Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

 

 

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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.

The Sacred Space

“a place where prayer has been valid”. T.S Eliot.

I have rehearsed and worked in many strange and often inhospitable places but whatever has happened I have for many years tried to instil in people a respect for the space. When we make work we can do it anywhere under the most challenging circumstances because, of course, it is the work that is important. However, the work exists in a space and if the room is cold or inadequate it can be a huge challenge, because that space tells everyone whether you and your work are respected in an institution or by society at large. As artists are continually under-valued, this issue of a clean, resourced and purposeful space can be a sensitive one.  I feel we are very lucky in NUI Galway to have a new theatre building which has two lovely studio spaces.

The whole concept of space is fascinating. Right now, Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland is remounting Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and we are taking it up to the prestigious Heaney Homeplace in Northern Ireland. The venue is beautiful and extraordinary with a theatre inspired by a Greek Amphitheatre. The audience are on three sides with tiered seating . There are more seats at the sides than the front. When we performed the piece over a year ago in the Cuirt International Festival in Galway Ireland,  in the Town Hall Theatre Studio, a small end-on studio space with seating on the long side of the studio, it made for a wide stage space. The piece, extremely powerful, was very still, confessional, and formal. This space was almost entirely the opposite type of space to the Heaney Homeplace.

Working within this almost promenade setting in the new venue has given us the opportunity to open up the piece into a much more physical almost Shakespearean presentation, in the way the characters explain and justify their actions around and during the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In fact, and this is what is most interesting, it is the space itself which has demanded this change rather than any demand of mine or the actors. Things we used to find gloriously effective do not alway work in this different configuration. This is not merely a question of the technical considerations but something that happens when people inhabit a particular space and creating a new dynamic.

When I start teaching next week with my undergrad group on Shakespeare, part of the course involves looking at the shape of Shakespeare’s theatre and how that structure affected the nature of the drama and the way the plays were written; particularly with relation to the connection with the audience which the thrust stage provides.

And do these shapes and spaces not have something to do with atmosphere, that most potent element explored in detail by Michael Chekhov in his technique? That the shape of the space and its purpose help create an atmosphere uninfluenced by those who enter that space? That the atmosphere has, of itself, great power and its own demands on what happens within it?

IMG_2367_2 copy

Orla Tubridy Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning – The Sacrificial Wind

Catch The Sacrificial Wind at the Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy Co. Derry +44 (0)28 7938 7444 on the 22nd September 7.30 http://www.seamusheaneyhome.com

or on the 28th September Free performance at the ODT on campus at NUI Galway at lunchtime 1pm . You will need to arrive early to ensure a seat.

The Feeling of the Whole.

IMG_4945This four day summer school, “A Little Piece of Art’ has been one of the most exciting teaching projects I have done. With my group of 12 intrepid explorers, with a wide age range, working as student actors, actors, teachers and directors it has been a diverse yet at the same time homogenous group of varying experience in the Chekhov work.

The title comes from Chekhov’s assertion that everything we perform is ‘a little piece of art’. Everything has a preparation, a beginning, middle and end. So every moment in a play contains this truth. This is not so much like a ‘beat’,  but more like a flow of energy, a tune that exists in a piece of music.

Our task was to explore and discover the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole using sections of The Cherry Orchard (by Uncle Anton) . These two aspects of Chekhov Technique have been very much in the forefront of my thinking lately as I see so many theatre pieces, both plays and devised work that are formless; so that even though they hold good pieces within them, they leave me empty, as if I have wasted my time. I have been considering also how to teach directing through Chekhov Technique, finding aspects of the technique which are crucial to both actors and directors alike. I found out that Form and the Whole along with General Atmosphere are it.

Whilst I was in Grozjnan in Croatia at an extraordinary Chekhov teachers’ conference organised by Michael Chekhov Europe and the Michael Chekhov Association earlier this month, Joanna Merlin, the Founder of the Michael Chekhov Association, said that she felt that the technique needed to be taught to directors. I feel this very strongly myself as it is only then that the actors will fully feel they have permission to work with the method, and will seriously learn it. Also, because Chekhov’s approach is very much ensemble based, it requires a whole different level of thinking as to what the director does, what the relationship is between the actor and director, and how the group creates the play together.

For instance, we considered and worked mainly through General Atmosphere, on the episode in Act 2 of The Cherry Orchard when the house party meets the Passer By, an extraordinary character in the play. The character appears for only three minutes unnerving the group like some kind of ominous future, carrying a portentous weight as to the meaning of the entire play. How that character is played has an enormous influence on the production and the audience’s connection with what the play might be saying. The director cannot decide this on her own! It has to be done in collaboration with everyone or the actor will feel alienated and used. Chekhov said, “The Actor is the Theatre” and whilst I think directors are vital, Chekhov is really right. There is no point in imposing concepts on actors. What’s more it belittles their contribution.

Sometimes, when I lead a course, I really feel I want to explore something. Perhaps this is wrong and perhaps I should be more rigid and set upon the various elements of Chekhov technique in a methodical way. Sometimes I do do that. But if you want to explore, you have to take the whole group with you, and you have to make sure they have the requisite tools for that exploration to take place or you are simply exploiting them. On short courses this can be quite challenging. In Grojznan a couple of us had some very interesting talks about short courses and what elements they should contain. For myself often what text you are using [if you use one] might dictate where to start.

IMG_4870One thing Chekhov discusses is that you do not need to start at the beginning of the play to explore it. As we were working on a play which had lots of people in it and very few duologues, I decided to use very short pieces around climaxes or episodes with a lot of people in them, no more than a page. So for instance, we used the lead up to the arrival of Ranevskaya and the family, the Passer- by episode, and the end of the play. We had done some good lead-in on Radiating/receiving forms in movement and text, ideal centre, impulse and general atmosphere . Of course what we did was rough, we had done very little character work other than possible gestures/journies for the characters, but we found nonetheless that there was something interesting and valuable there in terms of form, of a feeling of the whole and of general atmosphere. something valuable we should not have found so powerfully nor so easily through other techniques.

And that brings me on to the difficult topic of Application and whether you should do it or not…. another day.

More weekend classes in the autumn. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to get on the mailing list