Monthly Archives: May 2016

Directing with Depth M. Chekhov technique

IMG_1949 copy” 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 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.


In my beginning…devised work and composition

In the last few weeks I have watched a number of ensemble based  theatre pieces developed through a devising process in the burgeoning Galway Theatre Festival and whîlst I have a whole number of responses and questions to consider with regard to these pieces, developed by groups at all different stages of development, I want to focus on one or two aspects of these productions, primarily concerning composition and its importance in making a real contact with audiences.


In order to explain this further I suppose I need to just go over what that Michael Chekhov term means, though the name composition is on the surface pretty self explanatory. Composition involves the idea of beginning middle and end. This is not peculiar to Chekhov and has been around for centuries; that a work of art has a ‘feeling of the whole’, like a painting has a frame, and this is important for the audience. This is not to say that life appears always to have that structure, though in the wider sense it does. In the words of Helmut Berger in some woeful 70s movie I saw he said “you live, you fuck, you die” , reminding us that even we have a beginning, middle and an end. We understand this organically as people and respond to it in art. These stages in a work of art are vital to what we want to say, and how we are going to say it. When I say this I do not mean that a piece has to have a happy ending or we cannot leave things open; but, if we do, as artists we have to know what the purpose is , what responses we might want to invoke in our audiences and be honest with ourselves as to whether it is  successful.


In the last few devised pieces I have seen there have been issues with really successfully making that form, either because it was not desirable or simply overlooked as unimportant. In the Brokentalkers production THE BLUE BOY which I saw recently, the piece seemed to have ending after ending, emphasising the fact that the piece was over long and did not  know where to settle. Many endings suggest no ending, and for me, drain the emotion from the piece. It left me ultimately as an audience member feeling, ‘well is that it?’ As this was a piece about child abuse in Irish industrial schools, this was a very unsatisfactory feeling to be left with. Sometimes I think it is the devising process itself that’s to blame. Authors have customarily a problem with editing their own work, and when this also might mean cutting ‘a good scene’ either for yourself or someone else, then editing can difficult. Add to the fact you have an ensemble of co-creating authors, finding an ending can be problematic.



But then there are also beginnings; the BLUE BOY and another piece MY POET DARK AND SLENDER  opted for a fairly casual ‘sliding in’ to the piece , a kind of ‘we are just actors talking’.  It’s a device which was used a lot in the 60s and 70s. it establishes a different sort of contact with the audience but is also dangerous because it prepares the audience for less energy ,less commitment and less involvement. Though more successful in the Brokentalkers show through the charisma and focus of the first performer who spoke, and the feeling for me that this low key energy was a preparation for where they were going to take us, generally this kind of approach  is not a beginning, but an apology.


Indeed in some cases, this ‘sliding in’ can appear like a ‘screw you,’ to the audience ,’we can do what we want’. I  saw a production of The Cherry Orchard done in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival by a company from Belgium called STAN. I have a piece about it on the blog called Selling The Cherry Orchard With Stan . In that case, for me, the effect was worse, because they were doing The Cherry Orchard and it prepared us for the fact they would do what they liked with it, which I was expecting in any case, and so the opening was, well, juvenile.


In any case, if you are going to call this ‘sliding in’ a beginning, you need to be very clear about what you are doing and the intention you have in preparing your relationship with the audience.  Why deprive me the audience of an interesting start to a piece to prepare and involve myself with the work and what the artists are trying to say? What is the purpose? If the purpose is good, and what you as the devisers are really committed to, then fine. If not, well the news is, devising has as many cliches as any art form.


Which brings me to a devised work in development called STREET , which was about poverty and subsidy and being an out of work actor. I made a very strong connection to this piece for two reasons initially. I knew and have had many of these actors in my classes over the decades I have been teaching, and have directed some of them as adults. Secondly, as someone who has acted myself, I knew all too well the problems they were facing. What clinched it for me though was the work was emotional and raw and really reached out to the audience. They radiated their commitment. Yet it was not overblown, just open. I felt it cost people to ‘go there,’ and felt the potential of a piece which tackled why theatre was important, partly because  the problems the artists face are so universal these days, with the eroding of employees rights for all walks of life . As we just watched pieces of this show and this was very much ‘in development’ ,there was no structure to consider , but I was excited to see where this piece might go.


The piece which for me was most successful though, was CARE performed by WillFred. It was literally about endings. The piece, about how hospice workers care for dying patients was incredibly moving and for me embodied a deep understanding of theatricality. The person we followed who was dying was in fact a mannequin, a brilliant device, because as I sat watching the show it made me think of all the people I had known who had been ill and died. It left me imaginatively free to fully engage my emotions. There was beautiful live music to go with this work. This show has survived the original devisers but amazingly you would never notice this, such was the commitment and skilful direction. Like many of the other pieces I saw it was very factual but there was an incredible unforced imaginative element, which BLUE BOY for me did not have. In comparison, The Blue Boy  for me wore its art on its sleeve which obfuscated rather than illuminated.


Because we followed our dying person, CARE had a strong ‘feeling of the whole’ despite the fact that all manner of means were employed to tell the story. If I had any qualms it was a little stronger vocal delivery ( a common problem in devising work), and perhaps a scene where one of the nurses could not cope with the stresses of the work. A small complaint, when I emerged from the theatre so moved.