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.




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 to book your place.
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Ensemble and Michael Chekhov


students in the prep week for 12th night recently working on themes from the play

Michael Chekhov was not the only exponent of ensemble playing. A whole raft of practitioners and teachers espouse it. What for me is most profound about Chekhov’s contribution to playing in ensemble is it is on the one hand a spiritual connection between players and a practical connection with the group. The very tools of radiating/receiving, atmosphere, composition and form speak directly to these connections. They give you practical guidance on how to make this intangible connection between your fellow performers.

ENSEMBLE is concerned primarily with the sense of the group , rather than the individual actor. So it’s not how I relate to this play and the director, and maybe my lead actor, but how I relate to all the actors, the technicians, the writer, the play(if there is one) and the director. This is not to say the individual actor may not shine, but he shines because of his/her ability to work with the group powerfully and effectively, like the member of an orchestra.

And for me, the art of ensemble and form is shown no more powerfully than in the classical orchestra, where the individual players unite with all their artistry and skill to produce a wonderful performance. The violin may have a fabulous solo but it is still reliant on the group. What Ensemble does require is a realization that you are only as powerful as the group. You get power, but you also relinquish it. When people have seen this group work in operation, it can be spectacularly powerful.

Michael Chekhov believed very strongly in the laws of composition and the idea that everything has a feeling of form and that we all understand it is vital to a successful satisfying piece of theatre.

But surely this power of performance should happen anyway? Thats true of course, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because of egos, the pressures of time, the desperate nature of actors to please the director to hopefully get another job, the director’s often dictatorial attitude or many other pressures brought to bear on the professional in particular.

We have all read the reviews… “This actress shines in the small but telling part of Anfisa, endorsing the feeling of ensemble in this splendid production of the Three Sisters”! Ensemble used in this context usually means simply that everyone acted well, it is still a buzz word and I am very sceptical when I hear it being used. The job description of the ensemble performer extends far beyond that of the conventional actor, who makes a good job of a small part.

A sense of ensemble is not always about what kind of theatre you are producing but HOW you produce it. It means seeing your part in context with the piece (if it is a conventional play that is, and you have a ‘part’ in the normal sense of the word.) remembering that there is no character without the play . You CANNOT separate the character from the play, nor from the other characters, nor from the other performers either. If you have ever had to go on as an understudy or to act with one, you know this to be true. The piece is fundamentally changed when someone else takes over.

An ensemble performer needs to know, find and agree with the group and director the highs and lows of the play, the moods and atmospheres, so that everyone can work with them… they must know what performer they are working for at any given moment . For me, it encompasses some of the jobs given as the director’s preserve in conventional theatre….Many actors will say to you this is the director’s concern…
It accepts that theatre is a team sport, not merely an ego driven exercise . Michael Chekhov says,

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part is in full harmony with it”
To the actor – Michael Chekhov

ENSEMBLE THEATRE recognises the special circumstances of the theatrical experience; that it is a live event ; that somehow a covenant is drawn up between audience and performers that anything can happen.


participants in Imagination and the Body last year

To my mind, all theatre should be ensemble theatre.

Very much looking forward to Chekhov and Ensemble in two weeks time here in Galway.
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Teaching, directing and learning – after ‘our play is done’.

IMG_3859When I was a young actor I believed Shaw’s maxim, “those who do, do, those who can’t, teach.” That was of course because I was completely unaware of the deep learning relationship that exists between student and teacher, even though I had some wonderful teachers and had those deep relationships with them. It was not until later that I realised the full value of those relationships. I have been teaching acting and voice for the best part of 25 years to young people, 16-25 primarily, though I have taught many groups outside that, and have directed (and directing is a kind of teaching) both insiðe and out of that age range, with professionals, youth theatre and students.

Teaching is an art form. Though I did not need reminding, I was touched and impressed that Ridley Scott spoke movingly of the influence of his teachers when he recently received his BAFTA award.

There is something about directing a play with a group of young people which requires a spectacular number of skills; director; acting teacher; voice teacher; administrator; limit-setter; counsellor; manager. All of these roles exist for a director at all levels, it is simply that in the professional context, there will be different emphases. This myriad skill set needs to be taught to would-be directors if they are considering directing as a career. A stint at performing is vital too.

In the educational setting, a production allows the teacher/director increased contact time. An intensive period for a production, working with students every day for a few weeks, bears out the reality that contact time counts; that the amount of time you spend on the show gives the work depth and allows a more meaningful contact between teacher and student. For instance, in the recent production of 12th Night, I was able to support students in voice technique, Michael Chekhov work, and a lot of technical skill, and, because we were doing it every day, rapid progress was made. Many taught courses are at best a few hours a week and whilst it is perhaps not as economic for the institution, it has to be said that working intensively and for more time produces a powerful learning experience.

All third level  theatre courses, whether academic or conservatoire, require a combination of academic courses which give the student space for reflection and examination alongside more intensive practical performance work.

Theatre art is experiential.  And experiential learning and performance is not to test academic discovery, but for its own sake. After all, that is what happens in the real world; we experience it and through experience we learn how we will manage our lives. As an example, during the 60s and 70s in the UK when drama was being brought into the curriculum in English secondary education, there was a school of thought that drama was a tool for teaching history or geography instead of something that had its own intrinsic value.

Theatre can be a truly transformational experience. All of us who explore theatre with students/actors/performers know this is overwhelmingly and beautifully true. In addition to learning a myriad of skills, there is something about the alchemy of sharing your feelings, your energy, opening to others, and creating a world together through the conduit of playing a character in a play (or improvising and devising)  which is extraordinary.

Ultimately when you work on a production the show is a creation of the whole company. Existing and reacting within this creative atmosphere is expansive and educational.  The group dynamic itself  becomes one of the tools that enriches a powerful learning experience.  Like most things meaningful, you absolutely have to experience it for this group dynamic to ignite your creativity and learning in a deep way.  But when you do, and not all groups gel in the way my recent group did, the learning can only be enhanced.

A young actor said to me recently, ” you have been central to my development as a performer and a person, giving me confidence and self-belief.” As a teacher, I cannot ask for more.

Twelfth Night Polarities

IMG_3934As we put the production of Twelfth Night to bed here at CTPI and NUI Galway , I am thinking back to something I discovered about this play through the production, through my editing and through the process..

I had never before thought of Twelfth Night as a tragicomedy. Before we start to talk about the idea of polarities and how they exist in the play we should perhaps explore the unique form of tragi-comedy, because for me at least, that is certainly how 12th Night seems to work for a modern audience. Tragicomedy was made very popular through writers like Middleton and Rowley after Shakespeare, but it was clearly part of the collective psychology of the Elizabethan theatre goer way before then. Tragicomedy is not simply putting  comic scenes in with serious or tragic scenes in order to keep the wide social demographic of many Elizabethan audiences satisfied and connected to the performance. The tragicomic dynamic is a visceral engine, a cruelty which actually consciously rubs sadness and grief against laughter and joy. Tragicomedy is a genre which actively uses polarity to heighten the work. We ignore this at our peril or the play is constantly unsettling in the wrong sort of way. The scenes somehow do not sit together without embracing the full force of what tragicomedy unleashes. Indeed Shakespeare’s language constantly compares opposites, especially in soliloquy when a character is asking the audience what they should do about their particular dilemma. It’s built into the fabric.

Michael Chekhov focuses on polarity as part of discovering the score of the play. Often when I am working I like to take the actors as characters through the play considering one polarity only, to see where the character fits and travels along that theme through his/her story. I do this quite early on and whilst it may  be somewhat transformed once the scenes start to be played, it is amazing how the alchemy of imagery and instinct often reveal jewels of character we could never have imagined through discussion.

In Twelfth Night one of the polarities I see is Riot and Order. Feste represents the former and Malvolio the other. These two characters are diametrically opposed and it is their battle, culminating in the highly ambiguous prison scene, which for me is one of the big polarities of this play. The other is Love and Death, not exactly opposites, but in the Elizabethan world view, they are. In the beautiful Act 2 sc 4, the disguised Viola and Orsino speak intimately and lovingly, are then faced with the haunting song Come Away Death. Orsino’s mood is transformed and he becomes violent and desperate, whilst Viola refers to her brother [supposedly dead]. In that moment the two young people are forced to face the dark side of their souls.

IMG_3994The production has been a delight. Now back to working in my garden, writing, reviving The Sacrificial Wind and the first of three weekend workshops .The first – Chekhov and Ensemble will be held on March 9th-11th in Galway. Email to book your place.



Follow your heart

IMG_3875Two moments from rehearsal for the college production of Twelfth night last week turned my thoughts away from any idea that Shakespeare was necessarily making a satire of his own lost twins drama of romantic love.

It is so easy to see Orsino as a superficial matinee idol who is merely a fool who is in love with love, and therefore to see Viola as a fool for loving him. I would have fully supported this from reading and the various productions I have seen over the years where the romantic characters are either uncomfortably unbelievable or sent up rotten.

IMG_3886But this week when Viola began to speak of her fictitious sister whilst thinking of her own dead brother , the young actor playing ORSINO came up behind her and held her tenderly . It was a really beautiful moment When I asked him how the character felt at that moment he said, ” he just wanted to be close to Cesario. For that moment whether she was a man or a woman was completely not the point. He just wanted to hold him.” The directness and clarity of this response was lovely.

IMG_3861A similar moment occurred when Sebastian and Antonio said their goodbyes . We discussed a lot about whether the two had had any kind of physical affair. It is of course a popular choice to say yes, but we decided against it. It does not stop the characters from being physically close to each other in a moment of grief, nor from Antonio wanting more than Sebastian is prepared to give him. In fact the very fact that they have not consummated the relationship makes it all the more touching and edgy.

It maðe me consider that perhaps the play is about what happens when you follow your heart; that there are winners and losers, but that not following your heart is closing your life off. It will all be over soon enough anyway, as Feste tells us, so you must travel with an open heart. I am particularly moved as an older person looking at these young actors perform this; that the fact they are young makes this interpretation, growing from our work , all the more poignant.

Put me into good fooling!

IMG_3885One of the things that has struck me again and again in this preparatory week with the exuberant and talented student actors at the Centre of Drama Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway is the joy of working with young people, their boundless energy, talent and enthusiasm, such as may elude them if they enter the world of ‘the profession’ . It also reminded me of the issues.

When working as a professional director you expect to develop a vision at a high and competent level because the actors have most of the skills you will need, well they are supposed to. Of course this sometimes falls short with certain individuals as clashes of style develop between performers and directors, and often between performers themselves. In actual fact, the collaborative element in directing, whilst important in both professional and student spheres, is much easier to achieve with young people and hence paradoxically  the work is often ultimately more interesting despite the youth of the group and the fact they have to work harder at skills.

Interestingly, and I find this more and more as I get older, it seems that any vision I have needs to be tempered by the young people. They are coming from a very different place to me and as the exploratory week of the production evolves so does my sense of direction, because it is not just mine but theirs. This does not mean that I just go along with their wishes because sometimes, from inexperience, they are not seeing the play in a deep way or perhaps in a way what seems like a good idea at the beginning is going to become derailed by the needs of the play itself (Actually many professional productions suffer from this problem too – what seemed like a good idea at the start goes wrong).

In addition what is important for me in that first week is assessing their individual strengths and challenges . It is nearly always true that in the beginning the student actors after being free as birds in the first week where the story is explored through sound and the body suddenly come up against the needs of the text and the expectation they feel is there. ie talking in an English accent. While I always do a lot of physical voice work based on Michael Chekhov Exercises which promotes variety and grounded truth, the old stalwarts of breathing and diction are frequently serious challenges. Whîlst on the one hand I wouldn’t want to over force the practice, on the other hand without decent clarity all the depth in the world will not be radiated through the text. Weeks 2 and 3 often have this constant feeling of a plane landing uncomfortably as adjustments of time and focus need to be made. Once the lines are understood and learned, we can really play again.

What keeps emerging from our work with this play is this deep sense of loss and loneliness in so many of the characters, that the search for love is a search to forget loneliness. Maybe the play says that no matter how hard we try we are always lonely; that in relationships we save ourselves from loneliness but to some extent sacrifice our identity. This is an interesting if rather sad thought –  and particularly because the play is a comedy.