Monthly Archives: September 2016

Conceptually challenged

 

A few weeks ago I was doing an imagination exercise in a voice class with an undergraduate group. I would say a phrase like ‘torn curtain’ and would ask them to speak the images they saw from that phrase into the centre of the room. This is an exercise I use a lot to connect language and imagination. Sometimes I speak phrases and sometimes use the opening from novels or the start of a play.

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When it came to discussing the exercise afterwards , I think I used the phrase, ‘prison cell’, one student said something very interesting . ” When you said the word I immediately saw an image and it grew and became more complex, but I felt unable to speak aloud what I saw. I found myself just saying words like captivity, criminal etc. So I could not say what I saw. I could only speak in concepts.’

It is very hard to be creative on a concept. To act with a concept. It can be done, but a concept is several times removed from a feeling. However, I puzzled to myself, you can move with a quality and a quality is a concept. Let’s move with pride, for instance. We can experience that concept because we can put it into our bodies by moving proudly . But can we put captivity or honour or acceptance into our bodies? A concept is like a hard nugget, not a softer more sensitive set of images. I find it hard to make an image from a concept. Images are easier to explore in a sensory and imaginative way than concepts…. “Well it depends what you mean by captivity...” I can hear someone saying.

And yet isn’t that what an academic approach basically encourages? Crisp concepts? Concepts can be tested and evaluated more easily than experiences, it seems. That means they can be graded. They can be assessed more easily. They can be valued. In short a price can be put upon them.

But in relegating experience, are we not denying a whole spectrum of learning not just in the arts but in all other spheres of life? It is very true that experience is being devalued in education.

To me it is rather like when the cd evolved as the way to play music. One of my friends told me about this, a BBC Engineer. He asked me to listen to the range of sound on a cd and then listen  to an LP record. I had to confess that in comparison to a pristine LP record, the range of the cd sounded tinny. It is like the difference between a DSLR camera and a camphone. There is a depth with the DSLR camera which is not achieved with the phone even though both pictures are clear. So it seems to me with sensations, movement and feeling against exploring something through concept.

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Franchine Mulrooney and Andrea Rawat  directed by me .Blood Wedding 2007.

Interestingly my MA Chekhov group explored polarities in Blood Wedding this week . Polarities, for the uninitiated, are as they sound; life/ death, wealth/ poverty etc. They are the polarities the performers and director see in the play. They are the nearest Chekhov technique gets to concepts, but, and this is important, in order to explore them you have to use another more imaginative intuitive tool to plumb your character and the depths of the play. The concept cannot be explored purely intellectually. For acting it would be almost worthless.

So let’s say we are exploring wealth and poverty through the play. I name one wall wealth and the other, poverty. Using your character centre as your lodestone you place yourself as the character in the studio as to how they feel about these two polarities at the start. Are they more influenced by wealth? They stand nearer to it. Are the poor or aware and preoccupied with poverty ? They stand nearer to it . Then moving the character through the play , the actor moves first to one wall then another, sometimes running from one polarity to another ; sometimes pulling away from one only to be sucked back towards it. if they love Wealth, then perhaps they slide up and down against the wall… it is not just a question of placing themselves like some kind of status exercise. All the movement comes from their centre and the instinct they feel in their bodies. This is not an intellectual decision, but something that comes from somewhere deep inside. They move like this as they follow the character through the whole play.

In Blood Wedding Money and Land are important factors in the drama. The Bride and Leonardo were allegedly stopped from marrying because he was too poor. So is the Bride obsessed with her wealth and security at the start of the play, or is she simply unable to go against the wishes of her family? Is Leonardo obsessed with his poverty? this is more likely.  None of these of course are discussed until after the exercise is completed, because you make the discovery by doing the exercise, not by discussing the concept. This exercise can provide those kinds of options/answers for the actor.

When you know the play well, these exercises can provide answers so specifically that you can even find precise moments where these changes in shift of polarity and changes for the character happen.And that’s of course another thing. In order to work in this imaginative way you have to know the play well. This approach is not an excuse to not do homework. You just do a different sort of homework.

Talking Teaching Voice

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a member of Dublin Youth Theatre works with gesture and language – photo Sean O’Meallaigh

Yesterday  I had a launch of my book, ‘Teaching Voice’ at the National University of Ireland Galway. I had just come back from teaching my 2nd year Voice and Shakespeare class which had been a great exchange of energy and learning. In fact, a student said something which I am going to make the centre of a blogpost soon.  After a lovely introduction by Marianne Ni Chinneide, whom I have known for many years both as a youth theatre member and an MA student many years before she became a colleague, I said this [ with a few embellishments to clarify further]-

 

‘Before I came to Galway, I had had some success as an actor but had enough of acting and was starting to make a name for myself as a playwright. What do I mean by, ‘had enough of it’? I was worn out by ‘the business’ and the destructive and ridiculous cliches with which a young actor is encouraged to live. Cliches like  ‘talent will out’, that if you work hard , you will make it in the end, whatever ‘make it’ is supposed to mean. I knew that despite some success, that somehow the love for acting had somehow been seriously eroded and I was losing my way,  that there had to be some other route forward for myself. I had done a bit of teaching but really wanted to explore teaching theatre and particularly voice.

My first contact in looking for a place to teach theatre was actually here in the university, though of course no drama programme existed. I remember meeting Kevin Barry, then Head of English,  who sent me off to the feisty and determined Rebecca Bartlett, the founder of the Galway Youth Theatre, which was actually a part time programme for young people here.  After a talk with her  I decided that what they needed was a specified voice programme. It was only a few hours per week but it meant a serious improvement in performance skills, and to begin with, that is how I viewed the voice training. Despite the fact that voice can often be perceived as tedious – I can remember dreading double voice on Monday morning of my second year at college – I was determined to make it as energetic and joyous as possible.

Working there was a big part of my life for the next twelve years, with subsequent directors Niamh Dillon and Andrew Flynn, teaching voice, ensemble, and directing many productions there. It was exciting and I found that I loved teaching. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And whilst I still love to direct and write, teaching is what really fascinates me because as we discovered the other day, when you are in a class you often do the best work, the most subtle and the most exciting. The reason for this is perhaps, as one of my students suggested, because your ego is not so much in the way. And I, as the teacher, am priveleged to get to see and nurture that work . For instance in my Continuers Michael Chekhov class the other day I experienced a most beautiful nuanced version of ‘Our revels now are ended, “ from the Tempest. I have rarely heard it done as movingly.

The more I worked in this sector of youth theatre, eventually being sent by the National Association of Youth Drama all over the country to a massive variety of youth theatres , the more I understood that voice work is essential, not just for acting or for the myriad of jobs and situations in which the voice is important , but also into making us a whole person. If you connect your voice, imagination, feelings and body you operate holistically, completely. That’s got to be good for you.

Further work at the Blue Teapots Theatre, a programme for adults with learning difficulties with a thriving theatre company, taught me not only about teaching voice, but also the art of teaching itself. I realised that teaching was not just about me imparting knowledge but was an act of service.

Students were not there to garner my pearls of wisdom or simply learn skills, but to really truly develop they need to be encouraged by my care and enthusiasm for my subject and for them. It taught me that you cannot just expect students to do as they’re told or to ‘know what is good for them’. That as a teacher, it was as they say, ‘not about me’. You might say that about all group endeavours actually. Even directing a play is not ‘about me’ either. Its more about ‘me’ than teaching is, but still…

Later I discovered that whilst it was my job to build a bridge between the knowledge and the students in a way they could appreciate and build on, it was vital at the same time not compromising your knowledge by making it so ‘cool’ that it became unrecognisable; that there was an integrity there.

On the other hand, as I learned from that wonderful Michael Chekhov teacher Ted Pugh, students have to find out. It is their job to find out, and you as the teacher cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. I find this balance actually can be quite challenging, and of course it varies from class to class, from student to student. Of course I can say these things, because in drama I have the luxury that the classes are invariably small. And of course the learning you do through drama can often be life changing quite quickly, so the impact, when a light goes on in a student’s learning, can be immediately visible though of course it does not always last.

As some people might know I have taught a number of voice courses to lecturers here and in other colleges as well; what was ostensibly a voice class became also something about the philosophy of teaching, how we actually feel about teaching. Whilst I was not trained to be a teacher myself, I do now understand that teaching is a skill, it’s a generosity and an offering, whilst at the same time setting limits and boundaries. Its an art form in itself.

This book of mine, in addition to being a book of workshops and exercises, which covers a whole range of themed sessions on different aspects of voice, including acting with poetry, rhythm, delivering presentations, Shakespeare, working in productions, holds some of that ethos. It’s for anyone who works with young people and wants to help them express themselves, to help them find a voice, especially if you have only a little training and are working in a kind of keyhole situation  as you might be in the college environment.  I trained at drama school and did five hours of voice per week for two years. I am running a class here where the students have two hours contact time per week and have to practise daily  without me. That course however is still invaluable especially if people do practise. It is not wasted time. With limited time you can still do something useful.

And learning is not linear either. I remember driving down to facilitate  at a youth theatre project a few years ago with Miquel Barcelo, an excellent movement and ensemble teacher, and he and I were discussing training . He said something which I kind of knew but was a good reminder. He said when he was training at Lecoq there were many things he didn’t understand and sometimes it was only when he thought about them years later that he truly understood them. Sometimes it takes years to sink in. Truly understanding something is not about instant gratification.

That’s certainly been true of my own learning.

Teaching Voice is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased from their website  and is available in, as they say, all good bookshops!

 

A Question on The Seagull from a young director.

Here is a question regarding Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull I got yesterday from a young director.

Question : Regarding Nina, do you think there is the possibility for her to be a bit…delusional or lying to herself? She’s clearly still insanely in love with Trigorin, like Treplev (Constantin) she’s the romantic, total type (with all the abysses associated) and I just can’t get it out of my head how that seagull is still there, but stuffed with chemicals and not really alive. I know it’s bleak , but I kind of get troubled when I face so much optimism coming from Mr. C, especially when I compare it with the endings of the rest of his plays.

Answer : I saw Nina like that at one time too. but if we consider that, like Life,  a whole play has polarities, forces pulling us this way and that, and the presence of these polarities are what makes it moving and full, then, right now, if I was directing the play, I would like Nina ultimately to be positive; not in a dreamy sort of way; in a realistic way. She has clearly had a dreadful time, but she is still determined; she is still wrestling with what has happened to her, but she is ‘taking it on’, her past, and her journey. So of course to some extent she may be lying to herself as you suggest, but she is surviving and her compromises seem to be worth it for her art. That is what keeps her going. As with lots of young actors, Nina’s force might not last. She may well become completely disillusioned, but right now, the candle is still burning for her. She is one positive force in what is ultimately a grim end for the play .

You can never really isolate the character from the play ; the actors can’t do it, and nor of course can the director. We have to see Nina as part of the bigger picture. Michael Chekhov  said you have to look at the impact of the whole play upon the audience. What as the director, do you want them to take away from the experience? Nina being realistic but determined does not unbalance the play at all, in fact the opposite. Let’s imagine the actor and director took the choice you are suggesting. She ends up delusional. She ends up hopeless. She ends up a victim, and an audience might construe that Constantin kills himself precisely because she is in such a state. People have taken that route a lot in productions I have seen and you come out of the play thinking, ‘so what?’ She deludes herself and C kills himself. Masha and Medvedenko live with the consequences of their compromises. It’s grim.

However, if we look at how the main characters treat ‘their calling’ then Nina’s outlook has to be an attempt to fuse youthful idealism and love of your art against all the odds. In terms of polarities, her artistic fervour and determination pulls away from  the egocentric and rather cynical bent of Trigorin and Arkadina and the disillusioned Constantin. Nina offers us a slim hope, which may be only fleeting in her life, that you can survive as an artist and it can sustain you through everything . I would like to see that in my performance of the Seagull because it would give me a feeling of wholeness watching it, because I have known that struggle and that idealism as a young actor, and I have known the compromises of life and the reality of trying to survive in a ruthless business which is also an art.

It may be naive of me to ask for this in a production but I am looking for wholeness. I am so determined that more directors learn the Michael Chekhov technique, because the more the work is applied by directors as well as performers, the more sense of wholeness there will be and the richer the offering we will make towards the audience.

Later on today, after I published this piece, someone write a comment and said we had to be open to different Ninas in performance. I wholeheartedly agreed – here’s what I replied, with a little further embellishment.

I am not saying that there is a definitive way [to play the role] either… it depends on the production and of course the chemistry of the actors. But then there are many many ways the actress playing Nina could explore a determined and positive conclusion in a myriad of ways and in varying degrees. There is still tons of scope there. However I do think that if Nina is ultimately despairing and hopeless, and that could be a path of course, I have to consider how would it make me feel as an audience member. It would, along with the other characters’ stories in the play, make me feel incredibly depressed! Why? Because it would be telling me in the audience that Art is only despair, disappointment and superficiality; that actors are fools. Does the play really say that? I think not. Do I want the audience to feel that?

No, I don’t.

Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s Continuers course which runs for 6 consecutive Sundays from next week begins next Sunday here in Galway.