Monthly Archives: May 2014

Feelings in Chekhov Technique

Yesterday someone new to the work was doing an exercise with Centres and found herself crying. She looked astounded and moved. Having taught many people now through the early stages of Chekhov training this is very common, as many fellow teachers know.magician max push

What always amazes and fascinates me is how surprised people are when this release happens and how we often fail to give the proper respect to the reality of the memory in the body. When I say ‘we’ I suppose I mean I! Despite having involved myself in various body therapies in the late Seventies onwards, (including an intense session of rebirthing which I had found incredibly disturbing) this discovery in my own Chekhov training came as a bit of a shock at the beginning. Many times I would do an exercise, particularly with Psychological gesture and would end up weeping uncontrollably . It actually made me feel good afterwards, the release of it. It made me realise something bigger than acting was going on, about how I had held so much in, and not allowed myself to feel things in so many different life situations. This was a surprise as I always saw myself as being a very emotional sort of man. I have never shied away from the idea that ones work as an artist of any description is somewhat self-therapeutic. It goes with the territory when you go deeply. However this release  had more to do with me than with the character, and was a process i needed to go through in order to be able to use the Technique more effectively.

When I encountered this big emotion at first I was concerned that the Chekhov work might be rather disturbing, and it was not until I had discussed it with various teachers that I realised it was a lot safer than using your own personal memories of tragedies and triumph to eke out feelings for your character as I had been taught myself in Acting Technique at college. I had never really been comfortable with this approach.

I soon associated this intense emotion from the Chekhov work very much like the way we are encouraged to deal with thoughts and feelings in meditation, that you are mindful of them and they will flow through you and away. That ‘you have your feelings, but you are not your feelings’, that we are a conduit for these things but most of them get expressed . Of course sometimes there are strong residuals which stay in your body, which was probably why I got such strong release when I started the Chekhov work.

Time and again I see some people afraid of emotion, afraid to radiate their energy or root a gesture because subconsciously they are afraid of what it will unlock . I remember a very moving example of this a few years ago, when a young woman who was working on Irina’s confession to Olga [3 Sisters]  about her unhappy life was using a reaching gesture, and she simply would not allow the emotion through. I just asked her to radiate the energy out a bit further, engage her hands and the emotion was released. She spoke the speech and it was quite beautiful, and then worked with diminishing the gesture. I remember discussing it with her and reminding her that nothing bad had happened, and she was relieved and surprised. I feel I have to be very careful with this process, because a student may not be ready, and whilst the goal of this work is not to make people cry, it is for them to find sensations which lead to feelings and energies to use for the plays they are in.

When I asked a teacher early on how they dealt with this emotion in class, she told me she worked with a student with breathing into the feeling, calming it down, and reminding the student that it was only an image or a gesture, and it was something she was in control of. She was far more likely to be able to control an image or a gesture than some memory of an event that had happened to her. In my experience this always works.

Only once have I felt seriously unnerved myself by a set of exercises, and that was working in a brave and advanced class in which I was a participant, and we were asked to deal with two contradictory energies, one of power[ an archetype]  and one of powerlessness. This set up an incredibly strong polarity in me, and I started to feel uncontrollably angry. I marched up to the top of the auditorium sitting there feeling angry and sorry for myself. I wanted to join them but I didn’t feel worthy, and I started to feel hate towards my classmates. I pulled away from the feeling because I was afraid. I thought to myself ‘ok, I can fake this feeling, it is very ugly indeed, or I can just opt out altogether, but I am here training, so I will follow this a little further. If I get any sense of going over the mark, I will breathe deep and step out of it.’ So I allowed this polarity of feeling again . I screamed and shouted and then went up and sat alone. Then I came down to the stage again and raged some more. Eventually I stepped out of it and sat down because I found it too strong. It is amazing how one can make these decisions through the Higher Ego, and have these experiences safely.  At the end when I reviewed my experience, I felt this impotent rage might be how people who kill senselessly might feel . It was awful, and took me some few minutes to breathe it out of my system. It was the kind of feeling I would never want to act myself. What pleased me though was that, despite the immensity of my feelings , There was a solid part of me still in control. the wonderful thing for me about Chekhov is that you do not chase feeling, you experience a gesture or imagine an atmosphere or an image and the feeling comes to you.

Sometimes I am asked, ‘why do you have to feel anything at all on stage?’ And of course, this is a question, in our materialist theatre, because so many actors get away with that.  I feel myself that usually I can tell when it is not rooted, and this strange alchemical  thing that happens between actors and the audience needs sensation and feeling and emotional exchange to be as nuanced as it can be, in order to produce something transformational.



Duchess of Malfi BBC4

d4d95b15560a8615839d5b2100ca1203.200x200x1Ok what was good about THE DUCHESS OF MALFI On BBC 4? [You might need to read a synopsis of the play if you don’t know it, to understand this blog by the way!]

I loved the ambience of the recreated Blackfriars , and whilst the candle light felt a little problematic at times ( how do they get away with that, with Health and Safety?) it was very interesting to see this play in the kind of ambience in which it was performed, particularly with the relationship from stage to audience. Interesting how the ‘indoor’ plays of this time speak much less about location and general atmosphere than The earlier Elizabethan plays. The imagery in the text becomes even more focused on the characters’ psychology.

At the beginning ( as usual) all was relatively well. The Duchess (Gemma Arterton) was imperious, playful and beautiful; Her steward [Alex Waldmann] was an innocent, cute young man , her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal [David Dawson and James Garnon] were corrupt and dangerous, the mercenary Bosola[Sean Gilder] was gruff and dangerous looking . The verse was very clear which was no mean achievement given the complexity of the language.

However, the actors played at an incredible pace which whilst on the one hand was effective, it rarely changed, and like all set rhythms became monotonous. Furthermore, and worse, the relentless pace gave the actors very little space to act with each other. Indeed for the most part, as with the National’s Lear I blogged about earlier this month, there appeared to be nothing much going on energetically between them, or at least only fitfully. This apparent lack of real contact between the performers is death to the power of theatre. Nothing less. No money or set can replace it. As often happens, it was when actors did something to each other physically that real contact was made between them. This contact would then last for a short while and then the lack of contact would begin again. Two of the actors, Julia [Denise Gough] and Cariola[Sarah Macrae] in particular, were excellent team players and did seem to act as if they were in the same play with the other actors on the stage.

Where the play started to seriously disintegrate for me was when the going started to get tough for the characters, for then it was apparent that the development one might as an audience member be entitled to expect was beyond the actors or certainly the director, Dominic Dromgoole. Let us take the assertion made by Ms Arterton in the introductory film, that the Duchess becomes ennobled by her tragedy. I really do not feel this happened. She was merely a little more angelic and tragic at the end than at the beginning. To be fair to her, she actually has not too much stage time for this to happen as she is dead and gone by the end of Act 4. It would have seriously helped within the production though if the prison section of the play had taken a good bit more time to give the actors the opportunity to feel and really send out an atmosphere of foreboding, despair and loss . She had to have time to make this transformation and the director did not give her the space. The whole thing proceeded at breakneck speed.

When I first saw this play in 1972, the Jacobean plays were new to me. I remember how exciting this play was for me. The plot twists really work because we are not dealing with a well known Shakespeare play. So when the Duchess decides to trust Bosola with her secret we need to be gasping, ‘don’t do it!’ The actors need to use these moments to thrill the audience, and surely to create some sympathy for the good characters . This moment, one of many, was just rushed over .

In terms of the arc of the whole play, the scene in which she dies and is then revived by Bosola only to die again is absolutely crucial to the structure of the play. Bosola the mercenary is surely by this time seeking some kind of redemption. He is a contract killer, and yet he regrets murdering her. This polarity of the cynical murderer on the one hand, and the desperate man seeking redemption on the other is the engine for the rest of the play. Suddenly she revives and we see him revive . He even tells her Antonio is not dead, that her brother was lying. Bosola should be desperate, and then suddenly she dies. It should be an absolutely brilliant and powerful moment which completely changes him.

But The rest of the show , a whole act!, was little more than a series of bloody comedy sketches . Suddenly the actors did things with the audience as if everyone was getting lost with where the play was going. Whilst I can see this might be an issue with the play itself, surely it is the director and cast’s responsibility to take us through this , and give us a feeling of the whole, as Chekhov would say. A feeling that the play was taking us on a journey. As I said I feel that this responsibility rests with the character of Bosola steeped in blood, who struggles to redeem himself in some measure. At the end though Bosola kills the one man he was trying to help. It is as if he is in some kind of gory bog that is simply sucking him down the more he tries to struggle to get out of it. But he was not allowed to take this central role in the plot, or was not able to. As he and the brothers sink in the bloody mire of their own evil, we should be left for long moments to reflect on this horrible presentation of the world. This lack of focus in the last act I felt was primarily the directors responsibility and made me leap up to make a slice of toast and a cup of tea.




Chekhov, Ensemble and Theatrecorp


Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conoir Geoghegan

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

When I was at a Chekhov conference in Zurich in 2013, we were asked to put forward ideas about how Chekhov Technique might be used in the future, and someone said how he would like to see Chekhov being developed in devising and more experimental forms of theatre, as well as in text-based plays.

I have been using Chekhov in my ensemble/devising class for the MA Drama programme at NUI Galway for several years. The technique is an extremely successful way to unite a team of performers in a deep way, and is highly effective even though the performance is going to be in a different style and created in a different way. While the goal of some exercises  may be different when working towards a text, they are still the same exercises. The qualities of moulding , floating, flying radiating for instance which normally focus on finding psychological states/ sensations through movement and movement, in order to eventually address dialogue and conventional character, in this class excite a bodily awareness which come as much from the imagination as physical flexibility. Again, they are still the same exercises, with a slightly different focus.

When the students work on their non verbal folk tales in my class, we work through a lot of Chekhov’s atmosphere exercises which help the students with their feeling of ensemble as well as the creation of what they believe is the appropriate atmosphere for the moment or environment in which they are playing. It helps them create the score of the story and to return to it authentically and swiftly should it be needed. We also explore a lot of archetypes through the imagination and the body. Archetypes are so near the surface in myths and folklore that it gives ready access for the student and allows them to explore their own unconscious, safely, and often think and experience  outside the box of what an archetype actually might be. The lack of intellectual exploration suits devising, along with the desire to connect voice,feeling, body and imagination, which should I feel be at the heart of all live performance, devised or otherwise.

When students move on to their site specific work towards the end of the semester, which works to creat a non-narrative piece with the feel of a piece of music, Chekhov work helps thematically again through atmosphere and gesture in a very pure way. Chekhov inspires, often through abstracts, the most concrete and actable forms.

Darragh O'Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Darragh O’Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Right now I am building an idea for a series of sessions with the Theatrecorp group, using Shakespeare and modern locations. In addition to considering and feeling the atmosphere of the location , we need to consider the subtle interplay between the text and the location in a very literal way, which is more than just the character and the play from which the speech is taken, but responding also to the atmosphere of the location and what is happening in the world right now, what the words suggest now. It is not an intellectual exploration, though the way I am describing it might make it sound that way. For instance when an actress stands at the statue of Equality and looks across at Galway’s Cathedral, in almost the same spot where the Galway Magdalen laundry once stood and speaks a speech of defiance from Catherine of Aragon , which appears in Henry 8th, we are looking at many layers of meaning. These layers can be looked at in much detail using the technique with very little discussion. This is powerful and though text based, it is not a conventional approach to it. it is not based first and foremost on character and the situation in the play but on text through gesture, and the effect of the atmosphere and environment around it.

The photos are both from our first session on the Shakespeare work. Very exciting.

A different way to train for performance.

There is a different way to train for performance. Sarah Kane, the renowned Chekhov teacher is setting up a theatre school, PerformInternational I believe might have some far reaching effects, not only on artists, but also on the idea of what ‘the business’ could be. She has set up a programme in East Sussex which is a performance training based on the teachings of Michael Chekhov and Rudolf Steiner, and is intending to have its first intake this autumn.
Michael Chekhov never called acting a ‘craft” but an ‘art’. He likened acting to creation on a par with artists and writers. It is a beautiful release for those of us brought up to the idea that actors are mouthpieces and in general the slaves of writers and directors.His is a more holistic approach and whilst it is incredibly practical, it totally opens up the performer to the full range of their capabilities and the creative imagination.
The way that we train shapes us in ways we cannot imagine, just like the jobs we do. Most acting conservatories are training you for the business as it is. There is nothing wrong with this, to develop your craft. It is a very specific though worthy aim. And yet teachers ask the question, what are the students being trained for? A business with only a minuscule number of practitioners actually working? But then this was always the case, even when less universities had theatre degrees and there were fewer drama schools. Theatre, tv and film actors have a massive turnover, and very few people ‘make it’ or if they do it may not be for long.
I had a conservatoire training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Whilst the training was very much geared to the ‘business’ as it then was, it was incredibly life-enhancing and valuable, not only for acting, but in my work as a teacher, writer, and director. So whilst a conservatoire training can be narrow in many ways, it still has been a massive resource for me. I have used this knowledge to teach voice, presentation, and devising to a whole range of special interest groups who have then used that knowledge in their own diverse workspaces. A conservatoire course offers you an ease with yourself, a sense of rigorous discipline, a familiarity with voice and body, performance skills, opportunities to perform and a confidence which you may well not find in a less practical training.. The good thing about this kind of school is that it is almost entirely devoted to experiential learning, which in many respects some would argue is deeper, or at least quite different to intellectual learning.

Academic courses broadly have a different focus and more importantly a different way of teaching, with a strong intellectual element. There is less contact time between tutors and students and as a practise-based teacher, you are expected to cover a lot of the same practical ground in a lot less time. Unfortunately intellectual understanding does not mean a student can always get up and perform the element they feel they understand from a book, and the danger is that the student ends up believing they can, which makes for a degrading of actual performance development, not only for the student but for general expectations.

It could be argued that this broader remit around training for theatre can only be welcomed, giving the student an academic base to augment any practical training they might receive and making them more employable, but its difference to the gruelling and extraordinary process of conservatory training makes for a very different outcome for the student. I would ask the question whether university courses can really train performers, unless the courses are run at least partially on conservatoire lines, though I am very pleased to see that universities are incorporating more practical work, because theatre is not only a theoretical study. After I had directed a show under some conservatory conditions within a university, a student said to me, ‘what this project has done has given me a real respect for what actors do and experience.’ That was a powerful and important outcome for that student, though it does not make them an actor. Unfortunately I hear from colleagues in the UK that this experiential learning is under serious threat from the powers that be.

So, going back to Perform International, what is this different way to train? PerformInternational is initiating full- and part-time professional trainings and short courses in the performing arts from September 2014, integrating Michael Chekhov’s approach to acting and theatre with Rudolf Steiner’s Creative Speech.These are spirit-inspired trainings to develop the performer’s voice, body and imagination. They offer the opportunity to acquire professional skills and recognised qualifications.

If all this sounds a bit floaty, it isn’t. The word spirit is sometimes considered a dangerous word and it shouldn’t be, because creativity is a spiritual act and every society since the Greeks has understood this. As an artist you are bringing something from nowhere, or at the very least enlivening symbols on a page with your own being, You are manifesting them. That seems to be spiritual to me in the broadest sense of the term, and nothing to be afraid of. Actors need to find ways to learn how to do that manifesting if their work is going to be deep and transformative.

I cannot speak for Steiner’s speech work because I do not know much about it, but Michael Chekhov Technique for sure has The Imagination at the absolute core of training. This does not mean a lack of discipline, nor a feeling of fantasyYou have to train the imagination thoroughly and give space to exercise it. The work is rigorous and physical as well as imaginative and emotional, and a student must have space to remember the joy of the work.. A danger of much conservatory training is that in its desire to instil rigorous discipline, the desire to create and feel the joy of acting can be massively diminished within an individual student. For some, and I have seen this several times, this joy is extinguished and may never return.

So much of professional theatre is to my mind dull .If you scroll down and read my comments about the Lear at The National Theatre [UK], fundamentals which Chekhov certainly explores and teaches in his technique were completely missing from that production as I experienced it, leaving me untouched and unsatisfied with the experience.

I am looking for that missing element .I want to find it and I want students and actors to explore and express it. A full time Chekhov course might be the way to achieve it. Check out the PerformInternational link on this blog.

Oh fool I shall go mad! Lear from the National

I had not been to a simultaneous cinema screening from the RSC or the National Theatre [UK]  before last night. I was rather excited by the idea. I got the feeling that it would not quite be like being at the theatre, but it was much more accessible to me living as I do on the West Coast of Ireland.

However, before I left the uk I was often massively disappointed with the productions I saw in these big companies because it did not matter how great the play was, how good the actors were purported to be, nor how much money was thrown at the production , I often came away frustrated and as if something was missing. Despite some good performances, a nice set or whatever , I felt I had somehow been conned. As I was an actor at the time, and though i had worked a lot , had not been employed in either of these companies, one might put it down to youthful frustration. Whilst I confess that played a part, the main thing was something quite different. A performance so often did not meet  my expectations.

But last night I thought, things must have changed, It is twenty years since I saw a play in London . It is King Lear, one of the greatest plays in the English language, Simon Russell Beale is playing him , whom I saw play a wonderful Falstaff in the recent Henry 4th films. I of course understood, having done quite a bit of film and tv as an actor  that some of the vocal work and general acting might be a little unbalanced as they were performing both for the camera and for a live audience, but that was ok.

The 60 or so people who gathered in the cinema in Galway were able to watch the audience members in London flicking through their programmes and chatting , and the wonderfully open presenter, Emma Freud introduced the play in London .

Sadly, all the problems I had had with the plays I had seen in London two decades ago had re- emerged within five minutes. The play was clear ( at first) but Beale’s rasping ranting delivery which sounded like he was wrecking his voice once he got angry, matched by an equally ranting Kent highlighted a core issue. No one appeared to be listening to each other and the pauses often had nothing in them at all. And when there is something in a pause you can feel it. The energy is moving between the performers. There were moments of connection in the play but mostly the actors did not appear to be working together. This problem could not be excused by the dual audiences of camera and live audience because i recently saw a wonderful production from Glyndebourne on television of Billy Budd, which knocked the acting of King Lear into a cocked hat.

Another key issue were a myriad of clumsy bits of business which looked like they were someone’s good idea ( possibly the director’s) but which should have been left in the rehearsal room when the actor lost heart. When Cornwall first confided in Edmund, he kissed him on the lips. This was never followed up or developed, it was one of many extraordinary choices which didn’t seem to mean anything and worse actually diluted the power of the play.

In the interval the actors gave a short ‘behind the scenes’ talk. As someone said afterwards, they never seem to really want to give too much away in these ‘smell of the greasepaint’ talks. If this is true , I wonder why. However they did illuminate one or two things which I thought explained things, more than they thought. I asked myself, ‘why did Lear have no real journey and appear to not be at Core the person he was at the beginning…Simon RB told us, that he had researched the possibility that Lear had some kind of degenerative illness, and whilst he did not follow all the disabilities this illness caused, he used this as a reference point. This was very clear in his performance, because for me at no point was Lear anything other than a sick man . This seemed to give him no real trajectory of awakening, because he simply got worse, and then suddenly with Cordelia’s help [and a dose of medication]  he was cured. This did not seem credible and was most certainly NOT cathartic. This ‘illness’ seemed to distort the trajectory of the entire play , and prevent Lear from having a transformational journey .Isn’t a plank of the play that Lear realises his humanity and grows into a more whole person? Isn’t it actually the only gleaming thing on the horizon, considering the horrors it contains?

in the interval film, the actress playing Regan remarked how Regan played the ‘daddy’s little girl’ card and how Lear completely fell for it so when she sides with Goneril he is devastated. For me this was something which could have created a phenomenal moment , but i did not see it. It felt like a good idea from too much intellectual tablework, that was not for me realised.

I could go on, but I won’t, because many people reading this will not have seen the production, and I do not want to make this into a rant. but I know this. i would prefer to see a great play played with no set, no costumes, with real truth amongst  players who may even be less trained,  who seek for what the play is telling them, rather than some slick and expensive piece that did not say much to me.   For me if the play is not transformational, everyone may as well stay home.