Monthly Archives: September 2014

Considering the workshop Personal Atmosphere and Gesture

This is all a bit technical, and mainly for Chekkies, sorry, that is my name for people into Michael Chekhov technique , but I was thinking about preparing my weekend workshop for October in Galway and the relationship between personal atmosphere and psychological gesture, or intention These are the two principal two tools which we are going to work with in this workshop.

In my training, Lenard Petit spoke eloquently about the desire for opposites in our character work, polarities if you like, and of course if we consider for a second how we operate as people , in ‘real life”, with any given situation , opposing forces pull us this way and that all the time. We feel this happen very strongly – a constant battle. It is this tugging back and forth which gives us a strong part of our personal dynamic and the way in which we ( or the character) might behave. In Lessons for Professional Actors, Chekhov speaks of how we negotiate atmosphere in our everyday lives, in every venue and every situation, every time a new person comes into the room or we move from one space to another –  the general atmosphere changes. Personal atmosphere is quite different to this. Literally it can be a smell, a karma, some aura that the individual person carries around which evokes a response from others . Where might this personal atmosphere come from? Well it might come from the person’s appearance, their smell, ( literally), their past, their expectations, their very pores…. It would be something that their acquaintances and friends would be aware of, and would be more than simply a response to how the character behaves. It is an essence.

One of the students I was teaching at The LIR asked once, ‘Are the centre and the personal atmosphere connected? Does the centre exude the personal atmosphere?’ This was an intriguing thought, but what occurred to me is that sometimes a personal atmosphere just IS. I think it has a much more powerful effect on others than the centre of the character. It is sometimes something others can even put a name to.’ That person is bitter ‘, ‘the person oozes confidence’

A personal atmosphere need not be there all the time but can be evoked in certain situations. Think of yourself when you are in particular situations and suddenly there is a certain oxygen around one which provokes a particular response, as if you are speaking from some kind of fog . Job interviews would be a prime situation for me. At other times though, that personal atmosphere is not there. In Equus , the play we are working with , Dysart the psychiatrist starts off for me with a personal atmosphere which might be translated realistically as his professional demeanour . It’s a sharp clean incisive personal atmosphere, even though his own life is sterile and numb. He perhaps lets this go in scenes in which he is not analysing and then his personal atmosphere might be quite different. As the play progresses, a way to go with the character might be that his sharp clean incisive personal atmosphere starts to become more emotional, punctured  and confused as he becomes fonder of Alan, more bound up in his fate,, and an atmosphere develops for him which is different ,one it might literally be harder to see through.

But what might be his overall psychological gesture, the other tool we will be using on the weekend? Perhaps it is to destroy everything, to tear everything apart or at least push away and behind in order to deal with his personal disappointments. I think a major polarity in Equus felt by many of the characters is that of hope and disappointment. there is a palpable  expectation or ideal of how they wanted things to be or how they feel they ought to be, against how things have actually turned out. leaving a sense of being lost. This sense of ‘lostness’ envelopes many of the characters.

Another thing that is interesting are those characters whose psychological gesture might come out of a personal atmosphere , Let’s leave Equus and take the example of Miss Bates in Emma by Jane Austen, the silly plain woman  who cannot stop talking. She can be quite an irritating character who over projects and over involves herself. but perhaps she has an atmosphere around her of inadequacy, and failure, and she is desperately trying to claw on to her world and the other people in it, to prove her worth, her value. She tries to engulf them with prattle and pull them towards her, from within a personal atmosphere of  loneliness. I am not saying this is the only way to play Miss Bates, but it gives us an interesting  and specific depth..

Looking forward to the workshop .There are still three places. 3 – 5 th October Galway City. Check the details on this blog – upcoming courses!


Feeling of Form- Gardening, Chekhov Technique, Theatre and everything .

It’s autumn. Beautiful autumn. And whilst cutting back some brambles in my garden, I found a serene space between two larches and a dwarf cedar of lebanon, dwarfed because it has been overgrown by the larches. Behind me stood a brand new elder which looks like its branches had spurted from the dry stone wall, and beside it ,a small stone cairn. Moving between the trees, I found myself moving into what felt like a private chapel of green. It was a beautiful definite form, which had not existed in quite this way before, with a strong, particular atmosphere. It had had a form before, before the trees had grown so much, but it was different, less harmonious. If our life is about constant movement and growth this transformation was about the movement between one form and the next.

‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’ I have this quote from Walter Pater on the signature of my email address. I had never read this quote until I saw it in On the Technique of Acting by Michael Chekhov. One of the most defining things about music, especially most classical music, is its feeling of form. It is not the only thing which leaves me with a deep feeling of satisfaction and joy when I listen to classical music, but the feeling of form which Chekhov ( and many others,) considered so important, is definitely a large component in my emotional response. Having a form is not of course necessarily having a realistic narrative but it is the connection of themes and motifs which progress on some kind of path and take us to some kind of conclusion.

‘What is the point of a play which doesn’t have a beginning middle and end,’ said a feisty participant at one of my classes the other day. She had challenged some self satisfied successful professional performer of a play she had seen. She had heard him say that form was not valued any more and plays did not need it. This idea that form is irrelevant is not new, ( even though people say it as if it was invented in the last ten years). It was a big tenet of much experimental theatre in the 60s and 70s.

I would ask the question, what is the point of being formless? As soon as you create formlessness you are creating a form – a formless form if you like. I am chuckling at the thought…. A formless form is a form with no power. This does not mean you cannot be open-ended in a piece of theatre or film, but you are open-ended for a reason. You are choosing to leave the story at that point. But being formless for the sake of it is like being in the wilderness, lost and aimless, self indulgent, and arrogant. Is this what art is, to move us into a desolate space, for no purpose whatsoever? With a lack of form, no one comes to any conclusions, or even hints at them. That would be proselytising. It strikes me as sad that the artist is not permitted to have an opinion.

Those of us who are old enough might remember when pop songs faded and dribbled into the background leaving the sad looking young musicians on Top of the Pops looking as if someone had stolen their voices, like electric toys. There was no ending, just a slow meaningless fade.

As I move to work with my Ensemble and Devising students on Form next week, I look forward to helping the students to awaken this feeling of form, a thing of beauty and great theatrical power, as surely as the space created by the trees in my garden. It gives audience and artist a sense of fulfilment which assists our understanding of the world and our place in it. Form need not be cosy, like a Disney fairy tale. It can be brutal and real as often as it can be positive and delightful .