Simply Playing Cards.. finding Direction with the Chekhov Technique

Last Saturday, in our final class of a series which were about Connecting (to our selves, to each other as people and performers, and the character we played), a group of us explored Connecting to the Play, in our case, Anouilh’s Antigone

For some time we did several exercises getting the sensation of beginning and ending into our bodies through various exercises. We did this through journies across the space. If you think about it, every performance we go to see ought to take us on some kind of journey, ideally some form of transformation, if only temporary. Sadly this is not always the case. If you think about it, beginning and ending something gives it a tremendous significance. Even if we believe that life is formless and pointless (though we know we are born and will die – a pretty profound beginning and end), acknowledging a beginning and an end in a work of art gives it relevance . And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the story that carries it; it can have a beginning and end in feeling or movement of energy. It does not need to be didactic. Once you start playing with energy and images the effect can be incredibly multi layered and subtle.

We began to get involved in the beginning and ending of the actual play. After inviting the group to write down images as I read the beginning and the end of the play aloud to them, I wanted to emphasise the idea that “all art aspires to the condition of music” a quote by philosopher Walter Pater which heads up a chapter in Chekhov’s book. If we consider what that might mean, it emphasises that the performance of a play has an artistic wholeness, whilst at the same time affecting us on many layers at once, just like a piece of music does. One thing Michael Chekhov presses in his chapter on composition is that everyone involved in the creative team has to find ownership of the work in order to find their characters place within it, just like a musician in an orchestra. It has to have a Feeling of The Whole. As those of us who have directed or acted professionally know, the good actor is often considered the one who produces what the director wants rather than being an artist in their own right. Chekhov was never of that view; for him, “The actor is the theatre”.

To emphasise this feeling of the journey, of a transformation, that I spoke of at the beginning I invited the group to work with polarities from the beginning to the end . Of course this is not the only way to use polarities but it was what we needed here. We explored the idea that the play began with one polarity or opposite and ended with another. For instance, there is a brittleness in the beginning as the chorus introduces the cast of characters and a softness at the end as “a melancholy peace” descends. We could explore Light/dark; Life/Death; Avoidance/Acceptance; Noise/Quiet; Conformity/Rebellion… to name a few!

But we had not the time to work on the beginning in any detail; only the end. We made two groups who were going to create an ending or a number of endings for this challenging play. Chekhov was a firm believer in the idea that you could have a lot of starting points for a production. What better, with a play which puts up a challenge to principle and political rebellion to the audience than to focus on the ending? What are we trying to say with this play and how do we say it? When we stop speaking, what settles on the auditorium before the lights go down and the play ends? There were some wonderful examples of that polarised atmosphere that landed on the watching group as we began to explore and present possibilities. You could taste what was filling the room.

Many actors would have the horrors to attend a first rehearsal where you began at the end but for many plays it is completely appropriate. Reassure people that any good endings we find may completely morph into something different but that it would be useful for us all to imagine where we might all be heading. What this approach does is it  allows us to consider what the play might say; what our production might say to a modern audience. The actors need to be brought into this decision as I said because if they are not, the director might be ignoring a valuable energy within the group response. You also might be  making trouble for yourself for later as an actor rebels against your interpretation. 

The only proviso I set for their explorations was that everyone must speak and the chorus speech must be split between the group.

Both groups had an Antigone in their Chorus, though they were played very differently . In One group Antigone seemed the victim ( though less in one polarity/Atmosphere than the other). In the other, Antigone was the moral victor. Suffice to say whatever we decided were we to do the play , you leave the audience with a very different energy. All the pieces they made left an energy hanging in the air. An energy we could feel, consider and discuss.

More subtly, I asked one group to return  with exactly the same choreography they had developed yet play it through two different polarity/atmospheres, and I and the others watched, how this radically altered the ending of the play. It left a different feeling in the air. It said something quite different in the space. This was an incredibly powerful exercise because by retaining the general shape and the choreography but giving it a different impulse we were able to test out different possibilities with ease and speed, then come back and decide which would be better. .

We found a number of viable possibilities for the ending. All were strong visceral possibilities. Thrilling.

Our next few workshops this autumn are as follows.

September 10th/11th Two day workshop in the room on Actable choices auditioning; Declan Drohan and Max Hafler

October 8th/9th Two day workshop in the room on playing Fantastical characters. Declan Drohan and Max Hafler

Nov 1-22nd, 4-6 pm Irish time Online.

To Be Free In The Form. Rena Polley,(Michael Chekhov Canada) and Max Hafler

and in preparation !

Nov 12th One day workshop in the room 

 Max Hafler and Katelyn Ressler (more info to follow)

December 11th/12th. Sligo. Declan Drohan  (more info to follow)

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