A Year of Workshops

It has been an amazing year of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops. Seven weekend workshop and one four-day summer school all well attended on various aspects of learning the Michael Chekhov Technique and involving some application of the tools. Each workshop has had its own unique atmosphere and feel of the learning we were all undertaking. Participants have really hurled themselves into the work in a most inspiring way and I have been fortunate this year to have a strong consistency in the group. This year also saw a collaboration with Declan Drohan of Sligo IT with whom I taught two of the workshops: Enter an Actor, working with Chekhov Technique and solo performance and this year’s summer school, Blood on Iron, working with Gesture, Archetypes and Composition using Buchner’s Woyzeck.

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Enter, An Actor

In our second workshop, The Epic Voice,  I was keen to offer some of my own developments of the Chekhov work focussing on Voice. Connecting the Voice to the Body and Imagination gives an incredible flexibility to tone and intention; it is so much more playful and surprising than a purely technical approach. We worked with poetry, in particular Afterwards by Thomas Hardy and the opening chorus of The Jealousy of Emer by Yeats. What was a really joyous experience was when I asked the groups to create a piece with sound and instruments based upon the poem, its rhythm and atmospheres.

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The Epic voice

The following workshop in March focused on Imaginary Centre and Imaginary Body and the play we used was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. One of the things that resonated with me was how creating Imaginary Centres for the characters fulfilled the rules of Chekhov’s chart for Inspired Acting where getting one element of the technique could inform everything – Imaginary Centre could create atmosphere.

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Next up, in May, was a group working on devising and adaptation, using tools of composition, qualities of movement and atmosphere. We worked on the novel of Kafka’s The Trial and in two groups created powerful pieces, one from the beginning and one from the end. A major lesson for me was that instead of trying to create story first, it was more useful to begin by creating the imagery or the underlying world in which the story existed and then add the story later. This for me was quite a revelation and created two pieces of great richness .

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The Trial

In June (on the midsummer weekend) we worked primarily with Archetypes, which felt like a much freer workshop, and of course (finally) we were working with a comedy. The atmosphere was completely transformed in our workshop space. We worked a lot with Imaginative Voice too, marrying Chekhov’s psychological gesture with the way we used the language.

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In August Declan and myself explored composition, qualities and imagination, with a group for four days using Buchner’s Woyzeck. Despite my trepidation that this might be a gloomy choice of play, the mood was decidedly lifted by the dark satirical humour of it .We worked joyously with the Grotesque.  It was also wonderful to explore something short (something I rarely do!) that felt manageable. Declan and I are hoping to explore more in this way when we start to consider Chekhov technique with Brecht for three full days in January, working with Fear and Misery.

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October brought a workshop which primarily dealt with images on a play which was simply conversations and ideas, Churchill’s Love and Information. This workshop was a revelation in that exploring images first allowed the performer to use the imagination to play with the words and the situation in a really free way. It was a development, if you like, of the workshop in which we used The Trial and made me consider even more how to use the Chekhov technique with devised original shows.

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And finally, for our recent weekend, our committed group explored Good v Evil; playing King Lear. I wanted to really explore whether this idea of Good v Evil could be really used as a performance element as Chekhov suggested and in a way that was as nuanced as he described. I felt we most certainly could and that this was important for us as artists in these days when it is easy to obfuscate and confuse. This does not make the morality of the characters simpler but actually more complicated. We explored other polarities too pertaining to the play. We will be exploring Polarities further in the March workshop on Comedy when the whole thread of a character can be based upon the route between pain/pleasure, honesty/ deceit, hot/cold etc. etc.

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One of the things I have really gleaned from my committed groups this year is that the Chekhov process is one of simplicity and commitment from which emerges complexity; it is a complexity which is organic and it comes, not by knotting oneself to the literal limitations of ones own life, but by following the integrity of the Imagination; this process creates for the audience and performers both deep characters and fully rounded worlds.

Thank you to all the participants of this year’s courses.

Next year  –

In addition to our three spring workshops, we are very delighted to run a workshop led by Lenard Petit, director of The Michael Chekhov Acting Studio New York and author of The Michael Chekhov Handbook for the Actor. This workshop will run  May 22 -26th. This is most definitely a date for your Diary !

75429324_2135890316719738_2122911152257105920_oBooking now for our three workshops in January/February and March and Lenard Petit’s guest week,  check out www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com or the FB page or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

And in Good Time you gave it!

IMG_6406LEAR: I GAVE YOU ALL 

GONERIL: AND IN GOOD TIME YOU GAVE IT.

The more I look at King Lear, which I am using for my next Michael Chekhov workshop on the polarities of Good and Evil here in Galway, the more I consider how we, the older generations, will be leaving the world for those to come after.  

Chekhov said that most drama was in some senses, the battle between Good and Evil and our relationship with these moral forces. This of course is a minefield because some in some ways morality is a personal issue … Yet, is it? We know it is wrong to murder, to steal, to lie or to betray. Some would say, however that, it is the context which defines a moral act. Of course , Good and Evil is not the only polarity which charges this play: youth and age, cruelty and compassion, loyalty and betrayal, honesty and deceit, are a few potent polarities.

These forces, though they exist under all circumstances, needs something to grow in to thrive. What is the dark soil of King Lear in which this evil grows, an evil which utterly transforms the world of the play?  Is it a good approach that we make assumptions about Lear’s tyrannous behaviour, about his perhaps abusive behaviour towards his daughters ? In order to consider this, we might examine another short scene in which Lear is not present ;Gloucester’s grudging presentation of his illegitimate son, Edmund, to Kent.

“He has been out nine years, and away he shall again.”

In other words, back into exile. In this short sequence Edmund has very few lines, so what does the scene do? Perhaps it presents a moment where a young person is disregarded, made a joke of. Gloucester is only embarrassed by his presence in a kind of laddish way, boasting about the attractiveness of Edmund’s mother.  To a modern audience, this is excruciating.

Lear has overstayed his tenure of the Crown. and the younger people are restless and embittered. Whether Lear’s view of the world is accurate or not is not the point; the young need to have their say, their moment of power before they too become the older people. Edmund has been exiled, hidden away, brought briefly to court only to be promised a further sojourn away. Let’s consider how many young people are on the march for revolution right now across the globe, often fighting the legacy of what the older generations are leaving them. 

Lear and Gloucester are seduced by their own authority, entitlement and naive view of the world. Gloucester is made to believe that Edmund is good and Edgar is plotting to kill his father; Lear to believe that Goneril and Regan speak the truth; that Cordelia is ungrateful and that everything bar Lear’s workload will remain the same whilst he maintains an unruly and boorish retirement. 

It is comfortable to believe the old certainties, the old props that have supported the story of your life, but it is also dangerous because they can entrap you. Lear’s utter refusal to accept he has made a terrible mistake, despite all the warnings, is perhaps his most grievous error. His action of stepping down and handing the kingdom to his children causes such change that it unleashes horrors. as an audience, It makes one realise in how delicate the balance is between Order and Chaos (another potent polarity). This is true of our own lives and the bigger picture in the world right now

IMG_6260It is easy to consider King Lear as some kind of folktale; it carries so many of the tropes . Old King tests his daughters, finds them deceitful and eventually horribly cruel. And yet another interesting point to consider is the how of Lear’s test of love. Lear is by his own words a very materialistic king. He asks his daughters to declare their love in competition, like some kind of contest in exchange for their particular parcels of land and wealth. When Cordelia refuses to play this humiliating game, she loses her father’s love and her dowry. Burgundy refuses to take Cordelia for herself.

“ Since that respect and fortunes are his love/ I shall not be his wife.”Cordelia retorts…..Cordelia, unlike her father appears disinterested in wealth, especially when comparing it as a marker for love and companionship.  Later, when Lear who has demanded to have a retinue of 100 knights in his retirement is given the option to keep only 50 by Goneril , and then receives the offer from Regan to bring only 25, Lear reckons it is better to go with Goneril because she has allowed him to keep more companions. So much of his journey is about measuring the material against the intangible and spiritual. It is only when he loses everything  and the material  world becomes completely meaningless can Lear move on; that he can become reborn. it is perhaps in this context that the idea of good and Evil can be thoroughly embedded and tested.

Looking forward to this weekend workshop, November 29th.

‘The reward of artists brave enough…’

IMG_6498_1When I run a weekend course in Chekhov technique (or anything for that matter) I want to feel that I am exploring something with the group, that it is not me merely imparting, but it is a traffic between them and me and them and each other.

I am aware that sometimes when running short courses it becomes easy for the teacher to either stay in the basics (which can irritate your faithful participants who come back for more advanced work) or to move too quickly to certain elements of the Chekhov work to encourage application of the work without providing the building blocks required for everyone, teaching with a kind of vague hope that everyone will ‘get there in the end’.

I feel I have found something out. When I structured this weekend on incorporating images I focussed almost totally on the imagination. Of course when you visit centres or atmospheres or almost anything in the Chekhov work you are heavily engaging the imagination. By learning how to use a particular element you can get a lot of focussed power. However if you do not give a space to awaken the imagination first, it makes exploring those elements much harder. We began the workshop with me asking the group, without thinking, to each create a statue of concentration and then imagination. The former produced narrow, focussed downward-looking shapes (with most people frowning) whilst imagination produced upward, open shapes (with most smiling) . This provoked immediate discussion on how we felt about these concepts and the differences between them as Chekhov described them. This gave us a great physical springboard into some of the early exercises in concentration and imagination.

So we spent a lot of time engaging the imagination first with a myriad of stimuli and then moved on to only an exploration of Ideal Centre and then imaginary centres (only making an image in the heart centre). We also did a brief exploration of General Atmosphere, but again in the preliminary sense of working with environments (the beach a library etc) rather than exploring abstractions and colours and feelings through atmosphere to introduce the concept more broadly.

The more I explore teaching this work, the more I realise that, rather than being a hindrance, an attempt to apply the training, even when you have not wholly grasped it , gives the student a feeling of where things are going and that, with guidance, you can help out when the stuðent is not following the image, the gesture or the atmosphere as faithfully as they might. After all one of the main rules is that you simply are faithful to your imagination or the sensations your body gives you and follow them in trust and faith. That is it.

We worked with a play called Love and Information by Caryl Churchill which has a number of short scenes powered with themes and conversation but not, immediately at least, with imagery. Working with images first enabled us to create scenes which were much deeper and multilayered than going immediately for the obvious, materialist telling. They were fascinating, sometimes dangerous and people used the images to create powerful dynamics between the actors.

As Chekhov says in On The Technique of Acting “what is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of the Imagination?” We found that the answer was to open a text to a whole different layer of exploration through image first and logic second.

IMG_6406The next workshop explores a world that tips into chaos; we question in some measure the purpose of art  in these difficult times (as Chekhov did himself) The next workshop here in Galway is on polarity, good vs evil and we will work with King Lear. It is November 29th-Dec 1st. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for one the remaining places.

 

 

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

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.