Author Archives: maxhafler

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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

The Emotional Gym -Psychological Gesture

IMG_5164When I was first teaching Chekhov Technique, one of the participants said,  in the break, “This is like being in an emotional gym.” Of course it is always like that when you are working with an acting technique to some extent; you are seeking the ‘how’ to play the character; the ‘how’ to find the feelings; the ‘how’ to find the way they respond to things. This search inevitably involves some courage.

But to my mind, nothing exemplifies this exploration more than working with Psychological Gesture. This psychophysical practise where you are finding the sensations and the feelings within your body that will suit the character has a visceral quality that gives you the feeling you are digging into your soul, at the same time as expanding your sense of self. As we found in the recent course, it gives a sense of the personal at the same time as something universal.

IMG_5126Whilst the gesture encourages you to find the character’s intention, it does much more than that. Through working on qualities of movement you can discover how the character fulfils their intention, and through working on directions you consider where the characters energy is moving. You also find the character’s rhythm, which is not necessarily your own. By sustaining the gesture and radiating it outwards you can really explore what the character is feeling intensely in your body.  It is a vibrant, varied tool of discovery that produces a transformation and intensity in the performer which is for me unrivalled.

I always start by making sure the breath, body and voice are connected. I do this with every Chekhov class I do now. A common challenge to my mind for participants is not connecting the body and voice, and nowhere is this more of an issue than when practising gesture. There is no point in doing a psychological gesture and then having a weak voice which is not connected to it. You are exhausting yourself for nothing. I always liked Joanna Merlin’s idea that you made the gesture first, got happy with it, then you let out an open sound that came from the gesture before you started to speak the text on that bed of sound.

I have not unflinchingly taught gesture for a whole weekend for a while because I know it is demanding, and when you have a group with mixed levels of exposure to this work, to do two and a half days of gesture alone can be daunting. For those only touching the work it can put them off and, because there is less focus on the imagination than in other areas of the Chekhov work, the participant can feel less in control of the sensations and feelings the gestures invoke. However this last weekend I was determined because I am getting tired of just brushing the subject on a three hour class or at best, one day. Michael Chekhov Technique is so holistic that whilst I find it important on short courses to provide adequate prerequisites to lead the participant to the principal area we are exploring, it’s also important that we do not leave the principal area left with inadequate time to explore in depth. Everyone, I believe, who runs short courses has this conundrum to deal with.

IMG_5128PG, as it is called, is so crucial, so valuable, and I was determined that everyone would get some idea of the demands of it even though it was challenging. They would get a sense of their limits and know that was where they had to go if they wanted to break through them.

I am pleased to say that there were several breakthroughs of this kind and people explored new aspects of the way they might play a character and what the rhythm of that character might be. The rawness and truth of the rough scenes we presented finally were an excellent example of the power of working this way, reminding me that there is no way out but to find that rawness from somewhere, to deliver it safely for the performer, but to none the less, ‘go there’.

The next Chekhov weekend , THE REST IS SILENCE, takes place in NUI Galway, November 9-11.The 9th is just an introductory evening, the other days are two full days. We will be exploring the universe that is the pause, the silence, so often just an empty pose in performance, but we are going to fill those silences and make them to speak to us and the audience.

email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to reserve your place

My Kingdom For a Horse! -Opinion

After hearing great things about the Druid Shakespeare project which played in the tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2015 where they tackled several of the History plays and which I sadly missed, I was looking forward to RICHARD 3 which played in the Town Hall Theatre Galway for a week before going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.  Everyone I asked who saw the play earlier in the week praised Aaron Monaghan’s performance but were less complimentary about other performances and other aspects of the production.

Aaron Monaghan is a very talented actor and made a cracking start as Richard but as the production progressed he seemed to get lost in what seemed to me a very unfocussed production in both style and direction. (With my voice teacher’s hat on, and on the evidence of last night’s show, he also needs to do some serious voice work on the later scenes). In the end though, a talented actor cannot stand alone even in a huge role and needs the full focus and guided support of the other performers. Too often I felt many of the smaller roles were not inhabited either vocally or physically and they looked lost. Consequently, there seemed no world created by the actors in which the play could live.

Many people might think that it is the set, lights, music and costume which provide this sense of a world, this atmosphere, but these elements only partly contribute to it. In any case we were not helped by the design in this respect and nor were the actors. In a forbidding industrial set, the actors inhabited the space in sparkly colourful ‘medievally’ costumes. This contrast between set and costume went completely over my head and did not seem to be embraced by the actors.

In truth though, it is the actors and director who create a strong sense of the world, by the atmosphere they create. (Michael Chekhov calls atmosphere, “the oxygen of the performance”). Too often the scenes at court particularly gave no sense of the viciousness, backstabbing  and jockeying for position which is there in the play from the start. Interestingly the play has the feel of a Jacobean play, sharply juxtaposing comedy with horror and tragedy, even though it is a fairly early work by Shakespeare. This Jacobean sense was well served by some good editing.

Without atmosphere the actors are like fish in a goldfish bowl with no water. And that was the overall feeling it gave me. Every so often, through many of Richard’s early soliloquies, in the scene where Clarence is murdered and at least the first of the subsequent executions, the atmosphere would pour in and I felt like I was watching something with some dynamism. The performance of Marty Rea was in large part responsible for this. His emotional power and sense of inhabiting the whole of his character is palpable.

The lack of atmosphere and passion in the later scenes with the struggling, angry and grieving women was extremely disappointing. Too often I was playing out the scene in my imagination in response to the text and thinking ‘wow’ rather than watching the performers perform. Why was this? There simply was not enough emotional and vocal energy in those scenes which should tear me apart as I watch them. Are we not seeing enough of horror on the news to get some sense of what women are going through right now, trying to ‘speak to power’? These scenes had enormous potential to make these connections but I did not feel they were there.

In general, the characters did not go on a sufficient journey within scenes nor through the whole play. It is very tempting to believe that the energy of this play is Richard’s villainy but it is also about the culpability of those who choose to serve him and those who abandon him – a situation mirrored particularly in Macbeth as all the lords, one by one, change sides and leave Macbeth to his fate.

In terms of a character ‘journey’ let’s consider act 4 sc 4; the scene where the three devastated women meet. Queen Margaret, when asked to teach them to curse, says:

 

“Compare dead happiness with living woe.

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,

And he that slew them fouler than he is.”

She leaves and the two wronged women then encounter Richard on his way to Bosworth. Richard has to deal with his mother’s curses. Indeed, her emotional journey seems to be that she learns to curse effectively, to channel her rage. When she leaves, he tries to get Queen Elizabeth to collude in getting her own daughter to marry him. The scene with Queen Elizabeth, who has had both of her other children murdered by Richard already, is very challenging as she tries to express her rage and save her child and herself. In my opinion, Richard is beginning to fail once his mother’s curses have been delivered, perhaps even earlier when he is abandoned by Buckingham. Without this real diminishing of his power, how can he then be visited by ghosts and delude himself into saying he was not a murderer?

Finally, I would have to say that, whilst I understand the acoustics of the Town Hall Theatre are tricky, having worked there myself, there were too many times when people did not root their breath sufficiently. Without breath, all the passion and intensity for the character will not radiate into the space. Without rooted breath you may also harm your voice. A voice coach would have been far more use than a movement director in my opinion. On that note, there was some very embarrassing “ensemble” work and ‘fighting’ which I would have been ashamed to see in a youth theatre, never mind a heavily funded project going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Ultimately, as a friend of mine remarked, the real star of the evening was the writer. Whilst I still enjoyed the evening I was only occasionally moved. I was baffled as the obligatory standing ovation took place, and I and my friends stared open-mouthed at a lot of backs.

 

 

 

 

The Body of an Actor

IMG_4561Gesture is the result of impulse. It comes from the core of our desire to express something. But often we have forgotten this. We are kind of dislocated and unconnected to our bodies, to the feeling impulse of our bodies. This is our challenge when we approach the psychophysical technique of Michael Chekhov, to connect the energy and feelings to the body. Once we have gone some way to reconnecting this impulse/ body pathway, we can find the intention through the body. To find everything about the character and make us fuller human beings to boot.

This understanding of Chekhov’s practise is not necessarily assisted by ballet, acrobatics or fencing either, other than the fact that those disciplines make us proficient and aware of the body. Sometimes, in fact, if we have been trained substantially in strong physical disciplines like dance, it can initially be a bit of a hindrance. The gesture-training Chekhov encouraged is not some kind of offshoot of dance, though it can be used as an effective element tool within modern dance. Chekhov technique is about using the body as a vessel for sensations and feelings; to use it as a conduit for energy. If all this sounds airy, it isn’t. As soon as we start to practise using the body in this way we sense an openness within us to a wealth of possibilities we might never have thought of. Chekhov’s approach can be very specific as to the energies moving in the character by using this technique.

Psychological Gesture is a way of finding the intention of the character. What is the character trying to do and how are they doing it? It is not a realistic presentation of the character but how they are inside; what is going on for them.

Let’s suppose you are playing Antigone in Anouilh’s play. What might we say she is doing through the play? There are many ways to find this gesture, but why don’t we say she is trying to show/offer/expose something. She wants to show people their hypocrisy. She will not compromise.

See how this works for you when you offer something in front of you in a bold gesture with both hands, your hands palms up. When I did this, I tried to keep my arms out straight so this offering was not open but really focussed, as she is. I repeat the gesture over and over. I see what/if the gesture is generating a sensation inside me.

How do I feel when I make this gesture? I find that I feel defiant, a bit sanctimonious, both strong and weak at the same time. I am offering/presenting but at the same time I am almost offering my hands to be tied or restrained. My breathing gets sharp. Then I start to make a sound.. Then I say “I am going to bury our brother.” I feel this voice in my neck.  I feel a strong chest with energy focussed in my heart area . The offering makes me feel sacrificial but also self important. It makes me feel as if my energy is moving backwards even though it appears that I am aggressively moving forward. This one gesture gives me a whole psychology, not a heady discursive one, but something that is moving strongly and powerfully inside me, a psychology I can act with.

Then, supposing I use the same gesture slowly. I feel more vulnerable, more defeated… Amazing.

Before we consider that finding the psychology through a movement might be considered simplistic, let us consider our own lives. Consider how we are constantly meeting similar obstacles and dealing with them with the same energy in the same way over and over again. Psychological Gesture can be a physical manifestation of that very life reality. Indeed, most of Chekhov’s elements are about how we live our lives.

Of course, Psychological Gesture is not something we show as performers to the audience. It is a tool, an element of the work.

Within the body lies so much of who we are at any moment. It is quite literally a channel through which all our energies and experiences come. It is the manifestation of our history and even though so many of our cells are replaced and replenished through our lifetime, there is something that is manifestly us. It is alchemical and impossible to define, so much more than ‘body memory’. When you align this psycho-physical work with the use of a vibrant imagination, your potency as an artist flourishes.

Finding it in the Body, a weekend workshop in Michael Chekhov Technique led by Max Hafler Oct 12 [evening only] then Oct 13 and 14 [10-5] will be held at NUIGalway,Ireland. There are still a few places left. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further information.