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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Very exciting. As always Chekhov work goes to interesting unusual places. There are still a couple of spots.
WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.
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 email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com . 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or have a look at www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com
I have always been afraid of The Feeling of Beauty. For those who do not know it is one of the guiding principles of Michael Chekhov, one of his ‘Four Brothers’ and at the core of what we need to learn to be artists.
I have always been afraid of it because the word Beauty is very much more subjective than the other principles of Ease, Form and the Whole. It is so loaded. Who is to say who or what is beautiful? Is physical beauty something to be sneered at? Is spiritual beauty the only thing that is worth anything? It appears to be a minefield. So, until last week, I have shied away from exploring it in class. I have always said to students, “oh there is also the Feeling of Beauty,” and sidestepped it. Thats easy to do with the Chekhov Technique because there are always so many extraordinary things to explore. But in consultation with my wonderfully supportive Chekhov teachers group, who gave me some brilliant thoughts about it, my class embarked on some powerful explorations, statements and feelings..
“ I felt when I found some beauty in my chair, that I realised all the people that I was connected with through it, the others who sat in it, the people who made it, it connected me……”
And as always when you commit to something in this extraordinary Chekhov work you take on that quality yourself. You become beautiful as you tell us about it. This is quite magical to see, a transformation.
The feeling of Beauty requires a serious commitment and that is hard for us. When I was a young adult I was very suspicious of people who were constantly pointing at flowers and birds in wonder when we went out for a walk. Now I am one of those people myself. I didn’t trust beauty, as if it was too sickly sweet and positive to have any reality in my life. I think this is a common attitude. Lately, especially since the lockdown and since I live in the country I have become much more aware of the world around me. The Chekhov work has helped to bring that about too because it is such a holistic way of working. It is all too easy for us to only see the harsh realities of life or the fantasies peddled to us in the media as if these things are how life is in totality. The Feeling of Beauty is not a cop-out. It is simply part of life.
One of the highlights, when actors performed their short pieces from Macbeth, provided another fabulous insight. They were doing “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold” , the short soliloquy when Lady Macbeth is nervous, excited, on edge as the murder of Duncan is being committed. Through exploring this speech through a Feeling of Beauty, something extraordinary emerged. We are seeing her very final moments of a kind of innocence, even though she is already an accomplice. it is almost the pinnacle of her expectations. In its way, it is beautiful, naive, tragic.
As someone said in class, “I felt that Beauty is something which is going to be snatched away or evaporate at any moment. and that is part of its Beauty…”
Now taking bookings for Principles: Tempo, Pauses and Directions. email email@example.com. starting Friday October 9th for four weeks 4.30 -6.00
I have found Michael Chekhov’s use of Archetypes one of the most fascinating elements of his acting technique. By using an archetype as one of your core forces for the character you can create something different in moments. You can find out which feels right. However, they do need internalising and ‘taming’ before you can use them.
Think of HAMLET …. is he primarily THE COWARD, THE AVENGER, THE PRINCE, THE REBEL, THE INTELLECTUAL , THE DREAMER, or any number of others? If you put any of those archetypes as one of the primary engines of the character, (and its important to note the archetype is not all the character is!) you change everything fundamentally in moments, however much these archetypal energies are ‘veiled’ from the audience.
In ‘real’ life, when you are in a particular situation, when you feel a particular response to someone or something overwhelms you… that is when an archetypal energy is in play. It feels as if you cannot help yourself. There feels like a surrender, a loss of control. This moment is not necessarily your will driving you, but another more forceful energy. Consider moments where people do something which is bigger than them, when they perhaps rescue someone from a dangerous situation when they have never done this before. It is my experience that there is something else driving the person on, besides Will; something harder to control. This of course also goes for less positive situations where a way of behaving kicks in because of some force inside and we ask ourselves where that energy and behaviour came from? Lest anyone think I am justifying anyone behaving badly here let me assure you I am not. This is not a case of “it wasn’t me my Lord, my archetype did it!” In the ‘real’ world we need to martial and train our archetypal energies to use them for good. That is our responsibility. Whether you believe in the idea of archetypes in your everyday world is not important; if you can imagine that there are energies like this out there they can create a powerful force in your playing.
When we go on to look at character we might consider the idea that the Will does not always make the character do something but rather that they are gripped by something else which their will can not control. This means that the audience may understand the character on a deeper unspoken level, rather than simply understanding ‘why’ they act like they do.
For those of you worrying that using archetypes for your character is going to make you behave stereotypically, it is not. First of all, the archetype is not a stereotype which is a more superficial thing altogether. I would say that a stereotype is a kind of caricature or concept, whereas an archetype is a set of energies. What is truly magical and prevents bad acting is that firstly, it is the alchemy of you the performer with the archetype that produces both a very particular and a universal response at the same time. And this I would argue is what every artist is trying to do, touch on the intangible and make it tangible, offering something personal and universal at the same time to your audience, be they online, in a cinema, at home watching tv or in a theatre.
Though it is a grim example, let’s look at MACBETH for instance. He does not need Lady Macbeth to ‘corrupt’ him which is a view often put forward. He is in the grip of what we might call the Devil/Tempter and it is driving him on. It is a force within and without him. The three witches are the first characters we meet; that would back that idea up. They put the seed into him apparently, except one gets the feeling it is actually already there. After all,Macbeth kills people a lot. It is his job. So actually killing someone is not the problem. It is who the potential victim is and breaking the taboo of killing his master and his host which produces the main hurdle. Most importantly, though he knows he is committing a terrible wrong, the force of evil, the archetypal devil drives him on regardless. He allows himself to be a channel for it; he is culpable. For me, the speech, ‘Is this a dagger?….’ is a speech not of resolve but of possession. The Devil/Tempter appears to be strengthening him, but is actually dragging him into darkness. imagine if you decided his forceful archetype was The Assassin, how that might make the speech different.
Declan Drohan and I are running an online workshop on Sunday 20th September exploring archetype and archetypal atmosphere using as our text The Only Jealousy of Emer email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details
I used to teach private sessions a lot. For years, troupes of young people trying to get into drama school would come for help. Drama schools said they only wanted ‘raw talent’ and not pieces that had been prepared but this of course is rubbish…… Actors are directed, after all. It was rewarding, helping people follow their dreams and help them to open the next door, as someone had done for me.
I have returned to teaching Chekhov Technique and voice one to one online, mostly not for auditions but for people to develop, hone and explore their skills and potential. It is great for people to remember that acting is an art form not just something for ‘the business’.
Teaching one-to-one is an extraordinarily intense experience for me. It is as if there is a stream of energy , a radiating and receiving between you even through the technology. It involves a huge amount of focus and concentration but it is incredibly rewarding. The monitor in some ways actually emphasises the focus as if you are looking into a tunnel of light which can fly worldwide zooming down on another room perhaps thousands of miles away. That’s kind of magical BUT the danger is that we succumb to this imaginary idea too fully and stay too stuck to the monitor and worst of all, do nothing but discuss when we are meant to practise. It is as if it sucks us down, like Alice, into the rabbit hole!
Getting people to ignore the monitor and prevent them being like specimens before you, rather than the living breathing things they are, is another issue. It is the conditioning we have before the camera I think, but I often say, “Feel free to move around , I do not need to see you do this, I want you to experience it.” Part of the trick is to make sure they arrange their room as best they can, giving them as much room as possible. With group classes I sometimes let people occasionally turn off the monitor altogether, but with one-to-one sessions I never do because I feel we need to keep the visual connection.
Teaching one-to-one gives you space to tailor make your teaching to the student in a way it is impossible to do within a group, to teach the elements in a certain way, finding which might be the right path for the individual. For instance whilst Imagination and Body are the main tools for the Chekhov work, some people find the Imagination difficult, or, if they are tense or less in touch with the body, they find it very hard to get into the work that way. Different individuals need different starting points. Being online presents the opportunities and challenges I have already discussed in earlier posts, but there is something very personal about it. This is very paradoxical in a way. The distance creates closeness. not everyone feels this way but those who buy in to the online experience do experience it.
In warm ups, I always lead and do the first exercises with the student. I have been told it is reassuring, that the student does not feel as ‘on the spot’ . It also helps to connect me with the student which is even more important when they are perhaps in another country.
Because there is only one student, I find I need to develop an even stronger sensitivity to their mood or living situation (I am probably ‘in their house’ as it is) . Pets and children may come in or awkward flat mates or relatives might make things challenging. They will be uncomfortable when those things happen. I have to be very very cool and easy about it, relaxed but at the same time hold the line because any interruption flusters them rather than me.
And every journey is different, teaching the Chekhov work. It is gratifying. Someone I taught online got into a course recently, people are exploring their art, developing themselves and remembering that life is not just Covid, Trump, and Brexit and I am helping them remember that. I do not want to create a distraction from the real world but to remind them that it is not everything. I hopefully am enabling them to transform so they can tackle the ‘real world’ more robustly.
If you want to discuss developing your acting through the Chekhov work online please email email@example.com