“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.

 

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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.

Acts of Love

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radiating and receiving exercise

Through June here in Galway, I am running a series of evening workshops called Chekhov and the Carousel of Love applying aspects of Chekhov
Technique on scenes of love, in the widest sense. The next bit is going to be a little philosophical but rest assured [if you are planning to come!] the class will be practise and application and not too much talk!

Love is a way of emanating our energy; whilst there are all sorts of different kinds of love I suppose I like to believe that love is an openness, a generosity of spirit , in Michael Chekhov terms a generous open gesture to a person, a belief or the world. I think it was Leonard Bernstein who said that teaching was like an act of love. What I understand by that is that when you have a real connection with students, you are sharing in a very deep way. You are ‘radiating and receiving’ to use Chekhov’s terms.

I feel this sometimes quite extraordinarily after I have been teaching, as if a weight has been lifted from me and I feel more open and connected to everyone. This happens to many people I am sure. Particularly, there is something that happens to me when drawing my students into focussing on radiating and receiving, that I feel a light go on more strongly in myself.

From a performance point of view I actually feel this movement of energy is a visible-invisible thing, like atmosphere. When used effectively, the audience get a sense of something which the actors generate and enliven. No one can see it exactly but it is there in the room.

Love of course is very complex, and there are many types of love, but this ‘how’ you are in love, does not negate or invalidate the power of a particular state of being, called ‘love’.

Chekhov speaks of Romeo and Juliet and asks how the performers can perform the balcony scene without the atmosphere of love, this movement of energy between the two. This might sound fanciful, but I can certainly recall those love-filled conversations of my youth where absolutely no one or no thing was relevant to me but myself with the other person. It is quite literally a bubble, or an atmosphere, if you like. All things can exist within that bubble; jealousy; sex; warmth; rage; vulnerability but these things do not negate the bubble itself, which is filled with love.

I suppose where this idea of focussing on scenes of love came from was that in the recent production I did of Twelfth Night I was moved and overwhelmed by the young actors’ energy and commitment to romantic love. Twelfth Night explores love in many of its connotations; gay; straight; devotional; romantic; lustful but with that openness of love comes attached the other energies; doubt; fear; confusion; idealism; devotion to name but a few. This focus on ‘love’ did not negate the frantic behaviour but it acted as a motor for everything that happened.

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Malvolio observed by the clowns

Chekhov and The Carousel of Love is running Tuesday and Thursday nights through the month of June in the Blue Teapots in Galway City . email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for more details. the first session is on June 5th.

“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

 

 

The Importance of Having Youth Theatre

The other day, I decided to take down some pictures from my study. Among them was a large framed ‘thank you’ picture of a production of SPRING AWAKENING, the second show I had done with Galway Youth Theatre, an incredible organisation started by an indomitable committed woman called Rebecca Bartlett in the early 90s. I put the pictures up on Facebook as a memory and was soon contacted by several of the people involved in it.  It made me think about the power and value of youth theatre, and the shortsightedness of governments who considers such activities at best as worthy, rather than vital, to a young persons ðevelopment. Usually of course, the power of art in all its forms on young people is merely dismissed as an amusement rather than something which seriously impacts on the quality of life.

In the time I was working at GYT and the organisation was reasonably well funded, under the stewardship of Niamh Dillon and then Andrew Flynn, a whole host of people eventually went on to work as actors, technicians, writers, designers, and film makers. The youth theatre did productions, devised pieces [when this was less common], encouraged new writing, voice classes, theatre history and had a production course .

I have compiled a list of people I remembered had participated who went on to artistic careers. It is most certainly not exhaustive and I apologise to those I have left out, or those I am not aware of because they came after I had stopped teaching there. Perhaps we could start adding others in order to build something more comprehensive?

But Youth Theatre cannot be deemed a success simply by those who go on to achieve things in the theatre or other art forms. It also and in many ways more importantly, affects those it touches who do not go on to make a career path in the arts in some way.

One night I was coming back from an evening rehearsal and I stopped at my local garage. The woman in her late thirties behind the counter asked me what I actually did for a living that I was coming back late so often. When I told her I was working at the youth theatre, her face lit up and she started telling me about a project she had got involved with in the very early days of GYT when she was 15. Though she had not pursued anything in the field of theatre, she nonetheless had a wonderful experience at what is a very special and yet often quite tricky time of  life. I have numerous stories, as I am sure all facilitators do, of how being in a youth theatre got a young person through some challenging situation, how it helped them blossom and develop. I always remember one young woman of about 15/16 running up to me after we had done a piece of work saying how her life was transformed by being in the process of theatre . She was buoyant and joyous, as if she had been released from  a cage. It is truly amazing to see this expression of joy in someone and very satisfying to feel that in some way you have helped them have that experience.

Theatre is such a wonderful process for young people to experience. It infuriates me it is not better funded particularly in these times when people are complaining about the waywardness of young people. It explores feelings and has a wonderful embodiment of team spirit that exists almost nowhere else.

Here is my list. As I say if you are not on it then ADD yourself.

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Sean O’Toole and Cuan Muylaert in Spring Awakening

Sonia Brodie. administrator
Tommy Tiernan comedian
Hilary Kavanagh actor/admin
Judith Higgins theatre teacher/facilitator
Philip Sweeney actor/writer
Lisa Dwan actress
Simone Kirby actress
Gary MacSweeney artist,
Midie Corcaran actor,
Noeline Kavanagh artistic director
Jonathan Gunning actor/clown
Tara Bhreathnach actress
Mary Doyle designer
Peter Jordan production
Andrea Kelly actor
Sailleog O’Halloran. Costume designer
Michael O’Halloran production manager, technician, theatre tutor
Jay Ryan Childrens Theatre Maker
Sheila McCormick actor/academic
Daniel Guinnane actor/ musician
James Riordan. Actor/theatre Maker
Mia Mullarkey. Film Maker
Eddie Mullarkey theatre and Film maker
Judith Wolf production/admin
Fiona o’Shaughnessy actor
Sinead Hackett theatre facilitator
Sean o’Meallaigh actor/ film maker
Sinead Kelly actor
Dara Devaney actor
Sarah O’Toole actor/director/ teacher
Martina Carey actor/production
Lucia Evans singer/teacher
Claire Louise Bennett writer
John Cullen Actor
Aoife Heery drama teacher
Andy Kellegher actor
Conor Geogheghan actor
Eoin Geogheghan actor
Sile Ni Conghaile actor/presenter
Roisin Stack producer/ administrator
Charlene Craig actor
Donnla Hughes actor
Emer o’Toole columnist/writer
Caolinn Hughes poet
Catherine Denning actor/theatre maker
Mairead Folan director/actor
Beau Holland Actor
Oisin McGreal TV producer
Niamh McGrath actor
Kate Howard. Production
Katherine Graham. Lighting Design
Ionia Ni Chroinin. Actor
Louise O’Meara. Actor.
Grainne Moore. Actor.
Stevie Boyd Circus Artist
Glas Blue Hanley Circus/Youth Worker/technician

 

A vast number of others went on to do further degrees or training in arts related subjects work or work in youth related areas etc.

Devising and Structure

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a recent devising workshop  radiating and receiving…

After seeing a devised piece by students the  other night , I was prompted to ask a question of the performers, that I never asked during the Q and A as time ran out. The piece was lively and varied and  reminded me of many devised pieces I have facilitated in the same college, the myriad pieces I have worked on in youth theatres and in National Youth Theatre Ireland festivals of Youth Drama .

I wanted to ask whether the students found the process different and better or worse than working on a play.

Devising is a wonderful thing; making a piece from nothing. It has a long history. In recent times it has been popular with youth theatre, applied drama with non-actors as well as on the professional stage. With devising, actors can initially make almost anything they want; they can own the piece completely as they have joint ownership; they can mix styles and give their piece the flexibility of a piece of music. It gives them a massive buzz and is an invaluable part of theatre education and practise.

However whatever devising model you use, there are restrictions. Whilst the group can explore something emotionally daring, it is very hard to develop certain acting skills within it. The students HAVE to feel safe, and when you are using feelings which are more iðentifiably yours the danger of fully exploring what is going on is riskier. It is difficult in that situation to make them act better, go deeper, because you as the facilitator have no idea what you might be dealing with, hidden beneath the subject matter that they have created. I had this experience myself quite recently with a group and it was a curious realisation that devising and acting skills are not always mutually compatible.

Looking back on my own experience I wondered whether restricting the scope of the material actually helped.

I facilitated a project many years ago on the theme of spirit for a youth theatre festival. The theme was given to us. It was a tricky one. At the end of this project there was to be a public performance and I was much less experienced, afraid we would not be able to make anything presentable in the time frame. I took with me an idea based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead which begins with a wake and then we follow the spirit going off to four levels, to be decided by the group, before leaving to eternity. Eventually the Spirit was released. This structure enabled us to find so many things about ‘what we let go of in death’ ‘ what does it mean to be alive’ that we could never have explored without that structure which I had taken in with me. The structure empowered them; it restricted their freedom a bit but also gave them lots of scope. Unexpectedly, four young actors devised a hilarious strand about four dead grandmothers who sat in an eternal front room, watching their living relatives on telly and supporting and criticising them, until one of them decides it is time to take the journey to departures. Their sections were scripted whereas the others were mainly movement -based ensemble pieces.

But even though we did a lot of things in experiment and discussion, I felt concerned to not push them in terms of their performance especially during the funeral/wake section. I was very gentle. After all I did not know these people and who knew what their relationship was with death? In fact, as it happens, one of the participating facilitators had had a close bereavement in the family and we had to talk about his involvement which was quite a moving story in itself.

The structure  enabled us to make something which challenged everyone. Restriction can mean freedom.

In a scripted play though, the actors have the conduit of their character to push their energies. The actors may or may not be like them and especially when working through the Chekhov technique you are never asking them to directly tap into their own experience but to find the feelings and the journey through imagination and the body first. That also allows you through the score of the play to express parts of them they do not show and to encourage them to work with those energies and radiate them to the audience convincingly. The character gives them a safe place because you are never directly working with them or their lives.

This is what I wanted to explore when I didn’t ask the question at the Q and A I mentioned at the start of this piece.

Not long ago I facilitated a devised piece about Ireland with a group. The piece was quite beautiful, but for various reasons, I found it was very difficult for them to express negative feelings about how they felt about the place, and when we started to explore this, some difficult feelings came up. Next time I work with them we are going to work with some scenes from plays as well as devising a piece, so they can work as free authors in their comfort zone and then push the boundaries when they have a structure and are playing someone other than themselves.

Next

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working on a piece with actor Mary Monahan [photo John McHugh]

Auditioning is a stressful time. You can feel you are being judged, that the world is against you, that acting is a cruel competitive nightmare where you hold none of the cards. Where you have only a few minutes to prove something. Try to see it as an opportunity. This is an easy thing to write but not so easy to do. As someone who has worked as both a professional actor and  director I have seen this situation from both sides.

Desperation is a scent you can inadvertently put out and it is almost certainly lessening your chances . Forced nonchalance (which often happens as a result of desperation) suggests you do not care about the project and you would rather be somewhere else. The trick is to stay open without either of these excesses.

A way to deal with all of this is to work with Chekhov’s ideal centre. Use your imagination to create that openness. Work with personal atmosphere. Focus the breathing.

Find out everything you can about the project and the director before you go. Be informed but not smart ass. Be careful not to talk too much. ( very difficult for me!) Above all try not to give your interpretation of a role . You cannot second guess what the director wants from the character and if your interpretation is very different you could be lessening your chances.  The thing is that often your ‘interpretation’ is not an interpretation at all, just something to prove you have a view on the play. Flexibility and openness are the key here too.

Auditioning is where the concerns of the commercial world and your artistic integrity collide in a difficult moment. You need the money, you want to be wanted, you will make the best of whatever it is. These feelings inflate the situation and often stop you from giving of your best. On a practical note, come prepared. If as a director, you are asked by an agent for ‘sides’ when you are auditioning for a play like THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the actor is already creating a negative impression. This actually happened when I was directing a professional touring production a few years ago. I felt sorry for the young actor, whom I felt was depressed and unprepared. I worked with him even though I knew I would not cast him. After twenty minutes, when he was showing some serious improvement, I said as kindly as I could, “I would advise you that when you come for an audition again, that you are at this level when you come in.”

When I am auditioning as a theatre director, I want to look at how the person works on a role. This is very important to me. Some actors look horrified when I ask that question but how else can I work with them if I do not know this? I want to know in the broadest terms. Do you find the character directly from life experience? Do you work primarily from the text? Do you work primarily through imagery and the body? Maybe you could give me an example? As an actor, there is no right thing to say here. A way to answer it might be to explain how you worked on another role you did.

If you can, and some people might say something like ‘I work with my instinct’ then a director needs to use their own instinct to decide.

CHARACTERS AND AUDITIONS , a weekend audition workshop using Michael Chekhov Technique working on the process and audition pieces will be held at NUIG from the 6-8 April. The cost is 80€. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.
go to http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for more information