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!


3 thoughts on “Psychological gesture and rhythm

  1. Joe Herrera

    Wow Max !!! This was such an insightful article on PG!!!! I will surely use some of the thoughts and discoveries in my own work! Amazing!!!!

  2. Tony Hegarty

    Very interesting; you are so lucky to have these exploratory opportunities. I particularly like the suggestion that rhythm plays this important role…quite apart from the Chekhov gesture work as a way into finding rhythm, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” where he talks about the rhythm of natural speech (when that natural speech is passionately expressed) being not different from the rhythm of poetry. Might one be able to say that the actor is looking for the poetry of the character or the poetry that the actor expresses? And that we all have this interior poetry that wants to come out. Apart from Aristotle’s Poetics (a bit old hat now lol!) all undergraduate literature students (especially actors) need a module over the first semester using Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” to look at how poetry functions in life. If there is no poetry don’t do it.

  3. Lisa Dalton

    Thanks so much for blogging about this! I love gesture for finding the multidimensionality of a character. I believe it is what allows us to play any character- good or evil-through the forces of love as Mr. Chekhov discusses in his Love Lecture. This is what I feel is being discovered when you get to the vulnerable need of Abigail or Goneril (or any villain) that charges their revenge. I call it the “seed of the need” and create a compositionary sequence of gestures. Having found, let’s say, a basic power grabbing gesture as the core movement that activates the primary action of my character, I then ask “What For?” does my character need to do this? What condition must exist within this being that is so intolerable that s/he must do this? What nightmare has s/he experienced or fear that s/he will experience? And what is the gesture for this terrifying state? I play these two gestures-the core and the seed of the need backwards and forwards, imagining counter forces overcoming me, sending me into my seed (my loss), and from there, forces from within me, overcoming them by using my core gesture. Add a third gesture of Victory suggested by Mr. C’s statement that we all “live with the image of our objectives fulfilled”. This creates a three part composition that can be played forward, backward and inside out-with varying rhythms for varying effect. The psychological life of the character can be aligned with any moment in the sequence since, per Mr. Chekhov’s Audio lectures, each encounter, event and moment moves the character closer to the victory or to loss. If you want, you can then condense the three gestures into one grand overall PG by taking the end point of the “seed/loss” gesture as the start point of your core gesture and infusing the final moment of your core gesture with the emotional charge of victory.
    Hope you can find some fun ideas to play with and keep sharing your wonderful work.


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