Tag Archives: Acting

Sustaining and suspension.

Michael Chekhov on Autumn and Sustaining:

“We call autumn the sustaining. We experience the same thing when we see a Child, an animal or a plant growing, developing, increasing in size, and then, after a time, slowly wasting away, fading and withering”

What is so wonderful about this is the way Chekhov uses these examples from nature to enhance art, psychology and brings us to thinking about energy, the rhythm of life and art. Whether I believe that autumn is actually ‘sustaining’ in the sense that things are still trying to grow and move forward even as they at the same time start to sink and die is not quite the point. A look at my soggy lawn and falling wet leaves will tell you that things are certainly on their way to dormancy. To me this is beautiful and holistic. It is what puts his acting technique way above any others I have studied because its principles connect so much of how life seems to operate. It seems to encourage us to dig under the surface to experience and generate particular energies for our acting and we do this through the body and through expansion and contraction in particular.

When I was a child I took my Instamatic camera with me to Marineland, a rather inhumane place where dolphins in large tanks were encouraged to jump through hoops and make massive leaps for fish, held out by their keepers. Before I went, I remember watching a science programme on tv that said the way to get an action shot of a dolphin was to wait until it had reached the climax of its jump, the highest it would go; for that moment the animal was suspended, neither going up nor going down. So, there is a moment of impulse and huge effort , followed by a moment of physical stillness before the dolphin begins to dive down.

With the technique, when making a psychological gesture like a reach there is always this moment when the impulse is to pull your arm back; in this case there is an inner movement which tells you to do this as if your arm can no longer reach out with commitment but needs to be retracted and brought down beside your body ( like the tree surrendering its autumn leaves). If you hold out your arm longer than the impulse suggests you can feel your energy retracting even if you keep your arm extended, because the intention and energy to reach has been lost either because you are bored, embarrassed, feel like you are following the orders of the teacher, or are simply thinking about something else. The arm looks and feels dead. It has no spirit in it.

Let’s look at what happens when you imagine your energy flowing from your centre out forward towards that reach you made. You immediately feel committed and connected. If you speak, the reaching gesture affects you. Now try sustaining that gesture; you might have a moment where the will decides to go no further because your arm hurts (for instance) . On the other hand, sustaining might have the opposite effect and actually intensify the feelings and sensations the gesture is giving you. As long as you keep the energy flowing forward with the reach this can happen. Sustaining certainly helps you understand the constant to-ing and fro-ing of energy.

Back to the dolphin, he is never really still; when he gets to the top of his jump he is more than likely grabbing the fish from the keeper; but it appears he is still so you can get the picture. Likewise we are never really still, our energy churns and moves, expands, contracts, especially when we are responding to stimuli….we are in constant inner movement..

COURSES BELOW EMAIL chekhovtpi@gmail.com

NOVEMBER 12TH FROM THE SCENE TO THE SONG  . (MAX HAFLER AND KATELYN RESSLER)

GALWAY

I will be working with Katelyn Ressler which will explore the differences in  demand from the musical ‘book’ to the song it gives birth to. We will be using the Chekhov technique tools to help us explore.

Venue: University of Galway 

NOVEMBER 2nd – 23rd ONLINE.  TO BE FREE IN THE FORM (MAX HAFLER  AND RENA POLLEY) 4-6  IRISH TIME. INTERNATIONAL ZOOM CLASS

ZOOM

This workshop is for those who feel stuck in their head or need to be in control of their audition or performance. Acting demands a feeling of spontaneity and play within the confines of a script. How do you find this freedom within the form? Using elements of improv, play and tools from the Michael Chekhov technique, we will explore how to spark and expand the imagination and then allow this to be alive within the structure of a scene. Online, as we practise, the container is your room, but within it you need to be free. You need to be Free in the Form. You need it for filming especially, as you might be asked to do things with specificity yet still find the much needed freedom and spontaneity within your scene

This online course is taught by Max Hafler from Galway Ireland and Rena Polley from Toronto, Canada. 

DEC 10TH THE ACTOR IS THE THEATRE. 10-5

TUTOR : DECLAN DROHAN 

For the audience, the actor is the living, radiating presence at the heart of drama.

What skills and tools make the performer subtle, responsive and capable of transformation? The ability to transition into someone other than themselves…To convey a character.

Working through the Imagination and the Body, the Chekhov Technique offers a suite of strategies for the actor to achieve exactly this.

The journey begins here. this day long workshop will give you an exploratory look in seeing acting in a different way. 

VENUE SLIGO

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What is it to be Oneself? Looking at Peer Gynt through the Chekhov Technique

Over this last weekend I have been looking with the Chekhov Technique at a play I have previously thought opaque and difficult for me, Peer Gynt in the translation by Frank McGuinness.As Mcguinness says himself,  Peer is “this creature I wouldn’t let into my house” and this was a feeling I shared . To be unable to empathise with the main overarching character might have been a problem and yet…….. 

Looking at this play through the lens of Archetypes, Atmospheres and Image Centres (all elements of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique), I started to come to terms with this difficult play which has struck me with an incredible sense of profundity. 

When we are working with a play only for a weekend, Declan Drohan, my colleague, and I are careful to select particular elements, those we felt would be useful for the play/scenes we wanted to explore. Our subject was Fantastical Characters; how does an actor play a character who is not recognisable in the material world and yet also prevent them from being stereotypical, cliched? If, as Chekhov asserted, all actors are Artists, how do you make your version of the Button Moulder particular to your interpretation? How do we find a depth and a richness for the characters and situation?

From the fifth Act when Peer is an old man we looked at three short scenes. In one scene, we discovered what happens when Peer is confronted by various forms of nature; threadballs, leaves, wind, dewdrops, broken straws; they voice his regrets, taunting him. Even as I write, I realise how challenging this is to envisage; one might be tempted to ‘float off’ into some kind of ethereal mushy madness and use spooky disembodied voices. Chekhov was convinced that with commitment , everything can be found through activity, through the body, and we experimented with a Peer while the whole rest of the group became this group of non-animal objects. Because of the sheer commitment of the group what became clear was the way the whole of nature was reminding him of his failings and regrets. Each thing which spoke to him we felt was activated by shifting movement; nothing was still. As the group changed from one element to the other it was as if he was surrounded, as if everything he saw was telling him of his terrible mistakes  and every time an element came and went he had the possibility for change and recovery. Then he found some excuse or reason to reject the advice of the various elements of nature and a new group emerged to warn him of his failings.Activating the scene in this way gave us an awareness of the energy in this act ; of these offerings given to Peer that he continually tries to reject or wriggle out of through humour, sarcasm, stubbornness or wiliness. It gave us a profound feeling of the rhythm of what happens when we are trying to force our way through anything. conflicting energies are constantly in play. On the page this scene looks ripe for cutting, worthless, impossible to stage; but at its core there was something incredibly powerful which told us something profound about Peer’s energy. Guilt comes in waves in this short scene as it does in life.

Peer has an archetypal energy; Declan explored  the Hero  and the Fool with the group; later we explored the Joker, to investigate Peer’s wiliness. Archetypal energy is not the whole of the character, but it offers us as performers an insight into something powerful which drives the character, something that can almost consume them. As I said in the group when we were discussing the Archetype , it is an ‘essence’. Chekhov uses the idea of Lion to explain this . There is an archetypal Lion which all lions have. It is not a stereotype but a real energy. One of the actors explored the idea of an old wounded lion in the centre of Peer’s body. This so transformed the young actor that suddenly he was this determined figure, weakening more and more as he searched for his essence in peril of his life.

Peer’s journey in this final act seems to be to try to discover what he essentially is as he does in the famous onion speech where he peels the layers of an onion to try and find its core. It has occurred to me that this is what we all do as we get older. Who are we? What really matters to us? Are we not all in our older days, trying to discover our essence, to find out what matters? It certainly resonates with me. This idea is more often referred to as ‘coming home’ but it is the same thing. 

My partner, Tony, had a dream on the night the course was finished. In the dream, he was trying to walk home from a night out as he had many times when a young adult. It would have been bitterly cold, as he grew up on the North West coast of England. In the dream he struggled to reach his goal, exhausted, and was presented with various archetypal figures and a strange tower. It reminded me of Peer on his journey to find his essence, his home place, his humanity. 

Back in the group, we looked at a scene where Peer is on a ship, searching, perhaps sailing home. There is a storm but before the ship capsizes, he is confronted by a Fellow Traveller, an extraordinary, cold scientist/vampire figure. No one else on the ship acknowledges the Traveller’s presence. We explored here the idea of Peer being in the storm while the Traveller remains still, unaffected by the gales and tossing of the bark across the dark sea. 

The deep profundity of this exploration was quite something . It comes from the power of Archetypal characters far removed from our everyday world and our ability, through the technique, to access them in a deep and unique way.

Our next workshops are 

NOVEMBER 12TH FROM THE SCENE TO THE SONG  . (MAX HAFLER AND KATELYN RESSLER)

I will be working with Katelyn Ressler which will explore the differences in  demand from the musical ‘book’ to the song it gives birth to. We will be using the Chekhov technique tools to help us explore.

Venue: University of Galway 

NOVEMBER 2nd – 23rd ONLINE.  TO BE FREE IN THE FORM (MAX HAFLER  AND RENA POLLEY) 4-6  IRISH TIME. INTERNATIONAL ZOOM CLASS

This workshop is for those who feel stuck in their head or need to be in control of their audition or performance. Acting demands a feeling of spontaneity and play within the confines of a script. How do you find this freedom within the form? Using elements of improv, play and tools from the Michael Chekhov technique, we will explore how to spark and expand the imagination and then allow this to be alive within the structure of a scene. Online, as we practise, the container is your room, but within it you need to be free. You need to be Free in the Form. You need it for filming especially, as you might be asked to do things with specificity yet still find the much needed freedom and spontaneity within your scene

This online course is taught by Max Hafler from Galway Ireland and Rena Polley from Toronto, Canada. 

Venue Zoom

DEC 10TH THE ACTOR IS THE THEATRE. 10-5

THE ACTOR IS THE THEATRE -DECLAN DROHAN 

VENUE TBA SLIGO

Simply Playing Cards.. finding Direction with the Chekhov Technique

Last Saturday, in our final class of a series which were about Connecting (to our selves, to each other as people and performers, and the character we played), a group of us explored Connecting to the Play, in our case, Anouilh’s Antigone

For some time we did several exercises getting the sensation of beginning and ending into our bodies through various exercises. We did this through journies across the space. If you think about it, every performance we go to see ought to take us on some kind of journey, ideally some form of transformation, if only temporary. Sadly this is not always the case. If you think about it, beginning and ending something gives it a tremendous significance. Even if we believe that life is formless and pointless (though we know we are born and will die – a pretty profound beginning and end), acknowledging a beginning and an end in a work of art gives it relevance . And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the story that carries it; it can have a beginning and end in feeling or movement of energy. It does not need to be didactic. Once you start playing with energy and images the effect can be incredibly multi layered and subtle.

We began to get involved in the beginning and ending of the actual play. After inviting the group to write down images as I read the beginning and the end of the play aloud to them, I wanted to emphasise the idea that “all art aspires to the condition of music” a quote by philosopher Walter Pater which heads up a chapter in Chekhov’s book. If we consider what that might mean, it emphasises that the performance of a play has an artistic wholeness, whilst at the same time affecting us on many layers at once, just like a piece of music does. One thing Michael Chekhov presses in his chapter on composition is that everyone involved in the creative team has to find ownership of the work in order to find their characters place within it, just like a musician in an orchestra. It has to have a Feeling of The Whole. As those of us who have directed or acted professionally know, the good actor is often considered the one who produces what the director wants rather than being an artist in their own right. Chekhov was never of that view; for him, “The actor is the theatre”.

To emphasise this feeling of the journey, of a transformation, that I spoke of at the beginning I invited the group to work with polarities from the beginning to the end . Of course this is not the only way to use polarities but it was what we needed here. We explored the idea that the play began with one polarity or opposite and ended with another. For instance, there is a brittleness in the beginning as the chorus introduces the cast of characters and a softness at the end as “a melancholy peace” descends. We could explore Light/dark; Life/Death; Avoidance/Acceptance; Noise/Quiet; Conformity/Rebellion… to name a few!

But we had not the time to work on the beginning in any detail; only the end. We made two groups who were going to create an ending or a number of endings for this challenging play. Chekhov was a firm believer in the idea that you could have a lot of starting points for a production. What better, with a play which puts up a challenge to principle and political rebellion to the audience than to focus on the ending? What are we trying to say with this play and how do we say it? When we stop speaking, what settles on the auditorium before the lights go down and the play ends? There were some wonderful examples of that polarised atmosphere that landed on the watching group as we began to explore and present possibilities. You could taste what was filling the room.

Many actors would have the horrors to attend a first rehearsal where you began at the end but for many plays it is completely appropriate. Reassure people that any good endings we find may completely morph into something different but that it would be useful for us all to imagine where we might all be heading. What this approach does is it  allows us to consider what the play might say; what our production might say to a modern audience. The actors need to be brought into this decision as I said because if they are not, the director might be ignoring a valuable energy within the group response. You also might be  making trouble for yourself for later as an actor rebels against your interpretation. 

The only proviso I set for their explorations was that everyone must speak and the chorus speech must be split between the group.

Both groups had an Antigone in their Chorus, though they were played very differently . In One group Antigone seemed the victim ( though less in one polarity/Atmosphere than the other). In the other, Antigone was the moral victor. Suffice to say whatever we decided were we to do the play , you leave the audience with a very different energy. All the pieces they made left an energy hanging in the air. An energy we could feel, consider and discuss.

More subtly, I asked one group to return  with exactly the same choreography they had developed yet play it through two different polarity/atmospheres, and I and the others watched, how this radically altered the ending of the play. It left a different feeling in the air. It said something quite different in the space. This was an incredibly powerful exercise because by retaining the general shape and the choreography but giving it a different impulse we were able to test out different possibilities with ease and speed, then come back and decide which would be better. .

We found a number of viable possibilities for the ending. All were strong visceral possibilities. Thrilling.

Our next few workshops this autumn are as follows.

September 10th/11th Two day workshop in the room on Actable choices auditioning; Declan Drohan and Max Hafler

October 8th/9th Two day workshop in the room on playing Fantastical characters. Declan Drohan and Max Hafler

Nov 1-22nd, 4-6 pm Irish time Online.

To Be Free In The Form. Rena Polley,(Michael Chekhov Canada) and Max Hafler

and in preparation !

Nov 12th One day workshop in the room 

 Max Hafler and Katelyn Ressler (more info to follow)

December 11th/12th. Sligo. Declan Drohan  (more info to follow)

To be “full of music” – what it might mean and why we should do it

“We have to be full of music.”

This quote from Michael Chekhov comes from LESSONS FOR TEACHERS and was a speech he gave to students after a visit by Uda Shankar, when he and his musicians came to play for them on October 6th 1936. In the speech Chekhov talks about the discovery of a new international culture, a culture which respects the last but does not hold onto it too fiercely. He talks as always eloquently about technique and how that can be the vehicle that moves us forward through the then and now uncertain times.

When I was a child, one of the reasons I loved acting was that you could try it then and there, with no practising and no technique . You could, as I thought, learn through experience. But this is of course only partly true because without technique your acting can be very thin and unfulfilling indeed. If you are a musician or a dancer it would be inconceivable to perform without practise and technique. It would, in the dancer’s case, be positively dangerous.

One of the great things the right technique can give you is a feeling of texture and depth and that I believe comes partly from the attitude that the practise of technique gives you; a sense of dedication and a sense that what you are doing as an artist has relevance.

In On the Technique of Acting, by Michael Chekhov, there is an epigraph by philosopher Walter Pater, “ all art aspires to the condition of music” . What does this mean? 

When I listen to a symphony there is rhythm, pace, tempo, colour, movement and depth….so often this is missing in plays, tv and film. Music has an intangible fulfilling depth. The Aurora orchestra recently performed Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite at a recent BBC prom. They frequently play standing, from memory and with no music stands . Why do they play their instruments standing up and why do they bother learning the music off by heart, some one asked . There were two rather tart answers to this question; “it’s just a gimmick” “It must take so long to rehearse and cost so much money.” When I saw these insensitive responses I felt very sad. There is energy moving through the body in the dance of fingers, arms, mouths and breath to make eloquent sound, sound for which there is no words  but a huge depth of feeling/ meaning. This is what Pater and Chekhov mean I think in their quotes. We have to be full of vibrant movement and energy. This is not just relevant for Art but for Life as well.

In order to express this energy in a play or film as performers (or audience for that matter) we need to develop our sense of the intangible. Declan Drohan and I are exploring how to access these elements of The Michael Chekhov Work in four online workshops entitled, ‘We Have to be full of Music”. (see below for details). There are still a few places remaining.

Four sessions online with Max Hafler and Guest Declan Drohan 

4.00 – 6.00 (27TH AUGUST – 17TH SEPTEMBER)

This quote from Michael Chekhov highlights the idea that we need to treat our plays like a piece of music and we want to explore this using the short play by Yeats, CALVARY. Made up with Chorus of Musicians , spoken solos and duets, Calvary is an ideal piece to explore this aspect of the Chekhov work. Rhythm, Tempo  and a Feeling of Wholeness which comes from feelings, images, form and the direction of energy, gives our performances life. Harnessing this energy is crucial to creating work on both stage and film and making connection.  For performers, directors and explorers.

COST 80 WAGED/ 60 part time/ 45 unwaged 

email chekhovtpi@gmail.com

visit http://www.chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

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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.

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.