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

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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.

Doing The Show Again

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Orla Tubridy  -Iphigenia

I have always found remounting a show a challenge. I suppose it’s the lazy performer in me. Inside me a weaselly mischievous voice is saying, “People liked it the last time, didn’t they? Just do it as you did it before.” Of course we all know that even if you have been too busy to give the piece much thought that the magic alchemy of time has stirred your imagination and your soul and that it cannot be anything like the same. And this is true not only for you, but everyone involved. Time has moved on, you all have a different perspective.

Peter Brook understood this all too well. He brought performers up to speed so that they could perform the play before an audience, before dissecting the work, learning from it and almost starting again, working towards their next performance. Despite current performance-as-research and other workshopping processes this idea is still rejected as either financially untenable or more importantly as an interruption of the director’s and actors’ ‘private’ process (as if you could learn nothing from performance at all and it was an invalid way of learning!). We were offered this opportunity by default. We had had our one performance and were now some months later, remounting it for a different occasion and a different space.

The first thing I did when revisiting THE SACRIFICIAL WIND, a dramatic poetry performance in this years Cuirt Festival of Literature, which had previously been mounted as an Arts in Action project for the National University of Ireland Galway in the new O’Donoghue Centre, was to reorder some of the poems. I also was in discussion about the ending, which both myself, the writer, and it turns out, the actors were not happy with and felt it didn’t work dramatically. This change highlights where we went next because having made that change, all the rest followed .

I need to explain; in the original, the final poem became a speech to the audience by the actors about the moral ramifications of what they had seen, which made the piece sound too didactic, rather than letting the characters speak. Once we cut that poem and ended the piece with Euripides’ final words, the intensity moved through energetically to the very end. It changed everything; not only the shape but the ethos and focus of the piece. It made the piece much more character driven than it had been, which in turn freed up the actors to embody the text as the characters, even more than they had before. This in turn greatly enlivened and intensified the work making the whole piece more edgy and unpredictable. This, and one or two other text changes fundamentally changed the form of the piece. Anyone who works with Michael Chekhov technique understands that two of the basics are the feeling of form and the feeling of the whole. If remounting this show has proved anything it has proved those tenets to be true. Not that I needed that proof mind you but the profundity of those structural changes and where they led us surprised even me.

Another thing that has intensified the work is the change of venue.The Town Hall Studio is a small 64 seat room; the O’Donoghue  where we performed first is a 120 seat venue which has a kind of formality about it. The new venue brought with it a rough, less predictable atmosphere, where the confessional nature of the characters became even stronger as they tried to justify their actions to the audience around the sacrifice of the young princess Iphigenia and their collusion in the start of a bloody and protracted war. As a result, the lighting became less formal and more dramatic as did the staging.

The packed house last night and the warm reception might mean that it is hard to get a ticket. It is only on for another three nights. I would advise you book through http://www.tht.ie or http://www.cuirt.ie if you are around Galway and intending to come! on Thursday night we are having a talk back after the show with Lorna Shaughnessy the writer and myself chaired by Tony Hegarty.

Me and Cuirt : The Sacrificial Wind

I have been involved on and off with Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway since 1995 not long after I arrived from England. At that time I was working a lot as a writer and had been joint winner of the Apples and Snakes Performance Poet of the Year. My first foray into Cuirt was at The Bardic Breakfast (with my performance poetry hat on) and was encouraged and supported by Mike Diskin who then ran Galway Arts Centre. Over the years I ran classes on voice work and performing poetry, I had forays into schools and but most particularly did three notable productions with Galway Youth Theatre as part of Cuirt; Alien Nation, The Trial and The Midnight Court.

Alien Nation is my own youth play about racism set in Ireland, now even more relevant alas than it was then. Using rhythm and chanting cut between short violent naturalistic scenes, we performed the play in an Art Gallery. The young people blew the room up with their energy and people queued up the street to see it. We had to put on extra performances. Many of these young people are now serious theatre and film makers themselves. The play has been used in schools all over Ireland, has had many productions and is published.

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The Trial

The Trial (Berkoff’s version of the Kafka novel) required energy and unbelievable ensemble discipline. After its massive success in the Cuirt where it got a glowing Irish Times review from Eileen Battersby, “this honours and defines the concept of theatre” The play was revived and we went to England with it.

Ciaran Carson’s gutsy version of The Midnight Court, the Irish classic which he rendered into English, was part of an incredible last night of Cuirt in, I think, 05. As I recall the Cuirt had part sponsored the version. On the final night, Ciaran Carson read from his text and then Brid NI Neachtain a highly respected Irish actress read portions in Irish. Finally we presented our raucous rappy ferocious 50 minute version to a massive standing ovation. It was for me an unforgettable event. Unfortunately as the event was on the cusp of  time before we recorded everything, no record remains of this once-off production. No video, no photographs, nothing.

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the Sacrificial Wind 2017

So it is with great delight that after a long absence I am back with my company, the performance arm of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland, to perform Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a dramatic poetry performance based around the sacrifice of Iphigenia who was killed to appease a goddess so the men could get a wind to take them to Troy. Performed in the intimate Town Hall Studio Galway, this intense piece mixes poetry, characters in cornered and dangerous situations, and asks questions of our response to the dangerous world in which we find ourselves.

First presented as part of the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway, the piece has grown in intensity and variety with its trio of dedicated and versatile actors, Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy.

It lasts 50 minutes and tickets are still available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

The Image Is The Action.

When I ran Commonweal  a classical theatre company in the UK with my partner Tony Hegarty many moons ago, we got a sponsorship to run an r&d workshop exploring Shakespeare. This was long before I had heard anything about Michael Chekhov. Tony and I were both aware that actors were not fully engaging with the language in a visceral way and wanted to explore why that direct contact with the language was missing and how to breathe life into Shakespeare’s verse. In productions it seemed the text was either meaninglessly mellifluous or drearily ‘realistic’ and flat.

We were working on Macbeth. I remember Tony was running the session and was trying to get us to engage with the language more, so he asked us to take a line or two from the text with images which demanded an action and perform that action when we were speaking it. That, had I but known it, was a psychological gesture which used the image from the text directly to create a psychological gesture, enliven the language and the psychology of the character.
I will always remember in that workshop a young actor speaking the lines

“I would while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out,”

while she acted as if she was performing this horrendous act. It blew me away. She was truly inhabiting the image, the language sounded brutal, desperate and full of loathing. Prior to this it had sounded like text. Voice is movement.

There was a famous, it feels almost forgotten, theatre academic and practitioner called G.Wilson Knight whose books The Imperial Theme(1951), The Crown of Life(1947) and The Wheel of Fire(1930), were once essentials on many an English syllabus. One of his principles with regard to Shakespearean text was the idea that ‘the Image is the action’ ; that poetic symbolism was not merely poetic for its own sake or to paint a picture but that its very formation gave us a key to the character and more particularly the psychology and inner energy of the character. In other words the images were the how and the what of the character. Of course this may not well have been conscious on the part of the playwright but was dictated by the very practicalities of the theatre at that time.Words, language and imagery were all powerful.  In a theatre with no scenery to speak of and no lighting, the words had to create scenery, time, weather and atmosphere.  But the words were also instruments of transformation. They were not something to hide behind; but to expose.

Some directors will tell you that in Shakespeare there is no subtext. This is not true. It is true that the characters nearly always ‘level’ with us, the audience, even when they are not being honest with the other characters – Iago or Macbeth for instance. But it is the imagery which gives us the key to subtext and psychological depth in a way that any actor’s psychological identification with the character could not, And like the young actor above, as soon as you inhabit that image with your whole being, body, voice and imagination, then the character is opened to you. I talk a lot about this work in my book Teaching Voice published by Nick Hern Books, when working with young people.

Michael Chekhov says in On The Technique of Acting that gesture can be used to enliven a word; but there is a subtle difference to finding a psychological gesture for the character first and deciding whether it feels right when you speak the text, rather than inhabiting the word and image, physicalising that, and through that finding the psychological state. There is no right or wrong here, but if you want to stay true to the language I would say the latter approach is more useful with Shakespeare.

May I say though that I am not talking about what to my mind are weeks of stultifying table work here, but a physical exploration- just in case anyone misunderstands what I am saying.

16797114_10210868896951296_608268461551876115_oSo for our workshop Giving Voice to the Imagination , May 23rd – 26th in Dublin which I am giving with Hugo Moss of Michael Chekhov Brasil, one of the things we we want to all explore is to find the voice of the character through images and psychological gesture . Places are limited and the course is filling up so if this aspect of the work is useful to you you might want to book up. info is on this blog on the Dublin Workshop page or on http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com You need to fill in the short application form and send it to chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com .

The rest is silence; poses and pauses

IMG_3037 copySo for the final weekend in the series of Michael Chekhov workshops, we embarked on an exploration of silence, of pauses, in a play. We began with the whole question of ‘What is a pause?’ And how do we find that ‘what’ in our bodies, so as to better understand it? As Chekhov said, a pause is a place of great inner movement even when the character is physically still. Often when we watch a play, actors pause because it says so in the script, or because the director has asked them to, or sometimes one of the actors feels a pause is right and the other doesn’t. The unwilling actor tries to look meaningful when the actor who wants to take the pause does it. Often the pause has little or nothing to do with the character or situation but has more to do with the actor’s ego. When this happens the unwilling actor struggles to support the other but the pause is ultimately empty and meaningless. These are ‘poses’ rather than pauses. A pause has to be organic.

Within this apparent stillness of the pause there can be an entire universe of experience; of battle; of understanding; of love;of defeat.

The only time there is no movement of energy through and within us is when we are dead. It’s inner movement. Very violent sometimes. It has direction and power. There is usually a change of psychological direction and quality after a pause, even if it is very subtle. So pauses are less about stillness than change. A useful thing to consider is when you get bad news. The energy comes into you and plunges down and back. When you get good news it usually goes up .

A pause is to do with the invisible, with energy. Michael Chekhov says it is often to do with something that is going to happen or a response to something that has happened. It has an impact. We do know that when there is a pause,something happens. Even when we are stunned by news we feel an impulse to make sense of it, to journey round or through the information we have just been given as if it was some kind of material terrain like a maze or jungle or barbed wire. There is an ocean of energy swirling around us and between people. That is often how it feels anyway, and if we want an audience to feel the full potency of that, we need to believe it.

So we started to explore this movement of energy in our bodies, to explore the nature of a pause and stillness. At first I asked everyone to stand still and asked them to consider what happens. Do you listen to the birds? the rain? Do you zone out your eyes? Do you close your eyes. Do you start thinking? What about? what happens.

I suggested people might move if  they wanted to. What happens? They change the atmosphere by moving don’t they? You want to move too, yes? Or if you want to stay still you need to somehow increase your efforts to somehow block out the moving person.

I suggested they walk slowly then Stop; walk fast, then stop. Then I asked them to sense the nature of these pauses and how did they change when you changed the tempo of the outer activity? Then I asked them to try stopping and then deciding to change direction. Changing the direction of energy gave us surprising feelings.

I asked them to explore making an action and just stop doing what they were doing and then continue. THE QUALITY OF THE ENERGY CHANGES OF ITSELF You cannot go on as you did before .You cannot keep it the same. Your whole being demands difference.

With exercises like this we listened to our bodies; radiating and receiving; opening and closing.We found that a pause was an ending or a new beginning. When you listened to your body this all became abundantly clear. The invisible became something of palpable experience. Something we could perhaps talk about and change.

One of the big moments for me over the weekend was our work using personal atmosphere and pausing. I asked the group to work in pairs with their text from THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (no better a play to work with silences). At first I asked them to experience their personal atmosphere as they worked with their scenes facing their partners. Then I asked them that every time their character spoke they were to imagine that their personal atmosphere almost engulfed their partner so they were,yes, responding to their partner, but also attempting to somehow control the other with their words, to make them compliant with the speaking character’s world view. This resulted in some excellently filled moments of pause because this to-ing and fro-ing of personal atmosphere does not just happen when we speak but in the silences between words. and it does not only happen between personal atmospheres either but between the personal atmosphere and the general atmosphere surrounding the characters.

It reminded me of the nunnery scene in Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE when the debauched Lucio arrives at the nunnery to persuade Isabella to come and plead for her brother’s life. Here we are in this holy cloister when this man brings in his personal atmosphere of the brothel. It collides with this overpowering general atmosphere of the cloister. As the text goes on and he becomes more serious, there is a real palpability in the idea that it is the atmosphere of where he is that makes him be more serious. This possibility that personal atmosphere is a serious player in not just how a character does something but what they do is an interesting consideration of how characters and we as humans operate.

A fabulous weekend. Thanks to all. As someone said at the end of the weekend, ‘I found out that the pauses were at least as important as the words.’

My next Chekhov School is to be with Hugo Moss from Michael Chekhov Brasil. Registration is open. The title of the workshop is Giving Voice to the Imagination. May 23rd-26th. You can find more information on the Dublin Workshop page of this blog. or visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

On Being a Student

When I started my Chekhov training, I always remember being told two things; if you want to be a student you have to get out of your own way when you are trying to create, and your job as a student is to find out! These are principles I try to get my students to follow. Before that, I don’t suppose I had actively considered what the task of a student was, even though I had been teaching for some considerable time when I began the Chekhov work. They learned stuff by osmosis didn’t they, by experiencing primarily? Reading was important too of course, but in working with Chekhov Technique nothing prepares you for the intensity of the doing of it. You have to know it in your body. What that means is experiencing and feeling and understanding through the body, not knowing through the intellect. It is a profoundly different kind of knowing. And it is easily accessible if you will only allow it to happen.
And that is one of the big reasons I go to study, to remind myself of that. First of all, there is so much for me still to learn. Learning most things in a meaningful way involves study and practice which ends when you die. You go over the same things many times so they can really yield their power. To borrow a phrase from Lenard Petit, one of the wonderful trio of teachers from this week’s work with Michael Chekhov Europe in Hamburg, the Chekhov Technique ‘has me’. This way of working with imagination, feelings and the body is so profound and deep and of course amazing for training actors for performance.
Of course when I arrived in Hamburg for this week of exploration, my perception of what I had to learn from this week was very fluid; too fluid. it was suggested to me that I consider what I had come for; what exactly had I come to ‘find out’. Rather like when you start on a play or any artistic endeavour, you have a hunch but that’s it. I decided I had come to be a student, experience the teachers, see some old friends, find new ways to teach principles to my own students to give me a new perspective on the work. Of course it ended up being more than that.
Becoming a student again can be hard when you are a mature person. I talked about this in my last blog, and I was fascinated though rather irritated to discover that some of the blocks I had had as a young drama student were resurfacing very quickly. We did some wonderful breathing work with Olivia Rudinger which to begin with I found challenging because like so much breathing and voice it was by its very nature and necessity, repetitive and quite strenuous. Early on I felt myself contracting inside and my rebellious teenage drama student self was resurfacing… “God do we really have to keep doing this?” I heard my thoughts and started to feel edgy and prickly…then suddenly I let go and as I say in my own book, “a door opened”. This was not like a slow opening of a door to a warm cottage garden but like a strong wind had blasted open to a wild and beautiful landscape. Many of Olivia’s exercises did this for me. Though not Chekhov work, they prepared the way to make me and my fellow participants more open for it. I would not have made anything approaching the progress I felt I made without it.

Another challenge I mentioned in the last post was the play we were working with; Midsummer Nights Dream. I tried in my imagination at home to make the play new for myself by imagining the scenes and despite one or two interesting insights I found it hard to disentangle it from the work I had done on the play in productions etc over my life. When we did some imagining with Uli in the later days of the week, I found that I was able to move on from my own realised work and work more freshly . Another massively helpful thing here was the power of the incredible group who came to the training from many nations of the world and their commitment and energy which started to throw up feelings and ideas about the play I had not had before. It was fabulous to hear Shakespeare in many different languages.
As for my own performance journey, those pesky drama student issues still kept coming. It’s so easy to step out of the work when you are teaching it. After all you are not there as a teacher to experience the work primarily though sometimes it’s helpful to do the exercises with students when you are taking them on an imaginary journey. You are there to share and guide. Sure you can learn from students. They teach you a phenomenal amount, more than they know, but it is not the same as doing it yourself, handing over the responsibility of leading and simply being.
I have always had tension in my shoulders and sometimes I find that the power of an image to create character sensation and feeling is so powerful that the tension flies up there. As those of us who use this method know, this is not the way to find sensations/feelings in the body. Too much tension paralyses us to sensation. When I am teaching I sometimes let this truth round tension go, and don’t fully introduce the feeling of ease until later because in short courses it can be difficult for students to achieve and they need to have the experience of the body throwing up sensations and feelings even if it is limited by tension or they simply will not get a sense of where the psychophysical work is going. In the longer courses I have run it’s different and you can spend more initial time on ease . This is a change in perspective and I will be less inclined to ‘short-change’ this feeling of ease because of my experience as a student in this week’s training.

I must have done Oberon’s speech as he awakens Titania many times with varying degrees of success during the week, but one particular day I felt a bit dire about my efforts. I was performing before the class and felt my work was tense and was told so quite correctly. For a brief moment I felt the full weight of the teacher-becoming-the-student, with challenging thoughts around “why am I putting myself on the line when I don’t need to’? But it is at just these moments when the greatest learning comes. I looked back on the week as I brooded over my lunch and this tenet of finding all the work through a soft and open body. I suddenly thought, “if I do nothing else this week, I will somehow deliver this speech with feeling in an open way without tension.” For the final day and a half I pursued my goal taking this other path to openness with patience and diligence. It was my main focus. What I had come for, to answer the question that was put to me at the beginning of the week, was principally this. Like so much creative work, and studying and teaching are certainly that, the main target was not in sight until that moment.
We spent a final hour and a half working with directions and movement of energy; which involves getting a sense of energy moving through you and around you. It is basically an exercise in atmosphere. This is a very very profound part of the work but not something I want to get into here. As it turned out I was the final actor to speak the text in the whole week and using this movement of energy I let it work through me. For a brief moment I focussed on my shoulder blades, then focussed on the direction of the energy and the breathing. I suddenly felt an extraordinary depth in what I was saying and yet it was simple. It felt completely and utterly effortless. I have felt this before but not so deeply. Many people who use this work experience it. A little while after I had finished speaking ,I remembered someone said this very thing during a workshop I ran two weeks ago.”Atmosphere makes acting so easy…”
So thank you Lenard, Olivia and Uli and all the incredible people with whom I went on this journey this week. For me, I am now preparing to teach a weekend on pauses and energy, a four day course on Giving Voice to the Imagination in Dublin in late May with Hugo Moss of Michael Chekhov Brasil , a summer school ,Moving Through Atmosphere in Galway, preparing a performance of The Sacrificial Wind by Lorna Shaughnessy for the Cuirt International  Festival of Literature and working with an American college who are coming to Ireland. Not fortunately, at the same time!