Kim Stanley on the Building of an Artist: Get Tough

In Conversation with Kim Stanley
December, 1990
By Phone

I feel like I'm here to slap some sense into you. Others as well, but you seem to have come to New York--to the idea of theatre--with a very middle-class, middlebrow view of things, which is to say you are primed to succeed in the commercial, American theatre, but you are highly unlikely to ever do anything of value.

Change your ways. Get tough.

Somehow the theatre has become an open university of mediocrity, and passion or desire is enough to allow entry for so many people. I'm not saying that everyone acts or directs, but there are lots of rotten branches to the theatrical tree now that didn't exist when I got started. If you fail at one thing--and this highly likely--well then you can be a dramaturg or an assistant or you can teach or you can fall into the well of criticism or academia. Everyone, however, seems assured of some sort of career--secondary and worthless--within the theatre.

There have to be standards, and the standards now don't seem to be artistic: They seem to be behavioral, social, financial. I am horrified by how often the word 'career' works its way into the conversations of students and of actors I  thought were good. Nothing big and bold is at stake, other than the career of someone or the awards season.

Is anyone--anywhere--on any stage working at full capacity today? Even if they were encouraged to do so?

If you want to kill the arts--particularly the theatre--play it safe, check the pulse on a regular basis of the tired theatregoer.

The theatre is killing itself.

Kim Stanley 

It's only been about forty years since I started acting professionally, but I can remember that even commercial producers and directors believed that we--the theatrical artists--set the standard and decided what should be done and how. Audiences, it was believed, would come if we amazed and inspired and reflected them, and this often happened.

We are all defined by our choices, and I have made some spectacular mistakes, but I always wanted to be an artist. That was my primary goal.

In the early days of my study with Lee [Strasberg], the building of the modern American actor was brutal and exalting, because it was assumed that, if you were serious, you were asking to be molded into an artist. It was tough and it was unyielding. Our bodies and our minds were shaped toward fully excavating texts, providing texture and color to what the writer had provided, and what the director and your fellow players had expanded. This is not the myth of the Method actor altering the text to his specific needs: This is the good actor--the artist--taking the task at hand and propelling it toward art.

In the classroom, in my mind, as I walked about, I might play around with the words and the plots of the plays, but that was to test myself, to push myself toward a greater understanding of me--Kim Stanley--in whatever part I had been cast.

The actor as artist pushes and prods; tests himself; destroys himself in a way to reach a universality of character that anyone watching can understand and relate to. This is not easy work, but I would suggest that anyone unable or unwilling to strain toward this level of work find something else to do.

We should have no sympathy for those who bemoan what has happened to them because of choices they've made. You choose a particular role or a particular path and you get the career and the heart and the life you deserve. I've made my mistakes; I've paid my prices. My job now, I feel, is to make artists and to serve as a model, in a way, of what not to do; to show students the price of artistic pursuit, as well as the rewards.

Art is a rarity, and theatre is an art. We need to pull it in, make it more selective--to participants both on stage and in the audience--and get our priorities right.

Get Tough.


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