Etudes: Acting Basics

What is an etude?

  • a short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.

So how does this translate into acting? An etude is a small piece of work that over many repetitions teaches you the basic building blocks on which all of your future work will be built on. Demidov etudes – specially-designed exercises that establish an actor in the process of subconscious living onstage. The Demidov etudes foster creative spontaneity and emotional responsivity, and develop actors’ readiness to surrender to the given circumstances. In addition, Demidov etudes cultivate the habit of independent creativity.1


In a Demidov étude, a simple text is given to the actors, and nothing more. This text is designed in such a way that it is open to interpretation. It provides some of the given circumstances, but does not firmly dictate characters, relationships, place or time. The text is never discussed, but simply repeated several times by the actors. The instructor then asks partners to forget the text, to “toss it out of their heads,” and to remain empty for two to three seconds. The first impulse following the period of emptiness (be it thought, movement, sensation or mood) is obeyed by the actors – they passively surrender to it and continue to do so for the duration of the étude. What follows is a spontaneous improvisation of the circumstances (relationships, time, space, facts etc.) embodied by the actors in the course of the étude. The actors’ ability to imaginatively perceive the circumstances, the partner and the environment is cultivated in the Demidov études.2

Since the actual surroundings and the partner become the chief source for the actor’s imagination, the Demidov études – like no other exercises – open up the actors’ perceptive channels and develop their reflex of creative perception. Active behavior and emotional life occur in Demidov’s études just as they do in life – as reactions to the perceived circumstances. In addition to Demidov’s discoveries on the primacy of perception over action, his études also feature the signature “cultures” of the Demidov School, which include “emptiness” and “passivity.”3

On Creative Transformations in an Etude:4

  • Redirection into my own self
    • The actor is still himself. There has been no requirement to be any particular “character.”
  • A shift toward transformation.
    • The class environment, the teacher, the classmates, and the partner – all of this makes the actor prepare for the fact that he is entering a creative path. All of this has already “shifted” him off the fact that he is merely his own, personal self. He is already an actor.
    • Repeating the text and listening to the partner’s text “shifts” him even further.
    • And now, the text, the partner, his own state, and all the rest, evoke in the actor some first hints of new imaginary circumstances. Then the circumstances of his new life, created in his imagination solidify.
    • Alongside the circumstances and immediately following them an actor receives a new sense of self: he feels himself being somebody else – the circumstances, and new imaginary life have remade hi,.
  • Unity of the actor’s personal “self” and the emerging “character”
    • While experiencing himself as somebody else, he never loses his person “I.”
    • This total unity of the actor’s persona and of the character is a prerequisite to creative life on stage.

Etudes and the Actor’s Creative Process5

These etudes are the most accessible and direct way to explore an actor’s creative process.

A Mere observation of their flow enables us to establish:

  1. Conditions for the creative process.
  2. Conditions for its sound flow.
  3. Its errors.
  4. The scheme of the creative process: assignment – free reaction – perception – another involuntary reaction…
  5. These etudes alone made it clear that the creative process must not be compiled like a mosaic, by laying its fragments (the “elements”) together. Rather, one should not interfere with the creative process that already exists. The fact is, as soon as an actor steps out to do an etude, and the assignment has been given – creativity has already begun.
  6. When observing etudes, we notice that every attempt to break down the creative process into its constituent parts (as we used to do) leads to its destruction. Therefore, it is not just undesirable to do so, but it is impermissible.
  7. We used to make additions to what we saw in an actor. We added what we deemed missing: attention, a circle, an object, a task and so on and so forth. Our practice has taught us that, instead of adding what is not there, we must remove what interferes: excessive effort, haste, the “braking system” – “It’s correct…correct!”, “Give it a green light,” “Take your time,” etc. In short, we must proceed from the sound impulses that exists in a student; we must affirm them, rather than demand the non-existent, and thus extinguish the student’s creativity.

Key points for understanding etudes:

  • Etudes are organic character building. It’s about doing the work together
  • Don’t come into a scene and change yourself, know and understand how you are and take that to the scene.
  • No one can ever predict the directions of the etude. It will go the way it goes…
  • Tell me what happened/talk me through this one
    • Remember you are the only one that knows what is going on inside your head, so it is not what you are thinking about that is the chief concern, it is that you are thinking.  And by thinking the audience will see your process, and you won’t be focused on an end result.
  • Take your time, don’t rush.
    • These exercise are designed to help all actors, but they really help beginning actors learn what a real impulse is versus what a fake impulse is. This is a key building block for
    • When you’re living you are not expecting a scene to occur.
    • Understand why you’re saying the lines. The scene gets done itself – it will happen as a result of what happened.
    • Get your intellect out of the way → it will change everything
    • Be available to respond
  • You need to have depth to your explanations
    • If you can’t answer what do you think about that person, then you’re not doing the work.
      • Who is this person
      • What do they mean to me
      • What do they make me feel
    • All the answers are in you scene partner, actively seek what is going on with the other person. The answers are in front of you, that person is here to help you solve the problem.
      • Don’t play an idea, you’ll go blind to the other person
      • When you do a back story  it becomes harder to stay real/in the moment.
    • Perceive the person, not a character.
    • When looking to find out what’s going on
      • What is going on, and how can I take it further
      • What’s at stake
      • The relationship between the characters
      • Flights of fancy – this is where you create the imaginary circumstances in which you find yourself during the etude. It doesn’t matter if your partner has imagined different circumstances.  An individual artist is unique, has a unique perspective. What is important is that you take what your partner is giving you and then use that as you continue. The moment is a fluid process, not just at the beginning, keep constantly adapting.
      • Why is how we get deeper, we get better answers, and complexity. Keeping asking “why.”
      • What is taking my attention, why, then go further
  • You are the character:
    • All of the teacher’s questions suggest that my “I” – the seeing, feeling, thinking “I” of the actor – is always present and always participates in the creative process. Moreover, it is the main participant in the process.
  • Wipe the slate clean
    • When you wipe the slate clean, there can be similarities, but you are just playing what is in front of you.
    • There is no scenario, no given circumstances.
    • Accept reality first, accepting your actual reality will help you relax.
    • First accept reality before you can go into a fantasy world or you’ll reject the imaginary world.
    • Let go of preconceived notions, create.
  • Don’t judge your impulses, just feel them and execute them.Don’t judge the impulse – we need to take it so that it lives. If you judge an impulse you will not take it immediately, and then think about it if you should do it or not. If you start to think like this you’ll never actually do anything.
  • Follow through with the impulse, don’t judge it and stop halfway through.
  • Commit to it, don’t be wishy washy.
  • Things of high standard take time.

So here is this method, in general terms, speaking primitively:
6

  1. FIRST stage: calm repetition of the text (without “acting,” just to remember).
  2. SECOND stage: “putting the text out of your head” – so as to forget everything, as far as possible, for one-two-three seconds, to silence your imagination, to become “empty,” to turn into a virginally white sheet of paper on which nothing is written.
  3. THIRD stage: I quit interfering with myself- I no longer arrange for any “emptiness.” In this instance, my life begins or, rather, returns to me. When I interfered with myself, it was as if it were not there: I did not see or hear; there were no thoughts – it was a second of “confusion.” And now everything goes back to normal: thoughts come; I start to see objects; things I perceive evoke certain attitudes (as the aforementioned sunlight spot on the wall, and now this young actress). I begin to hear the noise of the street, the music next-door, the movement of the neighboring actor’s chair. I feel the cold or the heat; I experience my posture being comfortable or uncomfortable. None of it should be fought. There should be no interference: thoughts flow, feelings change from one to another – this is what life happens to be at the moment. Nothing more and nothing less. To this, and this alone, I must surrender. “Let all of this live on its own.” I have nothing to do with it. And here it comes.
  4. THE FOURTH stage: Apparently, the words of the etude you just repeated are not lost – they were just waiting for their time, and are starting to break out. Their first appearance is vague and indistinct; they don’t sit on the tip of your tongue; they do not even occupy your thoughts. Yet for some reason, your imagination arranges out of your surroundings – people and objects – a very particular set of circumstances. These circumstances will, in a minute or earlier, make all these words quite handy.  In short, the repeated text organizes the entire etude on its own, bypassing any conscious, rational fabrication. Apparently the text has not been forgotten, and it is doing its job. And here it comes.
  5. FIFTH stage: one must have the courage to give into all of this. To give in entirely, without looking back.

Perception Occurs Involuntarily, by Itself7

  • At times, an actor gets so carried away in the course of an etude, he misses the partner’s lines and responds to them at random. I would use this pretext and ask:
    • What did she really tell you when she said these words?
    • I don’t know, really…I missed it – he would frankly admit (Or else, he would say something incorrect – after all, he did not really hear her.)
    • No need to be embarrassed. Did you really make a mistake? You were busy with something else. You could not hear her.
  • If you forced yourself to listen, you would do something you did not want to do. This truly would have been a mistake. In life, when we are passionate about something, do we not often miss what we are told; do someone else’s words not fall on our deaf ears? This is a normal way of life.
  • Sometimes it is regrettable that he missed something significant coming from his partner, and this shortchanged the etude a bit. Nevertheless, it is best to make this temporary sacrifice – so far as the student is learning to live freely and naturally on stage. [A careful attitude toward the partner’s lines is developed later, by adding and clarifying the circumstances (as indicated in Part Four of this book). Author’s Note]
  • Even when we watch something keenly, it happens on its own, without any effort on our side. It happens when we find something particularly interesting.
  • Our senses are in perfect order: as long as there is something to see, hear, smell or touch – we certainly would see, hear, and so on. That is: perception would take care of itself. Life begins with that.
  • Therefore, the only thing we ever need to worry about, when in our normal state, is not interfering with perception.

Etudes with Stage Direction 8

When, prior to an etude, you repeat the lines, you must also say your stage directions: I leave, I sit down, I take a book, and so on. Otherwise, the words will get spoken on their own, yet the actor won’t feel like leaving or doing something else specified in the etude.

I would ask students: why didn’t you leave, or why didn’t you do this or that? The answer is the same: “I didn’t feel like it.” And they are right. They were correct to completely “green light” their desires and urges. There was no error there. There error was elsewhere – in the assigning. As it always turns out, assignments are to blame – students forget to say “I leave,” or “I do” this or that

An actor who clearly tells himself a stage direction – for example “I go to the window” – that actor will not notice how he finds himself by the window. Some force will inevitably lead him there.

There is nothing miraculous or supernatural here. This phenomenon is rather commonplace. Going to bed in the evening, fearing to oversleep, we say to ourselves: “Tomorrow I need to wake up at seven o’clock.” In the morning we wake up from some jerk or from some thought. We look at the clock… and the arrow points to seven.

The same thing happens with the assignment we practice in theatre, in our classes.

Examples:

A: Have you been to the Tate Gallery?
B: No, I have not. I am going tomorrow.
A: What time tomorrow?
B: At noon, Why do you ask?
A: Nothing, I just asked.9

A: Is it eight yet?
B: I think it’s after eight.
A: I have to go.
B: Will you be back soon?
A: Don’t wait for me. I won’t be back until after one.
B: Another meeting?
A: Another meeting…10

A: Are you mad at me?
B: I am.
A: Why?
B: You know perfectly well why.
A: This is exhausting.11

A: We need to have a serious talk.
B: I was expecting this for a while.
A: How could you be?
B: I just was.12

Links to Topics Mentioned in This Blog


  1. http://www.demidov-school.ru/en/about.php
  2. Andrei Malaev-Babel (2015) Nikolai Demidov—Russian Theater’s Best-kept Secret, Stanislavski Studies, 3:1,78, DOI: 10.1080/20567790.2015.11428612
  3. Ibid.
  4. Nikolai Demidov, Becoming an Actor-Creator, trans Andrei Malaev-Babel and Margarita Laskina(New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), 219-220.
  5. Ibid., 222.
  6. Ibid., 196-197.
  7. Ibid., 269.
  8. Ibid., 326.
  9. Ibid., 204.
  10. Ibid., 207.
  11. Ibid., 212.
  12. Ibid., 174.

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