Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

5 thoughts on “Polarities in a Handbag

  1. michaelchekhovstudioorlando

    Max, once again, awesome reflections and insight. It actually came in as a great reminder. I’m going to this audition this coming Friday and the monologue I’m performing is a comedy, so polarities I think will be a great tool to reawaken this character I’m playing around with! Thanks, my friend!!

  2. timothyolsen

    Max- we met many moons ago in Windsor at MICHA. Thank you for your insight into Earnest! I was just recently cast as Jack and am beginning my own exploration. I’ve been playing with PG as a pulling up my estate, my “name”, those around me from the bootstraps (This really helps for seriousness and duty and pride) as opposed to a type of “melt down” as a polarity. I really like what you say about the pride/shame quality exploration and I think I’m going to try that in terms of inner qualities.
    Do you have any advice on playing Jack from a Chekhov perspective? My director and I are working together and he does not know the technique. Thank you so much

    1. maxhafler Post author

      Hi Tim yes I remember you of course. I think the polarity issue is good. And try and get into your body what it is like to have a secret. This is very important. Make a living statue of your secret. Jack has a double life he exists in an atmosphere where few people are as they seem. imagine his early scene with his secret. Make this large and physical.
      Next work with polarities. Jacks polarity might be pride and shame. Get this into your body by making a gesture for each and move from one polarity to the next. The pride comes as a response to hiding his shame of course. You might make other discoveries once you explore the lines. Go sharply from one polarity to another from one line to the next and then start to get more subtle. See how that works for a scene.
      Try a different polarity imprisonment/ freedom for instance . See how it changes the role.
      Hope this is helpful

  3. timothyolsen

    This is very helpful! I was getting so caught up in the quest of an Orphan and desire to be a good man that my work wasn’t focused and I never got to radiating anything specific other than the pulling up. (Which helped for the seriousness.)

    So, would you say that the secret is more of a gesture or a statute? (I haven’t played with idea of statute.) I can already see how the secret plays on the first scene with Algy and the pride/justification out of that, and then changes with Gwen and even to Lady Bracknell.

    The secret/shame as a pulling back/in gesture really helped me already, especially with the polarity of pulling up. Thank you so much!

    1. maxhafler Post author

      The gesture is like a statue , a active or ‘living’ one such as you see I think in all those Dartington pictures. It has its own energy dynamic. ‘Statue’ I know sounds like something stuck. But if you work with it you can find the ‘how’ pretty effectively. How does shame express itself and how pride, and all points in between? When I did my course we worked with an Orphan archetype also but it did not seem too helpful to anyone to explore the comedy element which is what we were concentrating on. Best of luck with it and thanks for reconnecting. Max


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