Tag Archives: Chekhov Technique

“Of Imagination all Compact.”

IMG_6045For me, A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM has at its core the speech of Theseus in Act V where he basically demolishes the story of the lovers’ magical night in the forest. His materialistic attitude attempts to invalidate the great power of the Imagination.

In defiance of the materialist Theseus, this last dismal damp weekend was transformed by the work of the twelve participants in Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s weekend workshop who together explored Archetypes and Atmospheres using Chekhov Technique with Shakespeare’s magical play.

Lenard Petit’s The Michael Chekhov Handbook speaks eloquently and clearly about the use of Archetypes. It is an area that can be confusing. It is challenging for us in this individualistic world to trust the power of archetypes, the names of which appear to belong to a fairy tale rather than actors in the 21st Century. Perhaps we fear that involving them in our creative work is going to make cartoon characters rather than characters who are fully rounded. Handle them well and this fear is utterly unfounded. Basing your character on an archetype or at least having this archetypal energy as a kind of unconscious pool does exactly the opposite. Working with the archetype gives the character added depth and the performer incredible freedom.

To recap on the previous blogpost, an archetype is an energy or set of energies which constellate around a type or idea: The Lover, The Soldier, The Coward, The Queen, The Wizard. The archetype is not all a character is, but it is a set of energies or way of behaving which penetrates our lives at moments or in particular situations. As esoteric as this might sound, think of times when you have on the spur of instinct, as if from nowhere, acted in a particular way, perhaps heroically, or aggressively, or maybe subserviently. this is what I understand by archetypal energy. As with all the concepts we explore through the Chekhov Technique, we can always focus it on an actual real way of experiencing our world as it is.

By creating moving statues of the Archetypes, we began to understand the direction the energy of the archetype was moving in. Several participants noticed something interesting with regard to this; that though The Lover, say, may have a forward energy, reaching forward and looking to the object of their love, there was also a pull downwards to keep them grounded and on their feet, which made for a feeling of egotism and selfishness in love. By really experiencing this polarity of feeling, the energy of the beauty and agony and unsettled nature of love came into their beings. Whilst being “in love” is empowering, it can also make a person incredibly vulnerable. Using this example alone tells us that basing your character on an archetype provides you with a number of conflicting feelings the actor can really experience and play with.

One of the most interesting discoveries of the weekend was the idea of Hermia being The Rebel. Very often Hermia is played as sweet and good, rather than a feisty young girl who is willing to defy society to get the man that she loves. This was a very exciting revelation to me. Suddenly an angry Hermia and Lysander were really partners making plans to have a life together.

Playing the Archetype can of course initially make for overblown playing: it is a stage you have to go through. Looking at the scenes and radiating/receiving between the acting partners first, then adding the archetype and radiating and receiving that towards your partner, you finally start to play the scene moving freely using the archetype. You commit fully and wholeheartedly to the archetype, playing your scene. After that, you just use it as a basis and let your own creative instincts and responses to your acting partner come to the fore, with the archetype falling back and then intensifying at moments through the scene. Even more than centres or psychological gesture, which are fantastic elements but more forensic, using archetypes in this free way is a truly liberating experience for the performers.

Having explored that, we started to look at moments where other atmospheres or driving forces needed to be strong, for instance in the scene between Titania and Oberon when he removes the spell.  I asked for an atmosphere of magic to fill the space. This was a lovely moment.

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Next up is the fast-filling up 4th Summer School, August 15-18 working with Buchner’s Woyzeck led by guest tutor Declan Drohan and myself. It is four days training 10-5 .For more info visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com ,visit the fb page or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to express interest and pay a deposit.  The cost is €200 for four days training.

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Writing and Teaching

As I approach the end of the first draft of my next teaching book I am filled with a number of emotions. The first is overwhelming gratitude that I have been given the opportunity to share my teaching experience once more. Whenever I think ruefully of yearned-for opportunities I may have not been offered over my life, I think of the many many people who are never offered these kind of opportunities. I remember once when, as a very young actor I was working in a pretty woeful tv series and really hating it and surrounded by extras who wanted to be in my shoes.

One thing sharing your teaching experiences allows is for you to pass your work on with your own particular emphasis. Ultimately for me, theatre is less about product and more about how you get there. I have said many times that people do their best, truly magical work in workshop. This for me is a tremendously liberating experience. Whenever someone speaks or writes to me that Teaching Voice has been really helpful in their work, I feel very content, because that is what life is; it is movement and sharing.

In discussion lately with someone writing a martial arts book, we came to the problem of trying to describe in text, something that is experiential and concerned movement and the fear of cheapening or mechanizing learning which should flow. Chekhov Technique, which makes up a large part of the new book, cannot be learned from books alone. The book can be an important inspiration, a window, a spur to finding out by experience and hands-on learning. What I mean is that I can describe an element or an exercise, but it is only by trying it out that I really find out.

Another aspect of the book I have enjoyed in this drafting is looking back at some productions I have done, particularly those with young people. I have been thinking especially about a production of Macbeth I did in the late 90s for the Galway Arts Festival and Galway Youth Theatre and remembered when Macbeth fled up a ladder high above the banquet when he saw the ghost of Banquo whilst the guests looked on aghast from below; or another moment when Lady Macbeth was stamped on by the witches as she made her vow of evil.

Another challenge is for me to keep the exercises and process clear for people with less experience and not over-simplify. I hope I have achieved that.

As Regina Crowley generously said in her review of Teaching Voice:

“The nature of the actor’s creative and expressive process is complex because the raw materials the human being who performs. Hafler is well aware of this and combines very effectively the teachings of Michael Chekhov with work on voice to awaken aspects of the performer.”

I am running a Voice/Chekhov/Shakespeare weekend here in Galway , June 21-23rd where we’ll be appropriately looking at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is filling up but if you are interested email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  or check out the website www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

So what next?

In addition to a series of theatre devising with a visiting student group,  I will be teaching workshops through the summer months. For me actors often do their best work in the workshop environment. We all need that space to develop our work. We are freer and discover more. The trick then is to take that freedom into the rehearsal room and the performance arena. To do that we need to feel confident that the training we have absorbed has become our own, and even then we have to keep fresh, keep touching base. I myself am committed to going to train every few years. 

Here is a list of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops.

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Chekhov/Shakespeare Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

Comedy/Chekhov/Composition/Cucumber sandwiches

June 20th-July 6th. Galway City

June 20 and 22
June 27 and 29
July 4 and 6
6.30 – 9.30  each night.

In a twice weekly evening session [18 hrs training] beginning the  20 th June for just three weeks, this course will play with Chekhov technique with comedy using Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest. this work comes out of a highly successful weekend workshop done some years ago and will explore how using the Chekhov approach, completely new expressions of the play can be found. Suitable for actors, students, directors, designers [as long as they like to perform]

cost 90 euro

to book your place email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. you will need to send a deposit to secure your place.

Journey Through Atmosphere: NUI Galway August 24th – 27th.

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From the recent workshop Expressing the Invisible. Naia Martz and Fiona Quinn..photo John Mchugh

Following on from the highly successful Exploring the Invisible summer school last year, Journey through Atmosphere focuses on two of the most important aspects of the Chekhov work.   A performance takes us on a journey and through that journey the character takes action. A strong tool for an actor to discover the character journey or indeed the journey of a whole play is through psychological gesture, a way of using the body to unearth psychological actions and qualities for the character .These actions do not take place in a vacuum however and the workshop will spend an equal amount of time on Atmosphere and how it influences what the characters want and how they act. By combining these two Chekhov tools, participants will be able to take these two powerful tools into the rehearsal room. 23 hours training.

The play we will be working with is one of the epic ‘journey’ plays, PERICLES by Shakespeare which travels through a number of ‘lands’ each with their particular atmosphere.

apply by email to chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  check out the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

cost 180 euro.

Doing The Show Again

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Orla Tubridy  -Iphigenia

I have always found remounting a show a challenge. I suppose it’s the lazy performer in me. Inside me a weaselly mischievous voice is saying, “People liked it the last time, didn’t they? Just do it as you did it before.” Of course we all know that even if you have been too busy to give the piece much thought that the magic alchemy of time has stirred your imagination and your soul and that it cannot be anything like the same. And this is true not only for you, but everyone involved. Time has moved on, you all have a different perspective.

Peter Brook understood this all too well. He brought performers up to speed so that they could perform the play before an audience, before dissecting the work, learning from it and almost starting again, working towards their next performance. Despite current performance-as-research and other workshopping processes this idea is still rejected as either financially untenable or more importantly as an interruption of the director’s and actors’ ‘private’ process (as if you could learn nothing from performance at all and it was an invalid way of learning!). We were offered this opportunity by default. We had had our one performance and were now some months later, remounting it for a different occasion and a different space.

The first thing I did when revisiting THE SACRIFICIAL WIND, a dramatic poetry performance in this years Cuirt Festival of Literature, which had previously been mounted as an Arts in Action project for the National University of Ireland Galway in the new O’Donoghue Centre, was to reorder some of the poems. I also was in discussion about the ending, which both myself, the writer, and it turns out, the actors were not happy with and felt it didn’t work dramatically. This change highlights where we went next because having made that change, all the rest followed .

I need to explain; in the original, the final poem became a speech to the audience by the actors about the moral ramifications of what they had seen, which made the piece sound too didactic, rather than letting the characters speak. Once we cut that poem and ended the piece with Euripides’ final words, the intensity moved through energetically to the very end. It changed everything; not only the shape but the ethos and focus of the piece. It made the piece much more character driven than it had been, which in turn freed up the actors to embody the text as the characters, even more than they had before. This in turn greatly enlivened and intensified the work making the whole piece more edgy and unpredictable. This, and one or two other text changes fundamentally changed the form of the piece. Anyone who works with Michael Chekhov technique understands that two of the basics are the feeling of form and the feeling of the whole. If remounting this show has proved anything it has proved those tenets to be true. Not that I needed that proof mind you but the profundity of those structural changes and where they led us surprised even me.

Another thing that has intensified the work is the change of venue.The Town Hall Studio is a small 64 seat room; the O’Donoghue  where we performed first is a 120 seat venue which has a kind of formality about it. The new venue brought with it a rough, less predictable atmosphere, where the confessional nature of the characters became even stronger as they tried to justify their actions to the audience around the sacrifice of the young princess Iphigenia and their collusion in the start of a bloody and protracted war. As a result, the lighting became less formal and more dramatic as did the staging.

The packed house last night and the warm reception might mean that it is hard to get a ticket. It is only on for another three nights. I would advise you book through http://www.tht.ie or http://www.cuirt.ie if you are around Galway and intending to come! on Thursday night we are having a talk back after the show with Lorna Shaughnessy the writer and myself chaired by Tony Hegarty.

Provoking feelings.

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Michael Chekhov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expressing The Invisible 2:THE ATMOSPHERE OF MEMORY IN LUGHNASA AND MY LIFE

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If you have read any of my other blogposts you will know that I am a great espouser of finding atmospheres for scenes or whole plays. Michael Chekhov said finding and expressing atmosphere was ‘the oxygen of the performance’. Without general atmosphere in a performance, there is always something missing. You as an audience member can leave the theatre dissatisfied without knowing why, feeling somehow stupid that you didn’t somehow ‘get it’.

Conversely though, atmosphere alone is not enough. As I watched the performance of Death At Intervals at An Taibhdhearc in the Galway Arts Festival this week, it appeared to me to have a lot of atmosphere but no connection between the characters; no commitment to playing the story, even though there is one in the book from which the show was developed, and for the most part a lugubrious pace (do directors these days learn nothing about rhythm?) which was meant to embody the ominous inevitability of death. So whilst I applauded this strong commitment to atmosphere and two or three powerful sequences, it did not for me hold as a piece of theatre. The piece is also about two forces/people who really need/love each other, something for me distinctly missing from the piece. There was no polarity of Life and Death. Just Death. Any commitment to structure seemed to exist by repeating, quite beautifully I must admit, the same powerful text from the beginning.

In my next Michael Chekhov Acting workshop, EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE, being held 18-21st August at NUI Galway, one of the areas we are going to look at, using Dancing at Lughnasa, is the Atmosphere of Memory. The play is suffused with it; driven by it. Like The Glass Menagerie which I directed in 2011, the play is coloured by how the narrator tells his story, which is of course not just his story, but the story of the whole family. Memory is a hard thing to invoke effectively in theatre I believe, though in life we do it all the time with spectacular effect. When I meet a friend or an ex-student and we talk about an event or a moment, I can be there in seconds imagining what happened; where I was; how I felt; what I was wearing. I remember more as the memory pools into my imagination, all sorts of detail streaming out into other events around that time. There is a strong movement in memory which is not always backwards. Memory makes a life into a swirling current. And Atmosphere is like that too. It is not a static thing. it is full of movement and flexibility.

This week has been awash with the Atmosphere of Memory. I went for a hospital checkup this week and was obliged to recall some pretty unpleasant details of hospital procedure visited on me as a small boy . As I recounted the incident fairly dispassionately from notes, it began by being objective and distant, but as I described in more detail, the feelings and painful images started to burst through and pain, fear and terror came flooding back as I described it. The body remembers. It was powerful and unpleasant and I carried it around, literally, for days.

Of course Michael Chekhov Technique takes all of this into account; body memory and the power of images. That is why I feel so attuned to it because so much of how life happens internally is very much how Chekhov explains it. So the Atmosphere of Memory is not nostalgia, that most sickly cousin of memory and in Lughnasa a dangerous substitute for it if you are not careful. Memory is on the one hand, palpable and real for all the characters , but ephemeral and chimeric on the other; something which liberates them and also defines, disappoints and imprisons them. The whole play is a memory and the atmosphere and taste of that memory cannot be just something discarded when the director and company feel like it. It somehow has to infuse everything.

The powerful sequence in the play which leads up to the Dancing of the title happens I feel rather challengingly in the middle of the first half, rather than further into the piece as I always expect. For me it is here that the energy of memory activates Maggie in particular and unlocks the door to the wildness of the dancing. Though the memory is bitter sweet, angry and joyous by turns, it stirs the women into a defiant roar of movement .

13418662_1207707572584439_8734234864553263013_oThe other personal event powered by both achievement and memory that happened to me this week was my launch in Dubray’s Bookshop of TEACHING VOICE published by Nick Hern Books . There, surrounded by many  ex-students I talked of how they had helped me with my learning as much as the other way round. Prof. Patrick Lonergan spoke glowingly of my contribution to the work of the Drama Department at the University, and my partner spoke of the pastoral care of students, vital especially when you are teaching theatre and encouraging people to be brave in the work. There were many moments which connected wonderfully to my past working life as an acting and voice coach with young people but as I was speaking, I connected at one moment with someone whom I have known since she a teenager. I saw her in her first play with me nearly seventeen years earlier  and suddenly there was a strong meaningful path back to that time which I found incredibly life enhancing. I could see her in the costume. It was one of those ‘invisible’ and profound moments any production should be full of.

I am aware this blog has been a mixture of my musings on the upcoming workshop as well as what has been quite an eventful week with regard to memory. That is what so wonderful about working with Chekhov technique; everything matters.

There are still two places on EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE if you are interested. check out the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland page on the blog here or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com.

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….