In the final part of this term, I have been working with a mix of undergrad and MA students here at the University of Galway on a project called the Eurydice Project. We worked on a ‘block week’ from 10-5 and then, after a weekend off, for a full day before presenting to colleagues and a small invited audience. The spine of this project has been three elements of the Michael Chekhov Technique ; general Atmosphere, psychological gesture and imaginary centres with a ‘work-in-progress’ in the end.
What I want to focus on here is how the engine of performance, even if it is for fellow students and friends, can empower and focus students to learn how to employ acting technique more effectively than if there was no performance at all. There are problems with approaching training this way, primarily around whether they can actually use elements of any technique when they have only been introduced to it fairly recently. This is a justifiable concern and some students understandably find it challenging. However if you, as the tutor/director, understand that the goal is to assist with application rather than produce exactly the characterisation you might like for the production then you as the tutor director are less likely to get frustrated with outcome and ironically the actual work from the students is likely to be better. Even in a short space of time, some magical things can happen.
The focus a performance gives is absolutely invaluable because it truly creates an event for the student, an ‘occasion’. Creating a theatrical event is also empowering because it involves an audience, however small. It creates that alchemical dynamic. As leader/director/teachers, we need to balance though; we must be careful that creating the event of a performance is not the whole story, we have to go back to the learning. I found for myself that I had to balance those two roles very carefully, in other words, let the work come as much as possible from them and their use of the elements of the technique I was teaching rather than me trying to push too much of a directorial concept on them (not something I would do in any case whatever the circumstances, as I prefer hunches [as Peter Brook suggests] rather than concepts). This does not mean that I as the director have no say but it has got to be a partnership.
Giving the students this freedom can be tricky because the structure and form of sessions needs to be quite disciplined, even more than with a ‘regular’ production, as time is of the essence, when you have only a week or so to put together something that has a ‘Feeling of the Whole’, to quote Michael Chekhov .
A common complaint with the immersive project week is this: “Trying to get them to apply the technique to a performance is too early for them! They won’t be able to do it and they will get confused and dump the technique altogether!” If we consider that trying to apply it is part of the learning process and the actors will have various degrees of success. Application is part of the journey.
A big problem for me was to try not to teach too many elements of the work. You can of course refer them to the lightbulb diagram in Chekhov’s ‘On The Technique of Acting’ (as suggested to me by colleague, Lisa Dalton) and reassure them that once they have one or two of the techniques under belts then other aspects of the technique will fall into place and, to some extent I believe this to be true. The problem is you have to tailor every element you teach to the piece you are working with..
But then you cannot believe that you have to do everything!!!!
However you cannot just dive in to the elements you want to use, because there is such a deep philosophy here, which comes mostly through the body and all the students have to experience and get some understanding of it. By introduction, we did a lot of work with energy, radiating/receiving, qualities of movement and the ‘Feeling of Form’. I always feel that if your body is pliant (and even sometimes when it isn’t!) getting a sensation from your body through a gesture is easy. What’s hard is to put yourself in a place where you can actually revisit that sensation/feeling. That is the harder part. However as those who teach and work this way know, even these introductory exercises can achieve transformation in the students.
After a few detailed atmosphere exercises, we looked at ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ for the World and the Underworld (terms suggested by one of the students which took any value judgements out of them) I then asked them to work with either a psychological gesture or an imaginary centre. That was complicated enough! Also because we were focussing on a piece we were able to look at the beginning and end of it and address issues of what we might want our piece to be saying. We did not have enough time to explore it but we did ask the question and some of our questions were answered.
Ultimately though what comes over to me loud and clear is that performance is essential if we want to teach future directors, performers and yes, academics. Doing this as a project through concentrated time where the students were doing only this work and not having to focus too much on other stuff was invaluable. I thank the college for their support in scheduling this and wish other schools would embark more on these ‘project weeks’ .
They are powerful forms for teaching.