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.
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.
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 email@example.com