Mary Monaghan/photo John McHugh
Imagine an aquarium beautifully appointed with fabulous features, flowing ferns and sparkling fish. Now imagine the same scene without water; the fish dead and lifeless ; the plants sagging ; the water features just lumps. That is what a performance without atmosphere is like. Fortunately in a play (or perhaps unfortunately) the actors keep moving and speaking so we can fool ourselves that everything is ok; but that is far from the truth. They might even act sensitively with each other but without the atmosphere we know there is something missing even when we cannot pin down what it is. Michael Chekhov was right that the atmosphere is one of the most potent elements when you are creating a play. Atmosphere is one of the most uniting elements in an ensemble production, above teamwork and the skills generally associated with ensemble work. If all the actors respond to the atmosphere, the audience just knows there is something which binds the characters. Of course the characters are not going to necessarily respond the same, as we do not respond the same to any stimulus but that doesn’t matter. The audience knows there is something there.
In our everyday lives, when we go away on holiday the atmosphere is constantly altering around us and we are constantly having to adjust. That’s true all the time, but I become very sensitive to it when I am travelling because I, as the traveller, am making a movement forward to my destination. I am plunging through the atmosphere to get somewhere. I notice I become even more sensitive to atmosphere when going away from my normal environment. Notice the various atmospheres in the airport alone. The security check; the cafe; the duty free shop; the bathroom . These are not only different atmospheres because of what happens in them, nor because of the shape of the room, nor just what you have to do, nor what happened there before, nor your own history in other airports at other times in your life. It is a massive culmination of all factors. One of the things I love most about Chekhov technique is the way it takes atmosphere and makes it palpable; a tool for artists, to create a navigable map through this invisible world and makes it easily accessible for both performer and audience.
But why, as artists should we really care about that at all? A play is a play, right and we should not need an atmosphere because we are in the theatre. We are in a theatre and THAT is the atmosphere. But that is not true because in addition to the theatre there is the atmosphere of the play. And this atmosphere it is not static. It is constantly moving, as Lenard Petit explores in his fantastic book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook for The Actor .
Working with Atmosphere produces results. If you take the line ” Care not for me. I can go home alone” then imagine you are in a library, then a hospital , then a beach, then in a wooden hut on a dark night, you will notice the line sounds completely different. Really take your time to imagine the atmosphere first; never start by asking yourself “what would I do in this place?” but ask how the atmosphere of the chosen location feels. As Lenard Petit talks about being “played by the atmosphere”, allow it to affect you, influence you, drive you to speak. New Histories and situations will engulf you in each location, each time you create the atmosphere around you and then say the line.
I cannot remember the number of times I have seen plays set in the open air and I never feel characters are outside for a moment. And importantly this failing does not just affect the realism – in fact often that is a small consideration here – but without the atmosphere you destroy the inner life of the characters as well.
But it’s important to understand that atmospheres are not solely circumstances or location (though they can be that as well) just as psychological gesture is not merely objective. By discovering the psychological gesture for the character, you can find out not only what they want but how they want it; through them you can discover the rhythm of a character. It is endless and wonderful.
And what if it is the atmosphere which actually drives the action? The idea that what is in the air, whatever that is, has a direct effect on your motivation to do something and, of course, how you do it. If you consider this, this is happening to you all the time. For instance I have never really liked pubs. If I am with a few friends we can create our own atmosphere to anaesthetise me against the discomfort I feel when in the pub. Our own atmosphere bubble makes the thing pleasant.
This is one of the things we are going to explore in Journey through Atmosphere here in Galway. How does Atmosphere affect the characters, and what is the relationship between atmosphere and story, as we move through the various massively contrasting environments in which Pericles and his family find themselves?
There are still some places on Journey Through Atmosphere being held on the NUI Galway campus, August 24th – 27th. We will be using for our text, the great journey play Pericles by Shakespeare. email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to book for the four day workshop.