Monthly Archives: February 2018

Ensemble and Michael Chekhov


students in the prep week for 12th night recently working on themes from the play

Michael Chekhov was not the only exponent of ensemble playing. A whole raft of practitioners and teachers espouse it. What for me is most profound about Chekhov’s contribution to playing in ensemble is it is on the one hand a spiritual connection between players and a practical connection with the group. The very tools of radiating/receiving, atmosphere, composition and form speak directly to these connections. They give you practical guidance on how to make this intangible connection between your fellow performers.

ENSEMBLE is concerned primarily with the sense of the group , rather than the individual actor. So it’s not how I relate to this play and the director, and maybe my lead actor, but how I relate to all the actors, the technicians, the writer, the play(if there is one) and the director. This is not to say the individual actor may not shine, but he shines because of his/her ability to work with the group powerfully and effectively, like the member of an orchestra.

And for me, the art of ensemble and form is shown no more powerfully than in the classical orchestra, where the individual players unite with all their artistry and skill to produce a wonderful performance. The violin may have a fabulous solo but it is still reliant on the group. What Ensemble does require is a realization that you are only as powerful as the group. You get power, but you also relinquish it. When people have seen this group work in operation, it can be spectacularly powerful.

Michael Chekhov believed very strongly in the laws of composition and the idea that everything has a feeling of form and that we all understand it is vital to a successful satisfying piece of theatre.

But surely this power of performance should happen anyway? Thats true of course, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because of egos, the pressures of time, the desperate nature of actors to please the director to hopefully get another job, the director’s often dictatorial attitude or many other pressures brought to bear on the professional in particular.

We have all read the reviews… “This actress shines in the small but telling part of Anfisa, endorsing the feeling of ensemble in this splendid production of the Three Sisters”! Ensemble used in this context usually means simply that everyone acted well, it is still a buzz word and I am very sceptical when I hear it being used. The job description of the ensemble performer extends far beyond that of the conventional actor, who makes a good job of a small part.

A sense of ensemble is not always about what kind of theatre you are producing but HOW you produce it. It means seeing your part in context with the piece (if it is a conventional play that is, and you have a ‘part’ in the normal sense of the word.) remembering that there is no character without the play . You CANNOT separate the character from the play, nor from the other characters, nor from the other performers either. If you have ever had to go on as an understudy or to act with one, you know this to be true. The piece is fundamentally changed when someone else takes over.

An ensemble performer needs to know, find and agree with the group and director the highs and lows of the play, the moods and atmospheres, so that everyone can work with them… they must know what performer they are working for at any given moment . For me, it encompasses some of the jobs given as the director’s preserve in conventional theatre….Many actors will say to you this is the director’s concern…
It accepts that theatre is a team sport, not merely an ego driven exercise . Michael Chekhov says,

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part is in full harmony with it”
To the actor – Michael Chekhov

ENSEMBLE THEATRE recognises the special circumstances of the theatrical experience; that it is a live event ; that somehow a covenant is drawn up between audience and performers that anything can happen.


participants in Imagination and the Body last year

To my mind, all theatre should be ensemble theatre.

Very much looking forward to Chekhov and Ensemble in two weeks time here in Galway.
Email for details


Teaching, directing and learning – after ‘our play is done’.

IMG_3859When I was a young actor I believed Shaw’s maxim, “those who do, do, those who can’t, teach.” That was of course because I was completely unaware of the deep learning relationship that exists between student and teacher, even though I had some wonderful teachers and had those deep relationships with them. It was not until later that I realised the full value of those relationships. I have been teaching acting and voice for the best part of 25 years to young people, 16-25 primarily, though I have taught many groups outside that, and have directed (and directing is a kind of teaching) both insiðe and out of that age range, with professionals, youth theatre and students.

Teaching is an art form. Though I did not need reminding, I was touched and impressed that Ridley Scott spoke movingly of the influence of his teachers when he recently received his BAFTA award.

There is something about directing a play with a group of young people which requires a spectacular number of skills; director; acting teacher; voice teacher; administrator; limit-setter; counsellor; manager. All of these roles exist for a director at all levels, it is simply that in the professional context, there will be different emphases. This myriad skill set needs to be taught to would-be directors if they are considering directing as a career. A stint at performing is vital too.

In the educational setting, a production allows the teacher/director increased contact time. An intensive period for a production, working with students every day for a few weeks, bears out the reality that contact time counts; that the amount of time you spend on the show gives the work depth and allows a more meaningful contact between teacher and student. For instance, in the recent production of 12th Night, I was able to support students in voice technique, Michael Chekhov work, and a lot of technical skill, and, because we were doing it every day, rapid progress was made. Many taught courses are at best a few hours a week and whilst it is perhaps not as economic for the institution, it has to be said that working intensively and for more time produces a powerful learning experience.

All third level  theatre courses, whether academic or conservatoire, require a combination of academic courses which give the student space for reflection and examination alongside more intensive practical performance work.

Theatre art is experiential.  And experiential learning and performance is not to test academic discovery, but for its own sake. After all, that is what happens in the real world; we experience it and through experience we learn how we will manage our lives. As an example, during the 60s and 70s in the UK when drama was being brought into the curriculum in English secondary education, there was a school of thought that drama was a tool for teaching history or geography instead of something that had its own intrinsic value.

Theatre can be a truly transformational experience. All of us who explore theatre with students/actors/performers know this is overwhelmingly and beautifully true. In addition to learning a myriad of skills, there is something about the alchemy of sharing your feelings, your energy, opening to others, and creating a world together through the conduit of playing a character in a play (or improvising and devising)  which is extraordinary.

Ultimately when you work on a production the show is a creation of the whole company. Existing and reacting within this creative atmosphere is expansive and educational.  The group dynamic itself  becomes one of the tools that enriches a powerful learning experience.  Like most things meaningful, you absolutely have to experience it for this group dynamic to ignite your creativity and learning in a deep way.  But when you do, and not all groups gel in the way my recent group did, the learning can only be enhanced.

A young actor said to me recently, ” you have been central to my development as a performer and a person, giving me confidence and self-belief.” As a teacher, I cannot ask for more.

Twelfth Night Polarities

IMG_3934As we put the production of Twelfth Night to bed here at CTPI and NUI Galway , I am thinking back to something I discovered about this play through the production, through my editing and through the process..

I had never before thought of Twelfth Night as a tragicomedy. Before we start to talk about the idea of polarities and how they exist in the play we should perhaps explore the unique form of tragi-comedy, because for me at least, that is certainly how 12th Night seems to work for a modern audience. Tragicomedy was made very popular through writers like Middleton and Rowley after Shakespeare, but it was clearly part of the collective psychology of the Elizabethan theatre goer way before then. Tragicomedy is not simply putting  comic scenes in with serious or tragic scenes in order to keep the wide social demographic of many Elizabethan audiences satisfied and connected to the performance. The tragicomic dynamic is a visceral engine, a cruelty which actually consciously rubs sadness and grief against laughter and joy. Tragicomedy is a genre which actively uses polarity to heighten the work. We ignore this at our peril or the play is constantly unsettling in the wrong sort of way. The scenes somehow do not sit together without embracing the full force of what tragicomedy unleashes. Indeed Shakespeare’s language constantly compares opposites, especially in soliloquy when a character is asking the audience what they should do about their particular dilemma. It’s built into the fabric.

Michael Chekhov focuses on polarity as part of discovering the score of the play. Often when I am working I like to take the actors as characters through the play considering one polarity only, to see where the character fits and travels along that theme through his/her story. I do this quite early on and whilst it may  be somewhat transformed once the scenes start to be played, it is amazing how the alchemy of imagery and instinct often reveal jewels of character we could never have imagined through discussion.

In Twelfth Night one of the polarities I see is Riot and Order. Feste represents the former and Malvolio the other. These two characters are diametrically opposed and it is their battle, culminating in the highly ambiguous prison scene, which for me is one of the big polarities of this play. The other is Love and Death, not exactly opposites, but in the Elizabethan world view, they are. In the beautiful Act 2 sc 4, the disguised Viola and Orsino speak intimately and lovingly, are then faced with the haunting song Come Away Death. Orsino’s mood is transformed and he becomes violent and desperate, whilst Viola refers to her brother [supposedly dead]. In that moment the two young people are forced to face the dark side of their souls.

IMG_3994The production has been a delight. Now back to working in my garden, writing, reviving The Sacrificial Wind and the first of three weekend workshops .The first – Chekhov and Ensemble will be held on March 9th-11th in Galway. Email to book your place.