The Alchemy of Teaching

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picture: Sean T O’Meallaigh

This week I have been thinking a lot about teaching theatre, about the dynamic exchange between student group and teacher. Learning theatre, learning practical theatre is one of the most powerful things you can learn; its encourages confidence, develops voice, imagination, body and feelings in every individual student. It can be utterly transformational.

I am really loving my classes this year; University, freelance and Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops; students who really want to ‘find out’ , to explore and develop. It is not always the case. Sometimes when we teach we have to manage expectations, deep resistances and fears of individuals at the same time as minimising the detrimental effect that the student in question might have on the group learning: because in theatre, though we can develop and learn individually, much of our learning comes from the interaction of the group. 

Of course it is up to us as teachers to create the environment where development can grow but occasionally circumstances can be challenging. This is especially true teaching theatre when students come up against their own limitations. Training for sport provides a similar challenge.

The interaction between tutor/facilitator/teacher and the individual student is paramount. It requires a strength and at the same time a huge sensitivity to the student’s needs. There is a wonderful moment in the Michael Chekhov Masterclass DVDs produced by MICHA where Joanna Merlin is explaining Psychological Gesture, an element of the Michael Chekhov Technique where we physicalise our intention. She says something like, ‘if I was to make a gesture of teaching what would it be?’ She makes a generous open-armed gesture, offering towards the students.

When I have asked (in teacher training sessions) teachers and lecturers to show the group a gesture/statue which suggests teaching, there are sometimes surprising responses ; closed finger-wagging gestures, stern faces, standing on the back foot. For me what Joanna demonstrated with her psychological gesture is exactly what teachers should aspire to be. The thing is that sometimes there is a need for kind firmness as well as coaxing and when you get a challenging response from the student it can be quite hurtful because you have to stay open at the same time as being firm. I am lucky that challenging responses have happened rarely but when they have, and there is always a potential for it, it can be unnerving. You have to remember that whilst you may be partly to blame for a student’s defiance, awkwardness or accusations of injustice, their response may have little or nothing to do with you but more to do with what is going on in their lives at that moment. This happened  more to me when I was teaching Ensemble and Devising, because individuals sometimes resisted the fact that in ensemble work, the group is paramount. Because theatre training is challenging anyway their reactions can be strong.

For this last year though i have felt truly blessed with my students and what is amazing is that the more committed they are, the more you can give. The energy, like a performance, is not one-sided; it is completely reciprocal. It is a moving energy from you to the student and back again. In Michael Chekhov terms it is radiating and receiving. Many students do not understand this; that they also carry responsibility for the efficacy of a workshopSONY DSC.

In addition to my university teaching, I am especially looking forward to my two weekend workshops for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland. Just my Imagination, working with Chekhov Technique. (October 18-20) and Good vs. Evil :The greatest Polarity of All – working with King Lear. (Nov 29th- Dec 1) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  to book your place. check our website www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland@gmail.com

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Everything Changes

 I have always believed that the theatre should illuminate something and attempt to affect the views and feelings of those who see it and are involved with it. Alien Nation was written in 2002 and was partly a response to the fact that someone told me I should stop writing plays which were critical about Irish society. These days this criticism would be laughable. It was first performed in the Cuirt International Festival by Galway Youth Theatre.70009159_2917776264903251_8206371304975106048_o

Alien Nation is a 40 minute youth theatre play about racism and sadly is even more pertinent today than it was then. As someone fairly new to Ireland at the time, I noticed that a lot of the racism seemed more veiled than the UK but was most definitely present, and it wasn’t always veiled. Whîlst I was writing the play a Chinese restaurant was attacked and the owner murðered in Limerick. A Czech friend of mine was run down in the country and the Gardai refused to press charges even though they suspected the driver who had done it. A woman protested against a play about refugees in the Galway Arts Festival.

It might be hard to remember but this was the early period of MTV videos, though, as yet, young people did not have mobile phones (an extraordinary thought). I wanted to write something which had the music video feel and devised lots of rhythm work and choreography with the group who originally did it with cross rhythms and interesting movement work. Juxtaposed with that were high octane short scenes where you could be very specific with the young actors as to what might be going on within the scenes. Many people asked whether it was devised, which I took as a great compliment, because they said it sounded so real.

Over the years the play has been used in schools and youth theatres and was published by Youth Theatre Ireland.

One thing the play says very clearly is that when people feel threatened they reach back towards an ideal time that never was as a kind of security blanket. As we get older there is a danger of doing this more, as the ‘what-is- behind’ assumes a greater importance as there is less of ‘what-is-ahead’. If we truly examine those past times they are often not as we remember them; we tend to brush over the cruelties and injustices we dismissed as normal, which were part of everyday life. This looking back to a rosier past is the most potent weapon of Fascism because it appears to be a truth, but it really isn’t. This and of course being as divisive as they can, stirring up hate and suspicion is all par for the course for those forces who yearn for chaos so they can bring a right-wing agenda back to the fore. In these recent times, with Trump,Putin, Johnson, Salvini, Bolsonaro, all the lesser beings who support these people for their own self-serving ends  and those who feel their world is falling apart who need these dictators to make everything ok (even when they won’t) we need to always be cautious. These leaders oil the prejudice which only builds confusion and hatred. 

As they sing in the end of the play “Everything changes and nothing stays the same.”

I am delighted that Griese Youth Theatre has chosen to do this play for Culture Night and especially that they are then having a discussion about the subject afterwards. 

Apply Generously

IMG_6274Reviewing the recent four day course in Chekhov Technique which I co-led with colleague Declan Drohan here in Galway with 15 enthusiastic and committed practitioners, I was delighted with the amount of scene work we managed to explore from Woyzeck by Buchner. As always the course was joyous and creative but this issue of application was something Declan and I discussed at length as we prepared the workshop.

WOYZECK, is short poetic and political; it mixes expressionist ensemble and naturalism. Grimness jostles with dark humour. But it is, above all, short. What that shortness allowed in our four day workshop was to allow everyone to get a sense of ‘the whole’. The brevity allowed them to feel they knew the play and could access the Chekhov elements which they explored with more confidence. To some extent this knowledge might be illusory because we ultimately were quite selective with our short scenes and only got a few scenes on their feet. But it felt like we did more, because the play was short.

However, you cannot always pick a short work. In the last summer School, ‘A little Piece of Art’ we used The Cherry Orchard ( a very long play) and explored the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole. I gave short duologues out and we also worked in depth on three short group scenes; one was the arrival of Ranevskaya to the house with her entourage, another was the episode with The Vagrant and we also worked on the final moments when the family leave the house. Applying Form and a Feeling of the Whole to these short passages gave everyone a real sense of where our exploration was going. But we could not get a full sense of the whole play, even though we explored the beginning and the end of it.

If you are going to really approach application then the elements you teach on your course are the very elements you teach as if you were working on the play in reality. In that way the play you pick is a fundamental part of your teaching. Many people come to my courses not just to learn technique but because they are attracted by the play we are going to look at.

However you cannot teach everything , despite the fact that all of Chekhov’s elements are all connected. Sometimes it is a little frustrating to know you cannot do everything all at once (the curse of short courses in particular). There is not time to work on concentration and imagination with the detail and intensity I would like when I have to explore other elements in order for people to use the scenes. The more application I do, the less time there is for that block building. It is a fine balance and different for every course I do.

IMG_6260However, what substantial application offers even in a mixed group, even if it has different layers of success depending on your level is the chance to work with everyone in the group on the play ( especially so when as with WOYZECK, we consciously worked with two or three big ensemble elements in the play). It also offers a freedom for the participant so they do not have to worry quite so much about getting the technique ‘right’. There is a bit less pressure paradoxically through more application.

Some people believe that when learning technique you should not rush into application too soon. Students may mess up. It may not work for them and put them off forever. But this is only so for a few. For others, breakthroughs will happen and, provided you create the right environment, those who are only beginning will be encouraged.

Thanks to everyone who made such a great workshop over the last few days. Next up are two weekends: October 18-20 on Images for Character and November 29- December 1 on Good V Evil, playing King Lear ( there’s a short play!) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

The Weight Of This Sad Time We Must Obey

 I look at the terrible times we are living in and really question what is theatre doing to expose the horrors of our time? And even if artists are exposing these horrors, what difference is it actually making? Are we indifferent? Do we just say, “oh that’s a story” and go on as we did before? Laughter and Satire are effective in a sense and importantly keep dissension alive but are they little more than a safety valve, when those that govern us do not seem to really care if they are shown up to be liars, cowards and charlatans? Have we become sanitised to dramatized or even real horror and injustice?

As the arts have become corporatised they seem for the most part to have been massively weakened in terms of their impact on the wider world. I always said, at the beginning of the sponsorship boom in the UK, that sponsorship was a form of censorship. I feel that it was the first substantial step to pretty much anaesthetising the arts rather than making them something for everyone.

Of course in facilitating/directing Applied Drama and youth theatre, by giving the marginalised a chance to tell their stories, we are doing something profound. In teaching people theatre, enabling them to find their mode of expression, their confidence, their voices, a sense of who they are, we are doing something. This is a truly beautiful thing that happens when we are working with theatre. It creates a sense of the whole, a sense of teamwork and an understanding, if only for a while, that gives us a sense of how things could be, in a fairer more open world.

Groups like ‘Clowns without Borders’ who go to places of conflict and refugee camps with their shows are a moving and courageous testament to a belief that art can transform lives, or at least provide a window to something better. Children’s theatre companies like ‘Branar’ here in Ireland can open the minds and lives of children and promote change.

Michael Chekhov lived in a turbulent period in world history, in post revolutionary Russia and then in exile in war torn Europe. The direction of his life was seriously affected by world events and he believed and discussed The Theatre of the Future and the obligations of the theatre to shine a light on things; to change things. As Mala Powers states in her piece in Chekhov’s “On The Technique of Acting”, “Chekhov’s vision of a future theatre also called for a sense of moral responsibility from producers, directors and writers, as well as actors. He said they must be willing to ask…..”will what we are presenting have any positive value for them (audience) as human beings”. I so often often see pieces that do not consider this issue; they are flabby, commercial and/or ego-driven. Even well-performed, at the core they are often meaningless.

In 1999, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brought together musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Middle East countries to play classical music at the highest level.  There was no acceptance that bringing the musicians together from their places of conflict would solve the political problems in which they found themselves and they were encouraged to discuss and have dialogue about the situation. Howeverthe very act of this group making music together creates a kind of alchemy for me.  It makes me ask the question, “How can they do this when some must hate the other?” And the answer is, it is the music that brings them together. Of course, I can say cynically to myself, “Well they have the opportunity to play around the world with Barenboim, to learn – why wouldn’t they put up with this difficult situation?” And yet it is still the love of music and their ability to play that brings them to the table. Music can do this. In a way music transforms us more effectively than a play because the sheer professionalism and discipline of the performers alone is incredibly moving, especially when they are young. And music, though it provokes strong feelings, is abstract.  It makes us feel the human spirit can soar higher than everyday politics and existence.

Yet, isn’t part of the purpose of theatre to provoke debate, action? For me, musical theatre which unites music with an accessible story often packs a strong political punch. When I first saw Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim at Drury Lane during the Thatcher period, it made a profound impact on me as did A Chorus Line, which is not just about “showbiz” but about the way we strive to conform and are willing to throw our individuality away in order to be employed because we have to survive in a hostile world. However, for me the musical theatre world too often is associated with the corporate world (It is “show business” after all)  which for me limits the effects once I leave the theatre and step out into the everyday world.

So how do the arts bring change and impact on political and social injustices? I feel it is important that we do not just stir people by only illuminating injustice, prejudice and danger, nor only by satirising and highlighting the self-interest of many of those who lead us. We have to arm ourselves and our audiences with alternatives with positive messages of endurance, alternatives, love and survival.

 

“Of Imagination all Compact.”

IMG_6045For me, A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM has at its core the speech of Theseus in Act V where he basically demolishes the story of the lovers’ magical night in the forest. His materialistic attitude attempts to invalidate the great power of the Imagination.

In defiance of the materialist Theseus, this last dismal damp weekend was transformed by the work of the twelve participants in Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s weekend workshop who together explored Archetypes and Atmospheres using Chekhov Technique with Shakespeare’s magical play.

Lenard Petit’s The Michael Chekhov Handbook speaks eloquently and clearly about the use of Archetypes. It is an area that can be confusing. It is challenging for us in this individualistic world to trust the power of archetypes, the names of which appear to belong to a fairy tale rather than actors in the 21st Century. Perhaps we fear that involving them in our creative work is going to make cartoon characters rather than characters who are fully rounded. Handle them well and this fear is utterly unfounded. Basing your character on an archetype or at least having this archetypal energy as a kind of unconscious pool does exactly the opposite. Working with the archetype gives the character added depth and the performer incredible freedom.

To recap on the previous blogpost, an archetype is an energy or set of energies which constellate around a type or idea: The Lover, The Soldier, The Coward, The Queen, The Wizard. The archetype is not all a character is, but it is a set of energies or way of behaving which penetrates our lives at moments or in particular situations. As esoteric as this might sound, think of times when you have on the spur of instinct, as if from nowhere, acted in a particular way, perhaps heroically, or aggressively, or maybe subserviently. this is what I understand by archetypal energy. As with all the concepts we explore through the Chekhov Technique, we can always focus it on an actual real way of experiencing our world as it is.

By creating moving statues of the Archetypes, we began to understand the direction the energy of the archetype was moving in. Several participants noticed something interesting with regard to this; that though The Lover, say, may have a forward energy, reaching forward and looking to the object of their love, there was also a pull downwards to keep them grounded and on their feet, which made for a feeling of egotism and selfishness in love. By really experiencing this polarity of feeling, the energy of the beauty and agony and unsettled nature of love came into their beings. Whilst being “in love” is empowering, it can also make a person incredibly vulnerable. Using this example alone tells us that basing your character on an archetype provides you with a number of conflicting feelings the actor can really experience and play with.

One of the most interesting discoveries of the weekend was the idea of Hermia being The Rebel. Very often Hermia is played as sweet and good, rather than a feisty young girl who is willing to defy society to get the man that she loves. This was a very exciting revelation to me. Suddenly an angry Hermia and Lysander were really partners making plans to have a life together.

Playing the Archetype can of course initially make for overblown playing: it is a stage you have to go through. Looking at the scenes and radiating/receiving between the acting partners first, then adding the archetype and radiating and receiving that towards your partner, you finally start to play the scene moving freely using the archetype. You commit fully and wholeheartedly to the archetype, playing your scene. After that, you just use it as a basis and let your own creative instincts and responses to your acting partner come to the fore, with the archetype falling back and then intensifying at moments through the scene. Even more than centres or psychological gesture, which are fantastic elements but more forensic, using archetypes in this free way is a truly liberating experience for the performers.

Having explored that, we started to look at moments where other atmospheres or driving forces needed to be strong, for instance in the scene between Titania and Oberon when he removes the spell.  I asked for an atmosphere of magic to fill the space. This was a lovely moment.

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Next up is the fast-filling up 4th Summer School, August 15-18 working with Buchner’s Woyzeck led by guest tutor Declan Drohan and myself. It is four days training 10-5 .For more info visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com ,visit the fb page or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to express interest and pay a deposit.  The cost is €200 for four days training.

Nothing Like Medea – working with Archetypes

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Shannon McHugh and Cillian Hegarty using an Archetype exercise in The Bacchae 2016

“I mean, how could I possibly play Medea from my own life experience?”  said one of my wonderful teachers, as I sat completely overwhelmed after one of the early workshops I attended in the Michael Chekhov Technique, “There has got to be a way of finding her truth through Imagination and the Body”. Then she smiled and was gone for her lunch.

And the more I have worked with the Technique the more I have understood the massive palette this way of working has given me to rehearse, direct and teach.

One of the most powerful ways into the work on character is through The Archetype and Archetypal energy. This expression of the Archetype in acting class often gives rise to people assuming that an archetype is a stereotype; in other words something superficial: but it isn’t.  Consider the archetype as an energy, rather than an obvious cartoon character and you are on the right track. That way you can really explore the profundity of what the Archetype can give you.

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Ciara Brady and William Loughnane as Titania and Oberon

In the next Chekhov Weekend here, (June 21-23) we will be seeking some connection to this archetypal energy, and then using it to build our character, exploring archetypes using A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

On the surface, there are a lot of obvious archetypes in this play. Kings, Queens, Fairies, Clowns, Actors, Lovers, Fathers, Servants and exploring these archetypes is useful for us because we often have no experience of many of these qualities in our modern life.

 

 

 

I remember spending time, when I was directing The Duchess of Malfi,  exploring with the actors what it was like to be The Servant, not just in a realistic sense but finding this profound archetypal energy to understand  the psychology of those characters who were servants.

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Muirreann Ni Raghallaigh, Zita Monahan, Reidin Ni Thuama and Eoin Dillon  as Cariola, The Duchess, A Nurse and Antonio respectively. The Duchess of Malfi: Theatrecorp 2016

But there are several layers to this “way into” the character, and one thing we need to consider is  what exactly the charácter does and whether this could shed any more profound light on the archetype which drives the character.

Puck, for instance, could have at his core a number of possible archetypes: the obvious ones , goblin, sprite, etc  are all helpful but to some extent superficial. But what does he do? He is a servant, a magical one. He makes mischief. He makes mistakes. Perhaps he is a rebel? A child?

But what about the orphan as his archetype? Robin Goodfellow is sometimes considered a kind of half-sprite, neither a fairy, nor a human. If you took this archetype orphan  or even that of outsider think how different those two performances might be.

And of course it is important to remember that these archetypes are not ‘the character’ in total but they are a fundamental component of the character and its energy. They are a driving force . They can even be a core.

Let’s take Helena. Spoiled brat might be seen as a helpful archetype  but the name spoiled brat creates a strong value judgement within it and as soon as you make a conscious critical judgement you create something stereotypical and therefore not that helpful in creating something powerful and true.

There are still two places on this weekend course in Galway. Working with Archetypes. June 21-23, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place. 

 

 

 

 

Like A Dog – Exploring Kafka’s Trial with Chekhov Technique

IMG_5791 copyI remember meeting a playwright who came to the university and he told us how a theatre company had asked him to write them a play. He agreed and, on the day he was to start, they brought in a large rock and asked him to use this piece of rock as an inspiration for his play. A tangible, poetic image to start his work, no story, not even an issue. A rock.

Anyone who believes the Michael Chekhov technique is only for plays is missing some massive opportunities to use the work and expand and develop devising and adaptation.

I love to use Chekhov technique for adaptation – in this weekend workshop we were using Kafka’s Trial – because it enables you to worry less about narrative and focus in on the essence of what is going on through images and atmosphere ( like the playwright who uses the rock to inspire him). If you do it this way round, if you look for what is going on underneath first, then you will find something which imbues the narrative with a depth you could never have found otherwise. This frightening and rather formless-sounding idea was nonetheless structured in our weekend workshop as I had the group look specifically at two episodes: the beginning and the end.

It is always a good plan to consider the beginning and the end of whatever you are making. It is true you can just ‘wait and see’ but that way the creator can easily get lost. However, if there is a beginning and end, you have a grasp of the piece. It does not mean that you cannot make radical changes, indeed it is right that the end might change, but you have addressed the piece as a whole from early on.

Working with the essentials of radiating/receiving/ease and form/ general atmosphere and working with images, we then began to work on the two episodes, looking for images and atmosphere, which we firstly made into non-narrative pieces. I wanted to encourage the group to resist any temptation to ‘tell the story’ in the initial pieces. This made, in the first piece particularly, a violent animalistic rat-infested world.  I then suggested that they looked at the atmosphere of the mundane world of Joseph K and for both groups to explore narrative tableaux. They then started to mesh the two elements, the mundane and the imaginative, of the story and the image, together.

IMG_5798We then added some text, both narrative and conversational, from the passages I had chosen, building our pieces with several ‘showings’ as we built up the pieces. This was a very supportive and creative group. I am going to run another of these workshops which take first principle elements of Chekhov and a novel.

Next up is Archetypes and Archetypal Atmospheres and as it is Midsummer, we will be working with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so we will be doing some voice work too. It takes place on June 21-23.  There are still places. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place. The Venue is NUI Galway.