Monthly Archives: June 2014

How came these things to pass? Magic, Chekhov and Shakespeare.


MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM must be one of the most performed plays of all time. It is also the most interpreted. I myself have tackled this play twice and was in a cut down version when I was 8. ( the subject of a radio piece broadcast I did on RTE in 2003 )

So many interpretations and experiments have been performed on this play and therefore anything I might say subsequently might have the riposte, ‘oh, I saw that done in xxxx’s production in 1993!’ But I am going to plough ahead anyway because it is the manner in which this was discovered that was interesting, as much as the discovery itself. In my extremely brave and adventurous Chekhov and Shakespeare class this week, we explored general atmosphere with the empty rectangle which you fill with a given atmosphere from your imagination. We are working with Midsummer Night’s Dream

Chekhov and General Atmosphere.

For those not in the know about atmosphere, Chekhov believed that atmosphere was a palpable thing, the oxygen of performance. All characters operated within this atmosphere, accommodating it in some way, or absorbing it. He also believed that atmosphere was something that existed whether an individual was there or not, that it was not something that we brought into a space, but something that was there and we walked into it. Much of this kind of idea has been supported by science. All you have to do is go into a church or a hospital or a library to feel the weight of this truth.

This was demonstrated to great effect last night when we moved from our working room into a smaller kitchen/ utility room to illustrate this point and sense the difference in atmosphere in each place . As we came back into our working room, I watched the faces of people as they came back into our room, amazed at the difference. To cap it all, as if on cue, a man on his way to another meeting arrived to try and cross the room ,and the feeling of him facing our resistance was palpable. It was as if he hit a wall of atmosphere. It was incredible yet an ordinary everyday occurence. One of those palpable invisible things made visible once you are aware of it.

As we worked on the Dream , we explored the world of Athens from words and pictures created by the actors. We filled the rectangular space with an atmosphere of COLDNESS and CONTROL . As the actors explored these thoroughly with their bodies and feelings, and began using pieces of text, I got one of the actors to take in a new atmosphere of her own, one of the colour RED and she was to say to each person, ‘I love Lysander!’ As she responded to each of the others in turn, she came upon someone who she felt put up more resistance , [ an older man who could have been Theseus] and became joyous loud and defiant . It felt like she was real threat to the atmosphere and everyone responded. It was most exciting, and filled the room with something fundamental about the play. This is what is so wonderful about the Chekhov work, that it brings from the abstract something tangible, actable and real.

The role of Theseus.

It made me realise something about Theseus , something I had struggled with before. Theseus is a difficult part because he does not really have enough stage time to take an emotional journey and yet he is important enough to make one. He and Hippolyta are the first characters we see and so somehow they need to be key. In the first scene he is established as the ruler and lawgiver. He has just defeated an army of women and is about to marry their leader, so the two of them set up the theme of the challenge of heterosexual relationships which is then played out through nearly all the major characters one way or another. It has often been supposed and there have been many productions exploring this , that Oberon and Theseus are cross cast with Titania and Hippolyta, thereby giving the Theseus/Oberon character a running emotional/poetical journey through another character ( note how this appears to be the case with Cordelia and the Fool in Lear too.), but what if we are to consider Theseus alone?

It occurred to me through our atmosphere exercise, that the threat of Lysander and Hermia’s love to the very essence and atmosphere of what Athens represents is much more serious than it appears. The unruly sway of the emotions against order and control is what provokes the wrath of the state against them, to the extent where Hermia’s father calls for her execution and they have to run away into uncertainty and danger. Theseus as the ruler should be the one most threatened by Hermia’s defiance , but also moved by it, as he changes her prospective punishment from execution to banishment to a nunnery. When they emerge from the forest towards the end of the play and Egeus pleads for his punishment , Theseus has a change of heart, and all ends happily. But through this exercise I discovered that perhaps this change of heart is set in motion from the moment that Hermia defies him in Act one and she sets this change in motion to take him from a cold rational man to a warmer human being. In the production I did in 2008 , it was Hippolyta who caused his repentance by kneeling silently before him after Egeus had demanded the full punishment, a nice idea I had not seen before which gave some closure to her own defiance. The Theseus act 5 speech ‘ I never may believe these antique fables….’ where he challenges the story of the lovers in conversation with Hippolyta suddenly makes sense in this context, with this journey.

As I watched my class going off into the sunny evening discussing how energised they were feeling, and the words imagination and discovery were heard repeated again , I felt so empowered by their energy and the power of our work.

If that sounds ‘blissy’, I’m not apologising!


Thinking of Anouilh’s Antigone

‘These people are about to act out for you the story of Antigone.’

I am so looking forward to rediscovering this play in the Theatrecorp production in November, using Chekhov Technque as the bedrock of the rehearsal process. When I first came across Anouilh’s Antigone, or more accurately , Galantiere’s translation of this 1940’s play, I was 15. At that age, I competed in more than my fair share of drama festivals, and must have seen more versions of Antigone’s confrontation with her sister Ismene than a person could stand, to the point that I would sigh when I saw it in the programme…and sit back to watch yet another young aspiring actress trying to squeeze terror out of herself .This scene and the one in Ring Around The Moon by the same author, where the two young women bitch and have a physical fight, were very popular choices for teenage girls and their front room drama teachers around this time!


Despite this, I nonetheless have remained fascinated by Antigone. Of course the theme is attractive for artists and young people. A heroine refuses stubbornly and determinedly not to compromise, preferring to die rather than tread the path of a life of privilege, ease and pragmatic survival. It is said that the play focuses as much on the theme of impending adulthood, and accepting the world as it is (or not) as it does on politics. Sometimes I wonder whether they are not the same thing.

Many many writers have written versions of Antigone’s story including Brecht, whose version I suppose I ought to sympathise with more, but I don’t . What is so appealing about Anouilh’s for me is that whilst I completely sympathise with Antigone’s action to bury her brother and defy the King, the arguments both for and against Antigone’s action are aired passionately and equally by Antigone and Creon in the fantastic central scene in the play, and that despite the fact that Antigone’s feelings seem to be condoned by the playwright, her motives are seriously challenged.
And this, I feel is the challenge of the play. As people in the world, we justify everything we do and don’t do, and our justifications have consequences, often severe ones, even for people we never meet. I am thinking primarily of our consumer choices here.

The disturbing exploration of Antigone’s decision suggests that we have to choose our path, and to live with that choice, whatever it is. This is uncomfortable. Antigone’s view tells us that Creon, Ismene and the rest will never be happy. They will compromise and live life at a different level to her, a level laced with compromise , with less real dignity and truth.

Of course this muddying of Antigone’s motive could have been as a result of the fact that the play ran for 500 performances in Nazi occupied France . The fact that Anouilh was ultimately suspected of sympathising with the occupiers, and the fact that Creon is presented sympathetically though not triumphantly, does make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I am thinking this setting of 1944 might be extremely pertinent in some ways given the rise of the Far Right in Europe now, most particularly in France. But then, it depends. The tone of the play could be seen as ultimately defeatist against the oppressor, and that is the last thing I would want an audience to feel.

Two other things influenced me in the choice of this play. One of the great Chekhov teachers and I am pleased to say a friend, Ted Pugh, of the Michael Chekhov Association told me of a reading they did of the play, and reenthused me as to what a wonderful and challenging play it was. The result was that I used the play for a series of Chekhov workshops last autumn. During a powerful presentation of a short scene towards the end of a class on Psychological Gesture, two actors were working on the very scene I mentioned at the beginning of this piece where the two sisters confront each other about whether they can bury their brother . One of the actors, tears in her eyes quietly said to the other, ‘but Antigone, I don’t want to die….’ I was incredibly moved. it made me realise how much people want to live, and what they are prepared to do to hang on to it.

I am looking forward to starting it in September! Check out the Theatrecorp link.



What comes first? Emphasis or Intuition ?

Sarah O'Toole, darragh O'Brien, Mary Monaghan

Sarah O’Toole, Darragh O’Brien, Mary Monaghan

“Even if a concept is necessary in speech, it is a tragically pathetic portion of the whole that speech can offer.” Peter Brook : Evoking Shakespeare [a short but wonderful book.] 

Despite the fact that Chekhov addresses all the hidden stuff that Brook might be alluding too here, nonetheless I took two groups working on Shakespeare back to very basic work this week. Technical , intellectual work. Sense, finding the words that carry the meaning and underlining them, making sure you have enough breath to follow your intention, and radiate the sensations and feelings they evoke. We did this work in tandem with the Chekhov work, but I felt it essential to spend some time intellectually exploring sense with pens and text.

When I trained I hardly ever underlined anything. It was not laziness, I almost could not bear to do it, as if underlining would somehow destroy my acting, that it would fix me in some trap that would restrict the way I played the character forever. I understood that acting was something personal and invisible. Of course I still believe this. I still believe, as Chekhov stated, that Actors Are Magicians. I still find the idea that working from logical sense as if it was the way to unlock the mysteries of art or the universe a deeply reductive path, as if logic could ever be a legitimate tool of exploration for an evocation of huge lives of complex characters and deep story. I now understand that it is important to explore intellectual meaning and emphasis without necessarily sticking to it, because the very act of doing it reminds you that on some level it is still very important.

As I write this I am reminded of the way I was taught ‘actioning’ , a gruelling and to my mind pointless process, where every single line is analysed for an action. It is mind and spirit numbing. A young director friend worked with me like this and we had to part company. For me this process totally denies spontaneity, response, the energy of other performers, and the audience. It is acting as cold science, and denies creativity. Like eating dry muesli .

Back to emphasis. I think it was Gielgud who talked about the need to emphasis the correct word so that the audience, whilst not understanding the whole meaning of a sentence or phrase , was able to follow. It is amazing how often even the most experienced actors emphasise inappropriate words, and how even the sense is lost.

I find when we work with Psychological Gesture that sometimes the power of the sensations and feelings a gesture provokes can overpower the sense of the text. We might think this doesn’t matter because what the gesture evokes in us is so unbelievably authentic that we are happy with it. The issue with poetic dialogue and especially Shakespeare is that the sensations and feelings are embedded in the language, so the rhythm of the gesture and the images need to somehow mesh. I am not trying to make a rule here, rather just express a line of enquiry.

I suppose the question we have to ask as teachers, directors and performers is what comes first here? Is it the intellectual logic , place to breathe , etc or is it the intuition and the emotional response to the work that we find through our Chekhov exploration? I believe that it is much better to use the Chekhov route first, better to explore the invisible than the logical as the base. The emphasis and place to breathe can come later and can change, provided the actor has had some training.


Psychological gesture and rhythm


In the Chekhov sessions this week we have been working a lot on Gesture and its power to create not only intention and feeling in the character but also have offered us deep insights, particularly into characters normally seen as villains and fiends.

I am working with three different groups right now, There is a Shakespeare group, using Chekhov primarily working with THE DREAM, an Intro group working with THE CRUCIBLE, and my own theatre group working on pieces of Shakespeare for modern environments and shortly ANTIGONE by Anouilh.

For those not so familiar with the Chekhov Technique, I would define the psychological gesture primarily as a way to find the deepest intentions of the character in a scene, a moment, or even through a whole play through bodily expression, through gesture and movement. It can also be used to explore layers of language ( something we explored extensively in the Shakespeare class this week) and many other things too! Refining and practising the gesture evokes sensations and feelings in the body , which clarifies and further explores in a visceral and dynamic way what the character wants and feels.

What continually astounds me about the use of psychological gesture as an acting tool, is its amazing creation of nuances and layers, however simple the gesture is. In the Intro group, two of the students playing Abigail and Mary in THE CRUCIBLE were working on gesture. The two gestures they created were remarkably similar, with elements of a pulling embrace and a holding. Later we pondered on why this was, and I offered the idea that the two girls both needed love, respect and power in the community ( their pulling hungry embrace), and then came this tremendous opportunity for revenge on a society that totally disrespected and restricted them. But their need is to be loved and respected. The idea that Abigail and Mary both want this, despite being so incredibly different , and that somewhere in all the horrible things they do is a deep search for love and respect is an amazing thought, and offers the actors something one rarely sees in this play when it is performed.

Similarly when working on the Shakespeare Theatrecorp project, one of the actors is working on one of Goneril’s speeches , and she came up with a remarkably similar gesture to the student working on Abigail, and it suddenly provoked in me a whole raft of feelings when I was watching, that Goneril too was somewhere searching for love and acceptance even if it was buried deep inside her. Where else does her love for Edmund come from?

I remember once when I was doing my A levels long ago the class was asked to write our first essay entitled The Evil of Goneril and Regan. I went on an imaginative flight about what it must have been like living In Lear’s court, what a tyrant he was, how he really only seemed to care for Cordelia in the first place ( and what victory it must have been for the other two to have got rid of her in such a humiliating fashion). How suddenly the two ignored sisters got the chance to get their revenge. You get the idea.

I got an F. I was devastated. This was because apparently this was not the style or approach I needed to use to pass the exam at that time. I did back up my imaginative flight with some textual references, but my efforts were considered far too fanciful.

Back to Psychological gesture. Of course both Abigail and Goneril could be described as manipulative, masking their ‘evil’ with a smile . But there was something about their similar gestures which struck me, that for both of the characters there was a need there.

It then made me ask the philosophical question of other characters who do bad things, how many of their vile motives and actions come initially from some kind of human and needy desire which is not necessarily about cruelty and destruction, even when these things are the result. For some characters of course this vulnerability is very deeply buried, and I am not trying to exonerate evil acts here either in characters or real people. But this analysis of these gestures reminds me that things are not so simple. I will return to this theme when I start working on Antigone I am sure.

The other powerful thing given through Gesture is an inner rhythm, which is one of the most amazing things of all; that in working with the gesture through the speech, the actor gets a feel for the character’s rhythm, one that is often completely different to her own.

If we consider our own lives, there are many situations which provoke us, and we feel the push and pull of a possible response. If your boss says something you don’t approve of, for instance, a movement happens in your body, things stir, as you weigh up whether to wade in and say anything or not . Whilst these inner tussles appear to be intellectual, they are initially responses to your impulses, backwards and forwards, so we very often find ourselves, particularly in emotional situations, with a certain pattern or rhythm. The use of Psychological gesture works deeply on this level, and as one of the actors said last night, just because you have the same gesture for a speech or character, you can still vary the gesture in quality or pace to create different sensations and feelings for the character.

What an enriching and thought and feeling provoking week!

Observations on Veiling The Inner Life in Chekhov

Zita closed



One of the most challenging things to judge in my opinion using the Chekhov technique is how much to cover the sensations and feelings you have discovered through your magical explorations of centres, atmospheres and gestures. How much you ‘veil’ as Chekhov called it, your discoveries, allowing them to play, compete and challenge each other inside you as you play the character. For those not familiar with this work, one often finds sensations and feelings which, if fully expressed on stage, would be completely over-the-top. But how do you judge what is enough or too much? Veiling a strong emotion or drive should be second nature to us, because after all, we are doing it all the time in our everyday lives. But actually, ‘turning it down’ can easily extinguish that nugget of your character quite easily.

As Simon Callow remarks in his preface in the most recent print of Chekhov’s To The Actor, one of Chekhov’s training masterworks , when directors used to say, ‘do less’ it often resulted in actors doing nothing, leaving the audience unmoved. From some of the things I have seen recently, they may well still be saying it!

So much is actually going on in the characters’ lives, movements of energies, desires, and we as an audience need a chance to see them , even when the character is trying to veil them from the world of the play in which they are living.

This ability to judge the veiling well is particularly keen for film and tv, but could also be an issue within the studio space in which our group is hoping to present Antigone, and the small Shakespeare film project we are exploring right now. Of course veiling the work is trying to hide it, but paradoxically feeling it more strongly. One of the experiences I have had is that the sensation/feeling of the gesture or centre you are using often comes in a wave or rhythm, a very physical thing, which is very similar to the kind of rhythm we might observe in our own physical and emotional lives. This rhythm above all is extremely transformative for the character , and feels particularly authentic when the gesture is veiled till only the sensation is left.

I think the idea of conflicting or opposing energies creating a polarity within the character certainly to some extent regulate excesses as the opposing qualities vie for dominance, but developing a judgement for yourself seems for me to be a challenge.

Ultimately maybe it is the director who needs to decide or certainly guide the decision. This can be a problem because if the director does not understand the actor’s process nor the Chekhov Technique they may decide he is just a hammy actor, and despair of helping him veil his work. This is why i feel it is essential for more directors to use [or at least understand]  the Technique.