Monthly Archives: April 2019

Radiating and Receiving/A Political Act

The last time I was in Leeds was 1983. I was appearing in a play at Leeds Playhouse, playing a disruptive prisoner in a play about the Hull prison riots, which in its own way confronted and provoked the audience to consider the prison system. This week I went back to Leeds having been asked to attend a conference at Leeds University on Politics, participation and performance, and provide a voice workshop.

After a thought-provoking keynote on citizenship by Professor Stephen Coleman, an exciting and Intense workshop run by Proper Job Theatre in which we were invited to participate and make decisions on a mythical intense family/political drama followed by a presentation on a young people’s project on exploring elections by Miranda Duffy, I then led people towards some psycho-physical exploration of the voice.

All the opportunities given above enhanced my understanding of the challenges of political theatre in all its forms and whilst I have a strand of my work which has a distinct political focus around devising work, I was there to lead a voice workshop. When preparing the workshop I considered many of the voice exercises I have used and developed over my decades of teaching voice and devising with young people and special interest groups  but I wanted to offer something else. It seemed to me I might be offering tricks or easy-fixes when I felt there was something more fundamental at stake. The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible, in a way that is connected and full of conviction. It is of limited use devising a piece we cannot hear (unless it is meant to be silent). Whîlst we can support groups with multimedia and microphones, the most effective way, if possible, is for them to use their own voice.

Someone said at the end that teaching skills to those who are not usually offered them is a political act in itself. Someone alluded to the fact that business people and lecturers are offered skills like voice whereas those not in so privileged positions are bypassed. It makes them feel that these skills are not for them.

Yet even more than effective and committed speech, the one area of exercise which is absolutely fundamental to community, theatre and political action is Michael Chekhov’s radiating and receiving. As Professor Jonathan Pitches, who gave a response to the day suggested, radiating and receiving has a political dimension because you share and integrate a response on a fundamental level. You feel an understanding with your partner in a visceral way which enables a negotiation. It is something I too believe. We spent a good deal of my strand of the workshop working with radiating and receiving to the group and our partners. (As Professor Coleman said in his keynote address, “citizenship is not something that happens alone.” )

So just as teaching voice requires both technical and imaginative development through exercises, perhaps political theatrical engagement requires us to generate not only how we feel about civic and personal qualities we might deem vital for action, it also needs us to develop a deep connection with our body, voice, feelings and imagination to give these qualities a holistic and truly revolutionary dynamic. Perhaps politics has a more spiritual dimension than we might immediately think. For me, without actually touching base with the intangible power of theatre (which Voice and Chekhov technique provoke in abundance) we are missing a chance to make the elemental change that people want and need on all levels.

Having said this, I am not denying the huge material challenges which quash artistic endeavours deemed ‘political’ and make them suspicious to schools and funders. Those who are suspicious fail to realise that all performance is pushing an agenda, for what is an agenda but a view of life? Of course if the agenda is rammed down an audience’s throat it is probably going to be unconvincing, unless you already agree with it, and the probability is it will not be great art. Unless it presents the polarities of the argument it is not empowering, merely proselytising.

Looking at all the threads which knitted themselves in this conference, we seemed to be exploring how theatre empowers people directly; perhaps that is what ‘defines ‘political’. If theatre does not empower or enlighten, well, what use is it?

There was talk about the dynamics of university attitudes to performance and those of the conservatoire training. Much conservatoire training has a kind of attitude I call “training the racehorse”, in other words preparing the student for ‘the business”. If you are already preparing actors for this capitalist enterprise, you are unlikely to encourage political engagement in your students. For me, the nature of theatre education has to change to break this mould. However, the alternative to the “racehorse” model is the more academic approach offered in third level with a lot less contact hours. This is not really adequate either; performance expertise can not be magicked up in a few hours, not if you want to encourage a deep learning; nor is it fully effective as research, unless you are practically proficient in the first place.

One thing is for sure: political theatre in the broadest sense has to be empowering for audiences, participants and actors alike. Chekhov said you have to have a view; how do you want your audience to feel at the end of a play? This view does not have to be polemical but it needs to have a direction. There has to be something or why bother? As artists we have to be responsible.

Thanks to everyone at the conference and to Doctor Sarah Weston for organising it. It gave me a lot to think about.

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Adapting with Chekhov

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In 2003 I directed a production of  Kafka’s The Trial in an adaptation by Steven Berkoff for the Cuirt Festival of Literature with Galway Youth Theatre. It was a success. We revived it, took it on tour to England and got an incredible review in the Irish Times by the late Eileen Battersby.

Berkoff’s stark version is intensely theatrical, a full throated ensemble version of the text and the young actors threw themselves into the performance with enthusiasm and precision. Berkoff demands an ensemble be onstage throughout and be focussed, disciplined and inventive. In that we were extremely successful.  However, looking back, the adaptation itself has a hard unbending edge to it from the very beginning and affected where we went with it.

I remember reading the novel before I did the production and really missing the kind of mysterious depth I feel is in it, a kind of overwhelming onset of thick darkness as if the unfortunate Joseph K is drowning and cannot escape. There is the feeling of a labyrinth in it, different from the empty doorframes Berkoff used in his adaptation and we used for ours. In the novel K is a much more likeable chap than the uptight guy created by Berkoff. I never saw his own production so maybe I am misjudging it. But for me that harshness in the adaptation meant that the production was hard to evolve. It was hard to make a journey. Indeed, the way it seems in the adaptation it seems like it is K’s nightmare which does not give the other characters anywhere to go. As we were working from that adaptation, I got the actors and designer to embody that view, which was theatrically effective, but also lost something.

Maybe you always lose something when you adapt. I have been interested in adaptation for a long time, having, in another period of my life, written a lot of plays and made a number of adaptations for theatre companies in Ireland and the UK. Right now I am writing a book about Shakespeare and part of it is about editing and transposing; how it can be successful and how it can be a disaster.

I was teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway for many years and over my final years with Ensemble, more and more of my Chekhov training was coming into my approach; imagination, qualities of movement, atmosphere, gesture and composition were incorporated as other things were let go. Composition and Form are particularly important as there is such a danger in adaptation and devised work that a piece can lose its thread and become shapeless.

I have always been a big believer that the Chekhov Technique is not only for regular plays but for a much wider body of work, and more people are using the work in that way. So in the weekend of May 17th -19th for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  I want to look at episodes in this novel, The Trial, and explore them through the Michael Chekhov technique, to see if we can find something different, something deeper. One thing I have found with the Technique is that I always discover something new with anything we look at in these courses.

If you wish to attend, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to place a deposit and book your place. The weekend is being held at NUI Galway, runs from May 17-19 (The 17th is only a short evening session). The cost is €90 for the weekend.

 

 

Body

IMG_5703In many plays, the idea that our character has a different body is generally limited to how we are clothed, our size, a disability perhaps, or age. That’s if it is specified in the text at all. Yet our bodies are the vessel for everything we are.

Like most things with Chekhov technique any accusations that our exercises are ‘floaty’ are completely refuted by the fact that what the technique explores is the reality of things as they are; in this case how we relate to our bodies and how the character relates to his own body.

In our workshop this weekend, as we explored the troubled characters in The Crucible, I began by asking the group to make considerations of their own bodies. This needed to be done with a degree of delicacy and limited sharing; the most important thing is for the actor to experience the body rather than talk about it, in any case. I asked everyone to consider how our bodies affected how we dress, what colours we wore, where our weight was centred, what parts of the body we liked and what we didn’t like and how those responses affected our every move; it is a sobering thing for actors to consider and experience. If we like our hands we are going to move them differently to how we would if we don’t like them. If we think our lips are attractive, we will use them differently.

So what if the character has this interconnected relationship to their body?  By putting on the body like a coat, we can find out.

This work on Imaginary Body goes so much further than just creating a convincing and particular shape for the character; it gives you a huge part of the character’s psychology. The body dictates how we breathe, our level of confidence and health, the tensions which build up in us; as we age the frame is restricted  and can freeze us into a cypher of everything that has happened to us through our lives.

How we relate to the body makes resonances and echoes in every single thing we do. To take an example, if Abigail Williams is aware of her sexual power from the start it makes a very different character to an Abigail Williams who does not.

Furthermore we have the impact of the environment on the bodies of the characters. On examining the hands of the characters, we considered those who had soft hands and those who did not . That one fact created a whole layer to a possible world; those with rough hands, physically strong but somehow in another world from the likes of the preachers and judges who govern the play. The soft-handed are trying to preserve their status, maintain control and impose morality upon the townsfolk. How do they feel about their hard-handed brethren? Do they feel superior, closer to God, fearful, guilty about their own inactivity?

It was interesting how both the power of Imaginary Body and Character Centre created really strong atmosphere on their own in our studio, though we did little work on atmosphere directly. It reminded me of Chekhov’s Chart for Inspired Acting where Chekhov said that if you inspire just one area, if it is effective, many of the other elements of the scene will fill effortlessly. Working for a good while on the idea of everyone having a centre that was a large spade brought the smell of the earth into the room; a sense of digging in; a world that was rough and shifting as the characters spoke to each other.

Very powerful.

IMG_5698The next Chekhov weekend is Actors Are Magicians, working with Form , atmosphere, directions and Tempo principally. It is here in Galway and runs from Friday evening till mid afternoon Sunday. We will be working on chapters of The Trial by Kafka. It is for Directors, actors, students and devisers. book by emailing chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and visit the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com