Monthly Archives: June 2021

Artistic Choices

Lately I have been thinking a lot about directing through Chekhov Technique and how to help people  make choices, given the myriad opportunities offered through the Chekhov elements you can apply to a role or production. How does one make these choices? It can be confusing! These confusions are in all acting techniques of course, but with Chekhov the palette we create with is so utterly rich that it can seem overwhelming. When I first started with the Chekhov technique I was extremely daunted by all available possibilities for the character and when I asked one of my extremely wise teachers, they said, “there will just come a time when you will know what to use.” To some extent over the years, I have found this to be true but when you are teaching the technique in short courses or for a production, people need to feel some confidence quickly or the technique they learn may well stay locked in the workshop (or Zoom) room. It is a leap that people have to make between understanding and trusting themselves and the technique, and then learning to filter out what works for them for a particular character or production. It is something I am working with a lot with my Hamlet class.

In The lightbulb-like Chart for Inspired Acting in Michael Chekhov’s On The Technique of Acting, it is suggested that once we find one element and light then lots of the other bulbs will ‘go on’ automatically. There is some truth in this I think; when you discover an atmosphere for a character , an imaginary centre may come automatically or a vision of the physical body of the character. However, I would suggest that starting from an atmosphere, for instance will not necessarily yield the same results as when you start or express the character through psychological gesture. The character might have a different sort of base line or emphasis.

I wondered if there might be a way of actually putting the exercises into further categories to help us make decisions about what to use. Whilst on the one hand this feels horribly compartmentalising it might feel something like clarity. Forgive me because you will need to know something about Chekhov Technique to get the most out of this.

When I am directing I look at the play, consider my available timetable and then decide what elements I have to focus on. I would not focus on the same elements if I was directing The Importance of Being Earnest as opposed to Othello. Of course there are other considerations; the level that the actor is on, and how comfortable they are working with the technique. There is also the issue of time constraints. 

It seems to me there are overall three types of Chekhov elements (I try to avoid the use of the word ‘tools’ which does not feel right for me). The first covers the basic range of the instrument; the Four Brothers; opening oneself to the power of imagination: radiating/receiving (which includes centres); understanding and developing sensitivity to directions of energy(understanding the body as a membrane or vehicle for energy) ; listening and acting on the sensations and feelings thrown up by gesture in the body (looking again at directions and qualities of movement) ; understanding and being able to use these elements of the work by concentrating their effects within the body and letting them act on you. 

Secondly there seem to be the elements of the work which are primarily expansive  and imaginative like atmosphere , both personal and general , archetypes, imaginary centres; elements which puts the performer and character in a kind of imaginative vortex, more powerful than we ourselves, whilst at the  same time with us being the creators of it. General atmosphere appears to come from outside us yet paradoxically, we are the creators. In this second group i might suggest that the imagination leads the Body

Finally there are those elements which give us structure; psychological gesture, Form, basic centre, triplicity, form and polarities. These are elements which seem to provide a somewhat structured understanding to our creative endeavours and give some of the more imaginative and expansive elements, a definite focus.  In this case the Body tends to lead the Imagination.

If this is true, and I would be interested to hear your comments, then I wonder whether this helps in any way to assisting with choices for actor or director. If you ask the question what do you need for the character/production most importantly at the start, putting the exercises into three basic types might be helpful. 

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Through short scenes we can find a whole world, a whole production or a whole direction for the character if we only have the courage to embrace them…

Michael Chekhov gave a particular suggestion when directing which can be terrifying to actors, He suggested not to direct the play in sequence, to sometimes take the performers by surprise. It suggests to me that working with short snippets of scenes from all over the play, can actually open the doors and reveal amazing aspects of the characters’ relationship to each other, and suggest the atmospheres in which they might exist.

In the course I am leading called TO BE OR NOT TO BE each participant creates their imaginary production in which they will play the central character of Hamlet. They then apply things they have discovered about their production to one of the big central soliloquies of Hamlet. So we begin in directing territory and continue into acting territory. Michael Chekhov says in To The Actor:-

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all-embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part in full harmony with it.”

My thinking behind this is to link directly our imaginative discoveries to the performances we give, and stop over-thinking and over-talking to the extent that  these ideas remain just talk and do not feed into our experiential performance. The discoveries we make in workshop through our imagination can be revelatory and huge. Describing your image of Elsinore, or getting into your body one word or theme the play might be about  through gesture takes you off into worlds. This is similar to another thing teachers notice all the time, a question they ask…How can actors who produce amazing work in workshop find it so hard to use that work to make their performance deeper? For the word ‘workshop’ here you can substitute the word ‘rehearsal’. This course is an attempt to tackle that issue with my fellow explorers. 

Though everyone is to ultimately play Hamlet (which shows an extraordinary abundance of Hamlets and an amplification of the idea of Creative Individuality , something which underpins Chekhov’s work) we spent time exploring Hamlet’s relationship to others. for some reason Zoom lends itself to exploring these powerful moments. I don’t know why, perhaps because we are more focussed on the face of our partner. In the most recent session we explored rich short exchanges of big moments in Hamlet. Hamlet and Horatio as he attempts to tell his friend that the Ghost of his father is walking; the moment the Ghost tells his son that he has been murdered; the short exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet when she returns his gifts, and finally the initial exchange between Hamlet and Gertrude in her bedroom. 

We explored first through expansion and contraction  and then experiments in our pairs through particular Psychological Gesture. This opened up a wealth of possibilities One thing that occurred to me (we were an odd number so I partnered one of the group) when I was working as the ghost is that HOW the ghost  gives Hamlet the news, perhaps with love, perhaps psychologically lifting his son in order to prepare him for the massive task in hand, or perhaps entrapping him and forcing him to take revenge or a whole myriad of other possibilities completely dictates aspects of the production way beyond how I, the actor, Max wishes to play the role. Obviously with the actor playing young Hamlet this is an obvious observation but it is true of any of the major characters.

This is proving an exciting exploration and one which is hoping to help us really connect the role of the actor with that of the director and enable participants to truly connect their vast imaginative plain with the root of their performance.

After this course which ends in two weeks, CTPI is taking a break till the end of August where we will still be online. More on that later, and on my upcoming book, “What country Friends is This?” on Shakespeare, Chekhov Technique and young people which has been delayed due to Covid but which should be out before too long published by Nick Hern Books