Monthly Archives: August 2019

Apply Generously

IMG_6274Reviewing the recent four day course in Chekhov Technique which I co-led with colleague Declan Drohan here in Galway with 15 enthusiastic and committed practitioners, I was delighted with the amount of scene work we managed to explore from Woyzeck by Buchner. As always the course was joyous and creative but this issue of application was something Declan and I discussed at length as we prepared the workshop.

WOYZECK, is short poetic and political; it mixes expressionist ensemble and naturalism. Grimness jostles with dark humour. But it is, above all, short. What that shortness allowed in our four day workshop was to allow everyone to get a sense of ‘the whole’. The brevity allowed them to feel they knew the play and could access the Chekhov elements which they explored with more confidence. To some extent this knowledge might be illusory because we ultimately were quite selective with our short scenes and only got a few scenes on their feet. But it felt like we did more, because the play was short.

However, you cannot always pick a short work. In the last summer School, ‘A little Piece of Art’ we used The Cherry Orchard ( a very long play) and explored the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole. I gave short duologues out and we also worked in depth on three short group scenes; one was the arrival of Ranevskaya to the house with her entourage, another was the episode with The Vagrant and we also worked on the final moments when the family leave the house. Applying Form and a Feeling of the Whole to these short passages gave everyone a real sense of where our exploration was going. But we could not get a full sense of the whole play, even though we explored the beginning and the end of it.

If you are going to really approach application then the elements you teach on your course are the very elements you teach as if you were working on the play in reality. In that way the play you pick is a fundamental part of your teaching. Many people come to my courses not just to learn technique but because they are attracted by the play we are going to look at.

However you cannot teach everything , despite the fact that all of Chekhov’s elements are all connected. Sometimes it is a little frustrating to know you cannot do everything all at once (the curse of short courses in particular). There is not time to work on concentration and imagination with the detail and intensity I would like when I have to explore other elements in order for people to use the scenes. The more application I do, the less time there is for that block building. It is a fine balance and different for every course I do.

IMG_6260However, what substantial application offers even in a mixed group, even if it has different layers of success depending on your level is the chance to work with everyone in the group on the play ( especially so when as with WOYZECK, we consciously worked with two or three big ensemble elements in the play). It also offers a freedom for the participant so they do not have to worry quite so much about getting the technique ‘right’. There is a bit less pressure paradoxically through more application.

Some people believe that when learning technique you should not rush into application too soon. Students may mess up. It may not work for them and put them off forever. But this is only so for a few. For others, breakthroughs will happen and, provided you create the right environment, those who are only beginning will be encouraged.

Thanks to everyone who made such a great workshop over the last few days. Next up are two weekends: October 18-20 on Images for Character and November 29- December 1 on Good V Evil, playing King Lear ( there’s a short play!) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

The Weight Of This Sad Time We Must Obey

 I look at the terrible times we are living in and really question what is theatre doing to expose the horrors of our time? And even if artists are exposing these horrors, what difference is it actually making? Are we indifferent? Do we just say, “oh that’s a story” and go on as we did before? Laughter and Satire are effective in a sense and importantly keep dissension alive but are they little more than a safety valve, when those that govern us do not seem to really care if they are shown up to be liars, cowards and charlatans? Have we become sanitised to dramatized or even real horror and injustice?

As the arts have become corporatised they seem for the most part to have been massively weakened in terms of their impact on the wider world. I always said, at the beginning of the sponsorship boom in the UK, that sponsorship was a form of censorship. I feel that it was the first substantial step to pretty much anaesthetising the arts rather than making them something for everyone.

Of course in facilitating/directing Applied Drama and youth theatre, by giving the marginalised a chance to tell their stories, we are doing something profound. In teaching people theatre, enabling them to find their mode of expression, their confidence, their voices, a sense of who they are, we are doing something. This is a truly beautiful thing that happens when we are working with theatre. It creates a sense of the whole, a sense of teamwork and an understanding, if only for a while, that gives us a sense of how things could be, in a fairer more open world.

Groups like ‘Clowns without Borders’ who go to places of conflict and refugee camps with their shows are a moving and courageous testament to a belief that art can transform lives, or at least provide a window to something better. Children’s theatre companies like ‘Branar’ here in Ireland can open the minds and lives of children and promote change.

Michael Chekhov lived in a turbulent period in world history, in post revolutionary Russia and then in exile in war torn Europe. The direction of his life was seriously affected by world events and he believed and discussed The Theatre of the Future and the obligations of the theatre to shine a light on things; to change things. As Mala Powers states in her piece in Chekhov’s “On The Technique of Acting”, “Chekhov’s vision of a future theatre also called for a sense of moral responsibility from producers, directors and writers, as well as actors. He said they must be willing to ask…..”will what we are presenting have any positive value for them (audience) as human beings”. I so often often see pieces that do not consider this issue; they are flabby, commercial and/or ego-driven. Even well-performed, at the core they are often meaningless.

In 1999, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brought together musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Middle East countries to play classical music at the highest level.  There was no acceptance that bringing the musicians together from their places of conflict would solve the political problems in which they found themselves and they were encouraged to discuss and have dialogue about the situation. Howeverthe very act of this group making music together creates a kind of alchemy for me.  It makes me ask the question, “How can they do this when some must hate the other?” And the answer is, it is the music that brings them together. Of course, I can say cynically to myself, “Well they have the opportunity to play around the world with Barenboim, to learn – why wouldn’t they put up with this difficult situation?” And yet it is still the love of music and their ability to play that brings them to the table. Music can do this. In a way music transforms us more effectively than a play because the sheer professionalism and discipline of the performers alone is incredibly moving, especially when they are young. And music, though it provokes strong feelings, is abstract.  It makes us feel the human spirit can soar higher than everyday politics and existence.

Yet, isn’t part of the purpose of theatre to provoke debate, action? For me, musical theatre which unites music with an accessible story often packs a strong political punch. When I first saw Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim at Drury Lane during the Thatcher period, it made a profound impact on me as did A Chorus Line, which is not just about “showbiz” but about the way we strive to conform and are willing to throw our individuality away in order to be employed because we have to survive in a hostile world. However, for me the musical theatre world too often is associated with the corporate world (It is “show business” after all)  which for me limits the effects once I leave the theatre and step out into the everyday world.

So how do the arts bring change and impact on political and social injustices? I feel it is important that we do not just stir people by only illuminating injustice, prejudice and danger, nor only by satirising and highlighting the self-interest of many of those who lead us. We have to arm ourselves and our audiences with alternatives with positive messages of endurance, alternatives, love and survival.