The Sacred Space

“a place where prayer has been valid”. T.S Eliot.

I have rehearsed and worked in many strange and often inhospitable places but whatever has happened I have for many years tried to instil in people a respect for the space. When we make work we can do it anywhere under the most challenging circumstances because, of course, it is the work that is important. However, the work exists in a space and if the room is cold or inadequate it can be a huge challenge, because that space tells everyone whether you and your work are respected in an institution or by society at large. As artists are continually under-valued, this issue of a clean, resourced and purposeful space can be a sensitive one.  I feel we are very lucky in NUI Galway to have a new theatre building which has two lovely studio spaces.

The whole concept of space is fascinating. Right now, Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland is remounting Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and we are taking it up to the prestigious Heaney Homeplace in Northern Ireland. The venue is beautiful and extraordinary with a theatre inspired by a Greek Amphitheatre. The audience are on three sides with tiered seating . There are more seats at the sides than the front. When we performed the piece over a year ago in the Cuirt International Festival in Galway Ireland,  in the Town Hall Theatre Studio, a small end-on studio space with seating on the long side of the studio, it made for a wide stage space. The piece, extremely powerful, was very still, confessional, and formal. This space was almost entirely the opposite type of space to the Heaney Homeplace.

Working within this almost promenade setting in the new venue has given us the opportunity to open up the piece into a much more physical almost Shakespearean presentation, in the way the characters explain and justify their actions around and during the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In fact, and this is what is most interesting, it is the space itself which has demanded this change rather than any demand of mine or the actors. Things we used to find gloriously effective do not alway work in this different configuration. This is not merely a question of the technical considerations but something that happens when people inhabit a particular space and creating a new dynamic.

When I start teaching next week with my undergrad group on Shakespeare, part of the course involves looking at the shape of Shakespeare’s theatre and how that structure affected the nature of the drama and the way the plays were written; particularly with relation to the connection with the audience which the thrust stage provides.

And do these shapes and spaces not have something to do with atmosphere, that most potent element explored in detail by Michael Chekhov in his technique? That the shape of the space and its purpose help create an atmosphere uninfluenced by those who enter that space? That the atmosphere has, of itself, great power and its own demands on what happens within it?

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Orla Tubridy Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning – The Sacrificial Wind

Catch The Sacrificial Wind at the Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy Co. Derry +44 (0)28 7938 7444 on the 22nd September 7.30 http://www.seamusheaneyhome.com

or on the 28th September Free performance at the ODT on campus at NUI Galway at lunchtime 1pm . You will need to arrive early to ensure a seat.

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The Feeling of the Whole.

IMG_4945This four day summer school, “A Little Piece of Art’ has been one of the most exciting teaching projects I have done. With my group of 12 intrepid explorers, with a wide age range, working as student actors, actors, teachers and directors it has been a diverse yet at the same time homogenous group of varying experience in the Chekhov work.

The title comes from Chekhov’s assertion that everything we perform is ‘a little piece of art’. Everything has a preparation, a beginning, middle and end. So every moment in a play contains this truth. This is not so much like a ‘beat’,  but more like a flow of energy, a tune that exists in a piece of music.

Our task was to explore and discover the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole using sections of The Cherry Orchard (by Uncle Anton) . These two aspects of Chekhov Technique have been very much in the forefront of my thinking lately as I see so many theatre pieces, both plays and devised work that are formless; so that even though they hold good pieces within them, they leave me empty, as if I have wasted my time. I have been considering also how to teach directing through Chekhov Technique, finding aspects of the technique which are crucial to both actors and directors alike. I found out that Form and the Whole along with General Atmosphere are it.

Whilst I was in Grozjnan in Croatia at an extraordinary Chekhov teachers’ conference organised by Michael Chekhov Europe and the Michael Chekhov Association earlier this month, Joanna Merlin, the Founder of the Michael Chekhov Association, said that she felt that the technique needed to be taught to directors. I feel this very strongly myself as it is only then that the actors will fully feel they have permission to work with the method, and will seriously learn it. Also, because Chekhov’s approach is very much ensemble based, it requires a whole different level of thinking as to what the director does, what the relationship is between the actor and director, and how the group creates the play together.

For instance, we considered and worked mainly through General Atmosphere, on the episode in Act 2 of The Cherry Orchard when the house party meets the Passer By, an extraordinary character in the play. The character appears for only three minutes unnerving the group like some kind of ominous future, carrying a portentous weight as to the meaning of the entire play. How that character is played has an enormous influence on the production and the audience’s connection with what the play might be saying. The director cannot decide this on her own! It has to be done in collaboration with everyone or the actor will feel alienated and used. Chekhov said, “The Actor is the Theatre” and whilst I think directors are vital, Chekhov is really right. There is no point in imposing concepts on actors. What’s more it belittles their contribution.

Sometimes, when I lead a course, I really feel I want to explore something. Perhaps this is wrong and perhaps I should be more rigid and set upon the various elements of Chekhov technique in a methodical way. Sometimes I do do that. But if you want to explore, you have to take the whole group with you, and you have to make sure they have the requisite tools for that exploration to take place or you are simply exploiting them. On short courses this can be quite challenging. In Grojznan a couple of us had some very interesting talks about short courses and what elements they should contain. For myself often what text you are using [if you use one] might dictate where to start.

IMG_4870One thing Chekhov discusses is that you do not need to start at the beginning of the play to explore it. As we were working on a play which had lots of people in it and very few duologues, I decided to use very short pieces around climaxes or episodes with a lot of people in them, no more than a page. So for instance, we used the lead up to the arrival of Ranevskaya and the family, the Passer- by episode, and the end of the play. We had done some good lead-in on Radiating/receiving forms in movement and text, ideal centre, impulse and general atmosphere . Of course what we did was rough, we had done very little character work other than possible gestures/journies for the characters, but we found nonetheless that there was something interesting and valuable there in terms of form, of a feeling of the whole and of general atmosphere. something valuable we should not have found so powerfully nor so easily through other techniques.

And that brings me on to the difficult topic of Application and whether you should do it or not…. another day.

More weekend classes in the autumn. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to get on the mailing list

Article of Faith

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Just a short word to say that IF you are working in a school or college that takes this magazine, you might like to explore the excellent articles, including my own on working on Shakespeare with young people. It covers voice work, a little Chekhov Technique, and some of the issues my group and i encountered as we worked on Twelfth Night earlier this year! this exploration is going to be expanded soon! Here are Fiona and Patrick from the production and there are other pictures inside.

http://www.nationaldrama.org.uk/dramamagazine/

“A little piece of Art”

IMG_4174CHEKHOV TRAINING AND PERFORMANCE IRELAND SUMMER SCHOOL

“A little piece of Art”
Finding a sense of form in the character, the piece or the play through the Michael Chekhov Technique.
NUIG Galway
August 16-19th 10 – 5.  Tutor Max Hafler
For Actors, Students, and Directors .

Michael Chekhov said that everything you did onstage, every exercise, every improvisation, every scene, every play needed a ‘feeling of Form’ and a “feeling of Entirety”. Each piece had to be “a little piece of Art”. We are going to explore these two fundamental planks of Chekhov Technique to enable us to create more believable and focussed characters and performances using the psycho-physical technique which through the imagination and the body takes us to new realms.

Getting the whole understanding of form in our bodies is crucial. How do you start a scene? What are the dynamics? And how does the scene end? And what happens in between? Working with tableaux, gesture and transformation, we will work with a yet to be decided text. This technique will give a strong grid on which to work, yet at the same time give you as a performer/director an immense freedom. It is both completely practical and helps the performer to express the invisible.

It is going to be exciting.

some thoughts

Of course these ideas  of Form and Entirety are not new in consideration of art but they are too often dismissed or ignored by practitioners as outmoded or outdated, that they make smug or complacent art, as if life could be tied in those kind of parcels. I would question whether theatre has the slightest responsibility to imitate life in quite that kind of way, even if this was true.

Form and Entirety [or wholeness] are related of course but are not quite the same thing. I would say that Feeling of Form is something the performer practises that becomes an inate performance skill  whereas a Feeling of Wholeness is a state that is discovered both as a character and also through the experience of the whole play.

We have to accept that Form and Wholeness are woven into our lives. The two things we know for sure are that we are born and we die; a beginning and an end. Because we understand this on a fundamental visceral level, it is not surprising to me that we often look for this quality in art. The end we seek in our plays and films is not necessarily a comfortable easy end; nor is it always an attempt to just have our own values expressed and validated. Remember, if you look at a play or film with an ending which appears inconclusive, the creators have decided that ending for a reason.  It is still an ending.

In my real life experience, endings are beginnings with new challenges and obstacles and pleasures. At least they are changes – the start of a new consideration, some new way of being. The end is a stopping and pausing point. however, in a work of art it offers a deep satisfaction because it is a pinnacle, a place for the characters to rest and take stock before they move on. In a fictional narrative, it leaves us with a feeling, a question and a resolution all rolled into one – if it is powerful that is.

So, in addition to needing a ‘Feeling of Entirety’ for the whole piece of art, we have a feeling of form for the character. What about the beginning, the start of the character’s journey? What are the energies and desires he brings into the space and how does he seek them?  Chekhov always talks about How and what  being the most fundamental questions which lead to the answer of Why someone does something.

When working on entrances and exits in another workshop, we observed that the moment you entered was one of your moments of ultimate power. The audience are intrigued by a new energy, by a feeling that the arrival of this person is going to change things, alter the dynamic. Finding a starting point through psycho-physical exercises is a nuanced and exciting exploration. Finding the end point gives you somewhere to go.

booking details

If you are interested to book for this course , please contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. the cost of the course is €180 for tuition only

 

 

Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet

Later this month I am participating in a Teachers’ retreat for Michael Chekhov Teachers, and one of the things we are asked to consider is the time “when we were very young and dreamed of the stage very secretly.” Michael Chekhov. To explore what that creative joy felt like.

At first when I read this, I was a bit apprehensive. Like many artists, I feel my creativity was bound keenly to a very difficult environment of family breakup, tragedy and illness. I wondered how much of these things I wanted to pick through in order to explore this and how much I wanted to share. On the other hand, I am not someone who fakes exploration in workshop; I want to explore.

I asked my intuition before I went to sleep as to how I might tackle this in a manageable and safe way and I came up with something . I came across a picture of myself at three singing ‘Living Doll’ (an early Cliff Richard song) in a talent show. It made me think of the ‘forward movement of energy ’ required to be a performer, to be able to go out there, the ability to share but also to say “look at me”. As a child, acting was a total release for me. It made me feel like I had something of value to share, that despite the dangers and disappointments of ‘real life’ here was a place I could be myself.  It felt generous and open and exciting, like a light had gone on inside me. To some extent though, this quality is also tied up with ego and narrowing selfishness, and whilst this forward movement is vital for me as a performing artist, it is only part of the story.

Where my creativity really sprang from as a child, where it really nurtured me,  was from an inward movement of energy, a lonely creation of expansive imaginative worlds through my puppet theatre, my games and by voracious reading. It was no accident that when, as a young actor, I saw the show A Chorus Line , I wept copiously during the song, “Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet”, so much so that members of the audience sitting behind me told me to shut up! This lovely song really captured for me what it was like to sublimate your pain into art, to forget your problems, and when I think about it now, to consider the work of creativity and performing as being the most beautiful important thing.

This inward energy or imagination, seems to be the true core of artistic creation. Afterwards of course, we share that with others, our co-artists and audiences, which augments and strengthens its value. And I feel it is my job to always, always be open to this impulse to both the inward creation and the outward expression.

Often though in our creative world of ‘the business’, so many of us are denied this expansiveness, or have it only for a short period of our lives. In the end I think that is what I loathe about the idea of being professional. In that world the very thing that gives the work its power is the very thing that is denied all but a very few fortunate souls. I think this is almost unbearably cruel, to snatch this raw creative power away as we try to reconcile our ideals with the raw realities of agents, headshots and survival. I think ultimately that is why I love teaching as much as I do, because what you are doing is working with this inner creative flame. You do not have to consider these materialist realities, because it is the creative imagination which is the reality.  

When I found the work of Michael Chekhov, I felt I had found someone who never lost this sense of the power of the imagination, of this liberation and joy, despite the various trials and tribulations of his own life. I can honestly say it changed my life because I found someone, and through him a whole network of people, who think and feel as I do myself – that theatre makers are primarily artists no matter what.

“The fault,dear Brutus…” Julius Caesar BBC4

I am sorry, but I had to turn the JULIUS CAESAR [BBC 4}off last night. This is not because I am old school, nor is it that I don’t believe women can play mens’ roles. This prestigious production by Phyllida Lloyd and with Dame Harriet Walter playing Brutus was set in a women’s prison, something which we were tediously reminded of during the play itself with the odd expletive which undermined the play on several occasions. It presumably was meant to emphasise the relevance of the production.

Setting a play with ‘a concept’ like this often rides against the play and you have to be incredibly careful how you do it. Also could we not simply accept as adults that you can do this play with an all female cast and something integral will happen to it, without adding another layer which in the end merely obfuscated what the play was about? In other words, though one might say in the production’s defense, that the play is about patriarchal power and these women prisoners are victims of that power, I do not really see that resonating enough to make it work. and for me it failed almost totally. Only the performance of Jackie Clune as Julius Caesar really excited and challenged me.

Violence, we observe, is sadly more and more common in our society and presumably some of the prison ‘characters’ had witnessed it, been victim to it, or acted it out. They would also perhaps understand about lobbying for position in a gang situation. None of this – where the ‘concept’ may have actually really served the piece – was apparent to me in the production.

In the end though, whether it was the ‘concept’ that confused actors, the text, though incredibly clear, beautifully phrased etc had one blanket of emotional panicky pace which meant to me almost nothing . I neither cared about the prison ‘characters’ nor the characters in the play.

As someone who has been in a production of this play, I do think the second half is challenging for cast and director .The play does such a great job of building to the unleashing of violence that it is hard to know what happens next. i suppose it is simply that having committed the assassination the characters fall from their lofty heights with Brutus struggling for his honour in a sea of dishonour and bloodshed which ultimately overwhelms him.

 

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (and William Shakespeare)

Everyone has at least one important inspirational teacher. I am lucky to have had several. Mrs. Florence Robinson was the first. To say she was a front room drama teacher belittles her impact on me. She was inspiring, intelligent, funny, enthusiastic and joyous as a teacher. I hope I have taken that from her, because as a teacher, enthusiasm and joy are what makes you effective. They are the things you remember about someone.

She was about fifty when I met her. Her husband worked on the railways and she had two sons both of whom went into theatre administration. Like many women of the period, once married, she did not feel she could take her life into a theatrical career. She satisfied herself with youth and amateur work, doing lessons in her front room and helping people like me get to drama school. She spent many unpaid hours working with me and several other aspiring young actors.

Over the eight years I worked with her, she gave me a love of spontaneity and imagination at the same time as giving me a love of technique and precision. When I went to drama school nine years later, I found I had a lot of the building blocks already in place because she had encouraged them in me.

I was ten when I started taking class with her. She decided to give me the incredibly challenging Puck speech from act 3 sc 2 of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “My mistress with a monster is in love,” in only my second week. ” I am not sure you are ready for this yet, but if you want to be an actor, then you must give Shakespeare a try.” The idea that Shakespeare was not for the faint hearted or only for a privileged few is a myth which still exists today, Florence implied it was difficult but in some ways I noticed that actually it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Yes there were some tricky words but the rhythm and excitement of the piece which rattled through was what thrilled me. As a young man said who played Puck for me decades later in a production in Galway,  “I was scared of doing Shakespeare and now I am not”. In fact in many ways, Shakespeare is easier for young people because it is poetic and out of their immediate reality.

The day we began on that speech was the first time I heard about breathing. I realised that where you breathed in a line was important and gave you control which you needed, at the same time as having to radiate and fully inhabit Puck being boastful and wild. It was a big discovery, very early in my life. Like lots of my own students, who I am sure find the discipline of marking breath boring and counter-intuitive, it took me many years to realise that discipline and spontaneity needed to be symbiotic. She opened the door for me to the universality of Shakespeare, that poetic drama as great as this can encompass the world, at the same time as being intimate and personal.

Another thing Florence taught me quite quickly was emphasis and how emphasis could totally change meaning. It still astounds me how often actors speak text and emphasise words which make a line almost nonsensical or trite. This happened most annoyingly recently in the Andrew Scott Hamlet. This is so bad because it fails to acknowledge that language is the main thing in Shakespeare, the main conduit for everything; psychology, atmosphere, character, motivation. We can of course say, “well now we have visuals we don’t need to worry about painting a picture with words,” and “don’t people know the story anyway?” but really there is no escape; the language is everything.

And when I say that, I mean it. The story is important too of course, but Shakespeare used stories from Plutarch and other sources, like most of the Elizabethan playwrights. So the stories may well have been familiar to some. Part of the fun, for the nobles in the audience at least, might have been to see how the playwright had adapted the story. But some of the audience will not have known the story and that is a place from which we should always start if the play is to have an impact. Too often for me, professional actors carry the great weight of history on their backs, a kind of cynical exhaustion which says , “yes, I know you have seen and heard this a thousand times”.

Florence demanded enthusiasm and spontaneity. She could smell it if it wasn’t there! Though we did a whole variety of material, it is my work on Hamlet, the choruses of Henry V, Enobarbus, Puck and Romeo that I remember.

Florence and I got a little estranged during my later teenage years as I began going to youth theatre and thought devising far more cool, making theatre with my friends (something I recognise in some of my own students now!) I none the less went back to her to help me with my drama school entry audition.

Florence disappeared from my life after I started LAMDA . However, after my first term I went to visit her in her little house on a dangerous bend in the road. I looked at the stairs where I had sat as a little boy going through my poem  before i went in for my lesson . That day she arrived and hugged me and brought me into the room in which I had been given so much learning and encouragement. It was full now of her watercolours ,a hobby she had taken up over the last few years. She loved to show them. I particularly remember I loved the one of a puppy sleeping. She was lively as usual that day but I noticed that the oft repeated stories which had accompanied my later classes with her, had got more insistent. Later, I heard from others that she would go out and not be able to find her way home. This vibrant wonderful creative person was succumbing to Alzheimers.

One of the things she said to me at that visit after I had started drama school was that she wanted to know everything I had learned in my first term. She asked me, “do you think that the work we did here was….well…..was on the right track?”

Absolutely.