Finding these amazing moments in plays when we actually somehow touch the invisible is often missing from the plays that we see because we do not acknowledge these moments as part of life. We dismiss them as sentimental or ‘unreal’, when they are not. Anton Chekhov’s plays in particular are full of these extraordinary moments. And these moments are open to us as artists continually; but, and this is really important, these moments where we cross the boundary are not peculiar to sensitive artistic souls; they happen to everyone . One of the chosen pieces from this exquisite book we are using, To the Lighthouse, involves the servant cleaner, Mrs. McNab remembering the old lady who owned the house. These moments we all have illuminate both character and audience; a quick flash and they are gone. Or they can be great moments of destiny, where the character sees themselves in the whole panoply of history.
If art connects the living and the dead, the numinous and the everyday , then we need to consider occasionally how on earth we can make this connection happen authentically in a play or film. How do we make this alchemy happen ? Is it always something that only happens by accident? I do not think that is the only way these connections are made. These connections between the tangible and intangible happen to us in life at moments of selflessness or crisis, like when someone endangers their own life for someone else or at times of,instability like the Covid crisis. A moment when this happens is when someone brings a gift. Recently, a neighbour brought four new cups and saucers to the house as a gift. There were many levels on which I experienced this simple act of generosity. I had had a bad day wrestling with the internet company and was quite overwhelmed by his generosity. The fact that somehow I felt the universe was protecting me on some level was quite profound. I am sure some more sceptical people would say this was a delusion but that did not stop me experiencing it deeply. Whether it was the meaning, it felt like it was. Of course on another level a neighbour was simply bringing me some crockery which would be very useful. These levels of experience stirred inside me and created a response.
This search for the intangible requires an understanding in us of how we respond to events and how many things go on inside us at any given moment. I remember the first time I did the Chekhov exercise where you were asked to connect to an object whilst walking around the room, then chat to a fellow participant whilst at the same time imagining singing a song! What I learned is that it is hard to keep everything going but our minds flit from one focus to another, sometimes accentuating the song and sometimes the object, or sometimes the conversation. That has been my experience in ‘real life’. The exercise illuminates the amazing complexity of multi-layered response.
Declan Drohan and I will be exploring these elements online with PLAYING ON THE CUSP on July 19 between 3 and 7 pm GMT online. email email@example.com. Very exciting. As always Chekhov work goes to interesting unusual places. There are still a couple of spots.
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In the third exploration of the Higher Ego classes with our intrepid group searching to identify , trust, and place their Artist in the comedic space, we embarked on a joyous series of ensemble games which made us explore what we felt the act of performance was and how we connected to the Artist/Higher Ego, working with it in a practical way. Michael Chekhov talks quite a bit about this, how we give in performance and what act actually is, and through a series of gesture/statues we explored what the act of performing meant to us individually.
All our exercises have invited questioning about performance and the way we operate as artists.
Does connecting the Higher Ego and a sense of joy let the evil characters off the hook when we perform them with this sensibility? Or does feeling this Artist’s mission to present and explain a tyrant’s motivation allow us this joy, without exonerating the character? When I play Macbeth am I exonerating him if I play him with some degree of compassion or understanding? Does this lightness in our Higher Ego allow us to make definite comment and criticism of the character or not? In a Brecht play for instance, like Arturo Ui I would say it does, in Macbeth I am not so sure…
We did not have answers for these complex questions just possibilities.
Someone said they felt that acknowledging the lightness freed them to express heavier atmospheres around them; but then, did allowing this lightness to live whilst we tried to express some darker qualities, somehow belittle or devalue those darker feelings , betraying them and making them superficial?
I would say that in my own acting training (many moons ago) that the idea of Higher Ego, the objective eye, the inner artist etc. would have been frowned on by many as something which sounded dangerously superficial. You had to be ‘in’ the role. This I now understand (and have discussed in earlier pieces) to be a difficult and actually fraudulent position because you are never wholly ‘in’ the role, only for certain sections of the play to a lesser or greater degree when you are drawn to be. It is all about how you play your instrument. It seems that what the exploration of the Higher Ego suggests to us is that the Art of Theatre is an amalgamation of many levels of experience going on at once (I am sure there have been several PhD studies about this) and in order to explore them and how they work in you you need to do many practical exercises, really listening and experiencing your subtle movements of energy. This class is teaching me that finding out how we all personally play our instrument is what is the most important joyous and empowering thing of all, releasing our creativity to our audiences and ourselves. What an acknowledgement of the Higher Ego can do is give to the artist a strong sense of self when navigating and expressing the character without sacrificing the character’s authenticity.
2016 – I had been looking for a project that was both private, poetic and political, and when it was suggested to me that I look at Lorna Shaughnessy’s poems, written around the story of Iphigenia, I was immediately drawn to them. they encapsulated this mixture of personal and epic. I was drawn by the contemporary pain of these characters involved in the sacrifice of Iphigenia which both encompassed the Trojan War and also the wars current in our troubled world.
It was first conceived as a stage piece. It was to be like a storytelling event but at the same time, a drama. It was performed onstage at the newly created ODonoghue centre in NUI Galway by only three actors (Michael Irwin, Catherine Denning and Orla Tubridy) who played the twelve characters between them; bitter soldier; god, hero; King; Priest; Queen ; Princess ; Playwright. Our presentation borrowed a lot from Greek theatre; occasional masks, percussion and the fact that our trio of actors played all the speaking characters, just as in the Greek Theatre tradition. The piece had a courtroom feel as one by one the characters sought to justify their place in the sacrifice of the young princess. It had a strongly powerful collective feel to it, which it also received in birthright as a live event. The audience were taken into the characters confidence, asked to judge. This created a very powerful dynamic, not unlike the soliloquies in a Shakespeare play which pull the audience into the dilemma of the soliloquising character and make the audience somehow culpable in the character’s actions. This is not logical , it is visceral, mysterious and dynamic.
When I was asked to re-imagine this piece online, I immediately started to consider what we could realistically do given the situation we find ourselves in right now. I took the opportunity to invite another seven actors to take part to increase its sense of epic charge (Kate Murray, Eilish McCarthy, John Rice, Conor Geogeghan, Sarah O’Toole, Sam o Fearraigh and Patrick O’Malley) . The actors rehearsed with me on Zoom at first in a group as I felt it was important we got a sense of the ‘Feeling of The Whole’ even though the pieces were monologues. Then we rehearsed separately. Then, separately, they filmed themselves. The instructions for filming were strict but it was important that there was as much uniformity in atmosphere and style as we could get. The sense of atmosphere was paramount to me. This was of course down to the actors creating the atmosphere as much as it was the lighting and the sensitive soundscapes created by Barra Convery which help to evoke much of the world of the piece.
The piece lasts 48 minutes and is available Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8-10.30. You need to get tickets from Eventbrite but they are FREE.
The Sacrificial Wind was first produced by NUI Galway’s Arts in Action programme in conjunction with Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland
Here is the trailer for The Sacrificial Wind by Lorna Shaughnessy online performance video.Director Max Hafler
tickets Free. March 19-21st between 8 pm – 10.30pm GMT book through Eventbrite
“Our artistic natures have two aspects, one that is merely sufficient for our ordinary existence and another of a higher order that martials the creative powers in us..” Michael Chekhov
With that sentence, Michael Chekhov introduces this idea of the Higher Ego into our acting training. There is something in me which baulks at this. Life is not ordinary, far from it. In addition this idea of Higher and Lower is something of a concern because if we are not careful we can start to make value judgements of one over the other. It is silly to say that washing the dishes is a higher ego activity but I CAN say that I learn more about the experience of atmosphere for instance, by dipping my hands slowly into the dish water.
I began my first four sessions with an enthusiastic group this week on this topic of the Higher Ego. I wanted to explore it not as some kind of esoteric concept but something we can actually use to expand our art.
I wanted a grounded (if that isn’t a startling polarity!) exploration, almost scientific I suppose, a kind of “What is it? How does it work for me as a creative artist?” Is it a kind of Artist guide within us who nurtures, guides and focuses our creativity? Is that all it is?
Can it be really defined, or is it like beauty or virtue or any of these other multi-faceted named qualities which are usually defined by how we experience them? If we cannot label it, does that mean we can develop it? Pay attention to it? Is it OBJECTIVE EYE/ ARTIST/ SPIRIT GUIDE/UNFETTERED IMAGINATION/ CONTROLLER? Or what? and can any of these grand concepts encapsulate it?
I asked everyone in the group to suggest things they wanted to find out about HIGHER EGO.
Is it a matter of connection with each other, to the work, to our audience , our collaborators, but also to enable us to be open to ourselves and, in that way, be available to the universe and to each other? Breathing, Voice, Imagination, Feelings, Body all connecting up together.
I observed that even after our initial ‘crossing the threshold’ and warm-up that these exercises were already opening us to the Higher Ego as we explored things on many levels. The Chekhov Technique is about ‘making the intangible tangible’ in the first place. We were already preparing.
I wanted us to play with the question of what the Higher Ego can offer us as Artists? In one exercise we built up a series of movements then added text, then added that place of space which monitors, observes and guides. I think it is important to remember that the Higher Ego is part of us. It is OUR Higher Ego it belongs to each individual but it also enables us to connect collectively.
In case you are thinking you might stop reading as this is far too hippy dippy…..
This sensation of the Higher Ego is not weird it is something that is happening to us all the time. Our mind is continually multi-tasking. Our attention flits from one focus to another, yet somewhere there is something holding it together, despite the ‘noise’ around us and, of course, the noise we generate ourselves in our own heads..
Let’s imagine you are appearing in a film or a play. You know your lines. You have, with your colleagues and the writer, created the character. You live a theatrical reality and yet you are before an audience or surrounded by camera people, you have rehearsed, what seems spontaneous is mostly planned, you are sensitive to the demands of the audience, and you know when you have to turn or pick up a cup and enter or exit. And yet there is something above you, something that none of these activities is touching (you can call it your higher ego, your artist whatever) it is keeping the pathways open to feeling, inspiration and a sense of who we are as performers. It enables freshness.
It might be hard to control. It is expansive like a balloon filled with helium on a string. Chekhov says if we let this Higher Ego go, it can run riot. The performer holding the string needs to keep it grounded.
Really looking forward to the next three sessions on Higher Ego.The next block of sessions for after Easter will be available for booking next week.
Lately I have been involved in interesting discussions particularly around Atmosphere, one of Michael Chekhov’s prime elements to creating work.
For those who are reading this, the idea of atmosphere might sound a bit perverse. The actor imagines an atmosphere surrounding them and affecting them . The atmosphere can be anything from a literal environment like a library to something material like dust or feathers, or perhaps even something more abstract like Hope or despair. Again for those new to this approach, moving in an atmosphere of hope does not mean that you, the character, feel hopeful. In fact depending on the character you might find the atmosphere of Hope terrifying . The best way to consider Atmosphere might be, the weather. There can be a storm but we still go about our daily business. The way in which we do this will be changed, our mood will be transformed by squall or sunshine, but we may well still set about to pursue our objectives.
Recently in my class using A Christmas Carol on Atmosphere, we found that the atmosphere of generosity had a curious effect on Ebenezer Scrooge. A tightly closed man, it was positively painful for him to admit this general atmosphere into himself. He had to make everyone as closed as him in order to justify his existence.
The great thing is, the general atmosphere is about response and the performer can never predict how the chosen atmosphere is initially going to act on them even though they use their own imagination to create it. A magical and surprising thing can happen, a completely honest unexpected and immediate response which gives you a colour and focus to the character. As Lenard Petit and others say, you ‘let the atmosphere play you.’
People can be sceptical about Atmosphere, because it sounds dangerously like it could be flowery and esoteric. Materialists might say WE only create atmosphere by our presence in a space. You have only to walk from one room to another in your house to know that atmosphere is there and whilst people contribute to it, it is not the only energy in play. It’s a question of being ‘where prayer has been valid’ (Eliot ) and that affects you whether you (or your character) believe in prayer or not . You might not respond religiously you might push away the religiosity and assert your view that a cathedral is a beautiful monument and respond to it like that, but you still have a response.
And it is not necessarily an element to use in something esoteric like Yeats. You can use it in the most realistic play. A few years ago working on the tumultuous and beautiful act three of Anton Chekhov’s Three sisters with some post graduates in Galway, I wanted to explore the idea of the atmosphere of a room and parts 9f a room (something I have got people to do a lot during lockdown classes). I talked about the atmosphere in the hallway outside ( there has been a fire in the town and they have taken in frightened people ) as being one of chaos and disruption , the room in which Olga and Irina sleep which is the stage setting has the feeling of a sanctuary… we all know parts of our house/flat like that. When they crossed the threshold into the performance space you felt they had come into this different cooler darker space where they could reveal more of the truth about themselves…We even created a sleeping chair ( several of the characters fall asleep in this act) which seductively called to those exhausted characters.
This intangible stuff has its own palpable logic. When I start to teach it, I always start with the direction of the energy and the weight of it, so if you say church for instance, everyone does not immediately close their hands in prayer or think ‘what do I do when I am in this atmosphere… maybe I am a priest or a supplicant or someone looking for sanctuary?’… these narrative threads which may well jump out at you are not the point, not to start with anyway.
A place of worship is weighty and womb like. It holds you and lifts you in some way. It is often silent yet full..though there will be differences in how we respond to it, there will be something similar provided we are not pulling in our own particular immediate memories as the root of our response but something more fundamental, something universal we can trust. You can actually feel this even when you are working with a group on Zoom.
next course PRINCIPLES : ARTIST :WORKING TO CREATE WITH THE HIGHER EGO. 12th March – 2nd April 4 Sessions , i per week.4.00 – 5.30 email firstname.lastname@example.org. tutor Max Hafler
Michael Chekhov’s concern with the Higher Ego allows for us as performers to acknowledge the workings of the actor as Artist and to acknowledge that when we practise our art a holistic alchemy is being expressed and explored. These four sessions allow us to experience the Higher Ego as something palpable and real, that can help us in the creative process. It allows us to be the character and the artist at the same time. It allows us to be inspired.
Here is, as Chekhov might say, my ‘lab assistant’ moment after four on your feet weeks looking at Atmosphere and A Christmas Carol. After the final session, I felt we could have gone on for three weeks as some of the participants started to create pieces around episodes in the book. It made me realise yet again the profundity of exploring something through the Chekhov Technique especially through atmosphere because it does not come through the direct route . What I mean is that exploring atmosphere is much less of an ego driven experience. You are not considering what a character is doing you are creating an atmosphere when as Lenard Petit says, “the atmosphere is playing you”; in other words you are surrendering to the moment and not involving yourself too much in whether you are doing it right or doing what the character might want. You are seeking the character who is responding to outside influences which your imagination is creating.
I said in my last blog that a rich vein for us with the character of Scrooge was a general atmosphere of Generosity surrounding , enveloping and swirling around a tight package of meanness . How the personal atmosphere dwelt in and managed the general atmosphere gave a strong prompt to the conflicting problems of Scrooge; how he managed them and how they made him feel. We had done some exploration of the atmosphere of the three ghosts, Past, Present and Future. But something we touched on yesterday were the Cratchits and a possible polarity in their situation and the atmosphere surrounding them . I suggested a personal atmosphere of happiness with a general one of drudgery. It was extraordinary how, when the general one was added, the actors tended to lose a little of their sparkle in the greeting or work harder to break through the thick blanket of drudgery around them. The conflict gave texture.
As intrinsic as atmosphere is however, used alone it can give the characters a lack of agency and make them appear victims of everything that happens around them . It can also give the piece we create a lack of ‘feeling of the whole’. Whilst the reactions between personal and general may well provoke a response, they are not an act of will. So there is something the character is trying to ‘do’ irrespective of atmosphere, even though the atmosphere might distort and alter it. Let’s take the Cratchits again. Whilst on the one hand they may have a collective personal atmosphere of Happiness, amidst a General atmosphere of Drudgery, they are embracing each other, supporting each other, lifting each other, in very difficult circumstances; that is what they are doing, specifically and without that ‘doing’ we ignore the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of the character and the piece can easily lose its shape.
Without the atmosphere though, we lose what Chekhov calls, ‘the oxygen of the performance’. We need both.
Our work today made me feel that the book was not about Christmas at all, that Christmas was merely a symbol in the novel, a window of opportunity for us to be kinder to one another and see things differently; that Scrooge was Everyperson, not necessarily simply a mercantile miser from Dickens world, but someone given an opportunity , a magical opportunity to look at his whole life and consider how he has come to where he is, something we all do eventually, ruminating on our successes and failures, brave moments and cowardly moments, things we could have done better and things we should not have done at all. When Scrooge accepts his life he then makes a choice and changes unequivocally. Ultimately we played a lot in class with the atmosphere of redemption/salvation.
If a piece has no atmosphere it has nothing. An atmosphere is the place in which a character or situation lives. Without an atmosphere I do not believe a play or film can transmit much of anything. Atmosphere can give you everything, psychology, character journey, motivation, a deep understanding of the world the writer has created. It is one of the great ‘intangible’ gifts given by the Chekhov Technique to illuminate and grow your performance.
I have been working with my Atmosphere/ personal atmosphere group online, with A Christmas Carol . For those unused to this terminology, the Personal Atmosphere is one we carry around with us; it can be as modest as a passing mood or as strong as a sense of fate or destiny which fills and surrounds us. The General Atmosphere is one which permeates the environment we are in. It is more than this but let’s leave it there for now.
In a previous session we had explored a personal atmosphere of meanness with a general one of abundant generosity surrounding the character which seemed to fill his world. Through this exercise, we began to discover Scrooge’s dilemma and the psychological dynamic (or a possible one) for his response. His rejection of Christmas was for him a matter of holding on desperately to his world view that life was mean and cold and hard. Generosity was not just a nuisance, but a life-threatening sickness, which might bring his whole world view tumbling down. This incredible dynamic went far beyond the standard mean old Scrooge but allowed us to explore how he might lash out at those who refused to believe in the ‘Christmas spirit’. It reminded us all of how we actually relate to our environment and the energies which are around; that when that environment/general atmosphere opposes our view, what we carry with us (our personal atmosphere and world view) can often be the main conflict we carry in life. Interestingly, when I suggested to the group that they change the general atmosphere from ‘generosity’ to ‘grey’, immediately everyone settled . A few said they felt easier with ‘grey’ even though they were still carrying around this personal atmosphere of meanness because the general atmosphere did not rub against it. It almost justified their sourness.
General atmosphere falls for me into three broad categories; the literal environmental atmosphere (library, hospital, beach for instance) ; the visceral sensory atmosphere; (oil, feathers, gravel for instance) and the general atmosphere of feeling (suspicion greed love for instance). All of these categories have pitfalls. The environmental one can be too narrative (“What character am I in the atmosphere?”) the visceral one too literal (“but how can I breathe in oil?) and the third (“so there is an atmosphere of suspicion but why do I not feel suspicious?”).
It is easier to work with directions of energy and atmosphere when we tackle it using a texture or material or even a feeling. A way to find the direction of energy can be to breathe in the atmosphere and through your imagination allow it to shape you into a form or statue. You will soon find the direction and nature of the energy then. To my mind we should always use what is useful for our imagination and our work with the character and not get over caught-up iover-literal responses. By working with the directions of energy alone and experiencing the subtleties of what an atmosphere might be, this opens us to its full impact.
Because as artists we generate the atmosphere which appears to come from outside a much more subtle and powerful response can be gleaned for the character. To watch how the participants wrestled in their meanness with the open generosity around them was a powerful reminder of what atmosphere can do.
Courses begin in the first week of January with INVITING THE CHARACTER which runs twice a week for a month, and a one-day workshop with myself and Declan Drohan exploring WHAT IS STYLE? email email@example.com for more details.
Like the reflection in a deep pool , I look back on a strange but curiously invigorating teaching year. I just finished a session where my intrepid group were working with Atmosphere and images from A Christmas Carol… but back to the start of the year.
The year began with a powerful in-the-room workshop with my colleague Declan Drohan and myself leading a group on a number of the plays in FEAR AND MISERY IN THE THIRD REICH, addressing in a practical form the idea that the theatre must always be relevant. Whilst I am quite a Brecht fan I was still astonished by the depth of these plays to explore the tenets of fascism. I felt I really began to understand what it was that made Fascism attractive and how these dangerous and horrible tendencies can work within a person or a group. For me the depth of these discoveries was as much about how the Chekhov technique encourages us to explore plays as it was about the plays themselves.
I then ran an enjoyable Chekhov and Shakespeare monologue weekend and was preparing for a full house for the Comedy and Chekhov weekend (something I worked with later online) when the lockdown came. There was an international summer school in the offing in May/June as well. My book is currently in suspended animation until things get more ‘back to normal’. These are all first world problems but they were a shock.
At the outset of lockdown and the realisation that all in-the-room learning and performance would be pretty much shut down I was, like many people, in despair . With an atrocious internet speed I could not even see the possibility of online teaching and performance, never mind the fundamental challenges not being in the room would bring. However, even with the propensity for people to inhabit a universe painted by Degas and their voices changed into untuned pianos, I started to discern that the Chekhov principles were the same, they did not change and it was simply a matter of discovering which of them was pertinent to the new online world. Above all people needed this access to the Imagination and Body even more than they did before.
Once my internet speed increased and images and voices became clearer, I started to experience the possibilities. There was one particular moment in an early class when I asked people to radiate and move as if the walls of their room were not there and my heart expanded with what I experienced as it was as if the confines of their rooms exploded and I felt that all the boundaries I had imagined were not as much there as I thought.
At the very beginning though, I allowed myself to be constricted by the online possibilities, limiting movements and working in miniature, as if I was trying to get people to act in film. This flew in the face of all my beliefs about the Chekhov work, with its concept of using the whole body first, before the impact of a movement was concentrated within the body and then react intensely with the characters psychology. But soon I started to ditch the idea that you had to spend long periods of time with your nose in the monitor, like you were in your heads. Goodness, i thought, Chekhov technique encourages us to leave the domain of the head and there we were presented with talking heads in their own particular presentation cases like a museum…..this could not be the way to proceed.
There was one early class I remember particularly on psychological gesture and towards the end of class I realised i had spent the whole session on my feet. It felt really good and I realised I had spent far too long sitting down and that I had spent the whole class as if I was in the studio with the group. I remember remarking on it to them and realising (I hope] that this was what we all wanted and just as the walls can vanish and new worlds and atmospheres can be created by the actors’ will, so too could this reality be created even whilst at the same time we knew that some of us were thousands of actual miles apart.
Having said this the link to the monitor is crucial, like a silver thread connecting you to the teacher and the rest of the group..it reminds me of an early Chekhov exercise I did in my training where you focus on something in the room and stay aware and connected to it as you move around and talk to others. Chekhov talked about building the relationship with the camera…this is not so much for the purpose of film acting so much as it is to link you with the group. And the more this situation develops the more I get a sense that there is a sense of the group, that there is a sense of connection with the people who come to class.
Another aspect to remember is that often when people come to the actual studio they often find it too challenging to relate the work to their everyday lives. Working on zoom completely stymies this somewhat distancing view of the work because it is happening there with you in your room.
The other thing I love is that the classes can be international with almost no effort, that a group can hold people from all corners of the world. Whilst I charge for classes I occasionally do free classes for those who cannot afford it or have the interest and commitment to explore. I feel the online presence gives us that potential to offer such a thing with little outlay other than our time and skill.
Having said all this, I am missing enormously the elements of being in-the-room , the physicality and the feeling you are in the room together doing this wonderful work.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this place in which we find ourselves is connecting to colleagues from around the globe and discussing Chekhov philosophy, practical methods of teaching, exploring issues creatively and deeply and with humour. I am in a wonderful group of international teachers and feel an even stronger sense of community and support than i did before.
As peoples stamina (mine included) develop then I feel we can extend the classes into longer sessions. I still feel that anything longer than 90 minutes without a break is too much (but then that is also true of being in studio). As the technology improves and we as teachers learn how to use it, something i am beginning to find more and more fascinating, we will be able to do more and more.
As the year has developed I have taught application courses for more advanced practitioners, and principles courses on certain aspects of the technique for mixed groups. I am going to work with a longer basic course next year, perhaps more concentrated , run a couple of specialist element courses, run some one day workshops with my colleague Declan and make two online performances . This aspect of the work reminds me of early television. it feels pioneering and intriguing.
If you want to be informed of later workshops beginning in early January, email firstname.lastname@example.org
I have always loved the Christmas Carol; the story of how even the meanest closed person can reconnect with the world and in some measure makes some amends, atone for his cruelty. Despite the fact that the cruel and inhuman system of which he is a small but significant cog continues to grind on at the stories end, it is somewhat ameliorated by Scrooge’s more open heart and generosity.
I have always loved working in workshop with poetry and novels, something not immediately like a play. Dickens’ work, though packed with fabulous characters and dramatic confrontations is still novel in form. It enables you to experience in a truly multi-layered way, what is happening . As the words and images dance in your imagination a whole multi-facetted response can come. If you want to stay with the story alone, with these other aspects lurking beneath, you may, and these images and atmospheres are still at play; alternatively you can give the images and atmospheres a free rein and see what happens and discover a side to the story you only half- believed was there.
In my approach when working with novels I have come to the conclusion that to focus on looking at images and atmospheres before the narrative can bear some rich and powerful fruit. How will that affect how we tell the story?
In a workshop I led a year ago on Kafka’s The Trial, I decided to use the novel, even though I had done a very successful production of Berkoff’s adaptation in 2004. In the adaptation Berkoff had made a lot of creative decisions for us. As someone who has done a lot of adaptations I knew that choice and filtration is partly the job of the adapter so I am not complaining about this, but what became clear during this Chekhov exploration of The Trial was the facet of alternatives available when you used the novel itself (even in translation). You can read about this workshop on
Working with Atmosphere as the guiding spirit, the core of the work, assisted by the images and rhythms the author provides, the actor/creator can explore the text in a way that foreign companies approach Shakespeare often – through a different lens. This does not mean that the narrative is forgotten but it is not the most important thing – well, certainly it is not the only thing.
There is one place left on this course which begins on Saturday at 12.noon – 1.30 pm. Email email@example.com
I remember when I was a child and played in my room. Areas of my room had a particular atmosphere or feel there . Under a table became a tent or a cave, a place of safety. My bed became a rocket ship . I closed the curtains and used a torch to create lighting. The room disappeared as I dived into my fantasy. The walls melted….
Like Max in his wolf suit in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
In the new course, My Site Specific Room, starting on the 9th November, we have an opportunity to return to this absolutely crucial element of creation; imagination, atmosphere and energy. When I was a teenager I had a fantasy that I would have an imagining room, completely white, in which I would be free to imagine anything. I loved exploring the imagination; it made me feel fully alive.
As I became embroiled in the business of becoming a professional actor, I paradoxically lost much of my attachment to imagination. Acting became a serious material business. It was only with playwriting , teaching, directing and more especially my fortuitous discovery of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique which has as its bedrock the Imagination and the Body, when the Imagination reassumed its majesty as a creative tool. Working online, I returned even more to the core values of ‘lets pretend’. This is one of the great plusses of learning online at home, in your room…
For fourteen years on the NUIGalway Drama MA I taught ensemble and devising, before it was the fashionable thing, and have worked extensively with youth theatre and applied drama on devising. One of the exercises at the Uni was to give sub groups the opportunity to find a spot on campus they could explore and use and make the venue the inspiration for a short dramatic experimental piece as we brought the audiences to them. Pieces in a squash court, a ladies toilet, a long corridor with stuffed animals in it, a church ante-room… four of the exciting venues that were memorable.
The Michael Chekhov Technique elements for the course will of course be atmosphere. What is the atmosphere of the room in which you are working? And of course Imagination, so that the piece you create is not about your past life in that room but comes from somewhere else. We will also work with composition elements and tempo and variety .
For instance, I use my study. If i sit in a chair in the corner I feel differently to when I stand at the window or sit at my computer. Note how when you sit in your living room that you probably choose where to sit. You don’t even think about it. This is not necessarily ‘your chair’ per se.. I have a fireplace – how do I feel when I sit at the fireplace? Could this be the start of my story/piece… how does it feel to sit by the fire…maybe there is only a small fire in the stove…i am cold…. my story begins… who am I? who am i speaking to?
In the course you will craft a 5 minute piece using where you are as your inspiration. It could come from a corner or a texture or something about the whole room.
if this is of interest to you then email firstname.lastname@example.org . We begin on the 9th. at 4.00pm GMT. there are five workshops! Below is a video link for more info
“Speaking of atmosphere changes, it’s funny once the zoom chat goes on. It’s like stepping out of the fog and back into a clear blue sky day.” that’s one of many quotes in a similar vein from one of my online students.
There has been some talk lately of the therapeutic nature of the Chekhov technique work in these challenging times we are living in. This does not mean Chekhov technique is a counselling substitute; it is a creative technique for making art, for viewing yourself as an artist and practically creating characters and making work. But I would be lying if I was to say that it did not provide something more. So whilst I do not get involved in the idea that drama is therapy primarily, the therapeutic effect cannot be ignored. An ex-student described Chekhov technique as “the emotional gym”. Like all drama (and music, dance or sports training) it gives a great opportunity for us to find out who we are. Because the Chekhov work is so expansive it opens doors that, for me at least, other acting techniques barely tease open. It is holistic and gives you so much possibility both for directing and performing but also for yourself. This is partly because you are listening to your body and responding to stimuli rather than worrying whether you have ‘got it right’, (something I agonised over when I was training as a young actor, ‘ is this real, is this true?’)
When I started learning Chekhov technique I found I got very emotional a lot of the time. This was not attached consciously to any event in my past per se, but it was, nonetheless, a very strong emotional response….. it was a release. To begin with I got a bit irritated with it. ‘This has nothing to do with the character!’ I would growl. And of course, I was right. It had less to do with the character and more to do with me. However because I am the instrument I am playing, my instrument needed to be open and clear. Because I did not associate this emotional rush with any event particularly I was not trapped within it and that release became healing and expansive. It was an opening rather than a closing. It helped me to cope with emotion rather than locking me into it. I remembered some of my early training in meditation; I remembered , “I have my feelings but i am not my feelings”. The idea that feelings flowed through you was a useful and powerful one.
Now we do have to treat this connecting-up of emotions, body, voice and imagination together with a healthy respect and now we are working a lot online and in a very difficult world I find myself becoming more and more cognisant of ‘where people are at’. Paradoxically the online experience appears to encourage intimacy in a way and of course your students are inviting you into their homes so I need to tread cautiously. For instance it is important when asking them to explore the atmosphere of the room they are in to be aware that they may be in the family home and the room they are in has a personal history for them which they might not be wanting to tap into. On the other hand, as a student, to allow yourself to fall ‘down the rabbit-hole’ of creativity through the screen and at the same time be playing in your room can only be healthy. In that respect, it is only like working onstage or ‘in the room’. You become conscious of a many-tiered reality. You are talking through a tunnel of signals of waves connecting to others, at the same time as being in your own space AND using your imagination to take you somewhere else. You move and touch off these different bases to create your experience in the class. It is very empowering.
I am asking them to throw themselves into the class – I am always touched and amazed how much this happens. Time and again people tell me how much more feasible working online is than they expected! As human beings we are remarkably adaptable. This is not to say I am advocating online as the only way of working, or even the best way, but as one of my colleagues said in the teacher’s group I attend, ‘it IS something.’ There is something wonderful about throwing an imaginary ball to America, have them throw it to the Netherlands, back to Ireland, over to France etc…
What is art, if not communication? I am feeling now that people more than ever are hungry for the kinds of opportunities the Chekhov work in particular can give them; an opportunity to connect to others and themselves, to touch and explore their creativity and to play.
The new set of courses starts this Friday with Tempo Pauses and Directions . there are several others, one covering Devising , one Atmospheres, and another, Psychological Gesture. there is also a free class in imagination and body which you have to apply for at the above address. email email@example.com or have a look at www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com