” We were sitting at the table for months and months, speaking about our parts and our characters, and becoming very clever and wise about the play, but none of us could begin to act!” Michael Chekhov – Lessons For Professional Actor
Are directors, alchemists or workers? The answer of course is both.
The focus of our last weekend workshop explored Chekhov Technique specifically considering the alchemy of director, actor and text. We began with exercises exploring the role of the director. Roles and the creative balance of director and actor were the main focus. One thing that became clear to me through the weekend is that directors are also teachers. They are teachers whoever they are working with. When I say ‘teacher’ I do not mean a pedagogical finger-wagging, tantrum-throwing teacher whose only standard is making those within their orbit obey their vision. My definition of a teacher is that he/she is like the leader of an expedition who leads but also listens and takes advice from others, indeed may even change the direction of the expedition on their suggestion. Being a dictatorial director can make a miserable company.
Discovering the ‘spine’ for a play, a spine that could be discovered together seems to be absolutely key, because without that ‘spine’ and as Chekhov would call it, a ‘score’, how can the actor play his role effectively within it? I have been involved in many productions where actors do not compromise and set their will against the director, claiming the character as ‘their department’. If they do not come into open conflict with the director they try and score points for their characterisation, and moan about the director in private. This situation as many many people have experienced creates for bad working practise, a miserable time and often a terrible production as the other actors instead of working as a harmonious team, take sides.
So the score has to be agreed. It can be flexible as the whole team goes on the voyage together but it has to be agreed.
Another thing for us as Chekhov directors is that actors need to know their lines by the end of the first week. Waiting for the thought process to come or fully understanding the character before you set them into your memory is no excuse for an actor; hanging onto the book constrains the actor, prevents true connection and radiation with fellow actors, and keeps the director guessing as to what the actor might do. True creation can only come when the lines are learned, and the real connection between the actors and the director can grow.
One thing for the directors I observed and supported in our group this weekend is that they began by hurling themselves into it with their actors, but then gradually worked more and more confidently and closely with their group. It was lovely to see this as everyone became more comfortable with each other. I really wished we had had a longer time.
Another major moment in the workshop for me was radiating and receiving, a standard exercise which I think is the absolute bedrock of any performance; where everyone was radiating from their centre walking around the room, meeting people and speaking a line of their text, in this case, from Blood Wedding. What was so crystal clear was that the way you received your colleague’s energy completely dictated the way you said the line. and the longer you respected that initial moment of contact, the more you felt that energy moving between you to speak the line in a certain way. Magic. It emphasised for me the importance of opening fully to your partner and taking your time.
We did a chunk of work on general atmosphere. Chekhov calls atmosphere ‘the oxygen of the performance’, and that if we transmit atmosphere then it can be so powerful that despite other weaknesses in performance, the audience can be deeply affected. And the funny thing about atmosphere is that it is not necessarily sensible to take the literal location as an appropriate atmosphere. In the scene with the Woodcutters we went for an atmosphere of ‘Ice’ as opposed to ‘the forest’, which is where it is supposed to be. ‘Ice’ seemed to suggest something of the ominous setting with wraith-like woodcutters, vampire moons and beggars of Death. This produced extraordinary results. Whilst of course there were a whole number of developments beyond that to develop the scene, the pacing and placing of it in the context of the play, the atmosphere provided us with an incredible starting point.
I firmly believe that the more we can engage directors with the Chekhov approach, the less it becomes a toolbox and more an intrinsic creative way of looking at drama .I intend to run a longer workshop for directors in the future.
I am looking forward to the Third Spring workshop June 17th – 19th, IMAGINATION AND THE BODY, a weekend in fundamental principles which is for those fairly new to the work, or those wanting to reconnect with it after an absence. email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 086 330 7325 for further information. NB. This course is filling up quickly .
I am going to write more about this and more about the further developments of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland, in my next blogpost.