Over this last weekend I have been looking with the Chekhov Technique at a play I have previously thought opaque and difficult for me, Peer Gynt in the translation by Frank McGuinness.As Mcguinness says himself, Peer is “this creature I wouldn’t let into my house” and this was a feeling I shared . To be unable to empathise with the main overarching character might have been a problem and yet……..
Looking at this play through the lens of Archetypes, Atmospheres and Image Centres (all elements of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique), I started to come to terms with this difficult play which has struck me with an incredible sense of profundity.
When we are working with a play only for a weekend, Declan Drohan, my colleague, and I are careful to select particular elements, those we felt would be useful for the play/scenes we wanted to explore. Our subject was Fantastical Characters; how does an actor play a character who is not recognisable in the material world and yet also prevent them from being stereotypical, cliched? If, as Chekhov asserted, all actors are Artists, how do you make your version of the Button Moulder particular to your interpretation? How do we find a depth and a richness for the characters and situation?
From the fifth Act when Peer is an old man we looked at three short scenes. In one scene, we discovered what happens when Peer is confronted by various forms of nature; threadballs, leaves, wind, dewdrops, broken straws; they voice his regrets, taunting him. Even as I write, I realise how challenging this is to envisage; one might be tempted to ‘float off’ into some kind of ethereal mushy madness and use spooky disembodied voices. Chekhov was convinced that with commitment , everything can be found through activity, through the body, and we experimented with a Peer while the whole rest of the group became this group of non-animal objects. Because of the sheer commitment of the group what became clear was the way the whole of nature was reminding him of his failings and regrets. Each thing which spoke to him we felt was activated by shifting movement; nothing was still. As the group changed from one element to the other it was as if he was surrounded, as if everything he saw was telling him of his terrible mistakes and every time an element came and went he had the possibility for change and recovery. Then he found some excuse or reason to reject the advice of the various elements of nature and a new group emerged to warn him of his failings.Activating the scene in this way gave us an awareness of the energy in this act ; of these offerings given to Peer that he continually tries to reject or wriggle out of through humour, sarcasm, stubbornness or wiliness. It gave us a profound feeling of the rhythm of what happens when we are trying to force our way through anything. conflicting energies are constantly in play. On the page this scene looks ripe for cutting, worthless, impossible to stage; but at its core there was something incredibly powerful which told us something profound about Peer’s energy. Guilt comes in waves in this short scene as it does in life.
Peer has an archetypal energy; Declan explored the Hero and the Fool with the group; later we explored the Joker, to investigate Peer’s wiliness. Archetypal energy is not the whole of the character, but it offers us as performers an insight into something powerful which drives the character, something that can almost consume them. As I said in the group when we were discussing the Archetype , it is an ‘essence’. Chekhov uses the idea of Lion to explain this . There is an archetypal Lion which all lions have. It is not a stereotype but a real energy. One of the actors explored the idea of an old wounded lion in the centre of Peer’s body. This so transformed the young actor that suddenly he was this determined figure, weakening more and more as he searched for his essence in peril of his life.
Peer’s journey in this final act seems to be to try to discover what he essentially is as he does in the famous onion speech where he peels the layers of an onion to try and find its core. It has occurred to me that this is what we all do as we get older. Who are we? What really matters to us? Are we not all in our older days, trying to discover our essence, to find out what matters? It certainly resonates with me. This idea is more often referred to as ‘coming home’ but it is the same thing.
My partner, Tony, had a dream on the night the course was finished. In the dream, he was trying to walk home from a night out as he had many times when a young adult. It would have been bitterly cold, as he grew up on the North West coast of England. In the dream he struggled to reach his goal, exhausted, and was presented with various archetypal figures and a strange tower. It reminded me of Peer on his journey to find his essence, his home place, his humanity.
Back in the group, we looked at a scene where Peer is on a ship, searching, perhaps sailing home. There is a storm but before the ship capsizes, he is confronted by a Fellow Traveller, an extraordinary, cold scientist/vampire figure. No one else on the ship acknowledges the Traveller’s presence. We explored here the idea of Peer being in the storm while the Traveller remains still, unaffected by the gales and tossing of the bark across the dark sea.
The deep profundity of this exploration was quite something . It comes from the power of Archetypal characters far removed from our everyday world and our ability, through the technique, to access them in a deep and unique way.
Our next workshops are
NOVEMBER 12TH FROM THE SCENE TO THE SONG . (MAX HAFLER AND KATELYN RESSLER)
I will be working with Katelyn Ressler which will explore the differences in demand from the musical ‘book’ to the song it gives birth to. We will be using the Chekhov technique tools to help us explore.
Venue: University of Galway
NOVEMBER 2nd – 23rd ONLINE. TO BE FREE IN THE FORM (MAX HAFLER AND RENA POLLEY) 4-6 IRISH TIME. INTERNATIONAL ZOOM CLASS
This workshop is for those who feel stuck in their head or need to be in control of their audition or performance. Acting demands a feeling of spontaneity and play within the confines of a script. How do you find this freedom within the form? Using elements of improv, play and tools from the Michael Chekhov technique, we will explore how to spark and expand the imagination and then allow this to be alive within the structure of a scene. Online, as we practise, the container is your room, but within it you need to be free. You need to be Free in the Form. You need it for filming especially, as you might be asked to do things with specificity yet still find the much needed freedom and spontaneity within your scene
This online course is taught by Max Hafler from Galway Ireland and Rena Polley from Toronto, Canada.
DEC 10TH THE ACTOR IS THE THEATRE. 10-5
THE ACTOR IS THE THEATRE -DECLAN DROHAN
VENUE TBA SLIGO
I would be very interested in the online course to be free in the form !