to discover that this is regarded as a distortion of his ‘system’. Stanislavski’s system means ‘an actor being “in the moment” but always staying one step away from complete belief‘. Stanislavski developed a method of physical action:

Training was highly physical and demanding, and Stanislavski’s respect for physical action brought his system to a point of apotheosis, a way of reaching emotional truth and psychological realism while maintaining a grip on control of the physical. Further: freeing oneself up for performing anything, be it Modern theater or Greek.

Late in his life Stanislavski put much faith in an approach he called the Method of Physical Action. (The use of the word Method, again, causes confusion with Strasberg’s Method.) This approach, Stanislavski surmised, finally dealt completely with the instrument of the actor and with a universality of performance.

The Method of Physical Action (hereafter, MPA) is complex. It requires an understanding of the significance of physical action, and in the performance of physical action. The idea behind the MPA is fairly simple, but its implications are profound. It is based on the idea that the only thing an actor will ever have control of in his life is “his body.” There is never a direct line to emotions in performance, only to the body. Emotions may be remembered and brought up via emotional memory, but Stanislavski generally considered this a rehearsal tool or technique of research, at best. There is, in the end, only the body.

Does this sound familiar?

One of Stanislavsky’s pupils was Mikhail Chekhov, who developed and extended Stanislavsky’s system:

In the late 1920s, Chekhov emigrated to the Germany and set up his own studio, teaching a physical and imagination-based system of actor training. He developed the use of the “Psychological Gesture,” a concept derived from the Symbolist theories of Bely. In this technique, the actor physicalizes a character’s need or internal dynamic in the form of an external gesture. Subsequently, the outward gesture is suppressed and incorporated internally, allowing the physical memory to inform the performance on an unconscious level.
[M]uch of what Chekhov explored addressed the question of how to access the unconscious creative self through indirect non-analytical means. Chekhov taught a range of movement dynamics such as molding, floating, flying, and radiating that actors use to find the physical core of a character. His techniques, though seemingly external, were meant to lead the actor to a rich internal life.

I first started sensing that there was a natural overlap between martial arts, meditation and acting back in 2006, and gradually I’ve become more convinced of that. It turns out, of course, that I’m far from the first to think that!

That brings me to some of the books that I bought on my last trip to Singapore. Phillip B. Zarrilli in Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski discusses his use of Kalarippayattu and taijiquan in training actors in mind-body unity (though he consistently mis-spells it taiqiquan, which gets really annoying after a while!).

David Zinder, in Body Voice Imagination: ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique also takes a deep look at the integration of body, voice, and imagination, including lots of exercises for improvisation.

I find it really interesting that all these ideas and techniques were emerging from Russia in the run-up to the revolutionary period.

Another book I bought – more in hope than anticipation of actually using it – was Jumping into Plyometrics. Plyometrics, a method of rapidly improving muscle and nervous-system performance is, it turns out, also a Russian innovation.

Whether any or all of this influenced the development of Systema or Sambo I can’t know; I just find it all very interesting. Plus, as someone I know said on Twitter, “US strategy too reliant on strength, firepower. What to do when you lose them? An individual’s mind is most powerful weapon“, and there does seem to have been this philosophy in the Soviet system to develop human performance rather than equipment systems (though no-one who has read Arkady Babchenko’s book or articles would say that the whole Russian army is efficient…..)

Just part of an ongoing thought process…..


  1. Fascinating speculation, Emlyn. It is definitely worth considering . . . the equivalent of six degrees of separation in the world of ideas. Use of the body, something that F. M. Alexander (an actor) explored and wrote about in developing his “Alexander Technique,” which I have some experience with, suggests you migh be on to something.

    Systema students seem to have learned a bit of method acting when they play with Ryabko or Vasiliev. Having experienced the joy of both gentlemen’s fists, I think it is not all acting. ;- )


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