Monthly Archives: December 2020

God bless Us, Everyone!

Here is, as Chekhov might say, my ‘lab assistant’ moment after four on your feet weeks looking at Atmosphere and A Christmas Carol. After the final session, I felt we could have gone on for three weeks as some of the participants started to create pieces around episodes in the book. It made me realise yet again the profundity of exploring something through the Chekhov Technique especially through atmosphere because it does not come through the direct route . What I mean is that exploring atmosphere is much less of an ego driven experience. You are not considering what a character is doing you are creating an atmosphere when as Lenard Petit says, “the atmosphere is playing you”; in other words you are surrendering to the moment and not involving yourself too much in whether you are doing it right or doing what the character might want. You are seeking the character who is responding to outside influences which your imagination is creating.

I said in my last blog that a rich vein for us with the character of Scrooge was a general atmosphere of Generosity surrounding , enveloping and swirling around a tight package of meanness . How the personal atmosphere dwelt in and managed the general atmosphere gave a strong prompt to the conflicting problems of Scrooge; how he managed them and how they made him feel. We had done some exploration of the atmosphere of the three ghosts, Past, Present and Future. But something we touched on yesterday were the Cratchits and a possible polarity in their situation and the atmosphere surrounding them . I suggested a personal atmosphere of happiness with a general one of drudgery.  It was extraordinary how, when the general one was added, the actors tended to lose a little of their sparkle in the greeting or work harder to break through the thick blanket of drudgery around them. The conflict gave texture.

As intrinsic as atmosphere is however, used alone it can give the characters a lack of agency and make them appear victims of everything that happens around them . It can also give the piece we create a lack of ‘feeling of the whole’. Whilst the reactions between personal and general may well provoke a response, they are not an act of will. So there is something the character is trying to ‘do’ irrespective of atmosphere, even though the atmosphere might distort and alter it. Let’s take the Cratchits again. Whilst on the one hand they may have a collective personal atmosphere of Happiness, amidst a General atmosphere of Drudgery, they are embracing each other, supporting each other, lifting each other, in very difficult circumstances; that is what they are doing, specifically and without that ‘doing’ we ignore the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of the character and the piece can easily lose its shape.

Without the atmosphere though, we lose what Chekhov calls, ‘the oxygen of the performance’. We need both.

Our work today made me feel that the book was not about Christmas at all, that Christmas was merely a symbol in the novel, a window of opportunity for us to be kinder to one another and see things differently; that Scrooge was Everyperson, not necessarily simply a mercantile miser from Dickens world, but someone given an opportunity , a magical opportunity to look at his whole life and consider how he has come to where he is, something we all do eventually, ruminating on our successes and failures, brave moments and cowardly moments, things we could have done better and things we should not have done at all. When Scrooge  accepts his life he then makes a choice and changes unequivocally. Ultimately we played a lot in class with the atmosphere of redemption/salvation.

God bless Us Everyone. (As Tim says)

Tangible Atmosphere

If a piece has no atmosphere it has nothing. An atmosphere is the place in which a character or situation lives. Without an atmosphere I do not believe a play or film can transmit much of anything.  Atmosphere can give you everything, psychology, character journey, motivation, a deep understanding of the world the writer has created. It is one of the great ‘intangible’ gifts given by the Chekhov Technique to illuminate and grow your performance.

I have been working with my Atmosphere/ personal atmosphere group online,  with A Christmas Carol . For those unused to this terminology, the Personal Atmosphere is one we carry around with us; it can be as modest as a passing mood or as strong as a sense of fate or destiny which fills and surrounds us. The General Atmosphere is one which permeates the environment we are in. It is more than this but let’s leave it there for now. 

In a previous session we had explored a personal atmosphere of meanness with a general one of abundant generosity surrounding the character which seemed to fill his world. Through this exercise, we began to discover Scrooge’s dilemma and the psychological dynamic (or a possible one) for his response. His rejection of Christmas was for him a matter of holding on desperately to his world view that life was mean and cold and hard.  Generosity was not just a nuisance, but a life-threatening sickness, which might bring his whole world view tumbling down. This incredible dynamic went far beyond the standard mean old Scrooge but allowed us to explore how he might lash out at those who refused to believe in the ‘Christmas spirit’. It reminded us all of how we actually relate to our environment and the energies which are around; that when that environment/general atmosphere opposes our view, what we carry with us (our personal atmosphere and world view) can often be the main conflict we carry in life. Interestingly, when I suggested to the group that they change the general atmosphere from ‘generosity’ to ‘grey’, immediately everyone settled . A few said they felt easier with ‘grey’ even though they were still carrying around this personal atmosphere of meanness because the general atmosphere did not rub against it. It almost justified their sourness.

General atmosphere falls for me into three broad categories; the literal environmental atmosphere (library, hospital, beach for instance) ; the visceral sensory atmosphere; (oil, feathers, gravel for instance) and the general atmosphere of feeling (suspicion greed love for instance). All of these categories have pitfalls. The environmental one can be too narrative (“What character am I in the atmosphere?”) the visceral one too literal (“but how can I breathe in oil?) and the third (“so there is an atmosphere of suspicion but why do I not feel suspicious?”).

It is easier to work with directions of energy and atmosphere when we tackle it using a texture or material or even a feeling. A way to find the direction of energy can be to breathe in the atmosphere and through your imagination allow it to shape you into a form or statue. You will soon find the direction and nature of the energy then. To my mind we should always use what is useful for our imagination and our work with the character and not get over caught-up iover-literal responses. By working with the directions of energy alone and experiencing the subtleties of what an atmosphere might be, this opens us to its full impact.

Because as artists we generate the atmosphere which appears to come from outside a much more subtle and powerful response can be gleaned for the character.  To watch how the participants wrestled in their meanness with the open generosity around them was a powerful reminder of what atmosphere can do.

Courses begin in the first week of January with INVITING THE CHARACTER which runs twice a week for a month, and a one-day workshop with myself and Declan Drohan exploring WHAT IS STYLE? email chekhovtpi@gmail.com for more details.