Observations on Veiling The Inner Life in Chekhov

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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.



4 thoughts on “Observations on Veiling The Inner Life in Chekhov

  1. Joe Herrera

    This is one tool that I will surely focus on more in Maine, when I go up for my 2nd intensive with Lisa Dalton! I’ll share any insights I’ll get from her! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Awesome blog!

    1. Max

      Thank you so much Lisa for this full and fascinating response which I will certainly be thinking about and sharing with my students. I think the area of trust is crucial between actor and director, but sometimes, for a whole variety of reasons , trust can be challenging. It would still be good if more directors were familiar with the technique. Thanks so much for your extensive and generous comments!

      1. Lisa Dalton

        I so absolutely agree that getting Directors to learn Chekhov is critical that I have made training Director/Teachers the focal point of my mission. I have so much to say about Why that its possible you have inspired me to write an whole article! If I do get I from my heart into the computer, I will keep you posted.

  2. Lisa Dalton

    Max and Joe, I love this discussion of a very real challenge for the Chekhovite working in a non-Chekhovian environment. I suggest that we all must be aware of exactly what you said, Max, about the possible tragedy of inaccurate perception of a director. Perhaps the entire topic of how much or how little to veil falls under the concept of Style on the Chart for Inspired Acting in the preface of Chekhov’s 1991 book: On The Technique of Acting. First, we must master the ability to veil as you described. (I especially love your comment about the art of performance that invites us to reveal to our audience what our character does not want revealed in its own world. Its a stylist decision that hopefully the entire production will agree upon and a skill set we want to master.) Then, when cast, I often suggest that the actor let the director know as early on after being hired as possible that s/he is facile with making things bigger or smaller, according to the director’s style preference. I use those basic words they will likely understand. I share that I welcome adjustments: “You can dial me up or down, I am good with it.” This way I have given them language by which to coach me that is inoffensive and that I can translate inwardly to how much veiling might work. So many directors are either afraid of hurting our feelings or the opposite, have no clue how unhelpful their comments are so, giving them permission and suggestions on how, can be of relief to all. Now, I observed my colleagues and the director to sense their style and seek to embrace that as my guideline. Sometimes a director has the possibility of shooting more takes. S/he gets what they need and they offer you a “freebie”–one just for safety. This it the take where you can push the edge, try a different level of veiling or nuance of what you are veiling.

    Over the years on camera, in Film, TV and on stage, this is the trend I see in general. For TV and HI-def that will be mostly viewed on TV, veil a LOT!!! Trust, trust, Trust that the inner images are there and, if you have been training a lot in MC–realllllly let go because your radiation maybe more multidimensionally powerful than you even know. For a Feature Film, there can be much more variation depending on the genre(a form of Style), the characterization, and the arc of the story-more unveiled at the climax, for example. For stage, we usually do have a much more intimate relationship with the director. When you are cast, ask the director, privately if possible, when you invite them to “dial you up or down”, if its ok for you to push the upper boundaries and to try different approaches until the director finds the one that’s a “keeper”. Consider codifying the degree of veiling to your own rubric-say 0 is fully veiled, 10 is fully unveiled. Note the code for the “keeper” in the side of your script. If the director and or environment doesn’t seem conducive to play, then you know you get to do all your experimenting and layering at home, and bring in the synthesized results of your homeplay. Your codification will come in handy here as well as in a film script where you shoot out of sequence and may need to match shots from days or weeks earlier.

    And just two more suggestions re: veiling. Be sure to keep your image in your groin, legs and feet when you veil. This is the secret to not being “Over The TOP”. Final tip: last place to veil and first place to unveil is your Ideal Artistic Center. It will keep you breathing as the character and the quality of your breath will fire the radiation in your eyes and entire being, without moving a muscle, that can be felt in a tight close up or from the upper balcony of a broadway theatre.


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