On Being a Student

When I started my Chekhov training, I always remember being told two things; if you want to be a student you have to get out of your own way when you are trying to create, and your job as a student is to find out! These are principles I try to get my students to follow. Before that, I don’t suppose I had actively considered what the task of a student was, even though I had been teaching for some considerable time when I began the Chekhov work. They learned stuff by osmosis didn’t they, by experiencing primarily? Reading was important too of course, but in working with Chekhov Technique nothing prepares you for the intensity of the doing of it. You have to know it in your body. What that means is experiencing and feeling and understanding through the body, not knowing through the intellect. It is a profoundly different kind of knowing. And it is easily accessible if you will only allow it to happen.
And that is one of the big reasons I go to study, to remind myself of that. First of all, there is so much for me still to learn. Learning most things in a meaningful way involves study and practice which ends when you die. You go over the same things many times so they can really yield their power. To borrow a phrase from Lenard Petit, one of the wonderful trio of teachers from this week’s work with Michael Chekhov Europe in Hamburg, the Chekhov Technique ‘has me’. This way of working with imagination, feelings and the body is so profound and deep and of course amazing for training actors for performance.
Of course when I arrived in Hamburg for this week of exploration, my perception of what I had to learn from this week was very fluid; too fluid. it was suggested to me that I consider what I had come for; what exactly had I come to ‘find out’. Rather like when you start on a play or any artistic endeavour, you have a hunch but that’s it. I decided I had come to be a student, experience the teachers, see some old friends, find new ways to teach principles to my own students to give me a new perspective on the work. Of course it ended up being more than that.
Becoming a student again can be hard when you are a mature person. I talked about this in my last blog, and I was fascinated though rather irritated to discover that some of the blocks I had had as a young drama student were resurfacing very quickly. We did some wonderful breathing work with Olivia Rudinger which to begin with I found challenging because like so much breathing and voice it was by its very nature and necessity, repetitive and quite strenuous. Early on I felt myself contracting inside and my rebellious teenage drama student self was resurfacing… “God do we really have to keep doing this?” I heard my thoughts and started to feel edgy and prickly…then suddenly I let go and as I say in my own book, “a door opened”. This was not like a slow opening of a door to a warm cottage garden but like a strong wind had blasted open to a wild and beautiful landscape. Many of Olivia’s exercises did this for me. Though not Chekhov work, they prepared the way to make me and my fellow participants more open for it. I would not have made anything approaching the progress I felt I made without it.

Another challenge I mentioned in the last post was the play we were working with; Midsummer Nights Dream. I tried in my imagination at home to make the play new for myself by imagining the scenes and despite one or two interesting insights I found it hard to disentangle it from the work I had done on the play in productions etc over my life. When we did some imagining with Uli in the later days of the week, I found that I was able to move on from my own realised work and work more freshly . Another massively helpful thing here was the power of the incredible group who came to the training from many nations of the world and their commitment and energy which started to throw up feelings and ideas about the play I had not had before. It was fabulous to hear Shakespeare in many different languages.
As for my own performance journey, those pesky drama student issues still kept coming. It’s so easy to step out of the work when you are teaching it. After all you are not there as a teacher to experience the work primarily though sometimes it’s helpful to do the exercises with students when you are taking them on an imaginary journey. You are there to share and guide. Sure you can learn from students. They teach you a phenomenal amount, more than they know, but it is not the same as doing it yourself, handing over the responsibility of leading and simply being.
I have always had tension in my shoulders and sometimes I find that the power of an image to create character sensation and feeling is so powerful that the tension flies up there. As those of us who use this method know, this is not the way to find sensations/feelings in the body. Too much tension paralyses us to sensation. When I am teaching I sometimes let this truth round tension go, and don’t fully introduce the feeling of ease until later because in short courses it can be difficult for students to achieve and they need to have the experience of the body throwing up sensations and feelings even if it is limited by tension or they simply will not get a sense of where the psychophysical work is going. In the longer courses I have run it’s different and you can spend more initial time on ease . This is a change in perspective and I will be less inclined to ‘short-change’ this feeling of ease because of my experience as a student in this week’s training.

I must have done Oberon’s speech as he awakens Titania many times with varying degrees of success during the week, but one particular day I felt a bit dire about my efforts. I was performing before the class and felt my work was tense and was told so quite correctly. For a brief moment I felt the full weight of the teacher-becoming-the-student, with challenging thoughts around “why am I putting myself on the line when I don’t need to’? But it is at just these moments when the greatest learning comes. I looked back on the week as I brooded over my lunch and this tenet of finding all the work through a soft and open body. I suddenly thought, “if I do nothing else this week, I will somehow deliver this speech with feeling in an open way without tension.” For the final day and a half I pursued my goal taking this other path to openness with patience and diligence. It was my main focus. What I had come for, to answer the question that was put to me at the beginning of the week, was principally this. Like so much creative work, and studying and teaching are certainly that, the main target was not in sight until that moment.
We spent a final hour and a half working with directions and movement of energy; which involves getting a sense of energy moving through you and around you. It is basically an exercise in atmosphere. This is a very very profound part of the work but not something I want to get into here. As it turned out I was the final actor to speak the text in the whole week and using this movement of energy I let it work through me. For a brief moment I focussed on my shoulder blades, then focussed on the direction of the energy and the breathing. I suddenly felt an extraordinary depth in what I was saying and yet it was simple. It felt completely and utterly effortless. I have felt this before but not so deeply. Many people who use this work experience it. A little while after I had finished speaking ,I remembered someone said this very thing during a workshop I ran two weeks ago.”Atmosphere makes acting so easy…”
So thank you Lenard, Olivia and Uli and all the incredible people with whom I went on this journey this week. For me, I am now preparing to teach a weekend on pauses and energy, a four day course on Giving Voice to the Imagination in Dublin in late May with Hugo Moss of Michael Chekhov Brasil , a summer school ,Moving Through Atmosphere in Galway, preparing a performance of The Sacrificial Wind by Lorna Shaughnessy for the Cuirt International  Festival of Literature and working with an American college who are coming to Ireland. Not fortunately, at the same time!

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