Tag Archives: Chekhov training and Performance Ireland

Adapting with Chekhov

office copy

In 2003 I directed a production of  Kafka’s The Trial in an adaptation by Steven Berkoff for the Cuirt Festival of Literature with Galway Youth Theatre. It was a success. We revived it, took it on tour to England and got an incredible review in the Irish Times by the late Eileen Battersby.

Berkoff’s stark version is intensely theatrical, a full throated ensemble version of the text and the young actors threw themselves into the performance with enthusiasm and precision. Berkoff demands an ensemble be onstage throughout and be focussed, disciplined and inventive. In that we were extremely successful.  However, looking back, the adaptation itself has a hard unbending edge to it from the very beginning and affected where we went with it.

I remember reading the novel before I did the production and really missing the kind of mysterious depth I feel is in it, a kind of overwhelming onset of thick darkness as if the unfortunate Joseph K is drowning and cannot escape. There is the feeling of a labyrinth in it, different from the empty doorframes Berkoff used in his adaptation and we used for ours. In the novel K is a much more likeable chap than the uptight guy created by Berkoff. I never saw his own production so maybe I am misjudging it. But for me that harshness in the adaptation meant that the production was hard to evolve. It was hard to make a journey. Indeed, the way it seems in the adaptation it seems like it is K’s nightmare which does not give the other characters anywhere to go. As we were working from that adaptation, I got the actors and designer to embody that view, which was theatrically effective, but also lost something.

Maybe you always lose something when you adapt. I have been interested in adaptation for a long time, having, in another period of my life, written a lot of plays and made a number of adaptations for theatre companies in Ireland and the UK. Right now I am writing a book about Shakespeare and part of it is about editing and transposing; how it can be successful and how it can be a disaster.

I was teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway for many years and over my final years with Ensemble, more and more of my Chekhov training was coming into my approach; imagination, qualities of movement, atmosphere, gesture and composition were incorporated as other things were let go. Composition and Form are particularly important as there is such a danger in adaptation and devised work that a piece can lose its thread and become shapeless.

I have always been a big believer that the Chekhov Technique is not only for regular plays but for a much wider body of work, and more people are using the work in that way. So in the weekend of May 17th -19th for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  I want to look at episodes in this novel, The Trial, and explore them through the Michael Chekhov technique, to see if we can find something different, something deeper. One thing I have found with the Technique is that I always discover something new with anything we look at in these courses.

If you wish to attend, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to place a deposit and book your place. The weekend is being held at NUI Galway, runs from May 17-19 (The 17th is only a short evening session). The cost is €90 for the weekend.

 

 

Advertisements

Body

IMG_5703In many plays, the idea that our character has a different body is generally limited to how we are clothed, our size, a disability perhaps, or age. That’s if it is specified in the text at all. Yet our bodies are the vessel for everything we are.

Like most things with Chekhov technique any accusations that our exercises are ‘floaty’ are completely refuted by the fact that what the technique explores is the reality of things as they are; in this case how we relate to our bodies and how the character relates to his own body.

In our workshop this weekend, as we explored the troubled characters in The Crucible, I began by asking the group to make considerations of their own bodies. This needed to be done with a degree of delicacy and limited sharing; the most important thing is for the actor to experience the body rather than talk about it, in any case. I asked everyone to consider how our bodies affected how we dress, what colours we wore, where our weight was centred, what parts of the body we liked and what we didn’t like and how those responses affected our every move; it is a sobering thing for actors to consider and experience. If we like our hands we are going to move them differently to how we would if we don’t like them. If we think our lips are attractive, we will use them differently.

So what if the character has this interconnected relationship to their body?  By putting on the body like a coat, we can find out.

This work on Imaginary Body goes so much further than just creating a convincing and particular shape for the character; it gives you a huge part of the character’s psychology. The body dictates how we breathe, our level of confidence and health, the tensions which build up in us; as we age the frame is restricted  and can freeze us into a cypher of everything that has happened to us through our lives.

How we relate to the body makes resonances and echoes in every single thing we do. To take an example, if Abigail Williams is aware of her sexual power from the start it makes a very different character to an Abigail Williams who does not.

Furthermore we have the impact of the environment on the bodies of the characters. On examining the hands of the characters, we considered those who had soft hands and those who did not . That one fact created a whole layer to a possible world; those with rough hands, physically strong but somehow in another world from the likes of the preachers and judges who govern the play. The soft-handed are trying to preserve their status, maintain control and impose morality upon the townsfolk. How do they feel about their hard-handed brethren? Do they feel superior, closer to God, fearful, guilty about their own inactivity?

It was interesting how both the power of Imaginary Body and Character Centre created really strong atmosphere on their own in our studio, though we did little work on atmosphere directly. It reminded me of Chekhov’s Chart for Inspired Acting where Chekhov said that if you inspire just one area, if it is effective, many of the other elements of the scene will fill effortlessly. Working for a good while on the idea of everyone having a centre that was a large spade brought the smell of the earth into the room; a sense of digging in; a world that was rough and shifting as the characters spoke to each other.

Very powerful.

IMG_5698The next Chekhov weekend is Actors Are Magicians, working with Form , atmosphere, directions and Tempo principally. It is here in Galway and runs from Friday evening till mid afternoon Sunday. We will be working on chapters of The Trial by Kafka. It is for Directors, actors, students and devisers. book by emailing chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and visit the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

The Invisible Voice

IMG_5579The voice is invisible. And, as Michael Chekhov technique is about “making the intangible, tangible”, there is something which connects it to the creation of voice, even though Chekhov did not address voice too specifically in his writings. Through my work I am attempting to further these connections as I feel there is something magical about these sounds that come from the caves of our bodies.

Words are vehicles for energy, thoughts, feelings and concepts. Through the breath and the body we express all of these things. There is an alchemy that happens between people and words. In order to achieve this alchemy, we need to connect voice, body, feelings and imagination. To have a full voice, we need to make this holistic connection, with each of these elements influencing and feeding the other.

That was what we set out to explore and express in this workshop, The Epic Voice which was held this weekend with twelve artist/explorers as part Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s Spring season of Weekend workshops.

The question for me was; what is it that colours the language and makes it so profound and full of meaning? Is it what the word sounds like? Is it the rhythm? Is it our response to it? is it an image we have when we imagine the word? The answer we came to is that it can be any or all of these things, but one thing is for sure, that if your whole being isn’t involved in its expression then, especially in poetic drama, the performing artist is missing something fundamental. We explored physically and through sound, several single words. We discovered that if we explored a word merely by its sound or rhythm, it did not always take us to an authentic place. Sometimes it was our response to the word that was more important.

Then there is the actual direction of the word. So much of my exploration of directions, (A Michael Chekhov concept) has been stirred by Lenard Petit’s exploration of directions of energy. Words are expressions of energy as much as a gesture or movement. If we express the word ‘Hope’ through movement alone, we automatically make a move forward and upwards. If we make a movement for the word ‘memory’, we are dealing with the backspace.It is something coming to us from behind. If you get a sense of the direction of the word in your body as you speak it, you can feel a new dimension to your text.

Working with voice is so much more than technical dexterity and diaphragmatic breathing. Without breath we have no power to radiate anything. Whilst we need the technical tools, they are very far from being the whole thing.

IMG_5608We worked on two pieces primarily on our workshop; ‘Afterwards’ by Thomas Hardy, a poem which on the surface seems slight and whimsical, about his passing and what the neighbours might say about him when he was dead. For the record, this poem is used as the centrepiece for one of Seamus Heaney’s Oxford lectures, recorded in the book, “The Redress of Poetry” which alerted me to its attempt to build a bridge between the spirit world and the everyday (though wonderful) life of the country. The second piece was a piece of Yeats; the opening speech of the Musician from The Last Jealousy of Emer. Much development of atmosphere was done on these pieces and some interesting work done. Curiously though, what we discovered was that one of the pieces did not hold its power as well, when the group started to ‘set it’. It immediately became a bit mechanical. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to discuss process over product, and how with Chekhov all you have to do is commit to the image, commit to the gesture or atmosphere and the performance power will be there. Rather like Thomas Hardy you will be bringing these extraordinary spiritual elements to the mundane concerns of the everyday world.

And then, in true alchemical style due to someone having to leave the workshop early, I found we had an hour to explore something else. i had intended to do this earlier, but had not found a place for it. in two groups, the participants  take the piece and then create a musical soundtrack of it, using instruments and sound alone. No words from the poem were allowed.You had to more or less follow the form of the piece you were using. This exercise gives you a sense of what is important, what is the form, what images are important and what is the general mood or feel in a way that just reading or intellectualising it can never do. it gives you a strong sense of a direction for the piece, that, had we time to return to the original spoken work using the poem, would have influenced it a lot. it was fitting end to our exploration.

IMG_5585The next workshop Imaginary Body,Character Centre, will be working with a well known play and using two elements a performer can explore in their private work developing character. To book your place, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or info@chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com the workshop is March 29-31 and will be held in Galway.

The Emotional Gym -Psychological Gesture

IMG_5164When I was first teaching Chekhov Technique, one of the participants said,  in the break, “This is like being in an emotional gym.” Of course it is always like that when you are working with an acting technique to some extent; you are seeking the ‘how’ to play the character; the ‘how’ to find the feelings; the ‘how’ to find the way they respond to things. This search inevitably involves some courage.

But to my mind, nothing exemplifies this exploration more than working with Psychological Gesture. This psychophysical practise where you are finding the sensations and the feelings within your body that will suit the character has a visceral quality that gives you the feeling you are digging into your soul, at the same time as expanding your sense of self. As we found in the recent course, it gives a sense of the personal at the same time as something universal.

IMG_5126Whilst the gesture encourages you to find the character’s intention, it does much more than that. Through working on qualities of movement you can discover how the character fulfils their intention, and through working on directions you consider where the characters energy is moving. You also find the character’s rhythm, which is not necessarily your own. By sustaining the gesture and radiating it outwards you can really explore what the character is feeling intensely in your body.  It is a vibrant, varied tool of discovery that produces a transformation and intensity in the performer which is for me unrivalled.

I always start by making sure the breath, body and voice are connected. I do this with every Chekhov class I do now. A common challenge to my mind for participants is not connecting the body and voice, and nowhere is this more of an issue than when practising gesture. There is no point in doing a psychological gesture and then having a weak voice which is not connected to it. You are exhausting yourself for nothing. I always liked Joanna Merlin’s idea that you made the gesture first, got happy with it, then you let out an open sound that came from the gesture before you started to speak the text on that bed of sound.

I have not unflinchingly taught gesture for a whole weekend for a while because I know it is demanding, and when you have a group with mixed levels of exposure to this work, to do two and a half days of gesture alone can be daunting. For those only touching the work it can put them off and, because there is less focus on the imagination than in other areas of the Chekhov work, the participant can feel less in control of the sensations and feelings the gestures invoke. However this last weekend I was determined because I am getting tired of just brushing the subject on a three hour class or at best, one day. Michael Chekhov Technique is so holistic that whilst I find it important on short courses to provide adequate prerequisites to lead the participant to the principal area we are exploring, it’s also important that we do not leave the principal area left with inadequate time to explore in depth. Everyone, I believe, who runs short courses has this conundrum to deal with.

IMG_5128PG, as it is called, is so crucial, so valuable, and I was determined that everyone would get some idea of the demands of it even though it was challenging. They would get a sense of their limits and know that was where they had to go if they wanted to break through them.

I am pleased to say that there were several breakthroughs of this kind and people explored new aspects of the way they might play a character and what the rhythm of that character might be. The rawness and truth of the rough scenes we presented finally were an excellent example of the power of working this way, reminding me that there is no way out but to find that rawness from somewhere, to deliver it safely for the performer, but to none the less, ‘go there’.

The next Chekhov weekend , THE REST IS SILENCE, takes place in NUI Galway, November 9-11.The 9th is just an introductory evening, the other days are two full days. We will be exploring the universe that is the pause, the silence, so often just an empty pose in performance, but we are going to fill those silences and make them to speak to us and the audience.

email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to reserve your place

The Body of an Actor

IMG_4561Gesture is the result of impulse. It comes from the core of our desire to express something. But often we have forgotten this. We are kind of dislocated and unconnected to our bodies, to the feeling impulse of our bodies. This is our challenge when we approach the psychophysical technique of Michael Chekhov, to connect the energy and feelings to the body. Once we have gone some way to reconnecting this impulse/ body pathway, we can find the intention through the body. To find everything about the character and make us fuller human beings to boot.

This understanding of Chekhov’s practise is not necessarily assisted by ballet, acrobatics or fencing either, other than the fact that those disciplines make us proficient and aware of the body. Sometimes, in fact, if we have been trained substantially in strong physical disciplines like dance, it can initially be a bit of a hindrance. The gesture-training Chekhov encouraged is not some kind of offshoot of dance, though it can be used as an effective element tool within modern dance. Chekhov technique is about using the body as a vessel for sensations and feelings; to use it as a conduit for energy. If all this sounds airy, it isn’t. As soon as we start to practise using the body in this way we sense an openness within us to a wealth of possibilities we might never have thought of. Chekhov’s approach can be very specific as to the energies moving in the character by using this technique.

Psychological Gesture is a way of finding the intention of the character. What is the character trying to do and how are they doing it? It is not a realistic presentation of the character but how they are inside; what is going on for them.

Let’s suppose you are playing Antigone in Anouilh’s play. What might we say she is doing through the play? There are many ways to find this gesture, but why don’t we say she is trying to show/offer/expose something. She wants to show people their hypocrisy. She will not compromise.

See how this works for you when you offer something in front of you in a bold gesture with both hands, your hands palms up. When I did this, I tried to keep my arms out straight so this offering was not open but really focussed, as she is. I repeat the gesture over and over. I see what/if the gesture is generating a sensation inside me.

How do I feel when I make this gesture? I find that I feel defiant, a bit sanctimonious, both strong and weak at the same time. I am offering/presenting but at the same time I am almost offering my hands to be tied or restrained. My breathing gets sharp. Then I start to make a sound.. Then I say “I am going to bury our brother.” I feel this voice in my neck.  I feel a strong chest with energy focussed in my heart area . The offering makes me feel sacrificial but also self important. It makes me feel as if my energy is moving backwards even though it appears that I am aggressively moving forward. This one gesture gives me a whole psychology, not a heady discursive one, but something that is moving strongly and powerfully inside me, a psychology I can act with.

Then, supposing I use the same gesture slowly. I feel more vulnerable, more defeated… Amazing.

Before we consider that finding the psychology through a movement might be considered simplistic, let us consider our own lives. Consider how we are constantly meeting similar obstacles and dealing with them with the same energy in the same way over and over again. Psychological Gesture can be a physical manifestation of that very life reality. Indeed, most of Chekhov’s elements are about how we live our lives.

Of course, Psychological Gesture is not something we show as performers to the audience. It is a tool, an element of the work.

Within the body lies so much of who we are at any moment. It is quite literally a channel through which all our energies and experiences come. It is the manifestation of our history and even though so many of our cells are replaced and replenished through our lifetime, there is something that is manifestly us. It is alchemical and impossible to define, so much more than ‘body memory’. When you align this psycho-physical work with the use of a vibrant imagination, your potency as an artist flourishes.

Finding it in the Body, a weekend workshop in Michael Chekhov Technique led by Max Hafler Oct 12 [evening only] then Oct 13 and 14 [10-5] will be held at NUIGalway,Ireland. There are still a few places left. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further information.

The Feeling of the Whole.

IMG_4945This four day summer school, “A Little Piece of Art’ has been one of the most exciting teaching projects I have done. With my group of 12 intrepid explorers, with a wide age range, working as student actors, actors, teachers and directors it has been a diverse yet at the same time homogenous group of varying experience in the Chekhov work.

The title comes from Chekhov’s assertion that everything we perform is ‘a little piece of art’. Everything has a preparation, a beginning, middle and end. So every moment in a play contains this truth. This is not so much like a ‘beat’,  but more like a flow of energy, a tune that exists in a piece of music.

Our task was to explore and discover the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole using sections of The Cherry Orchard (by Uncle Anton) . These two aspects of Chekhov Technique have been very much in the forefront of my thinking lately as I see so many theatre pieces, both plays and devised work that are formless; so that even though they hold good pieces within them, they leave me empty, as if I have wasted my time. I have been considering also how to teach directing through Chekhov Technique, finding aspects of the technique which are crucial to both actors and directors alike. I found out that Form and the Whole along with General Atmosphere are it.

Whilst I was in Grozjnan in Croatia at an extraordinary Chekhov teachers’ conference organised by Michael Chekhov Europe and the Michael Chekhov Association earlier this month, Joanna Merlin, the Founder of the Michael Chekhov Association, said that she felt that the technique needed to be taught to directors. I feel this very strongly myself as it is only then that the actors will fully feel they have permission to work with the method, and will seriously learn it. Also, because Chekhov’s approach is very much ensemble based, it requires a whole different level of thinking as to what the director does, what the relationship is between the actor and director, and how the group creates the play together.

For instance, we considered and worked mainly through General Atmosphere, on the episode in Act 2 of The Cherry Orchard when the house party meets the Passer By, an extraordinary character in the play. The character appears for only three minutes unnerving the group like some kind of ominous future, carrying a portentous weight as to the meaning of the entire play. How that character is played has an enormous influence on the production and the audience’s connection with what the play might be saying. The director cannot decide this on her own! It has to be done in collaboration with everyone or the actor will feel alienated and used. Chekhov said, “The Actor is the Theatre” and whilst I think directors are vital, Chekhov is really right. There is no point in imposing concepts on actors. What’s more it belittles their contribution.

Sometimes, when I lead a course, I really feel I want to explore something. Perhaps this is wrong and perhaps I should be more rigid and set upon the various elements of Chekhov technique in a methodical way. Sometimes I do do that. But if you want to explore, you have to take the whole group with you, and you have to make sure they have the requisite tools for that exploration to take place or you are simply exploiting them. On short courses this can be quite challenging. In Grojznan a couple of us had some very interesting talks about short courses and what elements they should contain. For myself often what text you are using [if you use one] might dictate where to start.

IMG_4870One thing Chekhov discusses is that you do not need to start at the beginning of the play to explore it. As we were working on a play which had lots of people in it and very few duologues, I decided to use very short pieces around climaxes or episodes with a lot of people in them, no more than a page. So for instance, we used the lead up to the arrival of Ranevskaya and the family, the Passer- by episode, and the end of the play. We had done some good lead-in on Radiating/receiving forms in movement and text, ideal centre, impulse and general atmosphere . Of course what we did was rough, we had done very little character work other than possible gestures/journies for the characters, but we found nonetheless that there was something interesting and valuable there in terms of form, of a feeling of the whole and of general atmosphere. something valuable we should not have found so powerfully nor so easily through other techniques.

And that brings me on to the difficult topic of Application and whether you should do it or not…. another day.

More weekend classes in the autumn. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to get on the mailing list

“A little piece of Art”

IMG_4174CHEKHOV TRAINING AND PERFORMANCE IRELAND SUMMER SCHOOL

“A little piece of Art”
Finding a sense of form in the character, the piece or the play through the Michael Chekhov Technique.
NUIG Galway
August 16-19th 10 – 5.  Tutor Max Hafler
For Actors, Students, and Directors .

Michael Chekhov said that everything you did onstage, every exercise, every improvisation, every scene, every play needed a ‘feeling of Form’ and a “feeling of Entirety”. Each piece had to be “a little piece of Art”. We are going to explore these two fundamental planks of Chekhov Technique to enable us to create more believable and focussed characters and performances using the psycho-physical technique which through the imagination and the body takes us to new realms.

Getting the whole understanding of form in our bodies is crucial. How do you start a scene? What are the dynamics? And how does the scene end? And what happens in between? Working with tableaux, gesture and transformation, we will work with a yet to be decided text. This technique will give a strong grid on which to work, yet at the same time give you as a performer/director an immense freedom. It is both completely practical and helps the performer to express the invisible.

It is going to be exciting.

some thoughts

Of course these ideas  of Form and Entirety are not new in consideration of art but they are too often dismissed or ignored by practitioners as outmoded or outdated, that they make smug or complacent art, as if life could be tied in those kind of parcels. I would question whether theatre has the slightest responsibility to imitate life in quite that kind of way, even if this was true.

Form and Entirety [or wholeness] are related of course but are not quite the same thing. I would say that Feeling of Form is something the performer practises that becomes an inate performance skill  whereas a Feeling of Wholeness is a state that is discovered both as a character and also through the experience of the whole play.

We have to accept that Form and Wholeness are woven into our lives. The two things we know for sure are that we are born and we die; a beginning and an end. Because we understand this on a fundamental visceral level, it is not surprising to me that we often look for this quality in art. The end we seek in our plays and films is not necessarily a comfortable easy end; nor is it always an attempt to just have our own values expressed and validated. Remember, if you look at a play or film with an ending which appears inconclusive, the creators have decided that ending for a reason.  It is still an ending.

In my real life experience, endings are beginnings with new challenges and obstacles and pleasures. At least they are changes – the start of a new consideration, some new way of being. The end is a stopping and pausing point. however, in a work of art it offers a deep satisfaction because it is a pinnacle, a place for the characters to rest and take stock before they move on. In a fictional narrative, it leaves us with a feeling, a question and a resolution all rolled into one – if it is powerful that is.

So, in addition to needing a ‘Feeling of Entirety’ for the whole piece of art, we have a feeling of form for the character. What about the beginning, the start of the character’s journey? What are the energies and desires he brings into the space and how does he seek them?  Chekhov always talks about How and what  being the most fundamental questions which lead to the answer of Why someone does something.

When working on entrances and exits in another workshop, we observed that the moment you entered was one of your moments of ultimate power. The audience are intrigued by a new energy, by a feeling that the arrival of this person is going to change things, alter the dynamic. Finding a starting point through psycho-physical exercises is a nuanced and exciting exploration. Finding the end point gives you somewhere to go.

booking details

If you are interested to book for this course , please contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. the cost of the course is €180 for tuition only