Tag Archives: Acting

Directing with Depth M. Chekhov technique

IMG_1949 copy” We were sitting at the table for months and months, speaking about our parts and our characters, and becoming very clever and wise about the play, but none of us could begin to act!”  Michael Chekhov – Lessons For Professional Actor 

Are directors, alchemists or workers? The answer of course is both.

The focus of our last weekend workshop explored Chekhov Technique specifically considering the alchemy of director, actor and text.  We began with exercises exploring the role of the director. Roles and the creative balance of director and actor were the main focus. One thing that became clear to me through the weekend is that directors are also teachers. They are teachers whoever they are working with. When I say ‘teacher’ I do not mean a pedagogical finger-wagging, tantrum-throwing teacher whose only standard is making those within their orbit obey their vision. My definition of a teacher is that he/she is like the leader of an expedition who leads but also listens and takes advice from others, indeed may even change the direction of the expedition on their suggestion. Being a dictatorial director can make a miserable company.

Discovering the ‘spine’ for a play, a spine that could be discovered together seems to be absolutely key, because without that ‘spine’ and as Chekhov would call it, a ‘score’, how can the actor play his role effectively within it? I have been involved in many productions where actors do not compromise and set their will against the director, claiming the character as ‘their department’. If they do not come into open conflict with the director they try and score points for their characterisation, and moan about the director in private. This situation as many many people have experienced creates for bad working practise, a miserable time and often a terrible production as the other actors instead of working as a harmonious team, take sides.

So the score has to be agreed. It can be flexible as the whole team goes on the voyage together but it has to be agreed.

Another thing for us as Chekhov directors is that actors need to know their lines by the end of the first week. Waiting for the thought process to come or fully understanding the character before you set them into your memory is no excuse for an actor; hanging onto the book  constrains the actor, prevents true connection and radiation with fellow actors, and keeps the director guessing as to what the actor might do. True creation can only come when the lines are learned, and the real connection between the actors and the director can grow.

One thing for the directors I observed and supported in our group this weekend is that they began by hurling themselves into it with their actors, but then gradually worked more and more confidently and closely with their group. It was lovely to see this as everyone became more comfortable with each other. I really wished we had had a longer time.

Another major moment in the workshop for me was radiating and receiving, a standard exercise which I think is the absolute bedrock of any performance; where everyone was radiating from their centre walking around the room, meeting people and speaking a line of their text, in this case, from Blood Wedding. What was so crystal clear was that the way you received your colleague’s energy completely dictated the way you said the line. and the longer you respected that initial moment of contact, the more you felt that energy moving between you to speak the line in a certain way. Magic. It emphasised for me the importance of opening fully to your partner and taking your time.
We did a chunk of work on general atmosphere. Chekhov calls atmosphere ‘the oxygen of the performance’,  and that if we transmit atmosphere then it can be so powerful that despite other weaknesses in performance, the audience can be deeply affected. And the funny thing about atmosphere is that it is not necessarily sensible to take the literal location as an appropriate atmosphere. In the scene with the Woodcutters we went for an atmosphere of ‘Ice’ as opposed to ‘the forest’, which is where it is supposed to be. ‘Ice’ seemed to suggest something of the ominous setting with wraith-like woodcutters, vampire moons and beggars of Death. This produced extraordinary results. Whilst of course there were a whole number of developments beyond that to develop the scene, the pacing and placing of it in the context of the play, the atmosphere provided us with an incredible starting point.

I firmly believe that the more we can engage directors with the Chekhov approach, the less it becomes a toolbox and more an intrinsic creative way of looking at drama .I intend to run a longer workshop for directors in the future.

I am looking forward to the Third Spring workshop June 17th – 19th, IMAGINATION AND THE BODY, a weekend in fundamental principles which is for those fairly new to the work, or those wanting to reconnect with it after an absence. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or phone 086 330 7325 for further information. NB. This course is filling up quickly .

I am going to write more about this and more about the further developments of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland, in my next blogpost.

Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland

Those who know me know I have been studying and teaching the Michael Chekhov Acting  Technique for some years now. I teach the technique at NUI Galway and have taught it on many other courses including at The Lir. I intend to focus more upon that work more. My book Teaching Voice, Workshops for Young Performers, is to be published by Nick Hern Books in June which explores using Voice and Chekhov technique in tandem to develop voice work for young people

I have set up Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland which I hope is going to make the West of Ireland a hub of the Chekhov work. I hope to join with other Chekhov teachers here and abroad to develop and expand the training. In addition I am hoping that CTPI will be a focus for performance using Chekhov technique as the bedrock of the rehearsal process.

The training which explores using the body and imagination primarily to develop and explore new performance, to use it to work on scripted drama, to create character and use it to enable us to see old drama in a new way.

Weekend One April 8th – 10th: Chekhov and Devising.

Chekhov talked a lot about The Theatre Of The Future and in addition to working with text based plays, his techniques are excellent for devising new work, something the first inaugural training weekend will explore, working on imagination and ensemble techniques.  Galway City.

Weekend Two  Directing with the Chekhov Technique. 13th -15th May.

One of the strands I want to work with is using Chekhov technique in directing. The more directors understand and use the work, the more actors can use the technique themselves in a supportive environment in rehearsal. In addition, the number of shows I have directed using Michael Chekhov’s work, plays I have known well, have often resulted in revelatory discoveries which completely gave me fresh eyes on the play. And the palpable cohesion the Chekhov technique gives to an ensemble at a very deep level is truly mind blowing.

Weekend Three . Imagination and The Body. of June 17th – 19th .Galway City Ireland.

Finally we are going to explore the basic training of imagination and body through atmosphere, gesture and centre, archetype and composition to introduce and develop the use of Chekhov technique to help us  become the artists we truly are. T

 

In addition, I want CTPI to explore the wider use of the Chekhov technique on a more therapeutic level, for use in applied drama. Opening people to using their bodies to explore feelings and qualities, to explore how powerful the body can be in that regard, and importantly how to join up voice body and feelings together. CTPI is definitely going to explore Chekhov within this setting of applied drama.

Additional further workshops will explore Chekhov and Voice, Chekhov Technique and Song, Expressing the Invisible, as well as weekends on specific training in particular aspects of the technique.

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The first course CHEKHOV AND DEVISING WORK will be held on April 8th – 10th in beautiful Galway City Ireland. A little knowledge of Chekhov Technique is useful but not essential. The weekend will cost €75. €25 deposit required . for a bit more information on the Chekhov Technique itself, visit the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland page on this blog. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

 

 

 

Reunion

Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond's The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen

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

“I should not hear the opening of the gate.
They would simply be there…
Unexpectedly. Walking down an alley
I become aware of someone walking with me That’s the only way I can think of putting it. “
The Confidential Clerk TS ELIOT

The Confidential Clerk, a wordy and dense play by T.S. Eliot with some nonetheless beautiful sections was one of my final productions at LAMDA in 1977.

Nearly 40 years went by.

It took some courage to decide to go to a college reunion three weeks ago – To those who braved it, I salute you. A number of people were no longer acting and were hard to trace; some sadly were no longer with us at all. Some could not come as they were away working or living abroad. Some decided it was not for them. I actually had a fantasy as I travelled to Earls Court on the Tube that it was all a joke and when I arrived at the restaurant I would be the only person there.

Our whole adult lives had gone by since our first days at the London Academy of Dramatic Art  and now twelve of us were to meet together in a restaurant on the Earls Court Road. There were people from our own year and the year above us. For me it was an extraordinary experience. I had had my 60th birthday party some weeks before, and had allowed myself a full party with memories and even made a little gallery of my acting work over one wall of the living room. I never ever do this kind of thing but for some reason having made this landmark event of my 60th year, the reunion and the chance to spend time with some of the people with whom I had spent such an intense period decades ago seemed to be very timely.

When you discuss with someone how you read the whole of Shakespeare aloud with them in their living room ( well not all of it, we definitely missed out THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR) in the holidays; or when you talk about a play you did with them; or how you did not think you could survive the rigours of the school in the first week, you remember just what a powerful time it was. The influence of these people upon your life is enormous even though you maybe have forgotten them . They are seeped inside you.

Two people said to me that they felt that all the years had gone by and yet I was essentially still me. I found this rather delightful, yet something perturbed me about it . I did not feel myself to be the person they described. I felt myself tense, childlike and very vulnerable then . I did not feel like the curious and expansive person they said i was – I said that was me now rather than when I was a young man. This brought up a lot of philosophical thoughts afterward about how much we get in our own way when we are young.

The current careers of this group was varied; some of them were actors; some were teachers; directors; leaders in presentation skills; some worked in community; some had focussed primarily on family. What struck me was something I already knew – that a drama school training has so many transferable skills not just for a variety of careers, but also to simply expand a sense of ourselves in life. The exploration of  being, the personality, the way you have to seriously challenge your way of doing and responding to things physical,intellectual and emotional make it an amazing education, one which I would not have missed for anything. It gave me the tools to be a fuller human being, not theoretically but through artistic discipline and practise. I feel profoundly grateful, even though some of the experience was extremely challenging.

As I left the restaurant a few weeks ago after the reunion I saw the Lloyds Bank where I used to get my grant cheque – yes my grant cheque. Without government support going to LAMDA would have remained a dream.

The one area with which I had serious issues through the training in retrospect was the fostering of ruthless competitiveness. It is not hard to make young people competitive, and of course developing this is meant to sort out the ‘wheat from the chaff’ . Ironically though, being competitive and working hard and being talented does not necessarily mean success, though sadly the ‘talent will out’ myth continues to proliferate. We kept away from this difficult topic at our reunion, perhaps because at that moment, the atmosphere of competitiveness  gloriously, did not matter at all.

Escaping the default – in acting and in life.

Not long ago I was working as director/ teacher with an otherwise highly promising young actor when in an emotionally intense moment in a scene, something happened. Her eyes went soft and wet, and she looked vulnerable. Her body became tense, and she looked stuck, lost in some kind of feeling . She was clearly feeling emotional but it was completely inappropriate for the role or for the moment. I stopped the scene and asked her what she was doing. She said she didn’t know. I told her I had seen that look from her before both in class and in performance. She told me with a smile that it was her ‘default’ . I had never heard this term before used in this context but it seemed completely appropriate.

What is the default? Well we could call it a ‘trick’ or a ‘habit’ but it is much more than that. It is what an actor does when they have to convince themselves and the world they are acting well, usually when they have lost their way with the character or the moment the character is in. It is a place they go which makes them feel intense. It makes them feel something so, appropriate or not, they go there. For this young woman, for many other people I have taught, and for me too when I was a young actor, this default had very similar manifestations. I would look down and this very intense look would come into my eyes. I would look vulnerable or angry. My whole body would tense up. Importantly I could radiate [project] this feeling very easily which made me feel powerful and convince me I was really acting well. Unfortunately this impression was often enforced by my peers. Looking back now it had something akin to being emotionally constipated and actually having no clue what I was doing at that moment. What’s bad about this is that it actually FEELS good.

The default mechanism locks the performer in what they act and how they do it. It keeps you stuck in your own rhythm rather than finding a rhythm for the character. How does that happen? Sometimes it is simply trying too hard. The default is something more than a habit though, more than just playing with your fingers or folding your arms. Sometimes it is something I suspect deeply psychological, a feeling that the performer has about themselves which stops them from exploring the character as fully as they might. It often comes when we are trying to act something which makes us feel uncomfortable either because we have no knowledge of it or we repress it in our own personality.

Over my years of teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway I became more and more aware of how the patterns of our own movement restrict and hold us, trap us within our own personality, just as much as these emotional locks which are the default, in fact they are all part of the same thing. And this restriction not only has ramifications for acting but for our everyday lives and development.

Chekhov technique gives us a wonderful opportunity to open this door and free ourselves from the default but like all techniques you can watch the students do brilliant work in workshop where they push their own physical and emotional boundaries (by this I do not necessarily mean weeping and wailing !) but so often they then get a script in their hands and much of the good work vanishes and the default returns. Why does that happen? I feel it is perhaps because somewhere inside us our body-memory pushes us into forms of movement and behaviour which have been there through our lives; because there is something that pops up in our egos that encourages us to show off or accentuate an aspect of our emotional lives which perhaps pushes us into acting in this way. It might also be that the actor is simply lost and goes to that ‘default’ place out of fear or self protection.

This default behaviour can often be witnessed in all levels of production, because one of the first things that happens is that the actors do not truly radiate and communicate to their fellow actors and when watching you get no sense of the energy moving between them. Therefore however intense the actor may appear in their default they are not sharing their experience. Sadly, I believe I watched a good bit of this default acting in the production of Antigone I saw on BBC4 the other night.

When suddenly an actor joins up the dots as someone did in rehearsal for my student production of MORE LIGHT last night and with a wide light opening gesture the character told her story about her revelation about art and society, you sense a door opening and the actor avoiding her ‘default’ and finding a new way to be , not just for the character but also a new choice for herself.

And this leads me on to where I feel the effect of the default can be lessened; by young performers getting a stronger sense of self, not in a narrow egocentric sense but a wider imaginative sense . Exploring the Imagination voice and body primarily is the only way , not merely as a skill set but a way for the young performer to find their range and power both as an actor and as a person. We must  alert people quickly to the power of the imagination to enable them to transform and help them to develop it. We need to assure them it takes hard work, but it is both challenging and joyous.

Of course, in the ‘business’ it can often be the case that people make careers out of their default position. They become recognisable types, able to plumb a degree of intensity, but it is an intensity which never develops or changes. However they can sometimes make a career from it, and perhaps that is what they want. I do not believe that is enough when the work has so much more to offer.

Happily the young actor who gave me the default term and  with whom I began this piece, found new ways to find her feeling and power and gave a splendid and mature performance .

Centres – an interesting discovery.

Me Teaching at The michael Chekhov Training in Dublin last year.

Me teaching at The Michael Chekhov Training in Dublin last year.

I taught my first class dedicated to Chekhov’s centres on my performance course the other day. Recently I have become aware that for some people exploring centres is one of the hardest exercises for them, yet in actual fact it can be produce the most fundamental results in terms of character.

For those who have no experience of this work, the idea of centres is to find a centre for the character, usually within the body, which is like the engine or soul of the character , a place from which all their impulses spring. A kind of source. This centre can be a colour or a shape or a concrete image of something ( a lighted candle for Juliet is a good example) . You connect everything to this centre, your limbs and your very being and see what happens as you explore the space, the character and the text operating from the centre. There is no ‘wrong’ thing to do; you just fully connect yourself to this image or centre and respond . It can produce amazingly transformative results.

It has come to my notice though, that this aspect of Chekhov can be hard to grasp. Not only have you to imagine an image but you are also imagining it is inside you and powering all you do. This is quite a lot of imagining to do all at once! There is a lot of explanation in the Chekhov books about inviting an image or an object into you but even then, this is quite advanced. Leave it till later, you might say, but when you are running a short course you have to balance your careful instruction with the fact that there is not much time. Besides which, working with a character centre can change the actor so extraordinarily that it for me goes to the very heart of what Chekhov Technique can do for an actor.

When I was considering this session the other day, I remembered an exercise I had used with Galway Youth Theatre for working on character, decades ago, before I had even heard of Michael Chekhov . I had done a lot of work with the group and they really trusted me – so I risked it. I asked everyone to pick an object in the space, examine it carefully for use and size and texture and where it was within the room and I asked them to BECOME it , to become it as fully as they could, to imagine it had a voice and character . Then I would interview them as the object for a few minutes each and they would tell me about their lives as this object. Some of the work with the youth theatre was truly moving and remarkable, and some very funny. But for some reason I never used the exercise again.

Until last night. I considered that this exercise might be a good bridge to understanding what having a relationship to an object or image might be in terms of character and how it could be useful. It encouraged everyone to have a serious relationship with the object, an absorption and a response in a way they would not have done as effectively if I had asked them to describe it or use it as a centre straightaway. Of course in a way “becoming it” is making the object your centre in a very literal way. I suppose that is it. It cuts out one area of imagining that the actor has to do when creating a centre which makes the process a little easier.

The interviews last night were touching and funny. We then took the same centre into the body, imagined it powering us, moved it to different places in the body and experimented with this. But what I felt profoundly was that stuðents had a much stronger understanding and identification with the image because they had done this bridging exercise of simply becoming the object first. .

When we moved on to exploring centres for the characters we were working on, it was a lot easier.

thanks, group!

Observations on Veiling The Inner Life in Chekhov

Zita closed

 

 

One of the most challenging things to judge in my opinion using the Chekhov technique is how much to cover the sensations and feelings you have discovered through your magical explorations of centres, atmospheres and gestures. How much you ‘veil’ as Chekhov called it, your discoveries, allowing them to play, compete and challenge each other inside you as you play the character. For those not familiar with this work, one often finds sensations and feelings which, if fully expressed on stage, would be completely over-the-top. But how do you judge what is enough or too much? Veiling a strong emotion or drive should be second nature to us, because after all, we are doing it all the time in our everyday lives. But actually, ‘turning it down’ can easily extinguish that nugget of your character quite easily.

As Simon Callow remarks in his preface in the most recent print of Chekhov’s To The Actor, one of Chekhov’s training masterworks , when directors used to say, ‘do less’ it often resulted in actors doing nothing, leaving the audience unmoved. From some of the things I have seen recently, they may well still be saying it!

So much is actually going on in the characters’ lives, movements of energies, desires, and we as an audience need a chance to see them , even when the character is trying to veil them from the world of the play in which they are living.

This ability to judge the veiling well is particularly keen for film and tv, but could also be an issue within the studio space in which our group is hoping to present Antigone, and the small Shakespeare film project we are exploring right now. Of course veiling the work is trying to hide it, but paradoxically feeling it more strongly. One of the experiences I have had is that the sensation/feeling of the gesture or centre you are using often comes in a wave or rhythm, a very physical thing, which is very similar to the kind of rhythm we might observe in our own physical and emotional lives. This rhythm above all is extremely transformative for the character , and feels particularly authentic when the gesture is veiled till only the sensation is left.

I think the idea of conflicting or opposing energies creating a polarity within the character certainly to some extent regulate excesses as the opposing qualities vie for dominance, but developing a judgement for yourself seems for me to be a challenge.

Ultimately maybe it is the director who needs to decide or certainly guide the decision. This can be a problem because if the director does not understand the actor’s process nor the Chekhov Technique they may decide he is just a hammy actor, and despair of helping him veil his work. This is why i feel it is essential for more directors to use [or at least understand]  the Technique.