New Starts

magic jer off

Jerry Fitzgerald. MA alumni. working with first principles. photo:Sean O’Meallaigh

Starting again on teaching the basic tenets of Chekhov in a fairly methodical way and for its own sake fills my heart with joy. Whîlst on the one hand I love running short courses that start with a more specific exploration, it has its restrictions. I am leading a weekend later in late November focusing specifically on entrances and exits, working with threshold, atmosphere and composition about which I am very excited, but because of its length, the weekend focuses equally on application as well as raw training. It means of course that the application may not be as effective in the longer term though the immediate impact on participants is still often profound. However it may not stick as well as it would if they had undergone a more thorough basic training. So going back to the nuts and bolts, through repetition, of ideal centre, feeling of ease and form, radiating and receiving, qualities of movement and imagination etc is for me like plunging back into the wonderful pool of exhilaration and discovery when I first found this way of working myself. I watch people experience this work, many of them for the first time, some tussling with nervousness or with the rubrics of their past training which put the intellect and the why of the character first, instead of the Chekhov work which asks us to plumb the imagination, the body, and the how and the what of the character at the forefront of discovery. I watch the penny suddenly dropping as they get a rush of feeling when they make a gesture and a realisation that acting is a channelling and a release of energy rather than a forensic exercise which often inhibits and restricts their creativity. This does not happen immediately of course. It happens with work; with practise.

At the same time I feel it is imperative in these early stages to reassure them that the ultimate goal of this work does ultimately lead them to an emotional understanding of the text where they can be open to their fellow actors, the playwright, director and audience in a way which they may have thought impossible. For those who find making the connection between voice, body, imagination and feelings tricky at first, this reassurance is especially important.

Another aspect of going back into the basics is that it focuses me back into my own practise with regular work at home alone in my wild garden, weather permitting, on the basic rubrics myself.

In a few weeks we will be starting short scene work on Chekhov’s 3 Sisters. I had thought of using The Crucible and then decided that exploring that dark, grim atmosphere for 12 weeks if only for a few hours per week was just too much. I feel that when we explore a text with the technique, especially at the beginning, it needs to be one with a variety of atmospheres and intentions because the work can be so intense and powerful, that something as unremittingly oppressive as The Crucible may not be the best play to start with.

When Irina cries out in Act 3  of the Three Sisters in despair ‘ I can’t even remember the Italian for window!’ This is of course ridiculous. She is not starving and does not have a terminal disease. It is not really a tragedy. And yet on another hand it is; she realises her life is falling apart and her dreams are going to remain dreams. In a sense her life is already over. This moment, when she expresses this realisation that her dreams are unachievable, is something I suspect every single person has experienced at some time in their lives. To make her dilemma wholly successful the actor has to somehow make us feel the ridiculousness of her statement and yet at the same time have the utmost sympathy for her predicament. Chekhov technique thrives on this complexity… These wonderful invisible yet palpable polarities which exist within characters, between characters and between characters and audience.

Advertisements

Prepping the Workshop -Journey Through Atmosphere

8

Mary Monaghan/photo John McHugh

Imagine an aquarium beautifully appointed with fabulous features, flowing ferns and sparkling fish. Now imagine the same scene without water; the fish dead and lifeless ; the plants sagging ; the water features just lumps. That is what a performance without atmosphere is like. Fortunately in a play (or perhaps unfortunately) the actors keep moving and speaking so we can fool ourselves that everything is ok; but that is far from the truth. They might even act sensitively with each other but without the atmosphere we know there is something missing even when we cannot pin down what it is. Michael Chekhov was right that the atmosphere is one of the most potent elements when you are creating a play. Atmosphere is one of the most uniting elements in an ensemble production, above teamwork and the skills generally associated with ensemble work. If all the actors respond to the atmosphere, the audience just knows there is something which binds the characters. Of course the characters are not going to necessarily respond the same, as we do not respond the same to any stimulus but that doesn’t matter. The audience knows there is something there.

In our everyday lives, when we go away on holiday the atmosphere is constantly altering around us and we are constantly having to adjust. That’s true all the time, but I become very sensitive to it when I am travelling because I, as the traveller, am making a movement forward to my destination. I am plunging through the atmosphere to get somewhere. I notice I become even more sensitive to atmosphere when going away from my normal environment. Notice the various atmospheres in the airport alone. The security check; the cafe; the duty free shop; the bathroom . These are not only different atmospheres because of what happens in them, nor because of the shape of the room, nor just what you have to do, nor what happened there before, nor your own history in other airports at other times in your life. It is a massive culmination of all factors. One of the things I love most about Chekhov technique is the way it takes atmosphere and makes it palpable; a tool for artists, to create a navigable map through this invisible world and makes it easily accessible for both performer and audience.

But why, as artists should we really care about that at all? A play is a play, right and we should not need an atmosphere because we are in the theatre. We are in a theatre and THAT is the atmosphere. But that is not true because in addition to the theatre there is the atmosphere of the play. And this atmosphere it is not static. It is constantly moving, as Lenard Petit explores in his fantastic book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook for The Actor .

Working with Atmosphere produces results. If you take the line ” Care not for me. I can go home alone” then imagine you are in a library, then a hospital , then a beach, then in a wooden hut on a dark night, you will notice the line sounds completely different. Really take your time to imagine the atmosphere first; never start by asking yourself “what would I do in this place?” but ask how the atmosphere of the chosen location feels. As Lenard Petit talks about being “played by the atmosphere”, allow it to affect you, influence you, drive you to speak. New Histories and situations will engulf you in each location, each time you create the atmosphere around you and then say the line.

I cannot remember the number of times I have seen plays set in the open air and I never feel characters are outside for a moment. And importantly this failing does not just affect the realism – in fact often that is a small consideration here – but without the atmosphere you destroy the inner life of the characters as well.

But it’s important to understand that atmospheres are not solely circumstances or location (though they can be that as well) just as psychological gesture is not merely objective. By discovering the psychological gesture for the character, you can find out not only what they want but how they want it; through them you can discover the rhythm of a character. It is endless and wonderful.

And what if it is the atmosphere which actually drives the action?  The idea that what is in the air, whatever that is, has a direct effect on your motivation to do something and, of course, how you do it. If you consider this, this is happening to you all the time. For instance I have never really liked pubs. If I am with a few friends we can create our own atmosphere to anaesthetise me against the discomfort I feel when in the pub.  Our own atmosphere bubble makes the thing pleasant.

This is one of the things we are going to explore in Journey through Atmosphere  here in Galway. How does Atmosphere affect the characters, and what is the relationship between atmosphere and story, as we move through the various massively contrasting environments in which Pericles and his family find themselves?

There are still some places on Journey Through Atmosphere being held on the NUI Galway campus, August 24th – 27th. We will be using for our text, the great journey play Pericles by Shakespeare. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for more information on how to book for the four day workshop.

Artist as Critic

Recently I put up a post on FB and then elaborated it on my blog about a show I had seen in the Galway Arts Festival, with a number of basic tenets and questions I felt the director in particular should have considered. As a director, theatre and voice teacher of decades experience and having paid for my ticket I feel I have that right to be critical or at least to raise these questions. Yet I know that many fellow artists feel reluctant to do this and I understand this reluctance because I feel it too.

I can understand why this reluctance exists. Artists are generally nice people and understand how hard it is to make a good piece of work. They also do not want to be considered as whingers and begrudgers. They could be accused of being bitter; they did not have the opportunity to involve themselves in this project with such enormous resources etc etc. Thirdly, of course, is the fear that if they do criticise, it may affect their chances of securing funding or other opportunities at a later date.

I well remember criticising a play in the Dublin Theatre Festival in a talkback where criticism was actually requested about the play from the audience. I felt as a published playwright with several professional productions to my credit that I had sufficient gravitas to comment. The talkback began and the usual wave of congratulations from the audience started. A specific question was asked which I felt more than equipped to answer. As I started to talk I felt the waves of hatred filling the theatre creeping up to drown me. I did not raise my voice but made some serious suggestions.  Recently in Cuirt, we began our talkback for Lorna Shaughnessy’s THE SACRIFICIAL WIND by telling people they could ask or say anything they liked.

I believe that we have a duty to comment on a piece of work, particularly if we feel it is not fulfilling basic standards. We need to be constructive. I actually made my recent criticisms as Notes to The Director  to be seriously considered, but I know they won’t be.  Often when you are involved in a piece with problems you know it yourself but you can do little or nothing about it because that improvement needs to come from the top. That’s what makes performers give defensive performances where they grit their teeth and use their gimmicks to get them through. I did it myself as an actor. I remember it well.

Artists are better placed almost than anybody to make constructive criticism and ask these tricky questions because we are involved with this work of theatre and love it with our hearts. If we are not able to criticise and discuss then how are things going to improve? How will standards be maintained? And by standards I am talking about vision, skills and direction.

I am not talking here about student productions or community work where the principal goals may be different; educative or trying to draw a community together to express something important which is vital and different to the goals of a professional production.

Members of the audience can leave dissatisfied and yet are not able necessarily to articulate why. We must try and open that debate more to educate them, so they expect more. It is our duty to comment.

Woyzeck in Winter

This is a note I put on FB today after seeing WOYZECK IN WINTER  part of the Galway Arts Festival. I repeat a version of it here because I felt it might be missed. I feel the project yields up a lot of questions/considerations for directors – some complex and some downright elementary. The show, a meshing of Buchners Woyzeck and the beautiful Wintereisse music was a bold and interesting idea with some talented performers…well i am not going to do a review of it.  I have no idea of the journey they went on and can only respond to what I saw.  I called this on FB , Notes to a Director

Please, especially if your production has a massive budget, get a fight director who can make a fight look real from ALL angles, and also tell the actors, supposed to be poor soldiers, how to split logs.

Never use traversing an amazing set as an an excuse to fill in time when you are not quite sure what to do emotionally, nor rely on superb lighting, music and paper snow to create atmosphere entirely.  The snow for instance , at the beginning when it was effective, implied to me misery, cold, starvation. I rarely felt this atmosphere coming from the actors and they were more than capable of generating it.

Overall, rely more on your extremely talented actors to do the work. Believe me they have far more resources than you think, especially if you give them the right tools to work with; and by tools I do not mean set costume lights etc. but their inner tools.

Allow the actor more expression of the characters journey, conflicts and polarities to prevent sameness, leaving the audience and characters ploughing the same furrow over and over again. Be ruthless with them if there is no ‘feeling of the whole’ because without it, I as the audience member will leave dissatisfied and indifferent.

Remember that pacey entrances and strong energy whilst they keep the audience involved are not the whole answer.

Have a clear idea of what you are saying with your production and make sure the whole creative team know about it and are willing to go with you on it.

Beware of microphones. Though they seem to create variety and intimacy, very often they hamper the artists ability to do just that.

Congratulations to Rosaleen Linehan though who carried an incredible beauty and weight to her role and made the opening and the last two minutes really special.

Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

Keeping those Cucumber Sandwiches Fresh! Working with Chekhov Technique

IMG_3278When rehearsing/performing a well known play, artists often  behave as if the audience already know every single twist and turn of a story.  It is unconscious – people often do not even know they are doing it. That dreadful mistake completely blunts the immediacy and urgency of the playing, flattens the pace, and often bores the audience who may applaud but leave the theatre unsatisfied without necessarily knowing why. It often belittles the work by making something very cosy out of something which can be much more visceral. This is a massive issue in Shakespeare but equally with Wilde, which I am working on with my group of fellow explorers in the comedy Chekhov and Cucumber Sandwiches course. It was only when we started to tell the story of The Importance that we realised how complicated the story actually was, how the series of ‘reveals’ occurs, and how it initially unravels the lives of Jack Worthing and the others.

The thing is that even if the audience have studied the play and do know it, you have to play it as if they don’t in order to keep it fresh and potent. This may sound so obvious that it is not worth saying and yet this simple fact is often totally disregarded. I have seen many a production of Shakespeare when this development of the plot is lazily and glibly presumed, and not in the way we know the ending in a Greek tragedy, say, where the foreknowledge adds to the import and weight of the tale. Do not misunderstand; this complaint is not an excuse for protracted ‘table work’,  but  the actor’s inability to be able to respond to impulses .

I remember when I was working on Macbeth in Galway decades ago, this was the first thing I said to them; we have to treat this as a play that was written last week. no one knows he is going to die; no one knows she will kill herself; no one knows he will become King and ‘get away’ with the murder[s]; no one knows that Lady M will not wake up during the sleepwalking scene and have the doctor and gentlewoman killed; No one knows that Fleance will escape. If you remember this, much of the play is delivered to you.

One of the great things about the Michael Chekhov Technique is it immediately rockets you from your comfort zone both as a performer, director and designer. A few years ago I ran a weekend on Importance and was staggered at its potential depth of situation and character. This is somehow often ignored in favour of the incredibly witty dialogue and the sophisticated veneer. One has to ask oneself of course, is this a comedy of manners, about a whole society, or is it also about the idea of people struggling to find their hearts in a privileged rigid world of do’s and don’ts, a kind of gilded prison of their own making? What ultimately should the audience feel at the end of this play? A smug satisfaction that everything turned out right ? A despairing comment on the folly of convention? As the group potentially working on this play we need to know. Michael Chekhov alerts us to the fact that we must know what we want the audience to take away when all are united and Lady Bracknell’s privileged world is saved from disintegration by some extraordinary coincidences.

Last night we made some extremely interesting discoveries through the intense ghost exercise, something I learned at MICHA (The Michael Chekhov Association) many moons ago; a character called Jack with dark and terrible secrets which are gradually exposed  only to eventually have the very key to his happiness within his secret life – as he uses his wealthy ward as a bargaining chip to buy all the young people their happiness; a woman called Lady Bracknell desperately holding on to a sense of Order; Miss Prism carrying within her her grief at the loss of a baby; Algernon, a fixer who plays the system but then who unexpectedly  falls madly in love with a beautiful young girl etc etc. This exercise not only enabled us to explore the darker possibilities of these characters but also find a whole trajectory for them. A great plus for the Chekhov work is how very very fast it is and how you can uncover things about characters and the play if you will but commit wholly with your imagination and your body.

The challenge for us now is to explore through the feeling of ease and the alchemy of the play, the possibility to transform these serious journeys into comedic possibilities. This is already starting to happen.

Comedy cuts

Scan 151650001

Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond’s The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen. Me being VERY SERIOUS INDEED

As a young student actor I could never get the hang of comedy. For one thing, the kind of comedies we ended up exploring were so far from my experience (The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton was one) that I simply could not take them seriously. Even before classmates I would get the giggles when performing. I simply could not help it. I comforted myself that Laurence Olivier had had a similar problem as a young actor and hoped for the best that this giggling would stop. It took a long time and I comforted myself further that I was really a dramatic actor and that comedy was not my thing. I remember hating the idea that in comedy you were really,  it seemed to me, out to get the audience’s approval; that the result needed to be laughter or at least, a smile, and you knew whether you had succeeded or failed almost immediately.

Looking back, there was a misunderstanding of what acting was which caused the problem. For me at that time, acting had to be ‘real’. I was good at being emotionally true to my inner life, as narrow as it was, given that it was completely defined by my version of my young self. I had difficulty understanding the relationship between character, play and audience clearly; to understand that, whilst you had to enjoy the game of the play and enjoy making people laugh, you had also to work from an inner truth; that it was actually possible to do this. But you had to work on all of these levels at the same time to be effective. I would explain this now as truly activating the Higher Ego, as Michael Chekhov explains it, and developing the ability to shift the attention from the audience, the character, a consciousness of the humour and back again. It’s needed for all theatre work but for comedy in particular.

At LAMDA I remember exploring the Idea of comedy with an extremely interesting but misguided teacher who asked us to create something comedic out of a real tragic incident of our lives. This was an extremely unwise basis for an exercise and left many of us angry and disturbed. We attempted to recreate a tragic incident in a fellow student’s life who as a boy had hit a cricket ball which had struck and killed one of the fielding team. He had felt that he had killed the boy. This must have been extremely stressful for the student and was in addition very unsuccessful. All the improvisations based around this exercise were a failure. However, despite the fact that I strongly disapprove of leading a student into such tricky emotional territory, comparing tragedy and comedy is often a good place to start in order to define comedy and get a sense of what comedic energy actually is. Chekhov explains this simply and effectively. There are lots of safe ways to do it.

Then, when working on a student production we took to Edinburgh I began to get a feel for comedy, whilst working on a Japanese play when I played a messenger. I knew I was being funny in a stylised, physical way which felt more comfortable because I was not trying to pretend this was ‘real’. It broke a boundary for me and I enjoyed it and began to gain confidence in comedy. I got even more safely into humour in several tv plays as a young professional because there was no audience to contend with and through that I became much more aware of my own sense of humour and started to feel safer with it. Also, on TV,  I was able to hang on more firmly to the sense of ‘truth’ because there was no immediate feedback from an audience.

Scan 21

not subtle but sharp and funny . Malcolm James as Simonides and me as Gnotho in my version of Middleton and Rowley’s OLD LAW 1990 . Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. director Tony Hegarty photo Amrando Atkinson.

But it was only later when I truly experienced the full contact with the audience that I started to truly understand the game that is comedy.; the constant movement of energy; the playfulness… and I started to really enjoy it. It was as if comedy required a complete acceptance of the theatrical experience which I felt at the time could somehow be ignored in drama or tragedy. I now understand that even with the most ‘realistic’ work, a degree of ‘radiation’ is essential . In other words, ‘real’ never quite cuts it – whatever that actually is. One of the things I found so liberating about the Chekhov Technique, something, by the time I found it I already knew, was that theatrical artistic truth is a completely different animal to ‘real’

Very much looking forward to my course Chekhov Comedy Composition and Cucumber Sandwiches which starts on Tuesday in Galway