Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Dancer, the Acrobat, and the Chekhovian!

IMG_0855When I was asked to mentor through Chekhov technique and assist the shaping of a piece by Dueda, a Italian-based circus theatre company meshing dance theatre and aerial work, I was a little daunted. After all, I was neither proficient in contemporary dance nor more especially aerial artistry. But after a fascinating week working with Chekhov and devising in the Aerial Creation Centre in county Clare it once again confirmed how well this Chekhov work can be used to develop experimental performances as well as being used with text. More about the role of mentor later.

“There are no purely physical exercises in our method. These would be useless since our primary aim is to penetrate all parts of the body with fine psychological vibrations” Michael Chekhov- On The Technique of acting.

In Chekhov the performer is using the body to find sensations and feelings, not develop physical strength or dexterity. Therefore, one of the puzzles of this work was the learned disciplines of the performers; one an aerial artist, and the other a contemporary dancer. Chekhov has such a different focus on the body to other disciplines that it can be challenging for people to allow the feelings through. Initially this seems paradoxical. After all if people are fluent and disciplined in their bodies, why does feeling not pour through them? Ultimately as a fellow Chekhov teacher and I discussed recently, the psycho physical approach to movement can be at odds with physical training, because the movement is to some extent a means to an end, a means to find internal expression and feeling.

The company had a lot of pieces of material but for me this performance needed to have a score, a narrative that they understood, that would enable them to transmit or radiate the feelings and situations in which the ‘characters’ were placed. This narrative did not need to be mundane or even so specific as to explore the relationship,say, of a mother and son, which was how the relationship showed itself to me initially when they performed some pieces they had made. The audience would make that connection if they felt it. But for us as devisers to follow that kind of relationship specifically could limit both performers and audience to only one way of perceiving the piece. On the other hand the feelings of the performers must be specific and felt or the piece becomes purely fabulous abstract movement. It needed its own emotional journey.

Recently, as I left a very lauded, skilled but for me alienating dance show, a friend said “well I don’t really expect to be moved bŷ contemporary dance” and I thought ” Why not? This is a live performance.” If you radiate vaguely, then you will transmit nothing, however wonderful the movement is. You will go into your default performer’s mechanism and hope for the best.

Balancing skill and abstraction yet also transmitting something tangible an audience can grasp is a fine balance. As Chekhov’s priority lies less in mundane reality and more in the intangible forces which guide our being in the world, it is ideal for this sort of theatrical landscape.

Another interesting dimension was the challenge of making sound. As a voice teacher I know that those focussed on the body are often not that comfortable performing vocally, and yet In order to express, voice, body imagination and feelings all need a deep connection. To stop up the voice seems to me a tragedy. But maybe that is just me. Chekhov works really well with voice, indeed a number of opera trained people who have worked with me have told me that much of the image work is very similar to work they do in opera training.

In the first three days the extraordinary mythic dimensions that Chekhov technique explores so deeply came to the fore, exploring qualities , atmospheres , ideal centre, archetypes and radiating and receiving. We did not work a lot paradoxically directly with psychological gesture because I felt the performers might be too locked into their training for the psycho-physical feeling aspect of the gesture, which is of course the most important aspect, to be of use. Also due to my limited time I did not feel it would be too helpful or relevant to explore centres or imaginary body, the first because it is too complex, the second because it was not relevant as they were not playing characters per se.

The bare symbolism of a rope hanging in the centre of a black space was a weighty full image, reminding me of gods who come to earth; trapped princesses down a well ; the womb; the umbilical cord; Persephone in the underworld; Eurydice in the underworld to be recovered by Orpheus; The exposure to the techniques deepened and intensified the dynamic , and together we began to build a score for the piece.

On the fourth day, as we got deeper into the emotions of the piece, I understood more fully that firm armour which Chekhov technique encourages us to break down and explore as we experienced a strong moment of ‘farewell’, of ‘letting go’. As one of my Alexander technique friends discussed with me that evening [ there was a huge Alexander technique conference running concurrently whilst I was there] it is almost always good to go to those emotional places rather than deny them, provided you are in a safe space. That safety is vital. When you explore this work you are asking people to go to places in which they may feel uncomfortable. However, without our performer’s sensations and feelings radiating out to the audience to make a connection with them, what is the artist but a skilful trickster?

We built our score using the principle of composition, creating it like a piece of music which is as effective in devising as it is when working on a conventional play. In my devising and ensemble MA module which has gradually incorporated more and more of Chekhov’s principles we have used this idea of shaping the piece through tableaux. It was a starting point.

Finally a word about mentoring. Mentoring strikes me as being a curious hybrid of teaching and directing which is involving, yet requires a completely different dynamic to either. In this case I was there at the group’s behest to teach them some acting technique and to help devise a piece from which there was already a wealth of physical material and a relatively clear basic idea. In this mentoring position, there is never a question that this is their material and yet I am being asked to help shape it, so whilst the mentor has to behave with some authority, at the same time he has to acknowledge that there is no obligation on the company to follow the mentor’s contribution. They might or they might not. This requires a deep understanding of the mentor’s role and though I have mentored before, I felt I understood this on a much deeper level than I had before. Whilst involved I required myself to have a really strong commitment until the final moment, at the same time as understanding that I was stepping away after a week.

Thanks, Dueda! Fascinating.

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Essence – Making Classics Meaningful for Today

As I was contemplating and imagining my next production, I suddenly got an image of the opening of the play which was radically at odds with anything I could possibly have considered in my rational mind. It was truly something that came from somewhere else, from my creative imagination, and completely blew me away. It came from a consideration of a beginning that fulfilled an atmosphere I felt was present in the text, and the unexpected character who presented me with this alternative provided me with a possible ending. This did not involve altering the text in this case other than some editing. More to the point, it takes the play in some respects into a different direction, one not contemplated by the playwright, and it made me consider the role of director writer and performer, and where our boundaries are when presenting our alchemical response to the text.

I love to work on classic plays because they reveal to me, my actors and more importantly the audiences, ways of dealing with the world of the present . The creative team take the play and build a bridge to now. This is for me a more powerful way to explore drama than with the plays of the present which are limited by the fact that we can often consider them only in a more literal sense simply because they tackle head on and realistically an issue which is now in the news. They do not leave the audience’s imagination the freedom to fly so easily, because they are taken up with these immediate materialistic issues. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

Classic plays are not showcases to show how well I can direct or the actors can act, how quirky and different we can be, or how ‘relevant’ just for the sake of it.  To start with, I don’t think you can force relevance. You can foster it, and bring an aspect to the fore, sometimes it just emerges from the depth of the team’s response. Basically though, if it isn’t there for you as the director, then why are you bothering to waste time and energy doing the play at all? If you are adapting the text as a writer then you can write your version and draw those modern parallels on a textual level which can then be expressed in the production as ‘a version by’. I remember the Financial Times reviewer compared my own writing process, when I wrote an adaptation of a Jacobean drama ‘from within’. to that of Howard Barker who identified his involvement clearly and distinctly.

When I was writing more, I did a number of adaptations of classic texts. In The Old Law by Middleton and Rowley, a Jacobean tragic comedy which deals with Euthanasia and the rule of law, performed in 1990 at the Lyric Studio in London by Commonweal Theatre Company, I took the play and wrote in quasi-Jacobean verse some substantial scenes which were my own invention, enmeshed within the original. Because the play was little known I had wonderful fun developing the underwritten female characters and in a strong final scene exploring a government’s responsibility to create laws that encouraged the individual to be responsible and humane, rather than the then current leader of the UK, Margaret Thatcher , who was encouraging us all to believe ‘ there is no such thing as society.’

The Old Law - my adaptation not our 1990 production in London  but at MIT 2006

The Old Law – my adaptation not our 1990 production in London but at MIT 2006

I was both lauded and criticised in the press for taking advantage of the fact that this was a little known play and with some clever writing, no one would know the difference between my own work and the original playwrights’ so I could steer the plot or put words into the characters mouths which were radical and not in the original. To my mind the adaptation, though a little long, built a bridge to the present day and was a perfectly valid exploration of the play. It was also clearly advertised as an ‘adaptation’. The original play (not my adaptation) was performed in 2006 at the Royal Shakespeare Company and I have to say was a somewhat patchy affair. The plot was bumpy ( something I didn’t quite resolve in my adaptation either) the women characters less significant, the play less of an exploration of morality, capitalism and society. Importantly it asked no questions, just presented a lot of bad behaviour on the part of the mostly evil characters. It was for me a museum piece.

A provocative version of a play of course does not necessarily need to happen on a textual level, but in terms of context or casting. Contextualising in a concrete way can of course be dangerous as the play can become less important than the strange context in which you place it. I remember attending a number of auditions for a production of Macbeth set in a concentration camp. I can only imagine how overwhelming this context must have been to the play. Peter Brook, in a short wonderful book called Evoking Shakespeare, makes a strong attack on modernising Shakespeare through the trappings of motorbikes and leather jackets arguing that these attempts to build the bridge between play and audience can often obfuscate and trivialise the play’s meaning, and I heartily concur. The plays have an integrity of their own, don’t they?

I can remember at a conference several years ago being slapped down by a well known director who did radical adaptations of classics in Europe because I was espousing the view that you could not just do what you liked with a classic text just because the author was dead, in order to create trendy new productions to bring young people into your theatre, and then call the play by the same name. It is essential you call it a ‘version’ or ‘adaptation’ otherwise are you not conning the audience to expect something they are not going to get?

At the end of the day there is an important consideration of artistic integrity at work here, and at the risk of sounding ethereal it is about being in touch with my creative spirit. If I feel that my vision is truly new or makes the play more open and holistic or relevant to the audience then i must go ahead . But as Brook says, you have to be careful because what you need to understand is not simply what you gain but what you lose by jettisoning some of the writer’s obvious intentions. Maybe losing whatever-it is is worth it, but to be aware that it is lost is the important thing. If my choice comes from an ego trip, or a superficial desire to do something different, or just to get more bums on seats, then the choice will always be thin. Go carefully and treat the work with respect; I guess that’s it.