Tag Archives: Chekhov Technique

Ask Questions Later! Starting the Chekhov Work

It feels like a big (but extremely pleasant) responsibility.

 

As I begin with a new Chekhov group this weekend, most of them completely new to the work, hoping to excite and enthuse them about what is the most creative acting technique I have experienced, I am trying to consider the advice I might give them.

Some people find the technique challenging – all techniques are – everything that is worth doing has its periods of challenge. Any challenges there might be, however, are nothing compared to the incredibly rich creativity the technique can unearth in an artist, and Michael Chekhov always worked from the idea that that is what we ARE – artists; to say nothing of what using this method of exploring creativity can develop in the person.

IMG_1970 copyBe ‘in your body’ and ‘in the moment’ as much as you can. If you are, then the work of gesture will be thorough and complete and all the sensations and feelings your body offers up can be open for the character. Some people come to this very very easily, but just because the results can be immediate, the work has only just begun!

When asked to use images, invite them into you. When asked to concentrate on an image don’t treat it like an examination or a memory game. Invite the image into you, Let it engulf you, as if you were in love with it. Always respond to the images truthfully and completely, with your whole being. The only thing you can do wrong is to not respond truthfully and with too much intellectual interference.

‘Ask questions later’!  When working on an exercise just do it. don’t think, don’t procrastinate, embrace the exercise with joy, don’t consider exactly what you are going to do before you do it; if you are working with a character don’t intellectualise or over complicate; just commit to the quality, the centre, the atmosphere whatever you are working with. Do it! When an exploration is over you can think and talk about what you did. There will be plenty to talk about, believe me.

Develop and fully explore the feeling of ease, one of Chekhov’s guiding principles. As young or new actors we tend to hurl ourself into stuff and whilst he demands serious commitment we also need to somehow keep a hold of this feeling of ease which is somewhere in the base of anything we might do. The feeling of ease sounds like a contradiction to the will of the character and the intensity of feeling which some of the work brings up but paradoxically it isn’t. As actors (and indeed as people) we are working on so many different levels at once .Remember that working with Chekhov involves us admitting and exploring a multilevel approach to work, artistically at least. Remember when you are acting you are not wholly being the character; part of you is, but other parts of you are picking up on the audience, entering and leaving and speaking on cue.

Which leads us on to higher ego and energy body – don’t be afraid of these things. They are not weird, they are creative realities.

And finally, when you are concentrating , don’t forget to breathe.

Inspired by Chekhov

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photo : Jerry Fitzgerald. photographer Sean T O’Meallaigh

When I first started working with the Chekhov Technique, it felt incredibly familiar to me. I had been using the body to find the emotions and voice of the character, and helping others to do so, for years and years. But when I discovered there was a technique which embraced fully the idea of connecting Voice, Feelings, Body and Imagination, a holistic approach to acting, it felt like I had ‘come home’. The word ‘technique’ implies rules and regulations and whilst there are some, there is an incredible flexibility within it, which opens up its use to a whole range of work. I have used the work in devising, scripted plays, applied drama and voice work. It is open to use in everything. It expands our sense of who we can be and what we can create.

Chekhov asks the question, ‘How often have we been to see plays and leave unmoved or unchanged, and yet we do not know why?’ In my case it has happened far more times than I can care to mention. When I look back, the play may have had good actors, lots of money thrown at it, good production values etc, but there is something within it which is essentially hollow. There is little or no real exchange between performers and there is not this concept of a shared experience.
I started wondering if the dissatisfaction with so many performances I saw, was me, expecting too much? But whenever I remember the massive amount of work, feeling and sacrifice that goes into making a piece of work, I remember that everything I want from this experience of watching a performance is valid. I am looking for this ‘intangible’ that Chekhov speaks of, and if it is not there I am disappointed. When I said ‘exchange’ earlier I meant the real exchange of energy between performers not just a kind of ego driven fake ‘listening’ which passes too often as acting. As an experiment, take a moment with someone you know well and look into their eyes. Hold that exchange for longer than feels comfortable and you will understand what I mean. You will feel the energy flow between you quite naturally. You might want to look away or get giggly, but you most definitely feel it. This passing of energy can have many forms and feelings, but it is happening all the time.
Michael Chekhov technique really explores the intangible invisible ingredient in depth through exploring atmosphere for instance, and puts it at the front of creation, rather than as something which might just happen if we intellectually understand our roles and can play the scenes ‘realistically’. This is what makes it very effective for devising. It encourages us to listen to our inner creative voice. Nay-sayers might suggest this approach sounds self-indulgent because we are listening to the creative spirit rather than leading with the intellect, but this is not so. It is free, but it has a discipline within it. The main part of this discipline is to honour your creative spirit and train your voice body and whole being to follow it rather than put things in the way. It gives us a new way to look at creativity and how to engage with it.
I was very inspired the other day by two things. I met a young woman artist in the street who had trained in Chekhov technique who reminded me about how important it is to share this way of working. I do not know if she realised it, but it reminded me how important it was for me to run Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland here in Galway, and create somehow a hub for this work.  Then I saw this video on my FB newsfeed where one of the people who has taught me so much about the work, Fern Sloan, from America was speaking. Check this link for an inspirational few minutes.

https://michaelchekhovschool.org/…/…/04/lineage-legacy-fern/

Our first workshop of Spring is CHEKHOV AND DEVISING (APRIL 8-10) here in Galway City. Check here on the CHEKHOV TRAINING AND PERFORMANCE IRELAND page for more info or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or phone 0863307325.
The second CHEKHOV FOR DIRECTING ( AND INEVITABLY, ACTING) is being held May 13-15. The third , IMAGINATION AND THE BODY is being held 17-19th June.

A website is coming . For now we have the FB business page
http://www.facebook.com/chektrainperformireland
and the particular page on this WordPress blog.

 

‘That it shall bear fruit’ Chalk Circle final act

Before I finally let go of my production of the Caucasian Chalk Circle I would like to share some discoveries that came because of my exploration into Chekhov’s laws of composition, along with my own experience and common sense.

In my experience it is always a massive wrench for the audience when we leave the story of Grusha suspended in the narrative, and take a step back in time to follow the story of Azdak, the man who will become her judge in the case of the child. This is inevitable given we feel we know Grusha, have followed her story for three acts, and understand what she has given up in order to keep the child. We identify and empathise with her and suddenly she is gone from the play. Ironically I know all this flies in the face of the idea of Brechtian alienation but I feel, as did one of my student actors, that Brecht fails miserably in his attempt to alienate in the Chalk Circle because Grusha, Simon and Azdak are such sympathetic characters.

So back to the wrench the audience experience as they move not just from one story to the other, and one lead character to another , but to a different style of playing as well. They move from an epic tale to a cabaret. 

In exploring the play through the principles of composition of Michael Chekhov I looked at the shape of the play with the cast as to its beginning, middle and end. The whole of the first three stories concerning Grusha and her escape and her sacrifice in order to protect little Michael, belonged to the beginning .It seemed,in our exploration, that the Story of the Judge, the section in which Azdak is introduced and,through a fluke, becomes the judge throughout the chaos which follows the revolution, was like a party; an anarchic time through which fairness and justice occasionally shone through on those poor and disenfranchised people who were usually ignored, abused and spat upon. We felt this section had the atmosphere of a party. This party section was the middle. 

Before the end of this act though, the rulers from the beginning were back, and order (and repression) was restored. This was beginning of the end section.

So we reach the Trial, a heady atmosphere where the forces of repression and anarchy struggle in the courtroom. There is a great temptation in this final act to fall into the ‘fable trap’. What I mean is an assumption that everyone knows the end so we just play the act with strength and pace. The act however is full of moral twists and turns.

What is interesting for me is how Azdak gives Grusha such a hard time for nearly 30 minutes before eventually being courageous enough to award the child to her. Is he just a boor? What is clear is though he knows full well the Governor’s wife wants the child for her own material reasons, he is rude to Grusha and appears to side with the nobles. His life has just been saved and he has been reappointed as judge through his own random act of kindness. 

It seems to me that Grusha is his conscience; through her sacrifice and endurance and love for this child she moves from being an obedient servant to being an outspoken revolutionary. For me though this is less interesting than what is happening to Azdak, who has a decision to make. Is he going to side with the rich, compromise his principles and save his life? Or is he going to side with Grusha and move into a very dangerous future? It is easy to justify giving the child to the nobles. After all, Natella is the real mother, but it is not the moral decision. We all make these compromises every single day of our lives, and for me this courageous decision of Azdak, along with the fact that both he and Grusha perform acts of generosity which result in transformation is what makes this a really great uplifting yet unsentimental play.

Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

Atmospheres and qualities of the Chalk Circle

There is something extraordinary about how a production takes shape. Dependent on material, personnel, their skills and level, the venue and resources available, all feed in to how the show evolves. I can never understand how directors begin with so much set firmly . Peter Brook’s ‘hunch’ always seems to me the best you can do at the start.

 

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rehearsal shot of the Caucasian Chalk Circle: drama students at NUI Galway: Laura Keown,Niamh Ryan,Damian Duddy,Cillian Browne, Aoife Corry,Niall Carmody,Paige Louter.

I have directed the Caucasian Chalk Circle by Brecht once before and appeared in it once. This time I am directing the students of  The Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance  NUI Galway in the famous Mick Lally Theatre , home of Druid Theatre Company, and the venue itself creates interesting challenges for a large cast. I actually did not agree to doing that play there until I had checked out the new seating block which allows now for five different exit points. Caucasian Chalk Circle is very much concerned with escape, and journies, so although there are many theatrical ways one can pretend to leave and return there is, in an actual entrance, an extraordinary element of surprise. We have only to consider this in real life, how the entrance of a person into the space changes the feel or atmosphere of a room and how it changes when they leave it. I have always been over sensitive to this change of dynamic and nowhere is it more obvious than in a play.

 

The first prevalent atmospheres/qualities in Chalk Circle are obvious; one is that of oppression and power as we are taken to a place where torture and abuse is acceptable all in the name of serving the nobility. The second section has an atmosphere/quality which we might describe as The Hunt, as Grusha goes on the run with the Royal baby. The third section, as Grusha sacrifices almost everything for the child she now loves, is a trickier proposition. For Grusha the third act is a grinding tragedy as she sacrifices her very personality and ego  for the child, though her life is not at risk  It is told however for the most part as a hilarious folk tale in which Grusha takes an apparently dying husband . If you go too much with Grusha’s sense of sacrifice then we lose out on the humour. If we play the section with a totally frivolous air then her emotional journey is lost. But one of the amazing things about Brecht is the way he exploits polarities and paradoxes. And it is this very grating of the tragedy and comedy, which give the act it’s flavour. it is something the Jacobean playwrights knew well. The fourth act, the story of Azdak, is almost an interlude . It definitely has a different flavour, a flavour of political cabaret. The fifth act brings about the resolution of the tale and has the atmosphere of justice and the scales…. We are asked to weigh the judgement.

 

The whole play is narrated by a singer. Each Act has a different singer. Our singers tell the story as if they are leading or imbuing the atmosphere of the act they narrate.

 

Another aspect that is influencing this production is the atmosphere  of the Mick Lally Theatre itself. As the home of the world famous Druid Theatre Company it has its own recent history, but when you look at its cave-like interior you feel as if you are trapped within the tectonic plates of time. The high walls are centuries old and as you absorb this atmosphere you can hear the world of modern Galway going on outside. This play about a slither of time that was ‘almost just’  has a strong poetic resonance with that . Here we are trying to present a play in what feels like a secret space. You feel as if you you are in a mine. You feel like an outsider and  play focuses a lot on the system of oppression..

 

The show plays from the 17th – 20th February. At the Mick Lally Theatre Druid Lane Galway Ireland . tickets available from druid@ticketsolve.com or sox box 091 492852

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.

The Dancer, the Acrobat, and the Chekhovian!

IMG_0855When I was asked to mentor through Chekhov technique and assist the shaping of a piece by Dueda, a Italian-based circus theatre company meshing dance theatre and aerial work, I was a little daunted. After all, I was neither proficient in contemporary dance nor more especially aerial artistry. But after a fascinating week working with Chekhov and devising in the Aerial Creation Centre in county Clare it once again confirmed how well this Chekhov work can be used to develop experimental performances as well as being used with text. More about the role of mentor later.

“There are no purely physical exercises in our method. These would be useless since our primary aim is to penetrate all parts of the body with fine psychological vibrations” Michael Chekhov- On The Technique of acting.

In Chekhov the performer is using the body to find sensations and feelings, not develop physical strength or dexterity. Therefore, one of the puzzles of this work was the learned disciplines of the performers; one an aerial artist, and the other a contemporary dancer. Chekhov has such a different focus on the body to other disciplines that it can be challenging for people to allow the feelings through. Initially this seems paradoxical. After all if people are fluent and disciplined in their bodies, why does feeling not pour through them? Ultimately as a fellow Chekhov teacher and I discussed recently, the psycho physical approach to movement can be at odds with physical training, because the movement is to some extent a means to an end, a means to find internal expression and feeling.

The company had a lot of pieces of material but for me this performance needed to have a score, a narrative that they understood, that would enable them to transmit or radiate the feelings and situations in which the ‘characters’ were placed. This narrative did not need to be mundane or even so specific as to explore the relationship,say, of a mother and son, which was how the relationship showed itself to me initially when they performed some pieces they had made. The audience would make that connection if they felt it. But for us as devisers to follow that kind of relationship specifically could limit both performers and audience to only one way of perceiving the piece. On the other hand the feelings of the performers must be specific and felt or the piece becomes purely fabulous abstract movement. It needed its own emotional journey.

Recently, as I left a very lauded, skilled but for me alienating dance show, a friend said “well I don’t really expect to be moved bŷ contemporary dance” and I thought ” Why not? This is a live performance.” If you radiate vaguely, then you will transmit nothing, however wonderful the movement is. You will go into your default performer’s mechanism and hope for the best.

Balancing skill and abstraction yet also transmitting something tangible an audience can grasp is a fine balance. As Chekhov’s priority lies less in mundane reality and more in the intangible forces which guide our being in the world, it is ideal for this sort of theatrical landscape.

Another interesting dimension was the challenge of making sound. As a voice teacher I know that those focussed on the body are often not that comfortable performing vocally, and yet In order to express, voice, body imagination and feelings all need a deep connection. To stop up the voice seems to me a tragedy. But maybe that is just me. Chekhov works really well with voice, indeed a number of opera trained people who have worked with me have told me that much of the image work is very similar to work they do in opera training.

In the first three days the extraordinary mythic dimensions that Chekhov technique explores so deeply came to the fore, exploring qualities , atmospheres , ideal centre, archetypes and radiating and receiving. We did not work a lot paradoxically directly with psychological gesture because I felt the performers might be too locked into their training for the psycho-physical feeling aspect of the gesture, which is of course the most important aspect, to be of use. Also due to my limited time I did not feel it would be too helpful or relevant to explore centres or imaginary body, the first because it is too complex, the second because it was not relevant as they were not playing characters per se.

The bare symbolism of a rope hanging in the centre of a black space was a weighty full image, reminding me of gods who come to earth; trapped princesses down a well ; the womb; the umbilical cord; Persephone in the underworld; Eurydice in the underworld to be recovered by Orpheus; The exposure to the techniques deepened and intensified the dynamic , and together we began to build a score for the piece.

On the fourth day, as we got deeper into the emotions of the piece, I understood more fully that firm armour which Chekhov technique encourages us to break down and explore as we experienced a strong moment of ‘farewell’, of ‘letting go’. As one of my Alexander technique friends discussed with me that evening [ there was a huge Alexander technique conference running concurrently whilst I was there] it is almost always good to go to those emotional places rather than deny them, provided you are in a safe space. That safety is vital. When you explore this work you are asking people to go to places in which they may feel uncomfortable. However, without our performer’s sensations and feelings radiating out to the audience to make a connection with them, what is the artist but a skilful trickster?

We built our score using the principle of composition, creating it like a piece of music which is as effective in devising as it is when working on a conventional play. In my devising and ensemble MA module which has gradually incorporated more and more of Chekhov’s principles we have used this idea of shaping the piece through tableaux. It was a starting point.

Finally a word about mentoring. Mentoring strikes me as being a curious hybrid of teaching and directing which is involving, yet requires a completely different dynamic to either. In this case I was there at the group’s behest to teach them some acting technique and to help devise a piece from which there was already a wealth of physical material and a relatively clear basic idea. In this mentoring position, there is never a question that this is their material and yet I am being asked to help shape it, so whilst the mentor has to behave with some authority, at the same time he has to acknowledge that there is no obligation on the company to follow the mentor’s contribution. They might or they might not. This requires a deep understanding of the mentor’s role and though I have mentored before, I felt I understood this on a much deeper level than I had before. Whilst involved I required myself to have a really strong commitment until the final moment, at the same time as understanding that I was stepping away after a week.

Thanks, Dueda! Fascinating.

The Path is Made by Walking – graduating from youth theatre

openskyThe idea of a youth theatre ‘ graduating’ may seem to some extraordinary and rather grandiose, but it is an essential marking of something finished and something beginning, of the ending of an experience and the beginning of new ones. It encapsulates a sense of achievement, fear, time passing, letting go of old friendships or at least modifying them, and looking to new worlds and to the future. Galway Youth Theatre with which I was heavily involved for many years for a while had graduation dinners and gave certificates at the end of the two year programme. At the time I wondered about the wisdom of this because the kind of experiential learning in the programme was very different to college and eventually the graduation was dropped for a number of reasons, but it made it even harder for some people to leave and many I felt, overstayed their time there. Youth theatre has after all the identifying factor of youth in the title, and probably needs defining as such in order to maintain its integrity.

I was recently asked by an out-of-town Youth Theatre to lead a workshop of people who were on the cusp of finishing their time there, and I decided to  develop this theme of departures and new beginnings to help facilitate or at least open up this question of saying goodbye and to hopes for the future. The workshop, though defining its remit as a Chekhov Technique workshop ( a powerful technique which involves finding sensations and feelings through the imagination and body) had this other, dare I say it, therapeutic remit in equal measure with the skills focus.

Rather than defining the journey of the workshop with the particular skills which is what i would usually have done, I split the day into three aspects of this kind of developmental change we were seeking to explore . DEPARTURES was workshop one. In this workshop in addition to our on-the feet skills, we looked at the opening of Act 4 from THREE SISTERS. Workshop two, JOURNIES culminated in The Machado poem, ‘Traveller there is no way.’ and NEW WORLDS/ THE FUTURE was workshop three which culminated on a prospective arrival, goal or issue up ahead for each individual, through short devised pieces. It was extraordinary in its variety. What was challenging as a teacher/ facilitator was to unite the two goals of the day, the therapeutic and the drama skills in equal measure.

Besides being an incredible joyous acting technique, Chekhov Technique is also therapeutic. It has many similarities with body therapies and emphasises a unification of voice, body and imagination which can only be a step towards holistic health for the actor. This does not weaken the technique’s power to enable us to create artistically; rather it strengthens it. Ideally all art is therapeutic in the broadest sense of the word. With Chekhov we are invited to experience aspects of our world we are frequently unconscious of – like atmospheres for instance, or radiating and receiving energy. The fact that you can use an exercise like the ‘Ideal Centre’ exercise for your own sense of confidence in everyday life, in addition to it being a springboard for the energy of your character, is enriching.  I would hesitate to call such an ability a ‘transferable skill’ but if you want to see it that way, I suppose that is what it is. There are a whole range of Chekhov skills to be used in Applied Drama in just this way.

One very effective exploration we did in this workshop was an adaptation of the timeline exercise suggested in Lenard Petit’s excellent book. THE MICHAEL CHEKHOV HANDBOOK [published by Routledge}. i made a line on the floor. It was the line of the present moment . You had to imagine what it felt like behind this line, in the past. What was the atmosphere like there? Was it comfortable or not? Was there a pull to stay there? Was there a texture, smell or taste to this past atmosphere ? Did you have to work hard to consider moving on ? Were others pushing you forward? What was your relationship to the line itself and what did it feel like to step over it? you were asked to step into that atmosphere of the past. Then, what was the atmosphere of the future like? Finally you were invited to step forward into the future. In discussion afterwards, the  exercise allowed us to discuss safely the whole question of moving on, how the past or some of it stays with us, feelings of wanting to stay where you were and not move forward until you had no choice. some people rushed towards the future; others were a little tentative.

If the workshop held something for the young participants, in addition to the skills, acting techniques and coping exercises we worked on, I hope it gave them a sense they were on a journey , their own journey; that the day we had just had together was part of a bigger journey they were making, but with its three components of DEPARTURES-JOURNIES-NEW WORLDS the day we had together exploring these things was also an end in itself.

Earnestly Chekhovian

earnest2I first met Wildes ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ as a film, the famous 1952 one with Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans. It set the seal on the way to do this play for decades. When I had occasion as an acting student to work on scenes, the lightness and precision and wit were the only elements constantly highlighted by my teachers. They emphasised a kind of stiffness and artificiality. [this was all long ago]. And of course that stiffness and artifice is most certainly there but how does this stiffness and artifice make us feel when we play Jack or Algernon or Cecily or Gwendolen? Are these people as trivial and foolish as they appear?

I am very cogniscent of a kind of looseness that has developed in the playing of this kind of play [ especially when transferred to film] in an attempt to modernise them and make us see these characters as more recognisable people, but actually that does not really help us explore the world of a play like Earnest. Equally, it does not help us to dismiss the language as a style without substance or purpose, though stylish it most certainly is.

Joe Orton the subversive English 60s playwright modelled much of his work on Wilde, and he saw something in Wilde’s plays, which I was not clever enough to see at the time; the thematic grandeur of his work which Orton particularly emulated in What The Butler Saw. But if Earnest is a ferocious send up of the times, then what exactly could it be a send up of? This subversion, presuming it is there, does not reveal itself with cross gender casting necessarily, as fun as that might be, but through something more subtle.

Through using two of the Michael Chekhov tools of exploration , atmospheres and centres, I would like us in the weekend workshop I am running in late June in Galway, to possibly explore how that play might manifest to us now. Is it more than a shiny jewel box of a play? One of the interesting things about working with the Chekhov Technique, it seems to me, is that any production really grows organically from one’s imaginative response to the play. It enables you to be a bit more ‘out there’ , in a much more grounded way. What I mean is, you don’t just suddenly say ‘let’s do this in modern dress’ or ‘ here is an appropriate political world to put this play into.’ But you explore something deep within the play to explore the needs and insecurities of the characters within the atmosphere and society in which they live. That contrast between the characters’ needs and insecurities and the prevailing atmosphere of their environment is where the humour might lie as much as with the language.

The atmosphere of the world constrains and presses down on everyone. It has a kind of Alice in Wonderland kind of feel, dangerous and disturbing, with a bubbling anarchy under the surface of all the apparent frivolity. The centres of the characters might well be very contrasting to that atmosphere, soft and desperate, quivering or searching , looking for a way out. I don’t know – it is very exciting to consider.

The last three plays I have directed have been through the Chekhov technique with cast and crew  which has provided myself and my casts with original and deep explorations of the plays we have explored. I am looking forward to playing with the play in this weekend and perhaps a possible production next year.

Chekhov and the Big Play workshop June 26-28, led by Max Hafler at Branar Theatre Company contact coretheatrecollege@gmail.com for more info. Check out http://www.coretheatrecollege.com

More Light – opening and closing

IMG_1098 - CopyAs the final performance of More Light by Bryony Lavery took place on Saturday evening, the culmination of Core’s Spring Performance course in Galway, Ireland, I was filled with a massive sense of satisfaction. The performance had been good, the play fascinating, the voice and ensemble work of a high standard. But what I am left with ultimately is that in addition to the skills learned what was in the air at the end was this tremendous sense of the performing group.

After five weeks of training in voice and physical technique, not as much as I would like but perhaps as much as we could manage within the time frame, we rehearsed what was a very complex play in terms of feelings, imaginative scope and skills required for another four and a half weeks and presented it. By constantly awakening people to using the skills they had learned they had a very practical experience of using their learning within a safe environment. The whole group made massive strides.

Ultimately though it was the trust and openness of the group which helped to create the work fundamentally. When I say openness, I am not talking about the ability of the group to discuss their personal lives over coffee, though that is an important part of learning in any group. No. For those who are not familiar with it, there is a Chekhov concept called ‘opening and closing’. By practising it you realise how you open and close like an oyster all day, sensitive to different atmospheres, stimuli and situations. This is not space cadet stuff. It is most definitely how it is in life. So our characters open and close in a play, and when we are aware of this it makes for really good acting. Being able to open and close does not mean you have to love your acting partner, it is an ability within the performer to open that part of themselves safely and share that with the other characters and ultimately with the audience. Another basic procedure is radiating your energy, so that even if you are a ‘closed’ character you can radiate that too, so the audience can share it yet at the same it feels and appears genuine.

I remember going to see a show some years ago where everyone hated the leading actress who in turn apparently hated the director. When I saw the play I had no knowledge of these frictions [I only found out later] but I knew when I watched it that something was wrong. This unhappy band were closed to each other and therefore closed to the work and were not able to share well with the audience. Unfortunately this lack of cohesion is not an unusual occurrence in my own acting experience.

Recently an ex-student who had got very close to getting into several schools in London said she had to reconsider her desire when she saw how ruthless it was and that when she saw a number of big shows she felt that the ‘stars’ were very much in their own box and everyone else was operating in theirs. In other words they were not sharing at all. It was against everything she had been taught up to that point. The system rarely encourages generosity. It is not set up that way. This usually makes for bad art, in my opinion.

We want to foster an ethos which is inclusive and creative which nonetheless has high standards. I would like to send you an extract of a note I sent to the group.

I just want to say on behalf of all the tutors, thanks to you for making this such a fun course to run, and show to direct. For me theatre is a collaborative effort . It is what you bring to the work that makes us able to shape it. This makes for a positive attitude and ultimately a good piece of work without rancour or issues, something we can share with our audience as a group, who then become sharers too. Whatever anyone else may tell you, for me, this is the best and most powerful theatre. This does not mean that friction is not good for a group occasionally but in the end it is only through sharing and cooperation that good work is really done. How else can we share our work and our feelings and our art if we are not truly open to them and to one another? I know all the tutors have fostered that attitude and am sure you will continue to radiate those vibes as you go on to other projects. This has been a great and positive group and the seriousness with which you worked and approached your issues through the learning process is a great credit to you all.

Core Theatre College will be running some weekend courses over the summer before embarking on another performance course. Contact coretheatrecollege@gmail.com and http://www.coretheatrecollege.com