Tag Archives: Chekhov training and Performance Ireland

Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

Keeping those Cucumber Sandwiches Fresh! Working with Chekhov Technique

IMG_3278When rehearsing/performing a well known play, artists often  behave as if the audience already know every single twist and turn of a story.  It is unconscious – people often do not even know they are doing it. That dreadful mistake completely blunts the immediacy and urgency of the playing, flattens the pace, and often bores the audience who may applaud but leave the theatre unsatisfied without necessarily knowing why. It often belittles the work by making something very cosy out of something which can be much more visceral. This is a massive issue in Shakespeare but equally with Wilde, which I am working on with my group of fellow explorers in the comedy Chekhov and Cucumber Sandwiches course. It was only when we started to tell the story of The Importance that we realised how complicated the story actually was, how the series of ‘reveals’ occurs, and how it initially unravels the lives of Jack Worthing and the others.

The thing is that even if the audience have studied the play and do know it, you have to play it as if they don’t in order to keep it fresh and potent. This may sound so obvious that it is not worth saying and yet this simple fact is often totally disregarded. I have seen many a production of Shakespeare when this development of the plot is lazily and glibly presumed, and not in the way we know the ending in a Greek tragedy, say, where the foreknowledge adds to the import and weight of the tale. Do not misunderstand; this complaint is not an excuse for protracted ‘table work’,  but  the actor’s inability to be able to respond to impulses .

I remember when I was working on Macbeth in Galway decades ago, this was the first thing I said to them; we have to treat this as a play that was written last week. no one knows he is going to die; no one knows she will kill herself; no one knows he will become King and ‘get away’ with the murder[s]; no one knows that Lady M will not wake up during the sleepwalking scene and have the doctor and gentlewoman killed; No one knows that Fleance will escape. If you remember this, much of the play is delivered to you.

One of the great things about the Michael Chekhov Technique is it immediately rockets you from your comfort zone both as a performer, director and designer. A few years ago I ran a weekend on Importance and was staggered at its potential depth of situation and character. This is somehow often ignored in favour of the incredibly witty dialogue and the sophisticated veneer. One has to ask oneself of course, is this a comedy of manners, about a whole society, or is it also about the idea of people struggling to find their hearts in a privileged rigid world of do’s and don’ts, a kind of gilded prison of their own making? What ultimately should the audience feel at the end of this play? A smug satisfaction that everything turned out right ? A despairing comment on the folly of convention? As the group potentially working on this play we need to know. Michael Chekhov alerts us to the fact that we must know what we want the audience to take away when all are united and Lady Bracknell’s privileged world is saved from disintegration by some extraordinary coincidences.

Last night we made some extremely interesting discoveries through the intense ghost exercise, something I learned at MICHA (The Michael Chekhov Association) many moons ago; a character called Jack with dark and terrible secrets which are gradually exposed  only to eventually have the very key to his happiness within his secret life – as he uses his wealthy ward as a bargaining chip to buy all the young people their happiness; a woman called Lady Bracknell desperately holding on to a sense of Order; Miss Prism carrying within her her grief at the loss of a baby; Algernon, a fixer who plays the system but then who unexpectedly  falls madly in love with a beautiful young girl etc etc. This exercise not only enabled us to explore the darker possibilities of these characters but also find a whole trajectory for them. A great plus for the Chekhov work is how very very fast it is and how you can uncover things about characters and the play if you will but commit wholly with your imagination and your body.

The challenge for us now is to explore through the feeling of ease and the alchemy of the play, the possibility to transform these serious journeys into comedic possibilities. This is already starting to happen.

Comedy cuts

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Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond’s The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen. Me being VERY SERIOUS INDEED

As a young student actor I could never get the hang of comedy. For one thing, the kind of comedies we ended up exploring were so far from my experience (The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton was one) that I simply could not take them seriously. Even before classmates I would get the giggles when performing. I simply could not help it. I comforted myself that Laurence Olivier had had a similar problem as a young actor and hoped for the best that this giggling would stop. It took a long time and I comforted myself further that I was really a dramatic actor and that comedy was not my thing. I remember hating the idea that in comedy you were really,  it seemed to me, out to get the audience’s approval; that the result needed to be laughter or at least, a smile, and you knew whether you had succeeded or failed almost immediately.

Looking back, there was a misunderstanding of what acting was which caused the problem. For me at that time, acting had to be ‘real’. I was good at being emotionally true to my inner life, as narrow as it was, given that it was completely defined by my version of my young self. I had difficulty understanding the relationship between character, play and audience clearly; to understand that, whilst you had to enjoy the game of the play and enjoy making people laugh, you had also to work from an inner truth; that it was actually possible to do this. But you had to work on all of these levels at the same time to be effective. I would explain this now as truly activating the Higher Ego, as Michael Chekhov explains it, and developing the ability to shift the attention from the audience, the character, a consciousness of the humour and back again. It’s needed for all theatre work but for comedy in particular.

At LAMDA I remember exploring the Idea of comedy with an extremely interesting but misguided teacher who asked us to create something comedic out of a real tragic incident of our lives. This was an extremely unwise basis for an exercise and left many of us angry and disturbed. We attempted to recreate a tragic incident in a fellow student’s life who as a boy had hit a cricket ball which had struck and killed one of the fielding team. He had felt that he had killed the boy. This must have been extremely stressful for the student and was in addition very unsuccessful. All the improvisations based around this exercise were a failure. However, despite the fact that I strongly disapprove of leading a student into such tricky emotional territory, comparing tragedy and comedy is often a good place to start in order to define comedy and get a sense of what comedic energy actually is. Chekhov explains this simply and effectively. There are lots of safe ways to do it.

Then, when working on a student production we took to Edinburgh I began to get a feel for comedy, whilst working on a Japanese play when I played a messenger. I knew I was being funny in a stylised, physical way which felt more comfortable because I was not trying to pretend this was ‘real’. It broke a boundary for me and I enjoyed it and began to gain confidence in comedy. I got even more safely into humour in several tv plays as a young professional because there was no audience to contend with and through that I became much more aware of my own sense of humour and started to feel safer with it. Also, on TV,  I was able to hang on more firmly to the sense of ‘truth’ because there was no immediate feedback from an audience.

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not subtle but sharp and funny . Malcolm James as Simonides and me as Gnotho in my version of Middleton and Rowley’s OLD LAW 1990 . Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. director Tony Hegarty photo Amrando Atkinson.

But it was only later when I truly experienced the full contact with the audience that I started to truly understand the game that is comedy.; the constant movement of energy; the playfulness… and I started to really enjoy it. It was as if comedy required a complete acceptance of the theatrical experience which I felt at the time could somehow be ignored in drama or tragedy. I now understand that even with the most ‘realistic’ work, a degree of ‘radiation’ is essential . In other words, ‘real’ never quite cuts it – whatever that actually is. One of the things I found so liberating about the Chekhov Technique, something, by the time I found it I already knew, was that theatrical artistic truth is a completely different animal to ‘real’

Very much looking forward to my course Chekhov Comedy Composition and Cucumber Sandwiches which starts on Tuesday in Galway

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.

Me and Cuirt : The Sacrificial Wind

I have been involved on and off with Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway since 1995 not long after I arrived from England. At that time I was working a lot as a writer and had been joint winner of the Apples and Snakes Performance Poet of the Year. My first foray into Cuirt was at The Bardic Breakfast (with my performance poetry hat on) and was encouraged and supported by Mike Diskin who then ran Galway Arts Centre. Over the years I ran classes on voice work and performing poetry, I had forays into schools and but most particularly did three notable productions with Galway Youth Theatre as part of Cuirt; Alien Nation, The Trial and The Midnight Court.

Alien Nation is my own youth play about racism set in Ireland, now even more relevant alas than it was then. Using rhythm and chanting cut between short violent naturalistic scenes, we performed the play in an Art Gallery. The young people blew the room up with their energy and people queued up the street to see it. We had to put on extra performances. Many of these young people are now serious theatre and film makers themselves. The play has been used in schools all over Ireland, has had many productions and is published.

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The Trial

The Trial (Berkoff’s version of the Kafka novel) required energy and unbelievable ensemble discipline. After its massive success in the Cuirt where it got a glowing Irish Times review from Eileen Battersby, “this honours and defines the concept of theatre” The play was revived and we went to England with it.

Ciaran Carson’s gutsy version of The Midnight Court, the Irish classic which he rendered into English, was part of an incredible last night of Cuirt in, I think, 05. As I recall the Cuirt had part sponsored the version. On the final night, Ciaran Carson read from his text and then Brid NI Neachtain a highly respected Irish actress read portions in Irish. Finally we presented our raucous rappy ferocious 50 minute version to a massive standing ovation. It was for me an unforgettable event. Unfortunately as the event was on the cusp of  time before we recorded everything, no record remains of this once-off production. No video, no photographs, nothing.

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the Sacrificial Wind 2017

So it is with great delight that after a long absence I am back with my company, the performance arm of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland, to perform Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a dramatic poetry performance based around the sacrifice of Iphigenia who was killed to appease a goddess so the men could get a wind to take them to Troy. Performed in the intimate Town Hall Studio Galway, this intense piece mixes poetry, characters in cornered and dangerous situations, and asks questions of our response to the dangerous world in which we find ourselves.

First presented as part of the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway, the piece has grown in intensity and variety with its trio of dedicated and versatile actors, Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy.

It lasts 50 minutes and tickets are still available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

The Image Is The Action.

When I ran Commonweal  a classical theatre company in the UK with my partner Tony Hegarty many moons ago, we got a sponsorship to run an r&d workshop exploring Shakespeare. This was long before I had heard anything about Michael Chekhov. Tony and I were both aware that actors were not fully engaging with the language in a visceral way and wanted to explore why that direct contact with the language was missing and how to breathe life into Shakespeare’s verse. In productions it seemed the text was either meaninglessly mellifluous or drearily ‘realistic’ and flat.

We were working on Macbeth. I remember Tony was running the session and was trying to get us to engage with the language more, so he asked us to take a line or two from the text with images which demanded an action and perform that action when we were speaking it. That, had I but known it, was a psychological gesture which used the image from the text directly to create a psychological gesture, enliven the language and the psychology of the character.
I will always remember in that workshop a young actor speaking the lines

“I would while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out,”

while she acted as if she was performing this horrendous act. It blew me away. She was truly inhabiting the image, the language sounded brutal, desperate and full of loathing. Prior to this it had sounded like text. Voice is movement.

There was a famous, it feels almost forgotten, theatre academic and practitioner called G.Wilson Knight whose books The Imperial Theme(1951), The Crown of Life(1947) and The Wheel of Fire(1930), were once essentials on many an English syllabus. One of his principles with regard to Shakespearean text was the idea that ‘the Image is the action’ ; that poetic symbolism was not merely poetic for its own sake or to paint a picture but that its very formation gave us a key to the character and more particularly the psychology and inner energy of the character. In other words the images were the how and the what of the character. Of course this may not well have been conscious on the part of the playwright but was dictated by the very practicalities of the theatre at that time.Words, language and imagery were all powerful.  In a theatre with no scenery to speak of and no lighting, the words had to create scenery, time, weather and atmosphere.  But the words were also instruments of transformation. They were not something to hide behind; but to expose.

Some directors will tell you that in Shakespeare there is no subtext. This is not true. It is true that the characters nearly always ‘level’ with us, the audience, even when they are not being honest with the other characters – Iago or Macbeth for instance. But it is the imagery which gives us the key to subtext and psychological depth in a way that any actor’s psychological identification with the character could not, And like the young actor above, as soon as you inhabit that image with your whole being, body, voice and imagination, then the character is opened to you. I talk a lot about this work in my book Teaching Voice published by Nick Hern Books, when working with young people.

Michael Chekhov says in On The Technique of Acting that gesture can be used to enliven a word; but there is a subtle difference to finding a psychological gesture for the character first and deciding whether it feels right when you speak the text, rather than inhabiting the word and image, physicalising that, and through that finding the psychological state. There is no right or wrong here, but if you want to stay true to the language I would say the latter approach is more useful with Shakespeare.

May I say though that I am not talking about what to my mind are weeks of stultifying table work here, but a physical exploration- just in case anyone misunderstands what I am saying.

16797114_10210868896951296_608268461551876115_oSo for our workshop Giving Voice to the Imagination , May 23rd – 26th in Dublin which I am giving with Hugo Moss of Michael Chekhov Brasil, one of the things we we want to all explore is to find the voice of the character through images and psychological gesture . Places are limited and the course is filling up so if this aspect of the work is useful to you you might want to book up. info is on this blog on the Dublin Workshop page or on http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com You need to fill in the short application form and send it to chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com .