Monthly Archives: November 2020

REFLECTION IN A MONITOR – Chekhov classes 2020

Like the reflection in a deep pool , I look back on a strange but curiously invigorating teaching year. I just finished a session where my intrepid group were working with Atmosphere and images from A Christmas Carol… but back to the start of the year.

The year began with a powerful in-the-room workshop with my colleague Declan Drohan and myself leading a  group on a number of the plays in FEAR AND MISERY IN THE THIRD REICH, addressing in a practical form the idea that the theatre must always be relevant. Whilst I am quite a Brecht fan I was still astonished by the depth of these plays to explore the tenets of fascism. I felt I really began to understand what it was that made Fascism attractive and how these dangerous and horrible tendencies can work within a person or a group. For me the depth of these discoveries was as much about how the Chekhov technique encourages us to explore plays as it was about the plays themselves.

I then ran an enjoyable Chekhov and Shakespeare monologue weekend and was preparing for a full house for the Comedy and Chekhov weekend (something I worked with later online) when the lockdown came. There was an international summer school in the offing in May/June as well. My book is currently in suspended animation until things get more ‘back to normal’. These are all first world problems but they were a shock.  

A scene from Fear and Misery in the first workshop of the year.

At the outset of lockdown and the realisation that all in-the-room learning and performance would be pretty much shut down I was, like many people, in despair . With an atrocious internet speed I could not even see the possibility of online teaching and performance, never mind the fundamental challenges not being in the room would bring. However, even with the propensity for people to inhabit a universe painted by Degas and their voices changed into untuned pianos, I started to discern that the Chekhov principles were the same, they did not change and it was simply a matter of discovering which of them was pertinent to the new online world. Above all people needed this access to the Imagination and Body even more than they did before. 

Once my internet speed increased and images and voices became clearer, I started to experience the possibilities. There was one particular moment in an early class when I asked people to radiate and move as if the walls of their room were not there and my heart expanded with what I experienced as it was as if the confines of their rooms exploded and I felt that all the boundaries I had imagined were not as much there as I thought.

At the very beginning though, I allowed myself to be constricted by the online possibilities, limiting movements and working in miniature, as if I was trying to get people to act in film. This flew in the face of all my beliefs about the Chekhov work, with its concept of using the whole body first, before the impact of a movement was concentrated within the body and then react intensely with the characters psychology. But soon I started to ditch the idea that you had to spend long periods of time with your nose in the monitor, like you were in your heads. Goodness, i thought, Chekhov technique encourages us to leave the domain of the head and there we were presented with talking heads in their own particular presentation cases like a museum…..this could not be the way to proceed.

There was one early class I remember particularly on psychological gesture and towards the end of class I realised i had spent the whole session on my feet. It felt really good and I realised I had spent far too long sitting down and that I had spent the whole class as if I was in the studio with the group. I remember remarking on it to them and realising (I hope] that this was what we all wanted and just as the walls can vanish and new worlds and atmospheres can be created by the actors’ will, so too could this reality be created even whilst at the same time we knew that some of us were thousands of actual miles apart. 

Having said this the link to the monitor is crucial, like a silver thread connecting you to the teacher and the rest of the group..it reminds me of an early Chekhov exercise I did in my training where you focus on something  in the room and stay aware and connected to it  as you move around and talk to others. Chekhov talked about building the relationship with the camera…this is not so much for the purpose of film acting so much as it is to link you with the group. And the more this situation develops the more I get a sense that there is a sense of the group, that there is a sense of connection with the people who come to class.

Another aspect to remember is that often when people come to the actual studio they often find it too challenging to relate the work to their everyday lives. Working on zoom completely stymies this somewhat distancing view of the work because it is happening there with you in your room. 

The other thing I love is that the classes can be international with almost no effort, that a group can hold people from all corners of the world. Whilst I charge for classes I occasionally do free classes for those who cannot afford it or have the interest and commitment to explore. I feel the online presence gives us that potential to offer such a thing with little outlay other than our time and skill.

a recent class in Atmosphere and A Christmas Carol

Having said all this, I am missing enormously the elements of being in-the-room , the physicality and the feeling you are in the room together doing this wonderful work. 

One of the most beautiful aspects of this place in which we find ourselves is connecting to colleagues from around the globe and discussing Chekhov philosophy, practical methods of teaching, exploring issues creatively and deeply and with humour. I am in a wonderful group of international teachers and feel an even stronger sense of community and support than i did before.

As peoples stamina (mine included) develop then I feel we can extend the classes into longer sessions. I still feel that anything longer than 90 minutes without a break is too much (but then that is also true of being in studio). As the technology improves and we as teachers learn how to use it, something i am beginning to find more and more fascinating, we will be able to do more and more. 

As the year has developed I have taught application courses for more advanced practitioners, and principles courses on certain aspects of the technique for mixed groups. I am going to work with a longer basic course next year, perhaps more concentrated , run a couple of specialist element courses, run some one day workshops with my colleague Declan and make two online performances . This aspect of the work reminds me of early television. it feels pioneering and intriguing.

If you want to be informed of later workshops beginning in early January, email chekhovtpi@gmail.com

WORKING WITH NOVELS – A CHRISTMAS CAROL

I have always loved the Christmas Carol; the story of how even the meanest closed person can reconnect with the world and in some measure makes some amends, atone for his cruelty. Despite the fact that the cruel and inhuman system of which he is a small but significant cog continues to grind on at the stories end, it is somewhat ameliorated by Scrooge’s more open heart and generosity. 

I have always loved working in workshop with poetry and novels, something not immediately like a play. Dickens’ work, though packed with fabulous characters and dramatic confrontations is still novel in form. It enables you to experience in a truly multi-layered way, what is happening . As the words and images dance in your imagination a whole multi-facetted response can come. If you want to stay with the story alone, with these other aspects lurking beneath, you may, and these images and atmospheres are still at play; alternatively you can give the images and atmospheres a free rein and see what happens and discover a side to the story you only half- believed was there.

In my approach when working with novels I have come to the conclusion that to focus on looking at images and atmospheres before the narrative can bear some rich and powerful fruit. How will that affect how we tell the story? 

In a workshop I led a year ago on Kafka’s The Trial, I decided to use the novel, even though I had done a very successful production of Berkoff’s adaptation in 2004. In the adaptation Berkoff had made a lot of creative decisions for us. As someone who has done a lot of adaptations I knew that choice and filtration is partly the job of the adapter so I am not complaining about this, but what became clear during this Chekhov exploration of The Trial was the facet of alternatives available when you used the novel itself (even in translation). You can read about this workshop on

https://maxhafler.wordpress.com/2019/05/21/like-a-dog-exploring-kafkas-trial-with-chekhov-technique/

Working with Atmosphere as the guiding spirit, the core of the work,  assisted by the images and rhythms  the author provides, the actor/creator can explore the text in a way that foreign companies approach Shakespeare often – through a different lens. This does not mean that the narrative is forgotten but it is not the most important thing – well, certainly it is not the only thing.

From the Trial workshop

There is one place left on this course which begins on Saturday at 12.noon – 1.30 pm. Email chekhovtpi@gmail.com

Creating where you are – My Site Specific Room

I remember when I was a child and played in my room. Areas of my room had a particular atmosphere or feel there . Under a table became a tent or a cave, a place of safety. My bed became a rocket ship . I closed the curtains and used a torch to create lighting. The room disappeared as I dived into my fantasy. The walls melted….

Like Max in his wolf suit in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

In the new course, My Site Specific Room,  starting on the 9th November, we have an opportunity to return to this absolutely crucial element of creation; imagination, atmosphere and energy. When I was a teenager I had a fantasy that I would have an imagining room, completely white, in which I would be free to imagine anything. I loved exploring the imagination; it made me feel fully alive.

As I became embroiled in the business of becoming a professional actor, I paradoxically lost much of my attachment to imagination. Acting became a serious material business. It was only with playwriting , teaching, directing and more especially my fortuitous discovery of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique which has as its bedrock the Imagination and the Body, when the Imagination reassumed its majesty as a creative tool. Working online, I returned even more to the core values of ‘lets pretend’. This is one of the great plusses of learning online at home, in your room…

 For fourteen years on the NUIGalway Drama MA I taught ensemble and devising, before it was the fashionable thing, and have worked extensively with youth theatre and applied drama on devising. One of the exercises at the Uni  was to give sub groups the opportunity to find a spot on campus they could explore and use and make the venue the inspiration for a short dramatic experimental piece as we brought the audiences to them. Pieces in a squash court, a ladies toilet, a long corridor with stuffed animals in it, a church ante-room… four of the exciting venues that were memorable. 

The Michael Chekhov Technique elements for the course will of course be atmosphere. What is the atmosphere of the room in which you are working? And of course Imagination, so that the piece you create is not about your past life in that room but comes from somewhere else. We will also work with composition elements  and tempo and variety  .

For instance, I use my study. If i sit in a chair in the corner I feel differently to when I stand at the window or sit at my computer.  Note how when you sit in your living room that you probably choose where to sit. You don’t even think about it. This is not necessarily ‘your chair’ per se.. I have a fireplace – how do I feel when I sit at the fireplace? Could this be the start of my story/piece… how does it feel to sit by the fire…maybe there is only a small fire in the stove…i am cold…. my story begins… who am I? who am i speaking to? 

In the course you will craft a 5 minute piece using where you are as your inspiration.  It could come from a corner or a texture or something about the whole room. 

if this is of interest to you then email chekhovtpi@gmail.com . We begin on the 9th. at 4.00pm GMT. there are five workshops! Below is a video link for more info

Video link https://youtu.be/G17m3GsFMzM