Monthly Archives: July 2014

Observe her.Stand Close. Supporting Characters in Shakespeare.


Whilst working on the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth in class last week, I was reminded how the smaller characters crucially create the atmosphere for the running characters and the way in which they behave, creates the whole world of the play. We remember of course there was no set or lighting in Shakespeare’s theatre until they moved indoors later and the language, costumes and minor characters fulfilled this function of helping create atmosphere. But these supporting characters do so much more than this.

How are these characters normally treated?  Audiences, and even the actors and directors themselves frequently treat these small parts as just that – small. But the relationship between the Gentlewoman carrying this dreadful secret alone and the Doctor she calls in to see the Queen sleepwalking so he can share the burden of the knowledge of the Queen’s terrible crime, lead us to her tortuous guilt as sure as they are leading us to a cell in the underworld.

There is so much scope for these supporting characters, PROVIDED the basic goals of creating the atmosphere are fully achieved. There is a danger of overbalancing a whole scene with an actor over obsessed with character, like a kettle drum in a quiet movement of a symphony. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the scene in Macbeth where Macbeth takes Macduff and young Lennox to the king’s door. The young lord waits outside the King’s chamber with Macbeth, who knows that any second his act of murder will be discovered. Lennox says, as they wait outside the King’s chamber:

“The night has been unruly: Where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say
Lamentings heard i’the’air; strange screams of death,
And, prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confus’d events,
New-hatched to the woeful time, the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake.”

The only thing we actually know about Lennox from a character point of view is that he is young. I watched one particularly bad version of this scene where the actor played the character as if he was young and awkward in the presence of the great Macbeth, and in order to deal with this he was trying hard to find something to say. Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable character choice for the situation, it does not sit well with the language nor with the tension of the scene, as I watched the antics of a schoolboy lord, instead of the musical thrust of the scene which is leading to the explosion of catastrophe. When we examine the imagery of the storm Lennox describes ,we see it is recreating for us the bubbling turmoil in Macbeth’s head rather as occurs in King Lear, like a disturbing soundtrack . Lennox needs to give power to the speech , serve the language and not apologise for it with some awkward characterisation. When the actor serves the imagery and general atmosphere then the great tightening coil of that scene is observed. However this is not as restrictive for the actor as it sounds because within those perameters there is still a lot more scope than we first imagine for the supporting roles.

Let’s go back to the sleep walking scene and the class  .We worked at first with atmosphere , asking the actors to imagine the scene. With closed eyes, they saw Darkness, prison, fear, secrecy. Danger. Guilt, hell, a vast cellar… a few key words. We then worked with a couple of these images and qualities. Breathing them in. The scene instantly came to life. Suddenly the Woman and the Doctor became immersed in this thick dark desperate conspiracy , their voices whispered, irritated and uncomfortable as they waited to see if the Queen would appear.

When we added Psychological Gesture to our exploration, the actor playing the Gentlewoman realised how much she needed to share the knowledge she had, that she did not care so much for the Queen, but she simply needed to give someone else the responsibility to do something. The Gentlewoman was not a fool, she was someone who knew she was in danger, not only the physical danger of carrying this evidence of the queen’s perfidy, but also the spiritual danger of being complicitous to murder. It was as if her mistress was pulling her down with her. The Doctor, wanting to reject and push away the responsibility, was also mad with curiosity, in the way people who watch reality tv shows are, hungry and curious. Pauses were filled with dread and awful uncertainty as the Woman searched for support from the healing professional.

None of this was discussed at first. It came all from language, and the feelings and sensations from the gestures. This for me is the magic of Chekhov Technique, that so much can be discovered without discussion.

At the end of the scene the full complexity and satisfaction of these discoveries played themselves out. The Gentlewoman was overwhelmed with relief at being able to share. The doctor realising the position he was now in, tried to cover his fear with instructions of care towards the sleepwalking woman still trying to push away his involvement

There is then an extraordinary speech in verse by the doctor, when he addresses the wider impications of what they have heard, in which he cries ‘God, God Forgive us all .’  which unites the whole of humanity in this terrible pain. He concludes the scene feeling pity and confusion, having brought us the audience to a wider consideration of suffering , whilst she with her ‘Thank you good doctor’  grasps his hands in gratitude. This exploration of these two supporting characters with their beautifully created arcs created in embryo in two hours was incredibly moving. We never see that woman again [the doctor appears again] but this exploration showed how her character was beautifully formed with a beginning middle and end, and how both characters served the play. A feeling of form and wholeness.




‘Those who can’t, teach…’

shaw I never expected to teach. When I trained as an actor as a young man, I believed Shaw’s axiom, ‘those who do, do, those who can’t, teach’ but I have been teaching/facilitating now for over two decades. Now I am so passionate about teaching , that both teaching voice and Chekhov technique and directing plays ( and directing at whatever level, is still at least a kind of guiding) are the significant things in my working life. I understand that for me at least, when I teach/facilitate, I have to feel  that it is a beautiful and wonderful thing I am helping the student explore. I don’t need to work hard at this because whenever a student ‘gets’ something and something shifts for them, especially when you are teaching voice or Chekhov, it often happens suddenly, joyfully and visibly.

I have been writing busily this last week, and will mostly be doing the same thing for the next six weeks. Previously I have written a variety of papers, essays, a novel, and most of all a whole number of plays, many of which have been professionally performed, and have won two awards. ( check out my cv for details). What’s unusual and exciting for me is that this book I am writing now is for facilitators and teachers working with young people in theatre.

I have spent some considerable time teaching voice to lecturers and teachers at second and third level. But as well as teaching voice  in these courses we are also dealing with the philosophy of teaching and the well being of the lecturer and teacher themselves . I often invite them through exercises to consider and reconnect with the love and commitment they feel to their subject and to the whole process, which so many people lose sight of when working within an institution, especially when it is dysfunctional in some way. It is no good to just teach them tricks and games, but vital to get them to reconnect at a deep level with the whole process of sharing energy, and imparting knowledge. Chekhov’s ideal centre work, and radiating/ receiving are great for this work. When I started this work with teachers, one lecturer said, a little irritated, “we are not here to entertain them!” And I replied, ” but you are there to enthuse, share, and help them! If you are bored and therefore boring, how can you possibly expect them to be interested?” Teachers sometimes believe that the learning is enough, [i was a little like this at the start] without realising they are the pathway to learning for the student  and a pathway to learning much more than intellectual knowledge. One teacher said to me once, “how can I possibly put any intensity in teaching someone how to use this surgical instrument?” ( I can’t remember what it was) “Because if they do it wrong, the patient will die.” I replied.

It is easy to get seduced into feeling when writing workshop plans as I am for part of my book, that these are exercises you have done a million times, instead of infusing your workshop plan with the sense of an exciting journey and exploration on which you are taking the facilitator and their group. I have suddenly become fully awakened to the fullness of this opportunity. i am offering a map which teachers and groups can change, spend longer time in one spot than other , avoid certain areas they are not ready for yet, and so on, whilst hopefully being encouraged by my advice.

It is so important to me to present an ethos, not just a recipe book of games and workshop plans, to show how I brought myself to believing what is important about acting or Voice and how I try to help students find something of the joy that I feel about it myself. That way the book must be more helpful

As Michael Chekhov says in Lessons for Teachers.

“if you are teaching, you must be active. ….The teacher must radiate action.

oh well, back to work……

Chekhov for young people in Ballitore! Joining The Dots.

Orpheus charms the natural world

Orpheus charms the natural world

This week I went to the extraordinary town of Ballitore in Co Kildare to take part in ‘Joining the Dots’ a youth theatre project which this week is offering learning in alternative performance skills not always part of the youth theatre vocabulary , or if they are, to be given a bit of space to be explored at a deeper level. I and Sarah O’Toole went there to introduce the young people to some Chekhov principles. Griese Youth Theatre which is the focus of this project, run by the inspirational Leish Burke, is an extraordinary mix of professionalism , care giving and social inclusion , and this project is supported by the County Council and the Arts Council [and hopefully others]. It was and is absolutely brilliant. I say is because the 30 young people are spending their final day with Louise Lowe making site-specific work. If anyone is in the slightest doubt about the efficacy of drama to encourage more rounded and joyful human beings, they should pay this youth theatre a visit.

The sixteen young people in my group of 16 – 20 year olds came to explore some basic Chekhov technique and I could see instantly how the easy access to the feelings through gesture appealed to them. Once working with qualities of movement , it filled me with a great sense of positivity and joy as a number of them started to really let go and and more fully experience what it is to be fully awake in the way Chekhov understands it, which is important not only for performance but for experiencing the world in a more full way. Often when working with radiating and receiving , young people get a touch embarrassed and giggle but there was remarkably little of this. Above all though, it was watching them respond to the exercises which reconnect to the imagination which were really powerful.

What I love about teaching theatre , and especially Chekhov are these moments of breakthrough when people realise something about themselves, the sheer power of their imaginations and their acting skills which they never felt before. It is more exciting for me than almost anything.

To show or not to show? that is the question…

This teaching question as to whether on a short course you can or should develop a performance, however rough it might be, is a perennial one. In this case, this is particularly true when you are primarily exploring skills. The danger is that if you introduce a perfomance element then for the young people ( and sometimes yourself) this is all the weekend can be about. After all, surely you need as much of your precious time as you can to teach skills?  The issue is though, that you have to be honest with yourself and understand that you are only exploring the skills, so that actually trying to use them is all part of the process. The young people almost always like to perform, and if they are truly enjoying it, some of the things you are teaching them are likely to stick. It gives the course a structure too.

We opted for low key performance, just to the other group, [Sarah took the younger group of incredibly imaginative and funny 13 – 15 year olds]  so there was very little pressure. A main goal of making the piece was that they might experience how radiating/ Receiving, qualities and atmosphere might be applied. We also did a little work on gesture.

Whilst ultimately the areas I chose to work on, became somewhat governed by what I thought the young people might be able to use within the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice I had brought in, it was vital that the introductory exercises which made up two thirds of our time together were  completely free, imaginative and not tied to the piece . This was an important discipline otherwise they would have got no sense of the power of the work overall .  It had to be Technique first, piece second. This discipline is as hard for the facilitator as it is for the group! It was also important to explain to them them that the Technique could be used, indeed was primarily for work with more conventional plays.

Whilst developing a piece does not mean that these skills can always be utilised fully because the participant has not had the time to master them, but only meet and hopefully experience them, it does give them an idea of where the work might lead. This is a vital component of youth theatre work when one is so often only introducing an experience, technique or way of working to a person.  In other words you have to make sure that it works for them to some extent right there, after only a few hours. To be crude , they need once or twice at least an instant ‘hit’ in order to retain faith with the work. This is more true in youth theatre than other of the many fields I have worked in. Then you might be in with a chance that they might seek out more classes, read, practise etc.

In order to make the piece valuable for our learning however, I was very structured about the style of the content and our goals because I wanted to keep the skills they had explored uppermost. By using the skills they of course went deeper which made them [I think] feel good. Had I allowed them complete license with the story ( to send it up for instance ) the performing exercise would have had a totally different focus.

Having said that, they still had a lot of creative choices to make. We used very clear building blocks; three subgroups of five making four tableaux of their part of the story, We then added transitions which were then developed for qualities of movement, rhythms and atmosphere. We then added ensemble work which involved qualities and atmosphere, then finally one short dramatic exchange of dialogue within each group which involved psychological gesture. Our opening was a use of archetypes, another area we explored in our exercises. This strongly structured creation is something I will use again when teaching Chekhov to young people, because it gave very definite indicators as to ways of using the technique, whilst at the same time presenting a serious and powerful 8 minute piece with which I hope they were pleased.

An absolutely fantastic two days. Leish Burke and Griese Youth Theatre I salute you.