Lately I have been involved in interesting discussions particularly around Atmosphere, one of Michael Chekhov’s prime elements to creating work.
For those who are reading this, the idea of atmosphere might sound a bit perverse. The actor imagines an atmosphere surrounding them and affecting them . The atmosphere can be anything from a literal environment like a library to something material like dust or feathers, or perhaps even something more abstract like Hope or despair. Again for those new to this approach, moving in an atmosphere of hope does not mean that you, the character, feel hopeful. In fact depending on the character you might find the atmosphere of Hope terrifying . The best way to consider Atmosphere might be, the weather. There can be a storm but we still go about our daily business. The way in which we do this will be changed, our mood will be transformed by squall or sunshine, but we may well still set about to pursue our objectives.
Recently in my class using A Christmas Carol on Atmosphere, we found that the atmosphere of generosity had a curious effect on Ebenezer Scrooge. A tightly closed man, it was positively painful for him to admit this general atmosphere into himself. He had to make everyone as closed as him in order to justify his existence.
The great thing is, the general atmosphere is about response and the performer can never predict how the chosen atmosphere is initially going to act on them even though they use their own imagination to create it. A magical and surprising thing can happen, a completely honest unexpected and immediate response which gives you a colour and focus to the character. As Lenard Petit and others say, you ‘let the atmosphere play you.’
People can be sceptical about Atmosphere, because it sounds dangerously like it could be flowery and esoteric. Materialists might say WE only create atmosphere by our presence in a space. You have only to walk from one room to another in your house to know that atmosphere is there and whilst people contribute to it, it is not the only energy in play. It’s a question of being ‘where prayer has been valid’ (Eliot ) and that affects you whether you (or your character) believe in prayer or not . You might not respond religiously you might push away the religiosity and assert your view that a cathedral is a beautiful monument and respond to it like that, but you still have a response.
And it is not necessarily an element to use in something esoteric like Yeats. You can use it in the most realistic play. A few years ago working on the tumultuous and beautiful act three of Anton Chekhov’s Three sisters with some post graduates in Galway, I wanted to explore the idea of the atmosphere of a room and parts 9f a room (something I have got people to do a lot during lockdown classes). I talked about the atmosphere in the hallway outside ( there has been a fire in the town and they have taken in frightened people ) as being one of chaos and disruption , the room in which Olga and Irina sleep which is the stage setting has the feeling of a sanctuary… we all know parts of our house/flat like that. When they crossed the threshold into the performance space you felt they had come into this different cooler darker space where they could reveal more of the truth about themselves…We even created a sleeping chair ( several of the characters fall asleep in this act) which seductively called to those exhausted characters.
This intangible stuff has its own palpable logic. When I start to teach it, I always start with the direction of the energy and the weight of it, so if you say church for instance, everyone does not immediately close their hands in prayer or think ‘what do I do when I am in this atmosphere… maybe I am a priest or a supplicant or someone looking for sanctuary?’… these narrative threads which may well jump out at you are not the point, not to start with anyway.
A place of worship is weighty and womb like. It holds you and lifts you in some way. It is often silent yet full..though there will be differences in how we respond to it, there will be something similar provided we are not pulling in our own particular immediate memories as the root of our response but something more fundamental, something universal we can trust. You can actually feel this even when you are working with a group on Zoom.
next course PRINCIPLES : ARTIST :WORKING TO CREATE WITH THE HIGHER EGO. 12th March – 2nd April 4 Sessions , i per week.4.00 – 5.30 email firstname.lastname@example.org. tutor Max Hafler
Michael Chekhov’s concern with the Higher Ego allows for us as performers to acknowledge the workings of the actor as Artist and to acknowledge that when we practise our art a holistic alchemy is being expressed and explored. These four sessions allow us to experience the Higher Ego as something palpable and real, that can help us in the creative process. It allows us to be the character and the artist at the same time. It allows us to be inspired.
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