Tag Archives: Acting

The Body of an Actor

IMG_4561Gesture is the result of impulse. It comes from the core of our desire to express something. But often we have forgotten this. We are kind of dislocated and unconnected to our bodies, to the feeling impulse of our bodies. This is our challenge when we approach the psychophysical technique of Michael Chekhov, to connect the energy and feelings to the body. Once we have gone some way to reconnecting this impulse/ body pathway, we can find the intention through the body. To find everything about the character and make us fuller human beings to boot.

This understanding of Chekhov’s practise is not necessarily assisted by ballet, acrobatics or fencing either, other than the fact that those disciplines make us proficient and aware of the body. Sometimes, in fact, if we have been trained substantially in strong physical disciplines like dance, it can initially be a bit of a hindrance. The gesture-training Chekhov encouraged is not some kind of offshoot of dance, though it can be used as an effective element tool within modern dance. Chekhov technique is about using the body as a vessel for sensations and feelings; to use it as a conduit for energy. If all this sounds airy, it isn’t. As soon as we start to practise using the body in this way we sense an openness within us to a wealth of possibilities we might never have thought of. Chekhov’s approach can be very specific as to the energies moving in the character by using this technique.

Psychological Gesture is a way of finding the intention of the character. What is the character trying to do and how are they doing it? It is not a realistic presentation of the character but how they are inside; what is going on for them.

Let’s suppose you are playing Antigone in Anouilh’s play. What might we say she is doing through the play? There are many ways to find this gesture, but why don’t we say she is trying to show/offer/expose something. She wants to show people their hypocrisy. She will not compromise.

See how this works for you when you offer something in front of you in a bold gesture with both hands, your hands palms up. When I did this, I tried to keep my arms out straight so this offering was not open but really focussed, as she is. I repeat the gesture over and over. I see what/if the gesture is generating a sensation inside me.

How do I feel when I make this gesture? I find that I feel defiant, a bit sanctimonious, both strong and weak at the same time. I am offering/presenting but at the same time I am almost offering my hands to be tied or restrained. My breathing gets sharp. Then I start to make a sound.. Then I say “I am going to bury our brother.” I feel this voice in my neck.  I feel a strong chest with energy focussed in my heart area . The offering makes me feel sacrificial but also self important. It makes me feel as if my energy is moving backwards even though it appears that I am aggressively moving forward. This one gesture gives me a whole psychology, not a heady discursive one, but something that is moving strongly and powerfully inside me, a psychology I can act with.

Then, supposing I use the same gesture slowly. I feel more vulnerable, more defeated… Amazing.

Before we consider that finding the psychology through a movement might be considered simplistic, let us consider our own lives. Consider how we are constantly meeting similar obstacles and dealing with them with the same energy in the same way over and over again. Psychological Gesture can be a physical manifestation of that very life reality. Indeed, most of Chekhov’s elements are about how we live our lives.

Of course, Psychological Gesture is not something we show as performers to the audience. It is a tool, an element of the work.

Within the body lies so much of who we are at any moment. It is quite literally a channel through which all our energies and experiences come. It is the manifestation of our history and even though so many of our cells are replaced and replenished through our lifetime, there is something that is manifestly us. It is alchemical and impossible to define, so much more than ‘body memory’. When you align this psycho-physical work with the use of a vibrant imagination, your potency as an artist flourishes.

Finding it in the Body, a weekend workshop in Michael Chekhov Technique led by Max Hafler Oct 12 [evening only] then Oct 13 and 14 [10-5] will be held at NUIGalway,Ireland. There are still a few places left. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further information.

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Comedy cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacchic Alchemy

16112706_10207462147903095_4596838258018514637_oTHE MOMENT when you have finished working through the play for the first time and then run it all is a strange moment. It is the moment when you get a sense of how this play will work in this venue with this cast. Just by speaking it, by acting it out, however roughly, a moment sparks when you realise the magic of the play in a way you did not know before. This alchemy gives you glimmers not only of the ultimate performances but the journey that the play takes and how it might affect a potential audience .It tests your decisions on composition even when not fully realised by the cast (as yet) and the atmospheres and qualities on which you have agreed. It is a stage along the way, a moment of achievement. Whilst it is far from ready, I was inexpressibly moved by its power.

Of course that first run through also tells us what practically does not work; e.g. clunky blocking and how far you have as a group still to go but nonetheless a stage has been reached. It is also a crossroads. It is now time to consolidate and sharpen, but also judiciously discard. It means honing skills and making firmer decisions. This production of The Bacchae performed by students on the MA and BA programmes at NUI Galway in the version by David Greig requires great voice and movement work, singing, character, a strong sense of ensemble ,the ability to play with the audience, fearlessly explore vicious humour, ecstatic joy and the grimmest tragedy as the play descends into hellish and human despair.

On that note, along with getting a full sense of the humour of David Greig’s version of the play when we acted it out this evening, I also got a stronger sense of the tragic trajectory as the remaining  human characters, Agave and her father Kadmos, realise their folly and are left to deal with the consequences. It is extraordinary to me that two characters we have hardly seen in the earlier part of the play are able to carry the weight of this tragedy, and yet somehow they do not seem like some kind of tagged-on thing; they are most definitely ‘part of the whole’. They speak for each of us who has suffered tragedy; who understand the nature of endurance.

The clarity of this is something I would put down in part to our work on M. Chekhov’s ‘feeling of the whole’ in our first few days of work. Composition is an extraordinary thing and even though we do not refer to it too much in rehearsal, I feel by getting people to get the story into their bodies a sense of the composition settles there within us all.

You cannot get a full sense of a play’s journey simply by reading . As Oliver Taplin says in his book Greek Fire, the Greeks make you face up to aspects of cruelty and cataclysm to an unbearable degree but within a ritualised structure which makes it bearable – just. Because it is poetic it enables us to face it unflinchingly. That is why Agave and Kadmos’ scene does not feel at all tagged-on. Because it is where the play is going.

The Bacchae by Euripides in a version by David Greig, is being performed at the Mick Lally Theatre from Feb 14th-Feb 18th by students of the NUIG Drama Programme directed by Max Hafler

 

Getting Down With The Greeks

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook describes directing as ‘having a hunch’ . Yet how many directors consider their work to make a concept and fit the actors within it, usually within a set and costume design already decided upon? This destroys the creative voice of the actor as artist and reduces them to a performing animal. As an actor once myself I remember trying to get my undisclosed feelings and ideas for the character ‘under the radar’ of a director, visible to me if no one else. All too often, the success of the actor is measured and perceived solely in how much he can encapsulate the director’s vision, very often a vision which is borne from someone who never stepped upon a stage at all. We, as audience, often blame the actor or the playwright for the disjointedness we feel when we watch such a piece when very often it is the director who is primarily responsible for this sense of ‘un ease’. Whîlst the director is the conductor, he is essentially part of an organic team. I feel this organic work has to happen from the start and talking needs to be limited in order that everyone can experience in their body and imagination what the play is about.

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working with archetypes

I walked into my preparation week with student actors for our production of David Greig’s version of Euripides Bacchae with some preparation done but I knew that the evolving work within that four day process would be totally transformative. I felt I was more open actually than I have ever been before. Of course my openness did not mean that I had no preparation done myself, I had done a phenomenal amount of work, but very very few decisions, including practical ones had been made. Hunches was what there was along with one version of a song, and a strong belief in my cast. I think this faith in the group is one of the key things I have learned in directing students in particular, though it’s something you need at whatever level you are directing. Trust however requires a lot of experience and a lot of faith. It also requires an acknowledgement that parts of your concept as it grows and accommodates the group will evolve, change and develop.

Michael Chekhov composition work to find a shape to the work is particularly fascinating when you are dealing with a play which though structured, appears to have a complex narrative of dovetailing stories interspersed with songs and chants which in a way appear at first glance to bear little relation to reality as we understand it… Dionysos allows himself to be captured and humiliated, rather like Christ, even though he has the power to destroy them all. The play shows two polarised way of being and living with catastrophic and brutal results. It begs you to take sides in the debate.. Whose side are we on ultimately? How do we want the audience to feel? How do we begin with the city of Thebes? What does it represent for us now? is it a sad place, a happy place, a place of order and harmony or rigid obedience? The play pits the imagination, and wild creativity against the colder intellect, very much a Michael Chekhov theme. As if by magic, after our tableaux work, the story appeared to have a much more obvious simplicity than it at first appeared. It’s far from set though we can see the options. When I directed Caucasian Chalk Circle last year we made I think, four endings and did not decide on the final one until almost the end.

One of the aspects of M. Chekhov’s work I love the most is his insistence on the responsibility of the artist to open up issues for us and our audiences and for plays to have something important to say to us NOW. The answers The Bacchae presents, if it presents any at all, are visceral relevant and real, if we remember that despite the fact that climate change is a reality and Nature is becoming wilder and more unpredictable, one of the principal leaders in the Western World is a denier of that reality. This is not the only level on which you can see this play but it is one of them. Because it is primarily a dramatic poem, it has a multiplicity of levels on which it can be seen. that is what makes it both fascinating and tricky, because you don’t want to prevent that multiplicity by being too literal with one overriding interpretation.
In addition to the strengths of the group I was also aware of limitations in time and training. We did a lot of training in these first days but I was concerned about the question of mask work, which, besides requiring thorough and precise choreography required complete feeling within the body at every single moment . At any time when that expression of the body was absent the performer simply disappeared. But the masks which are only to be worn by the Chorus, besides being quintessentially part of the Greek Theatre Experience enabled a number of things; firstly they clarified character; second they enable men as well as women to play the Bacchae; thirdly they take us away from the idea that these are a gang of women who are out on a hen night but show them as wild female forces of nature. That can only be a plus.

looking so forward to continuing the work next week.

The Bacchae by David Greig after Euripides will be performed by students of The Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance in conjunction with Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  at the Mick Lally theatre  in Druid Lane Galway Ireland from Feb 14th – 18th. 

Conceptually challenged

 

A few weeks ago I was doing an imagination exercise in a voice class with an undergraduate group. I would say a phrase like ‘torn curtain’ and would ask them to speak the images they saw from that phrase into the centre of the room. This is an exercise I use a lot to connect language and imagination. Sometimes I speak phrases and sometimes use the opening from novels or the start of a play.

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When it came to discussing the exercise afterwards , I think I used the phrase, ‘prison cell’, one student said something very interesting . ” When you said the word I immediately saw an image and it grew and became more complex, but I felt unable to speak aloud what I saw. I found myself just saying words like captivity, criminal etc. So I could not say what I saw. I could only speak in concepts.’

It is very hard to be creative on a concept. To act with a concept. It can be done, but a concept is several times removed from a feeling. However, I puzzled to myself, you can move with a quality and a quality is a concept. Let’s move with pride, for instance. We can experience that concept because we can put it into our bodies by moving proudly . But can we put captivity or honour or acceptance into our bodies? A concept is like a hard nugget, not a softer more sensitive set of images. I find it hard to make an image from a concept. Images are easier to explore in a sensory and imaginative way than concepts…. “Well it depends what you mean by captivity...” I can hear someone saying.

And yet isn’t that what an academic approach basically encourages? Crisp concepts? Concepts can be tested and evaluated more easily than experiences, it seems. That means they can be graded. They can be assessed more easily. They can be valued. In short a price can be put upon them.

But in relegating experience, are we not denying a whole spectrum of learning not just in the arts but in all other spheres of life? It is very true that experience is being devalued in education.

To me it is rather like when the cd evolved as the way to play music. One of my friends told me about this, a BBC Engineer. He asked me to listen to the range of sound on a cd and then listen  to an LP record. I had to confess that in comparison to a pristine LP record, the range of the cd sounded tinny. It is like the difference between a DSLR camera and a camphone. There is a depth with the DSLR camera which is not achieved with the phone even though both pictures are clear. So it seems to me with sensations, movement and feeling against exploring something through concept.

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Franchine Mulrooney and Andrea Rawat  directed by me .Blood Wedding 2007.

Interestingly my MA Chekhov group explored polarities in Blood Wedding this week . Polarities, for the uninitiated, are as they sound; life/ death, wealth/ poverty etc. They are the polarities the performers and director see in the play. They are the nearest Chekhov technique gets to concepts, but, and this is important, in order to explore them you have to use another more imaginative intuitive tool to plumb your character and the depths of the play. The concept cannot be explored purely intellectually. For acting it would be almost worthless.

So let’s say we are exploring wealth and poverty through the play. I name one wall wealth and the other, poverty. Using your character centre as your lodestone you place yourself as the character in the studio as to how they feel about these two polarities at the start. Are they more influenced by wealth? They stand nearer to it. Are the poor or aware and preoccupied with poverty ? They stand nearer to it . Then moving the character through the play , the actor moves first to one wall then another, sometimes running from one polarity to another ; sometimes pulling away from one only to be sucked back towards it. if they love Wealth, then perhaps they slide up and down against the wall… it is not just a question of placing themselves like some kind of status exercise. All the movement comes from their centre and the instinct they feel in their bodies. This is not an intellectual decision, but something that comes from somewhere deep inside. They move like this as they follow the character through the whole play.

In Blood Wedding Money and Land are important factors in the drama. The Bride and Leonardo were allegedly stopped from marrying because he was too poor. So is the Bride obsessed with her wealth and security at the start of the play, or is she simply unable to go against the wishes of her family? Is Leonardo obsessed with his poverty? this is more likely.  None of these of course are discussed until after the exercise is completed, because you make the discovery by doing the exercise, not by discussing the concept. This exercise can provide those kinds of options/answers for the actor.

When you know the play well, these exercises can provide answers so specifically that you can even find precise moments where these changes in shift of polarity and changes for the character happen.And that’s of course another thing. In order to work in this imaginative way you have to know the play well. This approach is not an excuse to not do homework. You just do a different sort of homework.

Provoking feelings.

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Michael Chekhov

Recently on Facebook I got rather harangued by someone on a Chekhov newsfeed. Finally the person with whom I was in dispute wrote that until an actor focussed on real emotion, real thought and real feeling we were acting only in a dysfunctional way. In other words, he was implying that the Technique was some kind of fraud and getting down to organic thought, feeling. etc. was what acting was really about. His tone was disparaging about Chekhov the actor, the technique and me.

My understanding of Chekhov Technique is that all the exercises developing centres, radiating/ receiving, qualities ,atmosphere and gesture etc are effective simply because they lead you towards a genuine emotion. They are vehicles with which you can discover the character, powered by the twin engines of imagination and body. They provoke real sensations/feelings – that is mainly their purpose. These sensations and feelings may have an identifiable connection with something from your life but usually for me they don’t. This does not make them less real. The exercises provoke more organic feelings than any intellectual discussion of a play and are more effective than only using your own accessible palette of experience. They can take you in directions you would never ever have considered, expand your range, and give you new ways to look not only at the character but the whole play. They open you to a whole new way of seeing theatre and, for some people, for perceiving the world. And the amazing thing about this is that they are not blissful ethereal waffle but the exercises show us ways to access and, to some extent, understand how we actually operate as human beings all the time. We all react to atmosphere; different people operate with different qualities; most importantly we all radiate and receive messages, which are not just ‘listening’ or ‘working with your scene partner’ but taking them in on every level, the energy from their eyes, the way they curl their mouths when they speak, the way they move their bodies, and the way we feel their energy moving backwards and forwards. These are real life processes and Chekhov simply teaches us to harness and explore them.

Of course, all techniques have their issues; with Chekhov technique perhaps it is that we can get so caught up in our images and qualities and atmospheres that we forget there are particular material circumstances to a scene which we need to honour as actors. We must guard against ignoring that. With more method-based practises, ‘my character’ can become the only thing that matters as the actor builds an armour to protect what they have so painstakingly constructed. With Lecoq and movement-based methods, there can sometimes be a sense of style over depth. I know these drawbacks are in ridiculous shorthand but I am simply making a point.

Personally I do not care whether Michael Chekhov was the world’s greatest actor (something my haranguing friend chose to use as a weapon of argument). It is impossible to judge in any case as acting styles change so much. I do know that I have seen many Peter Brook productions and some have disappointed me. However this does not diminish the genius of either Michael Chekhov or Peter Brook in my eyes. They both have pushed theatre forward and found ways to expand it and much of their work is great. They have consummate views of theatre in my opinion and a sense of the spiritual in their work. They are real explorers.

These are for me far from grandiose claims. They are how it is.

OK, now I have got that off my chest. I am glad I restrained myself from saying all this on the newsfeed and using expletives. On the rare occasion I lose my temper on FB I nearly always feel diminished . My anger makes it hard to collect my thoughts.

If you are interested in working here in class in Galway , there is an Openers class on Tuesday evening for people new to the work, and a Continuers class on Sundays which would enable people to come from a distance to do them. Both these courses start the second week of September and run for six weeks. if you are interested in either please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. The August course, Expressing the Invisible is now full.