Author Archives: maxhafler

Artist as Critic

Recently I put up a post on FB and then elaborated it on my blog about a show I had seen in the Galway Arts Festival, with a number of basic tenets and questions I felt the director in particular should have considered. As a director, theatre and voice teacher of decades experience and having paid for my ticket I feel I have that right to be critical or at least to raise these questions. Yet I know that many fellow artists feel reluctant to do this and I understand this reluctance because I feel it too.

I can understand why this reluctance exists. Artists are generally nice people and understand how hard it is to make a good piece of work. They also do not want to be considered as whingers and begrudgers. They could be accused of being bitter; they did not have the opportunity to involve themselves in this project with such enormous resources etc etc. Thirdly, of course, is the fear that if they do criticise, it may affect their chances of securing funding or other opportunities at a later date.

I well remember criticising a play in the Dublin Theatre Festival in a talkback where criticism was actually requested about the play from the audience. I felt as a published playwright with several professional productions to my credit that I had sufficient gravitas to comment. The talkback began and the usual wave of congratulations from the audience started. A specific question was asked which I felt more than equipped to answer. As I started to talk I felt the waves of hatred filling the theatre creeping up to drown me. I did not raise my voice but made some serious suggestions.  Recently in Cuirt, we began our talkback for Lorna Shaughnessy’s THE SACRIFICIAL WIND by telling people they could ask or say anything they liked.

I believe that we have a duty to comment on a piece of work, particularly if we feel it is not fulfilling basic standards. We need to be constructive. I actually made my recent criticisms as Notes to The Director  to be seriously considered, but I know they won’t be.  Often when you are involved in a piece with problems you know it yourself but you can do little or nothing about it because that improvement needs to come from the top. That’s what makes performers give defensive performances where they grit their teeth and use their gimmicks to get them through. I did it myself as an actor. I remember it well.

Artists are better placed almost than anybody to make constructive criticism and ask these tricky questions because we are involved with this work of theatre and love it with our hearts. If we are not able to criticise and discuss then how are things going to improve? How will standards be maintained? And by standards I am talking about vision, skills and direction.

I am not talking here about student productions or community work where the principal goals may be different; educative or trying to draw a community together to express something important which is vital and different to the goals of a professional production.

Members of the audience can leave dissatisfied and yet are not able necessarily to articulate why. We must try and open that debate more to educate them, so they expect more. It is our duty to comment.

Woyzeck in Winter

This is a note I put on FB today after seeing WOYZECK IN WINTER  part of the Galway Arts Festival. I repeat a version of it here because I felt it might be missed. I feel the project yields up a lot of questions/considerations for directors – some complex and some downright elementary. The show, a meshing of Buchners Woyzeck and the beautiful Wintereisse music was a bold and interesting idea with some talented performers…well i am not going to do a review of it.  I have no idea of the journey they went on and can only respond to what I saw.  I called this on FB , Notes to a Director

Please, especially if your production has a massive budget, get a fight director who can make a fight look real from ALL angles, and also tell the actors, supposed to be poor soldiers, how to split logs.

Never use traversing an amazing set as an an excuse to fill in time when you are not quite sure what to do emotionally, nor rely on superb lighting, music and paper snow to create atmosphere entirely.  The snow for instance , at the beginning when it was effective, implied to me misery, cold, starvation. I rarely felt this atmosphere coming from the actors and they were more than capable of generating it.

Overall, rely more on your extremely talented actors to do the work. Believe me they have far more resources than you think, especially if you give them the right tools to work with; and by tools I do not mean set costume lights etc. but their inner tools.

Allow the actor more expression of the characters journey, conflicts and polarities to prevent sameness, leaving the audience and characters ploughing the same furrow over and over again. Be ruthless with them if there is no ‘feeling of the whole’ because without it, I as the audience member will leave dissatisfied and indifferent.

Remember that pacey entrances and strong energy whilst they keep the audience involved are not the whole answer.

Have a clear idea of what you are saying with your production and make sure the whole creative team know about it and are willing to go with you on it.

Beware of microphones. Though they seem to create variety and intimacy, very often they hamper the artists ability to do just that.

Congratulations to Rosaleen Linehan though who carried an incredible beauty and weight to her role and made the opening and the last two minutes really special.

Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

Keeping those Cucumber Sandwiches Fresh! Working with Chekhov Technique

IMG_3278When rehearsing/performing a well known play, artists often  behave as if the audience already know every single twist and turn of a story.  It is unconscious – people often do not even know they are doing it. That dreadful mistake completely blunts the immediacy and urgency of the playing, flattens the pace, and often bores the audience who may applaud but leave the theatre unsatisfied without necessarily knowing why. It often belittles the work by making something very cosy out of something which can be much more visceral. This is a massive issue in Shakespeare but equally with Wilde, which I am working on with my group of fellow explorers in the comedy Chekhov and Cucumber Sandwiches course. It was only when we started to tell the story of The Importance that we realised how complicated the story actually was, how the series of ‘reveals’ occurs, and how it initially unravels the lives of Jack Worthing and the others.

The thing is that even if the audience have studied the play and do know it, you have to play it as if they don’t in order to keep it fresh and potent. This may sound so obvious that it is not worth saying and yet this simple fact is often totally disregarded. I have seen many a production of Shakespeare when this development of the plot is lazily and glibly presumed, and not in the way we know the ending in a Greek tragedy, say, where the foreknowledge adds to the import and weight of the tale. Do not misunderstand; this complaint is not an excuse for protracted ‘table work’,  but  the actor’s inability to be able to respond to impulses .

I remember when I was working on Macbeth in Galway decades ago, this was the first thing I said to them; we have to treat this as a play that was written last week. no one knows he is going to die; no one knows she will kill herself; no one knows he will become King and ‘get away’ with the murder[s]; no one knows that Lady M will not wake up during the sleepwalking scene and have the doctor and gentlewoman killed; No one knows that Fleance will escape. If you remember this, much of the play is delivered to you.

One of the great things about the Michael Chekhov Technique is it immediately rockets you from your comfort zone both as a performer, director and designer. A few years ago I ran a weekend on Importance and was staggered at its potential depth of situation and character. This is somehow often ignored in favour of the incredibly witty dialogue and the sophisticated veneer. One has to ask oneself of course, is this a comedy of manners, about a whole society, or is it also about the idea of people struggling to find their hearts in a privileged rigid world of do’s and don’ts, a kind of gilded prison of their own making? What ultimately should the audience feel at the end of this play? A smug satisfaction that everything turned out right ? A despairing comment on the folly of convention? As the group potentially working on this play we need to know. Michael Chekhov alerts us to the fact that we must know what we want the audience to take away when all are united and Lady Bracknell’s privileged world is saved from disintegration by some extraordinary coincidences.

Last night we made some extremely interesting discoveries through the intense ghost exercise, something I learned at MICHA (The Michael Chekhov Association) many moons ago; a character called Jack with dark and terrible secrets which are gradually exposed  only to eventually have the very key to his happiness within his secret life – as he uses his wealthy ward as a bargaining chip to buy all the young people their happiness; a woman called Lady Bracknell desperately holding on to a sense of Order; Miss Prism carrying within her her grief at the loss of a baby; Algernon, a fixer who plays the system but then who unexpectedly  falls madly in love with a beautiful young girl etc etc. This exercise not only enabled us to explore the darker possibilities of these characters but also find a whole trajectory for them. A great plus for the Chekhov work is how very very fast it is and how you can uncover things about characters and the play if you will but commit wholly with your imagination and your body.

The challenge for us now is to explore through the feeling of ease and the alchemy of the play, the possibility to transform these serious journeys into comedic possibilities. This is already starting to happen.

Comedy cuts

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Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond’s The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen. Me being VERY SERIOUS INDEED

As a young student actor I could never get the hang of comedy. For one thing, the kind of comedies we ended up exploring were so far from my experience (The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton was one) that I simply could not take them seriously. Even before classmates I would get the giggles when performing. I simply could not help it. I comforted myself that Laurence Olivier had had a similar problem as a young actor and hoped for the best that this giggling would stop. It took a long time and I comforted myself further that I was really a dramatic actor and that comedy was not my thing. I remember hating the idea that in comedy you were really,  it seemed to me, out to get the audience’s approval; that the result needed to be laughter or at least, a smile, and you knew whether you had succeeded or failed almost immediately.

Looking back, there was a misunderstanding of what acting was which caused the problem. For me at that time, acting had to be ‘real’. I was good at being emotionally true to my inner life, as narrow as it was, given that it was completely defined by my version of my young self. I had difficulty understanding the relationship between character, play and audience clearly; to understand that, whilst you had to enjoy the game of the play and enjoy making people laugh, you had also to work from an inner truth; that it was actually possible to do this. But you had to work on all of these levels at the same time to be effective. I would explain this now as truly activating the Higher Ego, as Michael Chekhov explains it, and developing the ability to shift the attention from the audience, the character, a consciousness of the humour and back again. It’s needed for all theatre work but for comedy in particular.

At LAMDA I remember exploring the Idea of comedy with an extremely interesting but misguided teacher who asked us to create something comedic out of a real tragic incident of our lives. This was an extremely unwise basis for an exercise and left many of us angry and disturbed. We attempted to recreate a tragic incident in a fellow student’s life who as a boy had hit a cricket ball which had struck and killed one of the fielding team. He had felt that he had killed the boy. This must have been extremely stressful for the student and was in addition very unsuccessful. All the improvisations based around this exercise were a failure. However, despite the fact that I strongly disapprove of leading a student into such tricky emotional territory, comparing tragedy and comedy is often a good place to start in order to define comedy and get a sense of what comedic energy actually is. Chekhov explains this simply and effectively. There are lots of safe ways to do it.

Then, when working on a student production we took to Edinburgh I began to get a feel for comedy, whilst working on a Japanese play when I played a messenger. I knew I was being funny in a stylised, physical way which felt more comfortable because I was not trying to pretend this was ‘real’. It broke a boundary for me and I enjoyed it and began to gain confidence in comedy. I got even more safely into humour in several tv plays as a young professional because there was no audience to contend with and through that I became much more aware of my own sense of humour and started to feel safer with it. Also, on TV,  I was able to hang on more firmly to the sense of ‘truth’ because there was no immediate feedback from an audience.

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not subtle but sharp and funny . Malcolm James as Simonides and me as Gnotho in my version of Middleton and Rowley’s OLD LAW 1990 . Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. director Tony Hegarty photo Amrando Atkinson.

But it was only later when I truly experienced the full contact with the audience that I started to truly understand the game that is comedy.; the constant movement of energy; the playfulness… and I started to really enjoy it. It was as if comedy required a complete acceptance of the theatrical experience which I felt at the time could somehow be ignored in drama or tragedy. I now understand that even with the most ‘realistic’ work, a degree of ‘radiation’ is essential . In other words, ‘real’ never quite cuts it – whatever that actually is. One of the things I found so liberating about the Chekhov Technique, something, by the time I found it I already knew, was that theatrical artistic truth is a completely different animal to ‘real’

Very much looking forward to my course Chekhov Comedy Composition and Cucumber Sandwiches which starts on Tuesday in Galway

The further from my own home I get – devising theatre for the ‘abroad’

One of the fundamentals of creating theatre is to share. It is an act of sharing. Nowhere is this more true than when you are devising with a group, and especially when the group is devising a piece of theatre based on their experience. So it was with an American student group from Principia College whom I met for two periods of devising; once at the beginning of their trip, and once at the end. The devising of their piece around their trip to Ireland, what they experienced both literally and emotionally, is the subject of their dramatic piece. Indeed this process is not over as the summer intervenes and they recreate and further develop the piece next term with their drama professor John O’Hagan.

I have devised many pieces, particularly with young people’s groups, and with this piece in particular it was important to share the idea that this was not a lecture or a slide show, but a feeling response to their experience. This highlights for me what is absolutely unique about a theatre experience; a direct response from the hearts of the performers pouring their energies into the theatre space, either through the filter of character and story or in this case, the more direct route of their own writing, and their own experiences.

It is very often the case that initially students come at devising very intellectually and make thin work. Once the feeling response starts to happen and the instincts kick in, the work gets deepened. It is wonderful to watch this opening up to the “intangible” as Michael Chekhov would say. Only when you approach the intangible and start to use and express it can an audience truly get a sense of what the experience was like. “Atmosphere” is a very valuable tool in accessing this intangibility, particularly in this group when they wanted to get a sense of place, for example, Dublin, Belfast or Tara.

Whilst you need to also play to the group’s strengths (all of this group could sing beautifully) I am a firm believer that it is unfair in all but the most basic of circumstances not to develop the skill level in the group, so I always mesh a number of skill workshops in with the devising to help the participants maximise their power; except in exceptional circumstances creation is not enough. So in this series of workshops we meshed tools, ensemble, voice and devising together. There was of course a large Chekhov component; we used the imagination and the body first to find expression, which freed many of the students up and widened the range of feelings they could express. Meshing devising and skills work is complex in that you have to choose exercises to suit the material they produce on the day so the leader cannot prepare the exercises in advance, except in a broad way.  You as the leader risk more but you also gain more when the magic comes and their devised material is enriched by the skills you have offered.

Because we were always dealing with the participants’ own material it was vital to show the utmost sensitivity towards it. The deviser is usually revealing something about themselves directly, especially in written solo work. It is often not appropriate to use this material as an acting exercise and push the student into difficult areas. A play enables more of a distancing between the actor and the material. It means students can be more robust in their acting because they are playing the impulses and feelings of the characters rather than themselves. The work is seen through the atmosphere and situation of the play ; it is not theirs but they nonetheless have to inhabit it in order to perform successfully. Often with devising the work is very very close and as a leader I am aware of a delicate balancing act, which often involves how much they want to reveal.

This, along with rules of composition which we touched on and the creation of a rough structure and some deep honest work was the total of the time i spent with them. it was amazing to actually see them in their first tentative days and then in their last days in Ireland, like a beginning and an end in itself. Thanks for such an enriching experience.

I will be returning to atmosphere specifically in the summer school Journey Through Atmosphere,August 24 -27th being held on the NUI Galway campus. We will be working with Pericles, a play with a myriad of journies and atmospheres. Plays with Journies, like devised pieces about journies seem to me to have atmosphere almost as their engine. check out http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for info or contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

So what next?

In addition to a series of theatre devising with a visiting student group,  I will be teaching workshops through the summer months. For me actors often do their best work in the workshop environment. We all need that space to develop our work. We are freer and discover more. The trick then is to take that freedom into the rehearsal room and the performance arena. To do that we need to feel confident that the training we have absorbed has become our own, and even then we have to keep fresh, keep touching base. I myself am committed to going to train every few years. 

Here is a list of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops.

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Chekhov/Shakespeare Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

Comedy/Chekhov/Composition/Cucumber sandwiches

June 20th-July 6th. Galway City

June 20 and 22
June 27 and 29
July 4 and 6
6.30 – 9.30  each night.

In a twice weekly evening session [18 hrs training] beginning the  20 th June for just three weeks, this course will play with Chekhov technique with comedy using Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. this work comes out of a highly successful weekend workshop done some years ago and will explore how using the Chekhov approach, completely new expressions of the play can be found. Suitable for actors, students, directors, designers [as long as they like to perform]

cost 90 euro

to book your place email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. you will need to send a deposit to secure your place.

Journey Through Atmosphere: NUI Galway August 24th – 27th.

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From the recent workshop Expressing the Invisible. Naia Martz and Fiona Quinn..photo John Mchugh

Following on from the highly successful Exploring the Invisible summer school last year, Journey through Atmosphere focuses on two of the most important aspects of the Chekhov work.   A performance takes us on a journey and through that journey the character takes action. A strong tool for an actor to discover the character journey or indeed the journey of a whole play is through psychological gesture, a way of using the body to unearth psychological actions and qualities for the character .These actions do not take place in a vacuum however and the workshop will spend an equal amount of time on Atmosphere and how it influences what the characters want and how they act. By combining these two Chekhov tools, participants will be able to take these two powerful tools into the rehearsal room. 23 hours training.

The play we will be working with is one of the epic ‘journey’ plays, PERICLES by Shakespeare which travels through a number of ‘lands’ each with their particular atmosphere.

apply by email to chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  check out the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

cost 180 euro.