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.
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.