A SCHOOL OF CREATIVE FREEDOM
The legacy of Russian acting teacher, director and scholar Nikolai Demidov (1884–1953) compares with the groundbreaking revelations of men and women of science. One of the main goals of the Demidov School lies in the cultivation of the actor’s creative freedom. This fundamental quality is essential to the implementation of the actor’s intuitive creative desires. When properly practiced, the Demidov School of Creative Freedom allows actors to unquestioningly obey their spontaneous artistic urges, while freely reacting to the given circumstances of the play, partners’ behavior, scenic environment, etc.
Demidov’s culture of freedom leads to creative improvisation within the framework of the play’s circumstances and author’s/director’s intentions. Demidovian improvisation does not suffer from the strict confines of performance, such as fixated blockings, lighting, set design, etc. On the contrary, it breathes freshness into otherwise lifeless theatrical patterns. Actors trained in the Demidov School are also capable of freely improvising stage behavior, business and blocking, while remaining true to the play’s’ givens, such as characters, relationships and circumstances.
The Demidov School helps actors reclaim their most powerful weapon — the art of living onstage spontaneously, here and now, while never repeating the same performance identically. After all, this is the chief advantage that distinguishes live performance from other art forms. The Demidov School also develops actors, who are capable of powerful inner and outer transformation — a unique merger of character, as conceived by the author, and performer’s own creative individuality. Finally, the Demidov actor-creator is driven by lofty artistic ideals; he or she serves the larger whole of the performance, rather than their individual role, while acting as equal collaborator to the director and author.
Nikolai Demidov’s School of Acting is Russian Theatre’s best-kept secret. Until the first decade of the 21st century, Demidov’s name was known only to a narrow circle of specialists. In the meantime, Demidov was Stanislavsky's closest associate, for over 30 years, the founder of the Fourth Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), the founding director of the MAT School, and the original editor of Stanislavsky's An Actor’s Work (known as An Actor Prepares). He was also one of the first three outstanding teachers of the System, recognized by Stanislavsky. At the time of his death, Stanislavsky considered Nikolai Demidov to be “his only student who understands the System.”
Demidov combined the gift of a researcher, psychologist and physiologist, with knowledge of the theatre and the art of the actor. For the first time in the history of the “school of experiencing” (the Russian tradition of psychological theatre), he discovered those mechanisms of the actor’s creative process hidden behind the magic of the great tragedians — Pavel Mochalov, Ira Aldridge, Maria Yermolova and Eleonora Duse. The time will soon come when the name of Nikolai Demidov will take its rightful place among the great reformers of the theatre — David Garrick and Stanislavsky. Moreover, Demidov's incredibly forward-thinking processes continued his teacher's pioneering work and resolved those problems of actors’ creativity Stanislavsky could not conquer. Demidov's contribution to actor training was recognized by Stanislavsky himself, but also by Moscow Art Theatre's co-head Nemirovich-Danchenko and key 20th Century Russian theatre practitioners, such as Alexander Tairov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. In the US, Lee Strasberg studied Demidov's writings and praised his pioneering approach.
For over seventy years, those of Stanislavsky's followers who misconstrued the relationship between Stanislavsky and Demidov did everything in their power to discredit the new School, and to prevent Demidov's books from publication. During the first two decades of our century, however, this historical injustice has been corrected. Several volumes of materials from the extensive Demidov Archive have been published in Russia (Nikolai Demidov’s Creative Heritage in four volumes, Margarita Laskina, editor; and Inside the Nikolai Demidov School of Theatre, authored and edited by Andrei Malaev-Babel).
The practice of the Demidov organic acting technique has been restored to Russia and introduced to the English-speaking world by Andrei Malaev-Babel. In 2016, he published (with Margarita Laskina) a Routledge Demidov collection titled Becoming an Actor-Creator. Since 2008, Professor Malaev-Babel has been practically recreating the Demidov School of Theatre in his graduate acting studio at the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in Sarasota, Florida. Since 2010, he has been introducing the Demidov organic approach to his rehearsal methods. Simultaneously, he has been presenting lectures and masterclasses in the Demidov Technique in the US, UK, Italy, France, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil and China. His work has inspired actors, directors and teachers in the UK, Greece, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine to become enthusiastic followers of the Demidov School, and to establish Demidov-based training in their respective countries. This led to the formation of The Demidov Association, headed by Professor Malaev-Babel. In 2018, his experimental Demidov-based production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard premiered at the Stanislavsky House-Museum in Moscow. This production introduced Russian theatre professionals and scholars to the practical use of the Demidov approach to rehearsal and performance.
A TECHNIQUE OF INTUITION AND INSPIRATION
The Demidov School of Acting keeps the actors and their creative instrument as its chief focus. Methodical refinement of the actor’s internal instrument, in the Demidov School, leads to the organic creation of the play and the role. Demidov’s method of exposing and developing talent is based on individual approach to every actor. It consists of the removal of all obstacles that impede a sound subconscious flow of actors’ creativity. Once such a creative state has been facilitated, a role or a scene evolves naturally, organically.
The introduction of daily psychological scales is a pioneering achievement of the Demidov School. Demidov’s scales are designed to foster and sustain actors’ recognition and facilitation of their first, spontaneous creative reactions.
In addition to that, the Demidov School develops the kind of imagination that is specific to the acting profession – an ability to respond to imaginary circumstances with one’s entire being.The Demidov School of Theatre brought forth the fundamental nature of creative perception in the actor’s process and its primacy over Stanislavskian actions and objectives. According to Demidov, “action does not constitute the primary cause of our emotional state; rather our perception should be considered the primary cause, both of our action and of our emotional state”. Therefore, the Demidov scales, also known as études, are designed to develop actors' creative perception. Demidov’s exercises stimulate and train the very mechanism of imaginative perception – actors’ creative “inhalation.”
Demidov created an organic technique that takes actors directly to the subconscious, from the first day of training — bypassing intellectual reasoning. In the Demidov School, the creative state is preserved as indivisible and integral. By avoiding Stanislavskian division of the creative state into separate “elements,” Demidov leads actors to inspiration immediately and directly, from their first steps onstage. Demidov’s guidance made Stanislavsky recognize that “students, beginners… should … be led immediately towards the subconscious… in the earliest stages when working on the Elements, on the mental states, on all the exercises and improvisations.” Therefore, the Demidov School of Acting engages the workings of the subconscious – from the first moment of training and/or rehearsal and performance work.
Demidov’s work goes beyond Stanislavskian “verisimilitude of feelings.” It inspires “the truth of passions,” always at the heart of the secrets of great tragedians. By doing so, it elevates the actor into heightened spheres of creativity. The Demidov “heightened technique” focuses on the theatre of heightened emotions, indispensable when approaching the works of tragic playwrights, such as Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov.
Nikolai Demidov was born in 1884 in the town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the son of Vasily Demidov – a playwright, respected by Alexander Ostrovsky, and an artistic director and founder of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Popular Theatre. From an early age, Nikolai was immersed in theatre life. Beginning in his early years, Demidov exhibited unorthodox thinking and organizational skills, as well as the ability to see things from an unusual perspective. At the age of twenty, Demidov established an Ivanovo-Voznesensk branch of the St. Petersburg Athletic Society. There he developed and successfully applied his first program of individualized physical and spiritual training for athletes.
Friendship with Stanislavsky’s closest associate, Leopold Sulerzhitsky, led to Demidov’s introduction to Stanislavsky in 1907. Their acquaintance developed into a close collaboration that lasted for more than thirty years. After graduating from the Moscow University in 1913, Demidov started practicing at the famous Pletnyov Clinic, specializing in psychiatry. He studied yoga and homeopathy. The legendary Russian doctor Pyotr Badmaev introduced Demidov to Tibetan medicine. It is Demidov who is responsible for the introduction of yoga principles to the teachings of Stanislavsky.
Stanislavsky had grown to appreciate Demidov’s many unique gifts: his knowledge – since childhood – of the theatre world, his diverse yet fundamental education, his scientific and philosophical mind. Demidov’s methodical thinking, as well as his bright and vivid imagination, coupled with his gifts for research and teaching, proved quite useful to Stanislavsky’s experimentation. In 1911, Demidov began working with Stanislavsky as his assistant, and in 1919, at the insistence of Stanislavsky, he left the medical profession and devoted himself to the theatre.
The Demidov legacy was clearly established in 1910, when he began his experiments in the heightened spheres of the actors’ creativity. However, the foundation of the Demidov School, its basics, had to wait for over a decade. In 1922, while in his tenure as the head of the Moscow Art Theatre School, Demidov developed a new type of stage études. By the early 1930s, along with his students, he had an opportunity to test the new technique with several groups of young actors.
In addition to working on his five books, Demidov remained one of Moscow’s most popular acting teachers. Between the early 1920s and early 1940s, he served as a lead teacher and director at prominent institutions such as Bolshoi Theatre Opera Studio, Stanislavsky Opera Studio, Moscow Kamerny Theatre and its school, Moscow Conservatory, Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, Stanislavsky Opera Theatre, Maly Theatre’ Shchepkin School and Glazynov Music School. In 1941, Demidov united two groups of his own students (from the Maly Theatre School and Glazynov Music School) to stage a performance of Gorky’s play, The Last Ones. The successful premiere, promising the creation of a new theatre company, took place on June 21, 1941 – one day before the Soviet Union entered the Second World War.
In the 1930s, Demidov began to put his own discoveries into writing. At the time of Demidov’s death in 1953, his literary heritage consisted of five unpublished books: The Art of the Actor – Its Present and Future; Actor Types; The Art of Living Onstage; The Artist’s Creative Process Onstage; and Psycho-technique of the Affective Actor [Tragedian].
During the War, Demidov evacuated from Moscow to the Karelo-Finnish Republic, where he became the artistic director of the National Finnish Theatre. It is there that Demidov created his directorial masterpiece – Nora, based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. After a brief return to Moscow, from 1945 to 1946, Demidov once again was forced into exile to the north, to Sakhalin Island. Demidov’s health could not withstand the harsh conditions of the far north, and in 1948 he left Sakhalin for Buryat-Mongol Republic, where he headed the National Buryat-Mongol Theatre and its school, as well as the Buryat-Mongol School of Musical Theatre.
At the time of his passing in 1953, Demidov left behind three completed volumes, dedicated to his School’s fundamentals and two unfinished books on heightened acting technique. As an author, Demidov had a gift for presenting complex topics in a comprehensible fashion. Demidov’s impeccable sense of composition is responsible for the perfect balance of theory and practice in his writings. The ease of presentation, however, did not result in simplification, thus making Demidov’s writings of equal interest to scholars, experienced theatre practitioners and beginning students. Moreover, Demidov’s writings are dealing with fundamental laws of creativity; therefore, they are indispensable to every creative field, such as psychology, sports, music, literature, etc.