Tag Archives: Acting

Provoking feelings.


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.




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Janna Lindstrom and Conor Geogheghan in a recent CTPI workshop

I feel that theatre generally lives far too often in the realm of the materialist and the obvious; either that or it wallows in elitist performance art which says nothing , is riven with cliches and driven by obscure intellectual concepts. ( I watched a supreme example of this in the Tate Modern recently). And before anyone starts to write furiously, I know all performance art is not like that but some of it is.

So what do I mean when I talk about the Invisible? Is this just so much pretension? Definitely not.

Michael Chekhov called it , ‘the Intangible’. It’s like something just beyond reach, and yet ironically the ‘intangible’ is around us all the time.

In these next three blog posts , I am going to touch on what ‘the Invisible’ might mean in rehearsal and performance. In this post we are going to take the space in the text called a Pause.

What is a Pause?  We can feel it and experience it, but we cannot see it. It is invisible. But a pause is not nothing. Something is always happening in a pause, and it is not an empty space. Michael Chekhov said there was no such thing as a dead pause;

We know this movement of energy exists because we experience it every day of our lives when we pause. Actors who work more intellectually might consider ‘well, in this pause, I need to think this, this, and this’, but this thinking does not produce emotional authenticity.

“The main characteristic of a true pause is a moment of Absolute Radiation.” Michael Chekhov. On the Technique of Acting .

So a pause is a place of great movement; of energy, fullness, searching, decision and weight. It might be a place where we protect ourselves with silence or close in despair. It can be a place where we attack and send our energy to meet our partner, hungry for a response. It can be a moment where we express our love.

We need to understand the energy of the pause, to inhabit it and how to use it, to fully explore how a character might be behaving. And, importantly, to not be afraid of it. So many actors are afraid to pause, as if by stopping speaking they will somehow disappear.

A couple of years ago I was working on a student production of YERMA by Lorca. We were working on the scene where Yerma, a young woman, now truly desperate to have a child, meets her friend Maria who has two children. Maria tries to pass Yerma’s house and avoid coming in but Yerma sees her and forces her friend to come in. In a deeply painful scene reminiscent of a difficult visit to a sick relative, Maria tries to comfort her bitter friend and then, finally exasperated, Maria blurts out ” why can’t you just accept Gods will?” YERMA looks at her and then says ‘accept God’s will?” Maria makes for the door and then there is a painful moment where Yerma says ” you have the same eyes as your baby. He has exactly the same eyes as you.” Maria says goodbye and leaves.

I always start our initial exploration of any scene, lines already learned by the way, with radiating and receiving as the two actors speak their lines to each other giving and receiving energy from their scene partner, speaking quietly and with intention, and giving plenty of space between speeches. It is that time between speeches which is the most important as you get a real sense of what the other person is ‘sending out’ and how that makes you feel. You then get a sense of where the pauses might lie because you find out what is really going on. This is not just ‘listening’ (though it is that as well) but something much greater.

In the scene between Maria and Yerma, the actors by this process found several moments which were so painful and true that it had the three of us in tears. After Maria’s ‘why can’t you just accept God’s will’ the long pause was electric as Maria realised she had been almost forced into saying the one thing which would alienate her from her friend forever. At Yerma’s “accept God’s will?” I asked the actor playing Maria to receive the energy from Yerma in a pause and to move only when she couldn’t stand it anymore. As she bolted for the door, Yerma ran after her and grabbed her arm. She let Maria go and looked at her pleading, desperate and alone, and said the line about the baby’s eyes. There was a pause where Maria suddenly hardened and said “Goodbye”. What we realised with this unearthing of the invisible was that at this point in the story, Maria is saying Goodbye not just for today but for the rest of their lives; that she can no longer take anymore and they cannot have the friendship they had; that Yerma is alone. Importantly we found this without much discussion but by exploring the invisible. It was complex and unbelievably moving.

This issue of energy and the pause is one of the areas I want to explore in Expressing The Invisible, the course at NUI Galway that I am running , August 18-21. THe cost of this 3 and 1/2 day workshop is 180 euro / 150 euro concessions. There are only a few places left. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further details.

Decisions decisions… Brecht at the RNT

I went to see the Royal National Theatre of The UKs production of THREEPENNY OPERA whilst over in London, performed in the huge Olivier Theatre. Directed by Rufus Norris, the production was spectacular, had a guttural and appropriately harsh translation from Simon Stephens , a fantastic band and some full blooded acting from the cast, led by Rory Kinnear, Haydyn Gwynne and an amazing performance from Nick Holder as Peachum. Full use was maðe of revolves, lifts and moving staircases and the almost continuously moving set designed by Vicki Mortimer had the right atmosphere. In the immediate charged atmosphere of Brexit, chaos in parliament and the polarisation in the populus, the play was incredibly topical. There were some raw, bold moments. And yet….

Every decision we make when we create a piece of theatre has ramifications. Of course this does not mean that the director, design team and actors do not have to make decisions. If they did not, then they would most likely make a piece which was flabby and rudderless. But every time you make a strong decision, the creative team have to understand that in making it, they cut themselves off from some amazing possibilities.

Ultimately, as professional as this work was, it followed the route of spectacle, something I would define as an attempt to avoid the real issues by some distracting visuals. The spectacle has power, ‘shock and awe’ etc but too often it misses something. Too much set moving in crucial songs occurred time and time again, diluting the power of performer and song. For instance, Surubaya Johnny, one of the most famous songs in the whole piece, was accompanied by one of the largest scenic shifts. During MacHeath and Tiger Browns Soldier’s Song, really excellently performed , sandbags swung down from the audience on ropes and took me away from the emotional movement of the song. There were many annoying things like this which distracted us from the guts of this story and that the characters were in pain, vicious, trapped and angry. This process of spectacle reminded me a little of how often directors like to embroider plays, most particularly Shakespeare, in order, they believe, to keep the audience engaged. I felt there was something of this with the songs…. a feeling they were too long and needed ‘dressing up’ a bit.

The polarity of good and evil is incredibly important in Brecht’s work. More emphasis on this polarity would have helped to give the play more depth and hence make the second half more interesting to watch. By the end of Part one all the magazines seemed to have been emptied because the emotional level was merely anger and violence. Back to polarities: Brecht’s line in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, ‘ Terrible is the Temptation to do good’, suggests that oppressed people in a shitty world struggle to perform good deeds because the fear-charged atmosphere in which they exist mitigates against good action. In Threepenny Opera there is a whole song dedicated to this polarity of trying to act morally in an immoral and cruel world. I would have liked to have seen more of those moments of conflict between the atmosphere of savagery and moments, or attempted moments, of goodness.

This polarity is not sentimental but a reality. In this production however, no character even thought of doing anything kind or loving for one moment. It never crossed their mind. The whole world was twisted and perverse and the characters operated within it. Of course I know this is the point, but it is not the whole story. If it were, then the play, like the production, would ultimately be unsustainable. Polly especially becomes corrupted and gets sucked in to being as criminal as her parents. She changes. We needed to see that journey more. By making her strong from the start, we ultimately got no sense of movement , and by that I mean emotional movement. So although Rosalie Craig gave a strong performance it didn’t really for me go anywhere. This stasis was in all the characters. Some people might argue it was a ‘Brechtian’ choice to give the characters no development and to keep them permanently as harsh types. But as a result of this character stasis, the production became for me tedious after the interval. It fully became a spectacle at a time when it needed to be finding some depth.

Let’s take Mcheath. Now it is important for me that we do not sympathise with him, or find him charming but in his final song on the scaffold he has got to be fearful, imploring as well as defiant. Here was another moment I would have preferred the song to have been focussed on his feelings rather than the giant staircase up which he was progressing. There is a lot of emotional movement in what might be his final moments as he loses power and the only people left for him are the audience . Despite Rory Kinnear’s bullish and energetic performance, there was absolutely no flexibility, or if there was, then I did not see it. I suspect this might have been a directorial decision but I could be wrong.

A pivotal scene in the second half was the scene with the Police Officer Smith whom McHeath tries to bribe in order to help him escape. Much as it might be appealing to assume that all policemen are corrupt, a different and more powerful choice might have been made which would have pulled this scene into something more morally dense. The policeman shocked by the corruption of his superior is ripe pickings for McHeath and Officer Hill succumbs . There is an emotional movement here. When we discover our heroes have feet of clay this is a ripe moment for compromise or corruption.

In the final moment of this recent production, and this is a different point, there was an implication that McHeath had an affair with a prince of the realm and so he is saved. The final moment had him kissing a prince in front of the entire cast. This from a man who has robbed, raped, murdered, scarred and debased women. There is a lot more gay subtext, made very explicit in this version which was sometimes effective, but this final moment I found rather offensive in what is at the end of the day a political cabaret which is supposed to be saying something. What was this final tableaux saying ? Here before us, is the ultimate corruption? All this corruption is down to repressed gay sex? I am sure that was not what was intended but that was how it appeared. When I looked up John Willett’s translation, the alternative ending of Mack getting his reprieve has one target only; to make the audience feel that with a happy ending they can go off satisfied. It’s a comment on the audience and a jibe against us, not a further complication of the morality of the plot.

Decisions decisions….

Teaching Chekhov Technique

I always feel profoundly humbled when teaching an Intro to Chekhov weekend, at what I consider the enormity of opening this imaginative and visceral world to the participants. This last weekend they did not disappoint me. What was exciting was that all the participants were meeting the work for the first time, but for one who was revisiting it after a long absence.

Teachers reading this are all too aware I am sure that often we do not have participants at the same stage on short courses and this can be frustrating for the participants and tricky for the teacher. There was no such problem this weekend, and it was a true delight to watch people open and develop as the weekend progressed. The development was really palpable as people got braver and bigger and deeper. It was a real opening up. Ultimately people were performing short scenes which had depth and power.

Another issue with introductory weekend courses is whether to work with an actual play or not. It would be simple of course with Michael Chekhov Technique to not touch a text for a long time. It is probably the purest way to do it. After all, when you first encounter psychophysical work the most important thing is to experience it. Then you need to practise, to really get it into the body. It was interesting how everyone said that repeating a particular exercise made it so much easier. The group seemed to grow together in the moment that feeling was voiced, as they all agreed.

However, whilst on the one hand it is important to move slowly, I think it is also important to give those who are meeting the work for the first time an opportunity to see where the work might be going once they achieve proficiency so they can not only feel it in their being but also experience how they might use it as actors. That also gives them the incentive to go on, practise alone, come to more courses, and deepen their learning.

IMG_2033 copyIt is so easy when you feel as passionately about the work as I do to go into really serious intricacies which are not at all appropriate for participants opening to the work. I caught myself doing this once or twice and inwardly laughed at myself. The more experienced I get, paradoxically, the harder it is to stick to fundamental basics and riff away on some detail. I guess it is the teacher’s excitement and ego getting the upper hand. I have sometimes been in classes like that myself as a participant where the teacher has let that happen and it is not edifying or helpful. In fact, as the student, it can be deeply annoying. On this weekend we were exploring strong first principles and those were what I needed to impart. It reminds me strongly of the quote from Lessons For Teachers by Michael Chekhov, that I have in the front of my book, Teaching Voice.

“If you are teaching you must be active…. Try and speak as if from your whole being.”

When you do that, you do not digress. But following that principle requires an incredible concentration from the teacher. You have to be fully open to the students and yet at the same time, guide them. And you have to speak clearly and give instructions as clearly as you can. When we are asking the students to open themselves up to different stimuli , an uncertain instruction that confuses can feel like a kind of betrayal, if that isn’t too strong a word. This requires a phenomenal degree of focus.

This weekend has made me feel it even more important to start defining beginners and those more developed, so in the Autumn term I am intending to run an opening class , and an intermediate class in an effort to provide a structure.

For those coming to the August Workshop EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE August 18-21, some basic understanding of the principles is required but the workshop will have a wide arc and is being planned for that. That workshop if filling up fast , so if you are interested then please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com . There’s more info on the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland FB page and on the CTPI page on this blog.

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.



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





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.