Put me into good fooling!

IMG_3885One of the things that has struck me again and again in this preparatory week with the exuberant and talented student actors at the Centre of Drama Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway is the joy of working with young people, their boundless energy, talent and enthusiasm, such as may elude them if they enter the world of ‘the profession’ . It also reminded me of the issues.

When working as a professional director you expect to develop a vision at a high and competent level because the actors have most of the skills you will need, well they are supposed to. Of course this sometimes falls short with certain individuals as clashes of style develop between performers and directors, and often between performers themselves. In actual fact, the collaborative element in directing, whilst important in both professional and student spheres, is much easier to achieve with young people and hence paradoxically  the work is often ultimately more interesting despite the youth of the group and the fact they have to work harder at skills.

Interestingly, and I find this more and more as I get older, it seems that any vision I have needs to be tempered by the young people. They are coming from a very different place to me and as the exploratory week of the production evolves so does my sense of direction, because it is not just mine but theirs. This does not mean that I just go along with their wishes because sometimes, from inexperience, they are not seeing the play in a deep way or perhaps in a way what seems like a good idea at the beginning is going to become derailed by the needs of the play itself (Actually many professional productions suffer from this problem too – what seemed like a good idea at the start goes wrong).

In addition what is important for me in that first week is assessing their individual strengths and challenges . It is nearly always true that in the beginning the student actors after being free as birds in the first week where the story is explored through sound and the body suddenly come up against the needs of the text and the expectation they feel is there. ie talking in an English accent. While I always do a lot of physical voice work based on Michael Chekhov Exercises which promotes variety and grounded truth, the old stalwarts of breathing and diction are frequently serious challenges. Whîlst on the one hand I wouldn’t want to over force the practice, on the other hand without decent clarity all the depth in the world will not be radiated through the text. Weeks 2 and 3 often have this constant feeling of a plane landing uncomfortably as adjustments of time and focus need to be made. Once the lines are understood and learned, we can really play again.

What keeps emerging from our work with this play is this deep sense of loss and loneliness in so many of the characters, that the search for love is a search to forget loneliness. Maybe the play says that no matter how hard we try we are always lonely; that in relationships we save ourselves from loneliness but to some extent sacrifice our identity. This is an interesting if rather sad thought –  and particularly because the play is a comedy.

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Teaching Voice Review –

I am so delighted with this review in Youth Drama Ireland , particularly as it talks so lucidly about the the holistic nature of the voice work and the use of M Chekhov in connection with creating the expressive and free voice.  Looking forward to running another FEELING VOICE weekend after the production of 12th Night in FebruaryReginaCrowleyReview

What country, sir is this?

So asks the shipwrecked Viola as she reaches the shores of Illyria , traumatised , bereft of a brother and embarks on a story of love, passion, drunkenness, identity and disguise. Whîlst away in a place by the sea, I have been using some of the time to fully consider the overriding metaphorical feeling of the piece, and to find some unity of purpose, and a feeling of the whole. I considered the influence of water in the play, not in a literal sense, but alchemical and astrological. This, I feel, is something which scores the play.
The element of water in astrology and ancient symbolism has a strong connection in this play. Water signs also rule drunkenness, wildness, sex, love, madness, chaos , loss of identity, death. Oh, and music! ‘If music be the food of live play on’. In fact, almost all things ‘the play treats on’ to quote another Shakespearean comedy, are ruled by the element of water. 

 

I have watched the opening of a number of 12th Nights on YouTube and most have seen fit to put the Shipwreck scene first. On the grounds of naturalistic narrative this seems to be a sensible juxtaposition. If we consider the Tempest, the storm makes a violent and powerful opening . But by this change in 12th Night, Viola, in many ways the spine of the story, is pushed too far into the heroine mould. The play becomes about Viola. However, even though she is in the most scenes the play is very much a team effort. It is about a world, many facets of a way of being.

The first offering I watched on YouTube ( and I have to confess I watched only sections of each production) was the Renaissance theatre production from the late 80s by Kenneth Branagh. Its Dickensian feel, though powerful, seemed humourless. Anton Lesser as Feste and Richard Briars as Malvolio were in battle from the start, but for me this was too dark. It needed to be fun. I think there is a massive challenge here to give equal depth to the polarity of comedy and tragedy so much a feature of this period of drama and a polarity which this play exploits considerably. The play has so much darkness bubbling beneath and yet you let it dominate at your peril. 
I then moved to a late 60s production by John Dexter starring Joan Plowright and Ralph Richardson. Again Viola’s scene came first. Set against a beautiful painted backdrop of a romantic land, Viola was the noblewoman still with her belongings, including fetching chiffon scarf. When I say Viola’s scene came first, the first part came first. We then moved to the dashing Orsino, and in the final moments of his scene saw Viola watching him, and then deciding that she would disguise herself and work for him. She fell for Orsino on sight, which as he was played by the dashing Gary Raymond was not too surprising, but it gave the character of Viola a naturalistic spur to her actions.
The first comedy scene was excruciatingly dull and dated. Sir Ralph as Sir Toby ŵas doing a Falstaff riff opposite a Maria who appeared to me rather lost, condemned to a chaste delivery in a racy costume. The scene had little connection to the world of Olivia’s mood or house, and everyone seemed to be sleepwalking through it, hoping that no one watching would confess to not understanding it. Tommy Steele as Feste looked now modern and interesting, perhaps because we knew he was a Feste himself. 
Then there was a bizarre Russian production with a sultry, wicked Viola. I love the way that the take of Eastern Europe on Shakespeare is so refreshing. There were dancing clowns and a trio of chanting mandarins in Orsino’s court. It looked very spoofy, and very design-led…. Fun for ten minutes. It too began with Violas storm.
One film that did not begin with scene 2 was a film of an Australian production set in modern dress with fabulous music . It felt very stylish but superficial. I think there is a massive danger with 12th Night to be over committed to style, to romanticism in a very superficial sense. The play, though it is a comedy, needs really digging into for its juice and heart to have as M.Chekhov would say, “a feeling of the whole”.

Finally I saw some scenes from the feted Globe production with Mark Rylance as Olivia. This had to advantage of being filmed at the Globe before a packed audience. 
It was hilarious. 

Where has it all gone to? 3 Sisters discoveries from Anton’s nephew!

In the final presentation of my MA Chekhov Technique class, six of the students performed the opening of Act 2 of the 3 Sisters by Anton Chekhov. As we worked on scenes from the first two acts, each act had a prevailing general atmosphere and for Act Two it was helpfully suggested by one of my students that it was fog or mist. This seemed a perfect atmosphere for the act as everyone starts to radically lose their way without really knowing why. it gave the characters a sense that things are not quite right. By using this general atmosphere, the first scene of Andrey and his wife became a  tragic pivotal scene with them losing each other, rather than watching a weak man dominated by a wily desperate woman. Andrey became a lost confused soul and Natasha a woman full of disappointment testing her husband to see if he would ‘man up’ and take charge of the house.  With regard to the ‘fog’ the whole cast of characters is on its way to confusion but at the moment it is not possible to quite discern what is wrong.  Anyway, this wonderful idea for an atmosphere fed not only the act but the whole play with a what was for me a wonderful new direction. This is the wonderful thing about atmosphere and indeed all of Chekhov Technique work – it leads you to avenues you would never imagine possible without over-engaging the intellect. The Higher Ego and the Creative imagination are the leaders of our creativity.

In an earlier class on Chekhov’s theory of composition this group started to look at the idea of good and evil in the play and someone said it appeared that the family and their situation create a vague hole into which evil creeps..” In a way everyone is culpable; all the characters, not just the usual culprits – Natasha and Solyony. The fog/ mist atmosphere really brought that out.

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations through our work was in tackling the comedic aspect of the play. In Act two Vershinin and Masha come in from the cold night about to start their affair. This scene played very passionately by my two actors was interupted by a raging exhausted speedy Irina desperately trying to cling onto the idea of going to Moscow, pursued by her puppy Tusenbach .She is totally oblivious to the sense of subdued passion in the room as Masha and Vershinin try to act normally. The resulting scene kept the tragedy and comedy running side by side, and I learned something.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of many of Chekhov’s full length plays working really as comedies whilst at the same time retaining the human tragedy of the characters. I have seen some very unsatisfactory versions at each end of the spectrum, treating the play as high tragedy and others at uneasy comedy. And now I wonder. Is this comedy in A. Chekhov’s play rather more like the idea of tragicomedy which exists in Jacobean drama and which I am very familiar with. So the playing engine of the work is not that one scene is serious and one is funny but that both of these qualities exist in the same scene at the same time. This dynamic rubs against its opposite like it does in the best tragicomedies of Thomas Middleton, actually heightening both tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Interesting.

 

Making an Entrance

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Ronan Cassidy, John Cullen and Mary Monaghan in workshop

‘She really made an entrance ‘. We all know and understand this saying instinctively as we have all entered a room for a party or an event and felt eyes on us. I am fascinated by this element of performance and my next workshop MAKING AN ENTRANCE, LEAVING THE STAGE NOVEMBER 24TH – 26TH is going to consider and explore it with the participants.

In the past, in what are euphemistically called ‘well made plays’ often bound for the West End or Broadway, these entrances and exits were often punctuated with histrionic moments as characters came and went. A particularly campy exploitation of this power is present in James Goldman’s hit play THE LION IN WINTER from the 1960s . This comedy, based on a fictional meeting between the royal family of Henry 2 (which was later made into a movie) gloried in outrageous witty remarks made as people came in and out. Ultimately this process became formulaic and was often not rooted sufficiently in the reality of the situation nor did an entrance move towards an exit emotionally. The movie tried to redress this balance by setting the whole thing in a freezing castle and offering some more in-depth performances. However, the play for me is superficial and little more than a series of witty exchanges. However, it tells us something. It tells us that something happens to the character as they pass through the scene and that movement must be a genuine movement even if they do not make their objective. The fact they fail in their objective is an emotional movement in itself. It is a journey. As Michael Chekhov would say, it is “a little piece of art” from entrance to exit. Chekhov’s exercises which explore this element of form help the actor to give full meaning to the entrance and exit as a small beginning and ending to a journey we the audience are privileged to observe.

So how do we make the entrance meaningful and yet not melodramatic, taking advantage of the moment when we come in to the space as the character?  After all the audience is full of curiosity about who we are , where we have come from, what we might do and how the characters already onstage respond to your presence. the way we do it is by radiating our energy, not necessarily in a grand fashion but in the subtler way of imagining the energy emanating from our entire being.

I remember Philippe Gaulier saying in a workshop I attended, that when you entered the space, even if you did nothing more than bring in a message, for a moment you were the most important person on the stage. I am not always sure that it is quite true for every entrance or character but frequently it is so, if only for a few seconds. Certainly the audience is highly interested in a new character, a new energy entering the space. Their curiosity is aroused, even if what has been happening up to your entrance is pretty interesting. A new energy, a new dynamic opens to the audience; a new perspective. When the new actor is somehow not tuned in, the whole performance can be mortally wounded, because it is really disappointing. Your entrance is like your part in the relay, your piccolo solo in the orchestra, your dive into the swimming pool. You have to be sensitive and ready.

I think more than anything you have to bring on the atmosphere of the next room or wherever is immediately off stage. When I say the atmosphere, that’s what I mean. I do not mean the colour of the carpet or what pictures were on the wall necessarily, but what it feels like to have walked through that outer room. I remember seeing a really good actor coming onstage as if coming from a snowstorm, hanging up his overcoat, shaking it, shivering a bit, chatting away rubbing his hands etc. Despite all this carefully observed detail, all I could think was, ‘wasn’t that clever?’ At the time I did not know why but now I think I do. The details meant nothing without bringing on the atmosphere of the street. What he did felt to me studied and external, however accurate it might have been.

And then there is the past. I remember watching an exercise where actors were asked to imagine the past of their characters in a long chain behind them as if they were at the head of their life parade as they made their entrance. it reminded me of Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol. Of course, what is in your ‘life parade’ might be holding you up and propelling you into the room rather than holding you back.

Then there is the impact your entrance makes upon the others in the room, to say nothing of the audience. Right now I am working with some students on the opening of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Something came up where we had to consider how everyone tolerated the strange Solyony. He enters making an irritating remark. |These continuous objectionable and insensitive remarks exacerbate an atmosphere thick with the past even though everyone is attempting to celebrate Irina’s birthday. We should immediately consider him an outsider. For me, he has a personal atmosphere which collides with the general many times. The connection between the personal atmosphere of the character and how s/he adapts to the atmosphere in the room is an absolute key to making the first moments true for yourself.

Making an Entrance, Leaving the Stage is now taking bookings. It takes place on November 24-26th [ a weekend]. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and check out the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

Messin’ with the Bard

shakespeareThe last time I mentioned the subject of editing Shakespeare quite innocently on FB there was quite a strong reaction –  a ‘don’t mess with the Bard’ reaction. These remarks made me feel quite the revolutionary! For the last two weeks, on and off, I have been cutting and shaping a production of 12th Night which I am doing with college students in Valentines week 2018.

So how does “messing with the Bard” work so that we don’t make a mess of it? First of all we need to acknowledge a few things.

1) Shakespeare did not write all of the plays alone nor were the plays fully written down so certain errors are inevitable. This co-writing frequently makes for whole sections of repetition which to my mind is not just reminding the audience about situations but it happened because the plays were sometimes written piecemeal by different people. The brothel scene in Measure for Measure is classic, where the same information seems to go round and round and lines have to be cut and reassigned for the scene to make any sense at all.

2) Why are key players in the stories frequently missing from key scenes? Answer most probably because they were playing another character in the scene. (why is Maria totally absent from Act 5 of 12th Night? Why is Cassius missing from two key scenes before Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar.? Could it be that he is playing the ailing Caius Ligarius?

3) Most scenes have very long lead-ins because in a stage with no ‘lights up/lights down’ actors needed to keep the energy going and so they enter talking -.often these intros are simply to get the people on the stage and the scene really starts about 8 lines in. This is not true of every scene but it is true of many.

In Peter Brook’s fabulous slim tome Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare,(Nick Hern Books) he talks about what we do when we, as directors, change things. He says directors can do what they like, yet there is always a trade-off with every single decision made. If you modernise a design too specifically the play is inevitably not illuminated but reduced. That’s his view and I share it.

If you change the order of something, there are consequences. Let’s look at Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the RNT which originally began with ‘To be or not to be’ instead of the ghost scene on the battlements, which I understand was returned to its traditional place after some kind of outcry. I never saw this production but let’s examine what changing the position of this speech says to an audience. It says  clearly, ‘This play is about Hamlet, and everyone else is relatively superfluous’. It says ‘this is not about a world of corruption but an individual’. It’s about a star role not a world. In Zefferelli’s Hamlet , which starred Mel Gibson, the Ghost did not appear until Hamlet met him. This made for a tension and apprehension for anyone not familiar with the story and enabled the audience to play with the idea that Hamlet is imagining, or maybe he isn’t. It gave the play more of a kind of ‘thriller’ engine. Unfortunately, I felt this engine ran out of juice before the end. Whether you agree with my assessment or not, these two examples of textual adjustments have a profound effect on the response of the audience and the trajectory of the piece. So Peter Brook is right, you have to be careful ….

But….

I don’t know about you but I get heartily sick of Shakespearean productions in which actors crack dirty jokes which no one understands nowadays, then in order to help us understand the actors laugh lasciviously and make some kind of crotch-grabbing gesture to which everyone onstage responds with hilarity. The audience then laugh and everyone thinks they did their job. This tedious behaviour has been happening for decades! Therefore something is revealed; many of these jokes have to be cut because no one, including the actors, really ‘gets’ them. THIS IS NOT A CRIME .It is simply facing the facts that some of Shakespeare’s work is really hard to communicate to a modern audience. Some jokes are still funny but some have to go; you have to keep some because if you don’t then the flavour of the text would be gone and anyway some are more accessible and are funny. However, care is needed.

And then there is the quality in Shakespeare’s writing which is lampooned, occasionally effectively, in Ben Elton’s TV sitcom Upstart Crow, which centres on the ups-and-downs of the Bard’s life. Very often he takes a  long flowery paragraph to say something incredibly simple. When you start to dissect some of the actual Shakespearean text you know when the imagery takes you somewhere amazing, illuminating the character’s psychology and when you just feel it is decoration. You have to use your own judgment and, as Brook says in his book, be very careful how you edit. We have to remember that in Shakespeare’s day, language was literally magic, a fabulous tool which charged our imaginings. So not only the descriptive power, but the punning and wordplay were like crackling conjuring tricks. These days we do not respond in quite the same way.

I have found that European companies are not so precious about the text. I remember seeing a splendid Latvian production of Romeo and Juliet with raunchy street boys at the Dublin Theatre Festival some years ago, where the two families ran pizza factories (much more successful than it sounds). One of the highlights of the production was the Queen Mab speech which became a strangely pivotal tragic moment as the whole ensemble was consumed by sleep, only to awaken and set the whole tragedy in full swing.

Michael Chekhov, whilst highly respectful of form and wholeness (two of the planks of his Technique are built upon this) nonetheless was of the opinion that we could be robust with Shakespeare. As someone who has done a lot of adaptation and dramaturgy of plays of this period, I most heartily concur.

Directing and Composition

If you want to be a director I believe you really ought to start work with youth theatres, young people or any group where you seriously have to adapt any plan you might have for the production and change it to make the play and production work.

On the one hand, I have to bring the team to the play and not impose too much. At the same time I have to continually be honing and sharpening my own feeling/vision about what the play actually reveals to me personally. It is like being the balancing point on a weighing scales.

For in the end I am doing the play with that particular group of creative people. They have their strengths and limitations and I have to embrace them. This is especially true when you are working with students or less experienced people but I have found it also true with professionals. We are all to some extent, limited.

Sadly many professional directors do not live in an environment which encourages this collaborative mindset, and this clunky idea, as I explained to a student who came to me to discuss production and design of a college show this week, of all the drawings having been done, and set made etc. before the actors begin their work is a really unviable process. It is actually anti-creative, with the actors like mannequins to fit into your plan. Sadly, many directors judge actors as to how well they can fulfil the director’s vision rather than their level of creativity.

When Peter Brook talks about directors having a hunch, it is completely right. Why is it? Because you cannot come with a set plan. Even with professionals it is not really acceptable to make a blueprint and stick to it because the actors creativity is every bit as important as the director’s the designer’s or anyone else on the creative team. Michael Chekhov’s view of inviting the object in, in this case, that is ‘the play’, of falling in love with it, is for me where this hunch is found.

I am not implying a free-for-all. When I direct a play I still feel I am a conductor, but that is my role. I am the conduit for the powerful creative energy that pours from my team. On the other hand though, I have to mould a creative environment for that creative energy to be fully released. and I have to be able to ‘manage’ it. if I do not manage it then the production can become horribly skewed towards a character, the set or some other detail of the production. It can  open the whole production to some kind of pseudo creative tyranny such as exists often in the professional world. This tyranny can come from awkward performers, power hungry directors or defiant designers.

This more democratic way of working is extraordinarily creative, which is one of the reasons why so many groups create ensembles; but it can also create a lack of focus in the piece [especially if it is devised] . Michael Chekhov’s rules of composition, which were not all original from him, are none the less incredible stepping stones through any piece, be it newly devised or a texted famous classic. I looked forward to exploring this aspect of Chekhov Technique with my MA group this Thursday as we worked on Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The rules of composition basically encourages the whole company to believe that we, together , are trying to say something. It encourages us to believe that our ‘piece of art’ has a beginning, middle and end. This end is not necessarily twee or cosy. It can be brutal, trailing and uncompromising, but everyone involved understands what that journey might be ….how do we want the audience to feel ideally?

Of course we cannot fully control this, but we have some general idea. It reminds us we are producing our work of art to say something about the world universally, and as it is NOW.

Then there is the law of polarity. It is another important mine of exploration for theme, character or perhaps the whole play. For the play the Three Sisters, we might say that a polarity is hope/despair. For a character we might explore -Irina – innocence/ maturity. Exploring these polarities is a visceral thing not an object for discussion (well not too much) and as always with M.Chekhov a way of charting our way through the intangible journey of the character’s life in the play.

And then there is the battle “between good and evil”, a rather fundamental polarity which appeals to our moral compass. I love this idea now though I used to get a feeling that making moral judgements was not the place of drama. However, in life we always take sides. Why should theatre be any different. and in any case haven’t we a duty as artists to have a view? It doesn’t need to be one-sided, this view can be complex but Chekhov says a view is essential – especially for us in these crisis-riven times. The conflict of good and evil makes me analyse what are the negative forces which course through this play? Are these forces the lethargy of the family; their inability to change things? Or is the main force of evil something almost like a haunting from the past? Is it the ruthless greed of Natasha as she usurps the Prozorov lives or is she the fundamental truth of a brutal reality the other women cannot face? Or is it the spite and bitterness of Solyony who, unable to have what he wants destroys life? An interesting feeling came up in our MA group that the ‘evil’ is ‘doing nothing’, as in that stasis the evil is sucked into the world of the family and does its work. This evil is not charged by one person necessarily but is something in the atmosphere which everyone breathes and Natasha steps into it. this is a really interesting view – that it is the atmosphere to which the characters respond which creates the tragedy.

And then, what is the force of goodness in this play? Is it Olga and her benevolent motherly support, or Irina’s innocence or Kulygin’s forgiveness or Masha’s ability to fall passionately in love? Perhaps we might say that it is their collective humanity. The goodness is their humanity and their ability, however idealistically, to dream.
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