Author Archives: maxhafler

Adapting with Chekhov

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In 2003 I directed a production of  Kafka’s The Trial in an adaptation by Steven Berkoff for the Cuirt Festival of Literature with Galway Youth Theatre. It was a success. We revived it, took it on tour to England and got an incredible review in the Irish Times by the late Eileen Battersby.

Berkoff’s stark version is intensely theatrical, a full throated ensemble version of the text and the young actors threw themselves into the performance with enthusiasm and precision. Berkoff demands an ensemble be onstage throughout and be focussed, disciplined and inventive. In that we were extremely successful.  However, looking back, the adaptation itself has a hard unbending edge to it from the very beginning and affected where we went with it.

I remember reading the novel before I did the production and really missing the kind of mysterious depth I feel is in it, a kind of overwhelming onset of thick darkness as if the unfortunate Joseph K is drowning and cannot escape. There is the feeling of a labyrinth in it, different from the empty doorframes Berkoff used in his adaptation and we used for ours. In the novel K is a much more likeable chap than the uptight guy created by Berkoff. I never saw his own production so maybe I am misjudging it. But for me that harshness in the adaptation meant that the production was hard to evolve. It was hard to make a journey. Indeed, the way it seems in the adaptation it seems like it is K’s nightmare which does not give the other characters anywhere to go. As we were working from that adaptation, I got the actors and designer to embody that view, which was theatrically effective, but also lost something.

Maybe you always lose something when you adapt. I have been interested in adaptation for a long time, having, in another period of my life, written a lot of plays and made a number of adaptations for theatre companies in Ireland and the UK. Right now I am writing a book about Shakespeare and part of it is about editing and transposing; how it can be successful and how it can be a disaster.

I was teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway for many years and over my final years with Ensemble, more and more of my Chekhov training was coming into my approach; imagination, qualities of movement, atmosphere, gesture and composition were incorporated as other things were let go. Composition and Form are particularly important as there is such a danger in adaptation and devised work that a piece can lose its thread and become shapeless.

I have always been a big believer that the Chekhov Technique is not only for regular plays but for a much wider body of work, and more people are using the work in that way. So in the weekend of May 17th -19th for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  I want to look at episodes in this novel, The Trial, and explore them through the Michael Chekhov technique, to see if we can find something different, something deeper. One thing I have found with the Technique is that I always discover something new with anything we look at in these courses.

If you wish to attend, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to place a deposit and book your place. The weekend is being held at NUI Galway, runs from May 17-19 (The 17th is only a short evening session). The cost is €90 for the weekend.

 

 

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Body

IMG_5703In many plays, the idea that our character has a different body is generally limited to how we are clothed, our size, a disability perhaps, or age. That’s if it is specified in the text at all. Yet our bodies are the vessel for everything we are.

Like most things with Chekhov technique any accusations that our exercises are ‘floaty’ are completely refuted by the fact that what the technique explores is the reality of things as they are; in this case how we relate to our bodies and how the character relates to his own body.

In our workshop this weekend, as we explored the troubled characters in The Crucible, I began by asking the group to make considerations of their own bodies. This needed to be done with a degree of delicacy and limited sharing; the most important thing is for the actor to experience the body rather than talk about it, in any case. I asked everyone to consider how our bodies affected how we dress, what colours we wore, where our weight was centred, what parts of the body we liked and what we didn’t like and how those responses affected our every move; it is a sobering thing for actors to consider and experience. If we like our hands we are going to move them differently to how we would if we don’t like them. If we think our lips are attractive, we will use them differently.

So what if the character has this interconnected relationship to their body?  By putting on the body like a coat, we can find out.

This work on Imaginary Body goes so much further than just creating a convincing and particular shape for the character; it gives you a huge part of the character’s psychology. The body dictates how we breathe, our level of confidence and health, the tensions which build up in us; as we age the frame is restricted  and can freeze us into a cypher of everything that has happened to us through our lives.

How we relate to the body makes resonances and echoes in every single thing we do. To take an example, if Abigail Williams is aware of her sexual power from the start it makes a very different character to an Abigail Williams who does not.

Furthermore we have the impact of the environment on the bodies of the characters. On examining the hands of the characters, we considered those who had soft hands and those who did not . That one fact created a whole layer to a possible world; those with rough hands, physically strong but somehow in another world from the likes of the preachers and judges who govern the play. The soft-handed are trying to preserve their status, maintain control and impose morality upon the townsfolk. How do they feel about their hard-handed brethren? Do they feel superior, closer to God, fearful, guilty about their own inactivity?

It was interesting how both the power of Imaginary Body and Character Centre created really strong atmosphere on their own in our studio, though we did little work on atmosphere directly. It reminded me of Chekhov’s Chart for Inspired Acting where Chekhov said that if you inspire just one area, if it is effective, many of the other elements of the scene will fill effortlessly. Working for a good while on the idea of everyone having a centre that was a large spade brought the smell of the earth into the room; a sense of digging in; a world that was rough and shifting as the characters spoke to each other.

Very powerful.

IMG_5698The next Chekhov weekend is Actors Are Magicians, working with Form , atmosphere, directions and Tempo principally. It is here in Galway and runs from Friday evening till mid afternoon Sunday. We will be working on chapters of The Trial by Kafka. It is for Directors, actors, students and devisers. book by emailing chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and visit the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

The Invisible Voice

IMG_5579The voice is invisible. And, as Michael Chekhov technique is about “making the intangible, tangible”, there is something which connects it to the creation of voice, even though Chekhov did not address voice too specifically in his writings. Through my work I am attempting to further these connections as I feel there is something magical about these sounds that come from the caves of our bodies.

Words are vehicles for energy, thoughts, feelings and concepts. Through the breath and the body we express all of these things. There is an alchemy that happens between people and words. In order to achieve this alchemy, we need to connect voice, body, feelings and imagination. To have a full voice, we need to make this holistic connection, with each of these elements influencing and feeding the other.

That was what we set out to explore and express in this workshop, The Epic Voice which was held this weekend with twelve artist/explorers as part Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s Spring season of Weekend workshops.

The question for me was; what is it that colours the language and makes it so profound and full of meaning? Is it what the word sounds like? Is it the rhythm? Is it our response to it? is it an image we have when we imagine the word? The answer we came to is that it can be any or all of these things, but one thing is for sure, that if your whole being isn’t involved in its expression then, especially in poetic drama, the performing artist is missing something fundamental. We explored physically and through sound, several single words. We discovered that if we explored a word merely by its sound or rhythm, it did not always take us to an authentic place. Sometimes it was our response to the word that was more important.

Then there is the actual direction of the word. So much of my exploration of directions, (A Michael Chekhov concept) has been stirred by Lenard Petit’s exploration of directions of energy. Words are expressions of energy as much as a gesture or movement. If we express the word ‘Hope’ through movement alone, we automatically make a move forward and upwards. If we make a movement for the word ‘memory’, we are dealing with the backspace.It is something coming to us from behind. If you get a sense of the direction of the word in your body as you speak it, you can feel a new dimension to your text.

Working with voice is so much more than technical dexterity and diaphragmatic breathing. Without breath we have no power to radiate anything. Whilst we need the technical tools, they are very far from being the whole thing.

IMG_5608We worked on two pieces primarily on our workshop; ‘Afterwards’ by Thomas Hardy, a poem which on the surface seems slight and whimsical, about his passing and what the neighbours might say about him when he was dead. For the record, this poem is used as the centrepiece for one of Seamus Heaney’s Oxford lectures, recorded in the book, “The Redress of Poetry” which alerted me to its attempt to build a bridge between the spirit world and the everyday (though wonderful) life of the country. The second piece was a piece of Yeats; the opening speech of the Musician from The Last Jealousy of Emer. Much development of atmosphere was done on these pieces and some interesting work done. Curiously though, what we discovered was that one of the pieces did not hold its power as well, when the group started to ‘set it’. It immediately became a bit mechanical. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to discuss process over product, and how with Chekhov all you have to do is commit to the image, commit to the gesture or atmosphere and the performance power will be there. Rather like Thomas Hardy you will be bringing these extraordinary spiritual elements to the mundane concerns of the everyday world.

And then, in true alchemical style due to someone having to leave the workshop early, I found we had an hour to explore something else. i had intended to do this earlier, but had not found a place for it. in two groups, the participants  take the piece and then create a musical soundtrack of it, using instruments and sound alone. No words from the poem were allowed.You had to more or less follow the form of the piece you were using. This exercise gives you a sense of what is important, what is the form, what images are important and what is the general mood or feel in a way that just reading or intellectualising it can never do. it gives you a strong sense of a direction for the piece, that, had we time to return to the original spoken work using the poem, would have influenced it a lot. it was fitting end to our exploration.

IMG_5585The next workshop Imaginary Body,Character Centre, will be working with a well known play and using two elements a performer can explore in their private work developing character. To book your place, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or info@chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com the workshop is March 29-31 and will be held in Galway.

The Vessel and The Soul

Imaginary Body and Centre through Michael Chekhov Technique.

People often ask me, “How ca51090851_617034175402228_8035195185824530432_nn I use Chekhov training in my everyday rehearsal preparation, when no one else in the room uses it?”

Of course as actors we have our private work, and in that space we can easily use the technique to help us find the character, whatever others might be doing.

I have often encountered intransigent actors using more dogmatic approaches than Chekhov Technique who announce in rehearsal “the character would not do that”, effectively stone walling the creativity of their scene partner and the director and writer too. I personally find this a rather puzzling and insulting approach but it partly comes I believe because the professional actor so often has to compromise his art and therefore his whole belief in himself due to circumstances (bad directing, no money, bad script) so he digs his heels in and just says ”no”.  He has decided on his character through his private work, and that’s it.

Private work can start with some premises but has to be developed when you radiate/receive with your scene partner. If you had a different scene partner they would radiate/receive respond/differently and so you would have to change your performance or risk ending up looking as if you were “acting in a box”.

Unlike some other techniques, Chekhov technique allows a more labile approach. It allows you profound private work but does not build walls around you. It accepts and encourages flexibility.

Imaginary Centre is an extraordinary element of the technique which asks you to incorporate an image into your body through imagination; a lighted candle; a fizzy drink; a lonely person at a street lamp; a paper bag. This image is something core as to how the character behaves and feels; how they see themselves. It can be inanimate or animate, whatever helps the actor connect with the character. Furthermore this image changes the impact on the actor profoundly if it is put into different parts of the body. For me, at some level, this image is the character’s soul.

The soul is clothed in the character’s Imaginary Body; a detailed body; not just their height, colour, hair and age; but their scars, hands, eyes, the way their body breathes, where their tensions might be. You cannot change your body completely, but you can imagine what it might be like to have such a body. And what I love about this, is it acknowledges that what your body is like affects how you behave.

And this is not observation, traditionally used in acting but the use of your imagination. Chekhov says that observation is useful and has its place, once you know what you are looking for.

“The desire and ability to transform oneself are at the heart of the actor’s nature.” Michael Chekhov.

These two elements alone can transform a character and create a dynamic within the actor’s body which makes an exciting character. The body especially can make for miraculous changes where the person absolutely feels they have inhabited the character.

For me, of course, it is not only the body which can change, but the voice also does not have to be the actor’s usual voice , and to that end we have a full house for The Epic Voice which starts this evening for the weekend.

Imaginary body, Character Centre is being held at the end of March, (29-31) here in Galway. If you wish to apply, email info@chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com or chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com.

 

 

Team Teaching

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Photo courtesy of Michael Chekhov Europe

Last summer I attended an International Conference for Michael Chekhov teachers in Grozjnan ,Croatia, hosted by Michael Chekhov Europe and the Michael Chekhov Association. Grozjnan is an extraordinary medieval village set on top of a modest mountain with stunning views of the countryside. The weather was extremely hot and we spent the first part of our trip exercising and sharing practically and in the second part of the conference, sharing our work either through discussion or exercises. It was truly international and well attended.

Most importantly of all it enabled us to meet and talk. I met many of the teachers who had taught me, and some of those I had trained with. I am sure I am not the only person for whom it drew together a lot of strands of our lives. We had talks by many of the amazing artist practitioners and the way in which they had employed the Chekhov work in professional theatre and applied drama.  I also became aware of many new translations of Chekhov’s seminal works To The Actor and On The Technique of Acting in different languages. It was a truly inspiring week.

Most of all it gave me a sense that I was not so isolated in teaching this work. It is strange, tucked away on the west coast of Ireland feeling as if, for the most part, you are really ploughing a furrow alone. Importantly too, it stopped me feeling an eccentric, or some kind of exotic fruit.  But now we see that this work is being taught more extensively in theatre schools and universities in the UK, the rest of Europe, the US, Asia and South America . It is also wonderful to see a new wave of books being brought out either directly about the technique,  or books like my own Teaching Voice and the one in preparation which, whilst not being about Chekhov in total, uses it as the bedrock of all of the work.

Furthermore I feel the Chekhov work is more than an acting technique (in fact all acting techniques are more than that) it is a way of seeing and experiencing the world. It makes you more sensitive to image, atmosphere, to the energy in your body and to the way you respond to others and they to you. As it emphasises the role of the artist as someone who “makes the intangible, tangible”, it affirms that the ‘intangible’ actually is something that can be experienced, felt and transmitted.

Chekhov technique involves us in a very different idea of what the actor is; an instinctive artist who delves deep into the imagination; that acting is not solely interpretive but creative in the way a sculptor, composer or a painter is creative; the action of the character is like the clay or the paint for a sculptor or painter. This sits well with many theatre makers who are often the authors of their own work, but even when this is not the case for you, Chekhov Technique gives you the feeling that you are creating your own totally original version of the character.

I have not team taught since I did a youth theatre project some years ago. I was a bit nervous about it. But I need not have worried about it . It was a great experience. I met Declan Drohan who works in the Institute of Technology Sligo teaching theatre, at Grozjnan. We thought it was weird that we had only chatted on Facebook, considering we lived only two hours or so away from each other. We resolved to run a workshop together. We settled on using Chekhov Technique for Solo Acting,

Team teaching, it seems to me, is like jamming in a musical duet. But you also need to be really organised, respectful of the other and above all, to be aware of the rhythm of the other person. You need to be careful not to undermine or ‘pull focus’ when the other teacher is in full flow. and remember that the students are making the connection with the other teacher when they are teaching and not to disturb that too often, as it can be very irritating to the student. I think there needs to be an acknowledgement that the two teachers are sharing that connection with the class. If there is something you feel needs to be said about something the other person is teaching, you bide your time until an opportunity appears when you are leading or you forget about it because it is not the end of the world if, at that moment, that piece of information is not passed.

The students get more contact time,  because you have more time to side teach a little. When there is only one teacher and you focus on one person you are very limited as to the time you can spend with them, because you need to be mindful of the atmosphere and focus in the whole room. When you are team-teaching you can absolutely relax.

Declan and I are hoping to do another workshop together some time this year. Thanks and gratitude to him and also to the exciting full-throttled group who came to Enter,An Actor and produced some powerful and invigorating work.

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actors working on atmosphere.

The next workshop is The Epic Voice, February 15-17 and Imaginary Body, Character Centre March 29-31. There will be workshops in May, June and a summer school in August. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

Assessing Artistry (Strictly Come Dancing and Marking Graduate and Undergrad Performances)

One of my guilty pleasures has got to be Strictly Come Dancing but this is the first series that I have ever watched through to the final. And interestingly, the issue of assessment, who is best in an artistic endeavour which is highly skilled and requires an incredible amount of performance flair, determination and courage, has been the subject of much debate. There have been discussions on TV about fairness, in particular, the unfairness of pitting contestants who have some dance background against those people who have none. On Strictly, to a certain extent, the way they deal with it in the final is ultimately through a “let the people decide” kind of vote, where the judges give some kind of advisory scores and comments and the audience vote on the winner. The assessment of the judges seems to be on merit; that of the audience seems to be based on a sense of who has made the biggest journey and still delivered to a high standard. This means that even though they might not have technically been the best, the length of journey and the way they coped with that journey also comes into focus when people decide. (Just to be clear, I wanted Stacey and Kevin to win – I didn’t think they would).

On the other hand, some might say this is a competition, so should the people who were simply the most skilled in performance, win?

This brings me back to my ‘real’ world; marking for performance on a course which is not strictly a drama training but at the same time has a strong measure of performance in it, on which students get assessed. Some of the students want to be actors; others not.

What does marking actually do? It gives us as students and lecturers alike a sense of what skills and knowledge a student has received and understood. Through performance one gets  a sense of whether they can apply it.

However, it does not actually mean that the student who performs their scenes best and shows the most promise is the person who actually gets the highest overall marks if they cannot back that up with some academic understanding. Furthermore, the journal they submit to me is key to both my understanding not only of their progress, but how well they actually did in performing their final speeches or scenes. For me, it gives an insight into their journey and how far they have come. Without the journal, an assessment of the performance would, for me at least, be almost impossible.

This approach of assessing a whole number of levels of understanding, has the possibility to be quite holistic. This is not true of many conservatoire courses, too focussed on preparing people for ‘the industry’, which do not spend sufficient time on wider educational goals, setting out alternative careers for those who have learned the many transferable skills that the conservatory theatre training gives you.

On the other hand, without some performance proficiency, which requires putting in a sizeable number of contact hours for student and lecturer alike, it is very hard to assess whether students have really understood, in the way that matters most in art, experientially, holistically and through doing. Performance practise cannot  ever be about seeing merely whether your intellectual ideas stand up,  because if it is, there is inevitably a fragility to the practical work, which results in a kind of wishful thinking that if only people had the skills, then something amazing might have happened. The reality is that without high performance standards then no performance can effectively be made, except in rare circumstances where the piece itself is completely geared to the particular actor’s limitations and strengths. The relationship between practise and intellectual rigour is a lively one and should be encouraged, but without sufficient practical contact time it is incredibly hard to strike that balance.

 

 

Transformation

IMG_5226Much of an actor’s best work happens in the studio. It is the most exciting thing I can imagine, when you see someone transmit a discovery, which completely takes them and the rest of the group by surprise. Over my teaching this year I have seen these things happen with dazzling frequency, in particular in my Michael Chekhov acting weekend workshops and courses. A main plank of the Chekhov philosophy is that actors have an inate desire to transform, but this can only be true when we understand that we must not let the ego get too much in the way; that we do not make the character as much like ourselves as possible but, instead, accept that we are capable of a massive palette of emotions, characters and energies.

Sometimes people see this studio work as being ‘wasted’ because no one sees it, but the truth is that not only does the actor experience this transformation, not only do I as the group leader feel enhanced and delighted, but as importantly the audience of other participants see it too. I feel also that it gives us all the courage to plough our furrow as creative artists in a deeper and more significant way in a sometimes indifferent, commercial world.

On the other hand, there is something elusive about an actor daring to put what they have learned into the professional realm, especially when it comes to Chekhov. Actors are afraid people will feel others will think it is weird or ethereal, and only some of the Chekhov elements can be fully used in the commercial jobbing world. Actors often do not trust the amazing work they have done, considering it a ‘one-off’ in the magic toyshop that is the studio. They have to make that leap and understand that is not the case.

IMG_5211 3Of course, these acting tools are elusive and take practice. How many times as actors, teachers or simply human beings have we tried to replicate an experience that falls short of the initial occasion of discovery. That is what technique is about, of course. It gives you the pathway to be fresh.

More than technique, this is about an attitude to life, art and the pathway you follow for that work. In acting, it is about saying to the universe, ‘let me see where these Chekhov pathways take me’ then going there; being open. It is about never being complacent when you practice, that every time you step into the rehearsal room or studio or perform that it is always new to you.

This is the last CTPI workshop until late January [25th-27th] which I am doing with my colleague Declan Drohan, as I finish term, enjoy Christmas and make space for my new book. The monthly weekends in 2019 will include one on Voice and Chekhov, one on Shakespeare and Chekhov, and a beginners workshop on Body and Imagination.

The photos are from the recent workshop The Rest Is Silence.