Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

Where has it all gone to? 3 Sisters discoveries from Anton’s nephew!

In the final presentation of my MA Chekhov Technique class, six of the students performed the opening of Act 2 of the 3 Sisters by Anton Chekhov. As we worked on scenes from the first two acts, each act had a prevailing general atmosphere and for Act Two it was helpfully suggested by one of my students that it was fog or mist. This seemed a perfect atmosphere for the act as everyone starts to radically lose their way without really knowing why. it gave the characters a sense that things are not quite right. By using this general atmosphere, the first scene of Andrey and his wife became a  tragic pivotal scene with them losing each other, rather than watching a weak man dominated by a wily desperate woman. Andrey became a lost confused soul and Natasha a woman full of disappointment testing her husband to see if he would ‘man up’ and take charge of the house.  With regard to the ‘fog’ the whole cast of characters is on its way to confusion but at the moment it is not possible to quite discern what is wrong.  Anyway, this wonderful idea for an atmosphere fed not only the act but the whole play with a what was for me a wonderful new direction. This is the wonderful thing about atmosphere and indeed all of Chekhov Technique work – it leads you to avenues you would never imagine possible without over-engaging the intellect. The Higher Ego and the Creative imagination are the leaders of our creativity.

In an earlier class on Chekhov’s theory of composition this group started to look at the idea of good and evil in the play and someone said it appeared that the family and their situation create a vague hole into which evil creeps..” In a way everyone is culpable; all the characters, not just the usual culprits – Natasha and Solyony. The fog/ mist atmosphere really brought that out.

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations through our work was in tackling the comedic aspect of the play. In Act two Vershinin and Masha come in from the cold night about to start their affair. This scene played very passionately by my two actors was interupted by a raging exhausted speedy Irina desperately trying to cling onto the idea of going to Moscow, pursued by her puppy Tusenbach .She is totally oblivious to the sense of subdued passion in the room as Masha and Vershinin try to act normally. The resulting scene kept the tragedy and comedy running side by side, and I learned something.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of many of Chekhov’s full length plays working really as comedies whilst at the same time retaining the human tragedy of the characters. I have seen some very unsatisfactory versions at each end of the spectrum, treating the play as high tragedy and others at uneasy comedy. And now I wonder. Is this comedy in A. Chekhov’s play rather more like the idea of tragicomedy which exists in Jacobean drama and which I am very familiar with. So the playing engine of the work is not that one scene is serious and one is funny but that both of these qualities exist in the same scene at the same time. This dynamic rubs against its opposite like it does in the best tragicomedies of Thomas Middleton, actually heightening both tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Interesting.

 

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New Starts

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Jerry Fitzgerald. MA alumni. working with first principles. photo:Sean O’Meallaigh

Starting again on teaching the basic tenets of Chekhov in a fairly methodical way and for its own sake fills my heart with joy. Whîlst on the one hand I love running short courses that start with a more specific exploration, it has its restrictions. I am leading a weekend later in late November focusing specifically on entrances and exits, working with threshold, atmosphere and composition about which I am very excited, but because of its length, the weekend focuses equally on application as well as raw training. It means of course that the application may not be as effective in the longer term though the immediate impact on participants is still often profound. However it may not stick as well as it would if they had undergone a more thorough basic training. So going back to the nuts and bolts, through repetition, of ideal centre, feeling of ease and form, radiating and receiving, qualities of movement and imagination etc is for me like plunging back into the wonderful pool of exhilaration and discovery when I first found this way of working myself. I watch people experience this work, many of them for the first time, some tussling with nervousness or with the rubrics of their past training which put the intellect and the why of the character first, instead of the Chekhov work which asks us to plumb the imagination, the body, and the how and the what of the character at the forefront of discovery. I watch the penny suddenly dropping as they get a rush of feeling when they make a gesture and a realisation that acting is a channelling and a release of energy rather than a forensic exercise which often inhibits and restricts their creativity. This does not happen immediately of course. It happens with work; with practise.

At the same time I feel it is imperative in these early stages to reassure them that the ultimate goal of this work does ultimately lead them to an emotional understanding of the text where they can be open to their fellow actors, the playwright, director and audience in a way which they may have thought impossible. For those who find making the connection between voice, body, imagination and feelings tricky at first, this reassurance is especially important.

Another aspect of going back into the basics is that it focuses me back into my own practise with regular work at home alone in my wild garden, weather permitting, on the basic rubrics myself.

In a few weeks we will be starting short scene work on Chekhov’s 3 Sisters. I had thought of using The Crucible and then decided that exploring that dark, grim atmosphere for 12 weeks if only for a few hours per week was just too much. I feel that when we explore a text with the technique, especially at the beginning, it needs to be one with a variety of atmospheres and intentions because the work can be so intense and powerful, that something as unremittingly oppressive as The Crucible may not be the best play to start with.

When Irina cries out in Act 3  of the Three Sisters in despair ‘ I can’t even remember the Italian for window!’ This is of course ridiculous. She is not starving and does not have a terminal disease. It is not really a tragedy. And yet on another hand it is; she realises her life is falling apart and her dreams are going to remain dreams. In a sense her life is already over. This moment, when she expresses this realisation that her dreams are unachievable, is something I suspect every single person has experienced at some time in their lives. To make her dilemma wholly successful the actor has to somehow make us feel the ridiculousness of her statement and yet at the same time have the utmost sympathy for her predicament. Chekhov technique thrives on this complexity… These wonderful invisible yet palpable polarities which exist within characters, between characters and between characters and audience.

Seagull Stuff -changes of style and movement of energy

It felt like a gift to be able to see a professional production of THE SEAGULL at the same time as I am using the play to teach Michael Chekhov Technique.

Anton Chekhov called his play The Seagull a comedy. And when I went to see Corn Exchange’s updated production in the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety Theatre the other day I was in no doubt that that was what the creative team had initially gone for. It was light and fun. In addition, the young writer Constantin became Constance, an interesting and effective gender change which immediately updated the text and made the relationships more easy to distinguish. It was easy to see Masha desire a lesbian relationship she could not have and marry Medvedenko, ‘go straight’ and reap the bitter consequences. The two actors playing Constance and Masha seemed to thrive on that decision and it worked well. Sorin was excellent as was Paulina who had a real understanding of tragicomedy especially in a wonderful moment when she ate Nina’s flowers. May I say here that I am not naming the actors, not out of laziness but because this is not a review. I am keen to explore aspects of the play which were thrown up in this production.

So the production made choices; of course it did; that is inevitable. However, choices create consequences. Initially, buying completely into the comedy aspect does create issues, and most prominently in the performance of Arkardina. Arkadina is the queen of the play and therefore the way her role is interpreted is crucial to all the other characters, their own character level and development. In order to have some movement in her character she cannot be portrayed continuously as a mere diva which for me, for the most part, was what was happening. In Act Three she attempted a few moments of sincerity but unfortunately for me it was far too late. For instance arkardinas pleading for Trigorin’s love in an exhibition of superficial campery made not just her character but Trigorin look foolish as well as he agreed to obey her after this insincere display.  I kept wondering who had made this decision, the actor or the director. In the play it appears to me, from the opening of Act Two, there is a sense of Arkadina losing control of her world and by the end of Act Three she is fighting to hold on to what she has. That is a progression; that is a journey. I was not looking for a romantic vision of Arkardina, but a more rounded one.

Something that did not help Arkadina was the loss of Shamrayev, the boorish landlord/steward of her property. I wondered whether they had cut the character to save money but it had serious consequences on the structure . In Act One we lose the fact of his toadying to Arkardina, important for her status and for us the audience to empathise with her. More importantly in Act 2 we lost his fight with her, which weakened Arkardina’s power. That argument, and Arkardina’s decision for them to leave marks a turning point in the act, an essential climax. Without it, the production lost its way for a good while.

The danger of over-exploiting the comedy makes the artists (the characters in the play) look like tedious self indulgent fools, which maybe they are, but still.. Do I want to see a play where actors and writers are all made to look like fools? Not really. I have spent my whole life working in theatre and believe in it as a transformative agent for change both personal and sometimes political. Only the character of Constance made me believe that there might be a possibility of truth through art but then things do not end well for her and she kills herself for love. Nina, the other young aspiring artist, just seemed to be a lost and confused child used by the older people. As Constance kills herself, starved of love from all quarters, I needed to get a sense of Nina at least having found something; some purpose, but she seemed lost. So from a structural point of view the play moved from being a fairly trivial suburban comedy to a dark tragedy of unbelievable hopelessness. I did not see sufficient seeds of the dark elements in the early part of the play to really take me on this journey. There was no real feeling of the whole.

So is this play a comedy or a tragedy? And do we need to define it? In a way yes we do, because we need to decide.

Perhaps it is that wonderful thing, a tragicomedy, beloved of Jacobean dramatists? In tragicomedy each element highlights the other. Tragicomedy allows the absurd because there is an understanding that life is absurd. I have worked with tragicomedy myself a good bit, most particularly with my adaptation of Middleton and Rowley’s ‘ THE OLD LAW’, a tragicomic play which explores mass euthanasia as an agent for greed.

But back to Chekhov. Anton Chekhov is a master of this tragicomic genre. In order for tragicomedy to be effective, there needs to be a strong understanding by the director and performers as to when the screws are turned, and the audience are suddenly moved. I felt that control and understanding was missing at the performance I saw.

Someone in class remarked yesterday, mistakenly I believe, that comedy enhances our sympathy, but I don’t think that’s true.It is only true when the performers and director control it. Without that understanding, comedy can be just an excuse to trivialise.

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participants in my Chekhov class, Niamh and Ronan, playing Masha and Medvedenko.

So the following day after seeing  the performance with my class of Continuers in Michael Chekhov technique  we spent a chunk of time exploring this conundrum. I asked each pair and two solo performers to work with their text in a particular style ; as a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire. I discussed Michael Chekhov’s belief that to work in tragedy you imagine something just behind you, and for comedy imagine something in front of you. That sounds strange as I write it but if you try it out with a piece of text, it makes perfect sense. We also discussed satire: the play could easily be seen as a satire against/about self-indulgent artists and we agreed that unlike pure comedy, satire had a particular point. It was not humour for its own sake.

This was a rich mine of exploration. Before embarking on this exercise we worked with a range of radiating/receiving exercises to play with the energy of pauses; to explore the energy of pauses. I did this because, in order to manage the shifts of mood, it required this understanding of the movement of energy that happens.

So we had, from Act 4,  a satirical exploration of an over-serious and melodramatic young actress who has come to visit her old lover Constantin. At certain moments, such as when she says, ‘I am an actress’ and she hears Trigorin laughing in the other room, I asked her to change the emotional movement to a tragic one, then gradually ‘turn up’ the satirical element as the scene goes on. This was incredibly moving as the class members suddenly felt that Nina was covering up her grief, even when she eventually returned to her comic satirical delivery. Primarily this focus from comedy, to tragedy or to satire is a change in movement of energy. It is not just a matter of (that much maligned word) style.

Another scene we worked with was the opening scene between Masha and Medvedenko. They played the scene in a serious tragic way. The result was occasionally hilarious. It was edgy and interesting, a potent mix of tragedy and comedy, as was a Trigorin monologue also played as a tragedy.

Finally, we worked with the Act 3 scene between Arkadina and Constantin. I mention this last because it epitomised where tragicomedy is successful. At first the actors found it challenging to make a scene in the intense third act funny , despite lines like,

“You look as if you are wearing a turban. Someone came to the door the other day and didn’t know what nationality you were.”

but gradually they let the comedy take hold. Then, quite naturally, they started to find dark and serious moments within the humour; poignant moments where the arrogant mother could not bear to involve herself in the messiness of her child’s despair and need.

Finding this balance heightened both the ridiculousness of our humanity and the tragedy of it; the subtle shifts of energy heightened both, something Anton Chekhov and some of the 17th century tragicomic dramatists fully understood.

A Question on The Seagull from a young director.

Here is a question regarding Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull I got yesterday from a young director.

Question : Regarding Nina, do you think there is the possibility for her to be a bit…delusional or lying to herself? She’s clearly still insanely in love with Trigorin, like Treplev (Constantin) she’s the romantic, total type (with all the abysses associated) and I just can’t get it out of my head how that seagull is still there, but stuffed with chemicals and not really alive. I know it’s bleak , but I kind of get troubled when I face so much optimism coming from Mr. C, especially when I compare it with the endings of the rest of his plays.

Answer : I saw Nina like that at one time too. but if we consider that, like Life,  a whole play has polarities, forces pulling us this way and that, and the presence of these polarities are what makes it moving and full, then, right now, if I was directing the play, I would like Nina ultimately to be positive; not in a dreamy sort of way; in a realistic way. She has clearly had a dreadful time, but she is still determined; she is still wrestling with what has happened to her, but she is ‘taking it on’, her past, and her journey. So of course to some extent she may be lying to herself as you suggest, but she is surviving and her compromises seem to be worth it for her art. That is what keeps her going. As with lots of young actors, Nina’s force might not last. She may well become completely disillusioned, but right now, the candle is still burning for her. She is one positive force in what is ultimately a grim end for the play .

You can never really isolate the character from the play ; the actors can’t do it, and nor of course can the director. We have to see Nina as part of the bigger picture. Michael Chekhov  said you have to look at the impact of the whole play upon the audience. What as the director, do you want them to take away from the experience? Nina being realistic but determined does not unbalance the play at all, in fact the opposite. Let’s imagine the actor and director took the choice you are suggesting. She ends up delusional. She ends up hopeless. She ends up a victim, and an audience might construe that Constantin kills himself precisely because she is in such a state. People have taken that route a lot in productions I have seen and you come out of the play thinking, ‘so what?’ She deludes herself and C kills himself. Masha and Medvedenko live with the consequences of their compromises. It’s grim.

However, if we look at how the main characters treat ‘their calling’ then Nina’s outlook has to be an attempt to fuse youthful idealism and love of your art against all the odds. In terms of polarities, her artistic fervour and determination pulls away from  the egocentric and rather cynical bent of Trigorin and Arkadina and the disillusioned Constantin. Nina offers us a slim hope, which may be only fleeting in her life, that you can survive as an artist and it can sustain you through everything . I would like to see that in my performance of the Seagull because it would give me a feeling of wholeness watching it, because I have known that struggle and that idealism as a young actor, and I have known the compromises of life and the reality of trying to survive in a ruthless business which is also an art.

It may be naive of me to ask for this in a production but I am looking for wholeness. I am so determined that more directors learn the Michael Chekhov technique, because the more the work is applied by directors as well as performers, the more sense of wholeness there will be and the richer the offering we will make towards the audience.

Later on today, after I published this piece, someone write a comment and said we had to be open to different Ninas in performance. I wholeheartedly agreed – here’s what I replied, with a little further embellishment.

I am not saying that there is a definitive way [to play the role] either… it depends on the production and of course the chemistry of the actors. But then there are many many ways the actress playing Nina could explore a determined and positive conclusion in a myriad of ways and in varying degrees. There is still tons of scope there. However I do think that if Nina is ultimately despairing and hopeless, and that could be a path of course, I have to consider how would it make me feel as an audience member. It would, along with the other characters’ stories in the play, make me feel incredibly depressed! Why? Because it would be telling me in the audience that Art is only despair, disappointment and superficiality; that actors are fools. Does the play really say that? I think not. Do I want the audience to feel that?

No, I don’t.

Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s Continuers course which runs for 6 consecutive Sundays from next week begins next Sunday here in Galway.  

Composing Chekhov with Chekhov

“In 1812 it was Moscow that was on fire. God bless us weren’t the French surprised!” Three Sisters. Anton Chekhov. Act 3.

Chekhov’s Three Sisters is one of my favourite plays. I was first introduced to it at LAMDA decades ago where we used it for scene study, and the infectious enthusiasm of the teacher opened me to the feelings and complexities in the play.

One of the first things I did when I started to explore the Michael Chekhov work (Anton’s actor/director nephew) was to watch the amazing set of Michael Chekhov Association DVDs in which they used pieces of the Three Sisters to develop and reveal the work with an exciting group of actors, many of whom are now Chekhov teachers themselves. I remember two particular moments; one when the Doctor (Mel Schrawder) is criticised for giving Irina a samovar for her birthday, and another when Anne Gottlieb worked on Masha’s confession in act 3. The revelation of the kind of depth the Chekhov technique gave to the Chekhov play made me realise there was another play underneath the one I had seen several times, and taken part in.

So now with my MA Chekhov group many years later we are working on a work-in-progress of act 3 of Three Sisters, where a fire has raged in the town and the house in which two of the sisters live is acting almost as a hospital. For me the principal pervading atmosphere here is fire/chaos/destruction, but within the ‘set’ itself there are different atmospheres within the space which augment and support the action. These atmospheres, as in life, give direct influence to the way the characters behave.

Whilst the most powerful atmosphere is the one I described above, this is at its most powerful offstage right, where the rest of the house is full of people, suffering, exhausted and stressed. I imagined that stage left is the secret place, the servants stairs, the back way, darkness, death, the place where you try not to be seen and, more realistically, the stairs to Chebutykin’s rooms, the character who heralds in the real darkness of the act. It’s where Natasha goes to leave the house in secret. The room itself which makes up the set has the atmosphere of a makeshift shelter, a place where you are still aware of the chaos but to some extent are free of it. As soon as you start to consider and use these atmospheres, the play begins to transform itself into something deeper. It is a way I had not considered using Chekhov technique in an apparently realistic play, and yet it makes perfect sense. If I consider my living room, there are different atmospheres if you sit in a different chair.

When I think back to a professional production I did of The Glass Menagerie many years ago, I considered how strict I was about the entrances and exits, about how many stairs there were to the fire escape, and I wonder in retrospect how much it served the characters’ offstage lives, and how much more relevant it might be to consider the atmosphere of the various exits and rooms off the main room of the house. What is the atmosphere of Laura’s bedroom? This is not to decry the realistic circumstances, (what does it look like etc?) but they will surely fill your imagination once you understand the atmosphere.

One of the most exciting things about the Chekhov technique is around the composition of the performance and the feeling that together with design and the actors we are creating a score for the play. This score has climaxes and a beginning middle and end. Some other techniques explore this mode of looking at art I know, but with Chekhov it appears to come as much from a deep understanding of character and the intangible, the unseen energies moving around what is happening in the play as with a piece of music.

Like an orchestra, each actor needs to accommodate this score with the journey of their character. This I know can appear an anathema to some people, but ideally the director does not come with this all worked out, or at least is able to change things as the group works on the atmospheres and journies with the cast which run like motifs through the play. Nor is it a primarily intellectual exercise. Curiously this ‘developing a score’ makes the work of the actor more focussed but in a strange way more free.

Directing through Chekhov (Michael) is one of the most satisfying discoveries I have made artistically, and something I want to teach and explore more in order for the technique to thrive.

In the Spring, I will be running weekend workshops in Galway, Ireland, particularly with this focus.  Contact maxhafler@iol.ie

Selling The Cherry Orchard with STAN

STAN is bark2not short for Stanislavski but Stop Thinking About Names, a Belgian theatre company founded in the 1980s dedicated to classic and modern work. I attended last Saturday’s performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin, part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Anton Chekhov has to be the most humane and moving writer we have been privileged to have as part of the human race. His exploration of the passing of Time, the difficulty of change and transition for everyone, how our hopes and dreams so often jar with the circumstances of our lives, be they personal or political, is sublime. If anyone helps you understand the human condition, it’s him.

I notice that the production is having its premiere at the festival. Hopefully this is the
start of a journey. In the programme notes it says that their performances are not a result or a finished product but “an invitation to engage with an ongoing dialogue”. That is what I am trying to do here. This is not a ‘review’ but a series of observations and questions about making classics moving and relevant for now. It is also about what we believe is the role of the director.

The set and style of the production reminded me of watching a reasonably good rehearsal runthrough. The set and studiously haphazard costume got me into this atmosphere right away. I was not averse to this; some of the best things happen in rehearsal as any theatre worker will tell you. I rather liked it initially. However, it is a style now, a formula. Someone comes to the front and says “ok we are starting now,” smiles at the audience and we slide into the play. This approach was fresh and new once but, for me, not any more. And rather than an ‘approach’ perhaps I should call it a ‘style’ because it did not seem to have, for the most part , the spontaneity it claimed to espouse.

Unsurprisingly, I discovered on reading the programme that the show was directed by the company. At any rate there seems to be no director listed. This was utterly apparent. Whilst I am all for people exploring work without a director there are definite pitfalls. Tell tale signs in this production included: actors crossing the stage at the back, pulling focus, destroying atmosphere in the space during scenes which were being quite well acted, a marked differentiation in acting level and style, a sense of no one really having a sense of where the piece was going, a lack of cohesion as to how they felt as a group about the whole theme of the play. I felt there were many great ideas not fully explored or really taken to their limit – ideas and feelings about the subject matter that is, not the style.

In ‘The Empty Space’ where Peter Brook discusses the role of director, he says:

“Without leadership a group cannot reach a coherent result within a given time. A director is not free of responsibility – he is totally responsible – but he is not free of the process either. He is part of it. Every now and then an actor turns up who proclaims that directors are unnecessary: actors could do it by themselves. This may be true. But what actors? For actors to develop something alone, they would need to be creatures so highly developed that they would hardly need to rehearse together….” BROOK THE EMPTY SPACE (1968)

I did however enjoy some of the generally relaxed connection to the audience,
not usual in productions of this play, a kind of Shakespearean connection. The company feels this is an important mark of their work, as it says in the piece about them at the back of the programme. One or two of the actors, particularly the actor playing Firs and Yepikodov, who set up this connection at the beginning, frequently pulled focus by changing gels and moving furniture at the beginning whilst scenes were happening in what was for me a totally pointless and ineffective manner.

I suppose what follows on from this style is a decision to say: “we are not the characters and we do not want you to think we are, so we will make no effort to become them. We will commit ourselves to the idea we are actors and not play with this polarity.” This decision, which I take it is the company style, whilst it has some novelty value and can occasionally uncover some more modern immediate truth, also presents problems. Fir’s final moments in the play seemed pretty meaningless to me in that he played just himself, and not the old retainer. My feeling is that when you throw out the fact that he is an old man, you are throwing out one of the most important things about him.

Only in sections were the themes and atmospheres really captured. For example, Trofimov’s philosophising in Act 2, where all the characters listened to him railing against them and Pishchik’s windfall in Act 4 [ wonderfully played by Bert Haelvoet] was another
wonderful section. But there were not enough of these moments for me. Quirky giggles and modern responses do not make for realism or connection. Eccentricity is not depth.

Something I thought was wonderful though was the dancing. In Act 3 as the cherry orchard is being auctioned off, there is a dance held at the house. The music they used was modern dance music. Behind the movable screen which maðe up the set, the rich family, their servants, dependants and hangers-on danced the night away, emerging into the main space to have their scenes.

I loved this; it connected me to the play in a way most of their acting could not; it made me feel the whole notion of civilised society dancing its way towards chaos; of privileged people hanging on for grim death to a life where they can do as they please only to discover, that even for them, time marches on. For me, it is what is happening right now in the world.

What would it have taken to make this production moving and meaningful for me overall? Not much. More focus. Less anarchy with the costumes. More care with the cross casting. A little more acknowledgement of character rather than the rather tiresome ‘Brechtian’ cleverness which yielded little to me of the humanity of this amazing play. An understanding that everyone in the audience will not necessarily know the play. Some more direction which focussed the action and atmosphere.

This does not mean I want the play presented in a traditional way; I simply craved more depth.

On that point of depth; I attended a summer school run by Michael Chekhov Europe in Zurich a few years ago. All the people in the group I was in were advanced professional performers and teachers from Europe and America, already with loads of experience in Chekhov Technique (Michael, that is). We worked on The Cherry Orchard. Many scenes I saw that week were modern, moving, revelatory, spontaneous and extraordinary. Many had that depth of which i am speaking.

That’s what I want and what speaks to me.