Provoking feelings.

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Michael Chekhov

Recently on Facebook I got rather harangued by someone on a Chekhov newsfeed. Finally the person with whom I was in dispute wrote that until an actor focussed on real emotion, real thought and real feeling we were acting only in a dysfunctional way. In other words, he was implying that the Technique was some kind of fraud and getting down to organic thought, feeling. etc. was what acting was really about. His tone was disparaging about Chekhov the actor, the technique and me.

My understanding of Chekhov Technique is that all the exercises developing centres, radiating/ receiving, qualities ,atmosphere and gesture etc are effective simply because they lead you towards a genuine emotion. They are vehicles with which you can discover the character, powered by the twin engines of imagination and body. They provoke real sensations/feelings – that is mainly their purpose. These sensations and feelings may have an identifiable connection with something from your life but usually for me they don’t. This does not make them less real. The exercises provoke more organic feelings than any intellectual discussion of a play and are more effective than only using your own accessible palette of experience. They can take you in directions you would never ever have considered, expand your range, and give you new ways to look not only at the character but the whole play. They open you to a whole new way of seeing theatre and, for some people, for perceiving the world. And the amazing thing about this is that they are not blissful ethereal waffle but the exercises show us ways to access and, to some extent, understand how we actually operate as human beings all the time. We all react to atmosphere; different people operate with different qualities; most importantly we all radiate and receive messages, which are not just ‘listening’ or ‘working with your scene partner’ but taking them in on every level, the energy from their eyes, the way they curl their mouths when they speak, the way they move their bodies, and the way we feel their energy moving backwards and forwards. These are real life processes and Chekhov simply teaches us to harness and explore them.

Of course, all techniques have their issues; with Chekhov technique perhaps it is that we can get so caught up in our images and qualities and atmospheres that we forget there are particular material circumstances to a scene which we need to honour as actors. We must guard against ignoring that. With more method-based practises, ‘my character’ can become the only thing that matters as the actor builds an armour to protect what they have so painstakingly constructed. With Lecoq and movement-based methods, there can sometimes be a sense of style over depth. I know these drawbacks are in ridiculous shorthand but I am simply making a point.

Personally I do not care whether Michael Chekhov was the world’s greatest actor (something my haranguing friend chose to use as a weapon of argument). It is impossible to judge in any case as acting styles change so much. I do know that I have seen many Peter Brook productions and some have disappointed me. However this does not diminish the genius of either Michael Chekhov or Peter Brook in my eyes. They both have pushed theatre forward and found ways to expand it and much of their work is great. They have consummate views of theatre in my opinion and a sense of the spiritual in their work. They are real explorers.

These are for me far from grandiose claims. They are how it is.

OK, now I have got that off my chest. I am glad I restrained myself from saying all this on the newsfeed and using expletives. On the rare occasion I lose my temper on FB I nearly always feel diminished . My anger makes it hard to collect my thoughts.

If you are interested in working here in class in Galway , there is an Openers class on Tuesday evening for people new to the work, and a Continuers class on Sundays which would enable people to come from a distance to do them. Both these courses start the second week of September and run for six weeks. if you are interested in either please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. The August course, Expressing the Invisible is now full.

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3 thoughts on “Provoking feelings.

  1. Jessica

    I feel compelled to copy below this (rather lengthy) quote of Chekhov’s from the audio cd series that Mala published ON THEATRE AND THE ART OF ACTING. I have always appreciated the image of leftovers and indigestion that Chekhov employs! The original thread on fb seems to have disappeared. I never had the chance to read it but regardless, it seems to have resulted in something productive…

    “With what can we compare our emotional or sense memory? We can compare it with a small, dirty envelope which you find in your old, worn out suit. In one of the pockets somewhere. When you open this envelope you find there also a very old and yellow slip of paper on which it is written if you want to become sad on the stage remember how in 1918 you were sad when you could not get the part you wanted. Try to remember this sadness. Clearer. Clearer. Still clearer… And you make a tremendous effort with your brain to remember this long forgotten sadness until you get a good strong headache and then after you found it you swallow this warmed up dish of 1918 and get indigestion and become nauseated.

    “Here I must say and I want to emphasize it strongly, that Stanislavsky who suggested this method of emotional or sense memory never wanted us, his followers and students, to play on the stage using this emotional or sense memory. He always suggested it only as means which might lead to real, artistic feelings on the stage. His aim, his purpose, was just the same as ours is but his means by which to achieve these creative feelings might have been wrong but not the aim, not the purpose. By further answering your questions I would say by no means would I suggest any exercises on sense or emotion memory. In order to experience sensations no preparatory or preliminary work of any kind is needed. All you need is to order yourself to experience this or that sensation. These sensations are so strong, so powerful that they will immediately awaken in you we cannot order ourselves to feel sadness or joy. We can order ourselves to experience the sensation or joy. We cannot order ourselves to feel sadness or joy. We can order ourselves to experience the sensation of sadness or joy.
    There is the difference between feelings and sensations. Feelings are capricious as I told you and might not obey you and sensations are always at your disposal. You can always have them as soon as you say to yourself I want to experience the sensation of joy, despair, happiness and so forth.”

    Reply
    1. maxhafler Post author

      Thanks Jessica. this is great. The first para really made me laugh. I never read the analogy of memory as a bit of paper in a screwed up envelope in an old suit before. The image is so appropriate to the act of struggling to find an old memory to ‘use’, and also what happens to that memory when it is overused. I remember ‘using’ some awful childhood memories as a young actor, and in the end, if you are not careful, they can become distorted, and ultimately devalued, trophies. you are actually making your life into the bits of paper Chekhov describes!
      I remember one young student when we were studying at LAMDA said to me that I was lucky to have had such a difficult childhood, I had so much to draw on. Because I did not understand this at the time, this made me feel proud and special at the time, but later was not good.
      Several years ago I worked with a student who was in this situation and whilst on the one hand using her emotion directly seemed to help her through her grief (she had recently lost a parent) I knew her desire to use her pain as a positive force for her acting was a double edged sword.
      What’s amazing about the actual act of remembering of course is the way it kind of bursts in to your psyche or creeps in by the back door.
      Sense memory rarely comes when it is bid.
      Thank you so much. There has been a great response to this debate, mostly on FB.

      Reply

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