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.

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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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New Starts

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Jerry Fitzgerald. MA alumni. working with first principles. photo:Sean O’Meallaigh

Starting again on teaching the basic tenets of Chekhov in a fairly methodical way and for its own sake fills my heart with joy. Whîlst on the one hand I love running short courses that start with a more specific exploration, it has its restrictions. I am leading a weekend later in late November focusing specifically on entrances and exits, working with threshold, atmosphere and composition about which I am very excited, but because of its length, the weekend focuses equally on application as well as raw training. It means of course that the application may not be as effective in the longer term though the immediate impact on participants is still often profound. However it may not stick as well as it would if they had undergone a more thorough basic training. So going back to the nuts and bolts, through repetition, of ideal centre, feeling of ease and form, radiating and receiving, qualities of movement and imagination etc is for me like plunging back into the wonderful pool of exhilaration and discovery when I first found this way of working myself. I watch people experience this work, many of them for the first time, some tussling with nervousness or with the rubrics of their past training which put the intellect and the why of the character first, instead of the Chekhov work which asks us to plumb the imagination, the body, and the how and the what of the character at the forefront of discovery. I watch the penny suddenly dropping as they get a rush of feeling when they make a gesture and a realisation that acting is a channelling and a release of energy rather than a forensic exercise which often inhibits and restricts their creativity. This does not happen immediately of course. It happens with work; with practise.

At the same time I feel it is imperative in these early stages to reassure them that the ultimate goal of this work does ultimately lead them to an emotional understanding of the text where they can be open to their fellow actors, the playwright, director and audience in a way which they may have thought impossible. For those who find making the connection between voice, body, imagination and feelings tricky at first, this reassurance is especially important.

Another aspect of going back into the basics is that it focuses me back into my own practise with regular work at home alone in my wild garden, weather permitting, on the basic rubrics myself.

In a few weeks we will be starting short scene work on Chekhov’s 3 Sisters. I had thought of using The Crucible and then decided that exploring that dark, grim atmosphere for 12 weeks if only for a few hours per week was just too much. I feel that when we explore a text with the technique, especially at the beginning, it needs to be one with a variety of atmospheres and intentions because the work can be so intense and powerful, that something as unremittingly oppressive as The Crucible may not be the best play to start with.

When Irina cries out in Act 3  of the Three Sisters in despair ‘ I can’t even remember the Italian for window!’ This is of course ridiculous. She is not starving and does not have a terminal disease. It is not really a tragedy. And yet on another hand it is; she realises her life is falling apart and her dreams are going to remain dreams. In a sense her life is already over. This moment, when she expresses this realisation that her dreams are unachievable, is something I suspect every single person has experienced at some time in their lives. To make her dilemma wholly successful the actor has to somehow make us feel the ridiculousness of her statement and yet at the same time have the utmost sympathy for her predicament. Chekhov technique thrives on this complexity… These wonderful invisible yet palpable polarities which exist within characters, between characters and between characters and audience.

Prepping the Workshop -Journey Through Atmosphere

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Mary Monaghan/photo John McHugh

Imagine an aquarium beautifully appointed with fabulous features, flowing ferns and sparkling fish. Now imagine the same scene without water; the fish dead and lifeless ; the plants sagging ; the water features just lumps. That is what a performance without atmosphere is like. Fortunately in a play (or perhaps unfortunately) the actors keep moving and speaking so we can fool ourselves that everything is ok; but that is far from the truth. They might even act sensitively with each other but without the atmosphere we know there is something missing even when we cannot pin down what it is. Michael Chekhov was right that the atmosphere is one of the most potent elements when you are creating a play. Atmosphere is one of the most uniting elements in an ensemble production, above teamwork and the skills generally associated with ensemble work. If all the actors respond to the atmosphere, the audience just knows there is something which binds the characters. Of course the characters are not going to necessarily respond the same, as we do not respond the same to any stimulus but that doesn’t matter. The audience knows there is something there.

In our everyday lives, when we go away on holiday the atmosphere is constantly altering around us and we are constantly having to adjust. That’s true all the time, but I become very sensitive to it when I am travelling because I, as the traveller, am making a movement forward to my destination. I am plunging through the atmosphere to get somewhere. I notice I become even more sensitive to atmosphere when going away from my normal environment. Notice the various atmospheres in the airport alone. The security check; the cafe; the duty free shop; the bathroom . These are not only different atmospheres because of what happens in them, nor because of the shape of the room, nor just what you have to do, nor what happened there before, nor your own history in other airports at other times in your life. It is a massive culmination of all factors. One of the things I love most about Chekhov technique is the way it takes atmosphere and makes it palpable; a tool for artists, to create a navigable map through this invisible world and makes it easily accessible for both performer and audience.

But why, as artists should we really care about that at all? A play is a play, right and we should not need an atmosphere because we are in the theatre. We are in a theatre and THAT is the atmosphere. But that is not true because in addition to the theatre there is the atmosphere of the play. And this atmosphere it is not static. It is constantly moving, as Lenard Petit explores in his fantastic book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook for The Actor .

Working with Atmosphere produces results. If you take the line ” Care not for me. I can go home alone” then imagine you are in a library, then a hospital , then a beach, then in a wooden hut on a dark night, you will notice the line sounds completely different. Really take your time to imagine the atmosphere first; never start by asking yourself “what would I do in this place?” but ask how the atmosphere of the chosen location feels. As Lenard Petit talks about being “played by the atmosphere”, allow it to affect you, influence you, drive you to speak. New Histories and situations will engulf you in each location, each time you create the atmosphere around you and then say the line.

I cannot remember the number of times I have seen plays set in the open air and I never feel characters are outside for a moment. And importantly this failing does not just affect the realism – in fact often that is a small consideration here – but without the atmosphere you destroy the inner life of the characters as well.

But it’s important to understand that atmospheres are not solely circumstances or location (though they can be that as well) just as psychological gesture is not merely objective. By discovering the psychological gesture for the character, you can find out not only what they want but how they want it; through them you can discover the rhythm of a character. It is endless and wonderful.

And what if it is the atmosphere which actually drives the action?  The idea that what is in the air, whatever that is, has a direct effect on your motivation to do something and, of course, how you do it. If you consider this, this is happening to you all the time. For instance I have never really liked pubs. If I am with a few friends we can create our own atmosphere to anaesthetise me against the discomfort I feel when in the pub.  Our own atmosphere bubble makes the thing pleasant.

This is one of the things we are going to explore in Journey through Atmosphere  here in Galway. How does Atmosphere affect the characters, and what is the relationship between atmosphere and story, as we move through the various massively contrasting environments in which Pericles and his family find themselves?

There are still some places on Journey Through Atmosphere being held on the NUI Galway campus, August 24th – 27th. We will be using for our text, the great journey play Pericles by Shakespeare. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for more information on how to book for the four day workshop.

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.