Monthly Archives: July 2016

Expressing The Invisible 2:THE ATMOSPHERE OF MEMORY IN LUGHNASA AND MY LIFE

IMG_1970 copy 2

If you have read any of my other blogposts you will know that I am a great espouser of finding atmospheres for scenes or whole plays. Michael Chekhov said finding and expressing atmosphere was ‘the oxygen of the performance’. Without general atmosphere in a performance, there is always something missing. You as an audience member can leave the theatre dissatisfied without knowing why, feeling somehow stupid that you didn’t somehow ‘get it’.

Conversely though, atmosphere alone is not enough. As I watched the performance of Death At Intervals at An Taibhdhearc in the Galway Arts Festival this week, it appeared to me to have a lot of atmosphere but no connection between the characters; no commitment to playing the story, even though there is one in the book from which the show was developed, and for the most part a lugubrious pace (do directors these days learn nothing about rhythm?) which was meant to embody the ominous inevitability of death. So whilst I applauded this strong commitment to atmosphere and two or three powerful sequences, it did not for me hold as a piece of theatre. The piece is also about two forces/people who really need/love each other, something for me distinctly missing from the piece. There was no polarity of Life and Death. Just Death. Any commitment to structure seemed to exist by repeating, quite beautifully I must admit, the same powerful text from the beginning.

In my next Michael Chekhov Acting workshop, EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE, being held 18-21st August at NUI Galway, one of the areas we are going to look at, using Dancing at Lughnasa, is the Atmosphere of Memory. The play is suffused with it; driven by it. Like The Glass Menagerie which I directed in 2011, the play is coloured by how the narrator tells his story, which is of course not just his story, but the story of the whole family. Memory is a hard thing to invoke effectively in theatre I believe, though in life we do it all the time with spectacular effect. When I meet a friend or an ex-student and we talk about an event or a moment, I can be there in seconds imagining what happened; where I was; how I felt; what I was wearing. I remember more as the memory pools into my imagination, all sorts of detail streaming out into other events around that time. There is a strong movement in memory which is not always backwards. Memory makes a life into a swirling current. And Atmosphere is like that too. It is not a static thing. it is full of movement and flexibility.

This week has been awash with the Atmosphere of Memory. I went for a hospital checkup this week and was obliged to recall some pretty unpleasant details of hospital procedure visited on me as a small boy . As I recounted the incident fairly dispassionately from notes, it began by being objective and distant, but as I described in more detail, the feelings and painful images started to burst through and pain, fear and terror came flooding back as I described it. The body remembers. It was powerful and unpleasant and I carried it around, literally, for days.

Of course Michael Chekhov Technique takes all of this into account; body memory and the power of images. That is why I feel so attuned to it because so much of how life happens internally is very much how Chekhov explains it. So the Atmosphere of Memory is not nostalgia, that most sickly cousin of memory and in Lughnasa a dangerous substitute for it if you are not careful. Memory is on the one hand, palpable and real for all the characters , but ephemeral and chimeric on the other; something which liberates them and also defines, disappoints and imprisons them. The whole play is a memory and the atmosphere and taste of that memory cannot be just something discarded when the director and company feel like it. It somehow has to infuse everything.

The powerful sequence in the play which leads up to the Dancing of the title happens I feel rather challengingly in the middle of the first half, rather than further into the piece as I always expect. For me it is here that the energy of memory activates Maggie in particular and unlocks the door to the wildness of the dancing. Though the memory is bitter sweet, angry and joyous by turns, it stirs the women into a defiant roar of movement .

13418662_1207707572584439_8734234864553263013_oThe other personal event powered by both achievement and memory that happened to me this week was my launch in Dubray’s Bookshop of TEACHING VOICE published by Nick Hern Books . There, surrounded by many  ex-students I talked of how they had helped me with my learning as much as the other way round. Prof. Patrick Lonergan spoke glowingly of my contribution to the work of the Drama Department at the University, and my partner spoke of the pastoral care of students, vital especially when you are teaching theatre and encouraging people to be brave in the work. There were many moments which connected wonderfully to my past working life as an acting and voice coach with young people but as I was speaking, I connected at one moment with someone whom I have known since she a teenager. I saw her in her first play with me nearly seventeen years earlier  and suddenly there was a strong meaningful path back to that time which I found incredibly life enhancing. I could see her in the costume. It was one of those ‘invisible’ and profound moments any production should be full of.

I am aware this blog has been a mixture of my musings on the upcoming workshop as well as what has been quite an eventful week with regard to memory. That is what so wonderful about working with Chekhov technique; everything matters.

There are still two places on EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE if you are interested. check out the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland page on the blog here or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com.

EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE 1 -PAUSES

 

IMG_1949 copy

Janna Lindstrom and Conor Geogheghan in a recent CTPI workshop

I feel that theatre generally lives far too often in the realm of the materialist and the obvious; either that or it wallows in elitist performance art which says nothing , is riven with cliches and driven by obscure intellectual concepts. ( I watched a supreme example of this in the Tate Modern recently). And before anyone starts to write furiously, I know all performance art is not like that but some of it is.

So what do I mean when I talk about the Invisible? Is this just so much pretension? Definitely not.

Michael Chekhov called it , ‘the Intangible’. It’s like something just beyond reach, and yet ironically the ‘intangible’ is around us all the time.

In these next three blog posts , I am going to touch on what ‘the Invisible’ might mean in rehearsal and performance. In this post we are going to take the space in the text called a Pause.

What is a Pause?  We can feel it and experience it, but we cannot see it. It is invisible. But a pause is not nothing. Something is always happening in a pause, and it is not an empty space. Michael Chekhov said there was no such thing as a dead pause;

We know this movement of energy exists because we experience it every day of our lives when we pause. Actors who work more intellectually might consider ‘well, in this pause, I need to think this, this, and this’, but this thinking does not produce emotional authenticity.

“The main characteristic of a true pause is a moment of Absolute Radiation.” Michael Chekhov. On the Technique of Acting .

So a pause is a place of great movement; of energy, fullness, searching, decision and weight. It might be a place where we protect ourselves with silence or close in despair. It can be a place where we attack and send our energy to meet our partner, hungry for a response. It can be a moment where we express our love.

We need to understand the energy of the pause, to inhabit it and how to use it, to fully explore how a character might be behaving. And, importantly, to not be afraid of it. So many actors are afraid to pause, as if by stopping speaking they will somehow disappear.

A couple of years ago I was working on a student production of YERMA by Lorca. We were working on the scene where Yerma, a young woman, now truly desperate to have a child, meets her friend Maria who has two children. Maria tries to pass Yerma’s house and avoid coming in but Yerma sees her and forces her friend to come in. In a deeply painful scene reminiscent of a difficult visit to a sick relative, Maria tries to comfort her bitter friend and then, finally exasperated, Maria blurts out ” why can’t you just accept Gods will?” YERMA looks at her and then says ‘accept God’s will?” Maria makes for the door and then there is a painful moment where Yerma says ” you have the same eyes as your baby. He has exactly the same eyes as you.” Maria says goodbye and leaves.

I always start our initial exploration of any scene, lines already learned by the way, with radiating and receiving as the two actors speak their lines to each other giving and receiving energy from their scene partner, speaking quietly and with intention, and giving plenty of space between speeches. It is that time between speeches which is the most important as you get a real sense of what the other person is ‘sending out’ and how that makes you feel. You then get a sense of where the pauses might lie because you find out what is really going on. This is not just ‘listening’ (though it is that as well) but something much greater.

In the scene between Maria and Yerma, the actors by this process found several moments which were so painful and true that it had the three of us in tears. After Maria’s ‘why can’t you just accept God’s will’ the long pause was electric as Maria realised she had been almost forced into saying the one thing which would alienate her from her friend forever. At Yerma’s “accept God’s will?” I asked the actor playing Maria to receive the energy from Yerma in a pause and to move only when she couldn’t stand it anymore. As she bolted for the door, Yerma ran after her and grabbed her arm. She let Maria go and looked at her pleading, desperate and alone, and said the line about the baby’s eyes. There was a pause where Maria suddenly hardened and said “Goodbye”. What we realised with this unearthing of the invisible was that at this point in the story, Maria is saying Goodbye not just for today but for the rest of their lives; that she can no longer take anymore and they cannot have the friendship they had; that Yerma is alone. Importantly we found this without much discussion but by exploring the invisible. It was complex and unbelievably moving.

This issue of energy and the pause is one of the areas I want to explore in Expressing The Invisible, the course at NUI Galway that I am running , August 18-21. THe cost of this 3 and 1/2 day workshop is 180 euro / 150 euro concessions. There are only a few places left. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further details.

Decisions decisions… Brecht at the RNT

I went to see the Royal National Theatre of The UKs production of THREEPENNY OPERA whilst over in London, performed in the huge Olivier Theatre. Directed by Rufus Norris, the production was spectacular, had a guttural and appropriately harsh translation from Simon Stephens , a fantastic band and some full blooded acting from the cast, led by Rory Kinnear, Haydyn Gwynne and an amazing performance from Nick Holder as Peachum. Full use was maðe of revolves, lifts and moving staircases and the almost continuously moving set designed by Vicki Mortimer had the right atmosphere. In the immediate charged atmosphere of Brexit, chaos in parliament and the polarisation in the populus, the play was incredibly topical. There were some raw, bold moments. And yet….

Every decision we make when we create a piece of theatre has ramifications. Of course this does not mean that the director, design team and actors do not have to make decisions. If they did not, then they would most likely make a piece which was flabby and rudderless. But every time you make a strong decision, the creative team have to understand that in making it, they cut themselves off from some amazing possibilities.

Ultimately, as professional as this work was, it followed the route of spectacle, something I would define as an attempt to avoid the real issues by some distracting visuals. The spectacle has power, ‘shock and awe’ etc but too often it misses something. Too much set moving in crucial songs occurred time and time again, diluting the power of performer and song. For instance, Surubaya Johnny, one of the most famous songs in the whole piece, was accompanied by one of the largest scenic shifts. During MacHeath and Tiger Browns Soldier’s Song, really excellently performed , sandbags swung down from the audience on ropes and took me away from the emotional movement of the song. There were many annoying things like this which distracted us from the guts of this story and that the characters were in pain, vicious, trapped and angry. This process of spectacle reminded me a little of how often directors like to embroider plays, most particularly Shakespeare, in order, they believe, to keep the audience engaged. I felt there was something of this with the songs…. a feeling they were too long and needed ‘dressing up’ a bit.

The polarity of good and evil is incredibly important in Brecht’s work. More emphasis on this polarity would have helped to give the play more depth and hence make the second half more interesting to watch. By the end of Part one all the magazines seemed to have been emptied because the emotional level was merely anger and violence. Back to polarities: Brecht’s line in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, ‘ Terrible is the Temptation to do good’, suggests that oppressed people in a shitty world struggle to perform good deeds because the fear-charged atmosphere in which they exist mitigates against good action. In Threepenny Opera there is a whole song dedicated to this polarity of trying to act morally in an immoral and cruel world. I would have liked to have seen more of those moments of conflict between the atmosphere of savagery and moments, or attempted moments, of goodness.

This polarity is not sentimental but a reality. In this production however, no character even thought of doing anything kind or loving for one moment. It never crossed their mind. The whole world was twisted and perverse and the characters operated within it. Of course I know this is the point, but it is not the whole story. If it were, then the play, like the production, would ultimately be unsustainable. Polly especially becomes corrupted and gets sucked in to being as criminal as her parents. She changes. We needed to see that journey more. By making her strong from the start, we ultimately got no sense of movement , and by that I mean emotional movement. So although Rosalie Craig gave a strong performance it didn’t really for me go anywhere. This stasis was in all the characters. Some people might argue it was a ‘Brechtian’ choice to give the characters no development and to keep them permanently as harsh types. But as a result of this character stasis, the production became for me tedious after the interval. It fully became a spectacle at a time when it needed to be finding some depth.

Let’s take Mcheath. Now it is important for me that we do not sympathise with him, or find him charming but in his final song on the scaffold he has got to be fearful, imploring as well as defiant. Here was another moment I would have preferred the song to have been focussed on his feelings rather than the giant staircase up which he was progressing. There is a lot of emotional movement in what might be his final moments as he loses power and the only people left for him are the audience . Despite Rory Kinnear’s bullish and energetic performance, there was absolutely no flexibility, or if there was, then I did not see it. I suspect this might have been a directorial decision but I could be wrong.

A pivotal scene in the second half was the scene with the Police Officer Smith whom McHeath tries to bribe in order to help him escape. Much as it might be appealing to assume that all policemen are corrupt, a different and more powerful choice might have been made which would have pulled this scene into something more morally dense. The policeman shocked by the corruption of his superior is ripe pickings for McHeath and Officer Hill succumbs . There is an emotional movement here. When we discover our heroes have feet of clay this is a ripe moment for compromise or corruption.

In the final moment of this recent production, and this is a different point, there was an implication that McHeath had an affair with a prince of the realm and so he is saved. The final moment had him kissing a prince in front of the entire cast. This from a man who has robbed, raped, murdered, scarred and debased women. There is a lot more gay subtext, made very explicit in this version which was sometimes effective, but this final moment I found rather offensive in what is at the end of the day a political cabaret which is supposed to be saying something. What was this final tableaux saying ? Here before us, is the ultimate corruption? All this corruption is down to repressed gay sex? I am sure that was not what was intended but that was how it appeared. When I looked up John Willett’s translation, the alternative ending of Mack getting his reprieve has one target only; to make the audience feel that with a happy ending they can go off satisfied. It’s a comment on the audience and a jibe against us, not a further complication of the morality of the plot.

Decisions decisions….