Tag Archives: devising theatre

The further from my own home I get – devising theatre for the ‘abroad’

One of the fundamentals of creating theatre is to share. It is an act of sharing. Nowhere is this more true than when you are devising with a group, and especially when the group is devising a piece of theatre based on their experience. So it was with an American student group from Principia College whom I met for two periods of devising; once at the beginning of their trip, and once at the end. The devising of their piece around their trip to Ireland, what they experienced both literally and emotionally, is the subject of their dramatic piece. Indeed this process is not over as the summer intervenes and they recreate and further develop the piece next term with their drama professor John O’Hagan.

I have devised many pieces, particularly with young people’s groups, and with this piece in particular it was important to share the idea that this was not a lecture or a slide show, but a feeling response to their experience. This highlights for me what is absolutely unique about a theatre experience; a direct response from the hearts of the performers pouring their energies into the theatre space, either through the filter of character and story or in this case, the more direct route of their own writing, and their own experiences.

It is very often the case that initially students come at devising very intellectually and make thin work. Once the feeling response starts to happen and the instincts kick in, the work gets deepened. It is wonderful to watch this opening up to the “intangible” as Michael Chekhov would say. Only when you approach the intangible and start to use and express it can an audience truly get a sense of what the experience was like. “Atmosphere” is a very valuable tool in accessing this intangibility, particularly in this group when they wanted to get a sense of place, for example, Dublin, Belfast or Tara.

Whilst you need to also play to the group’s strengths (all of this group could sing beautifully) I am a firm believer that it is unfair in all but the most basic of circumstances not to develop the skill level in the group, so I always mesh a number of skill workshops in with the devising to help the participants maximise their power; except in exceptional circumstances creation is not enough. So in this series of workshops we meshed tools, ensemble, voice and devising together. There was of course a large Chekhov component; we used the imagination and the body first to find expression, which freed many of the students up and widened the range of feelings they could express. Meshing devising and skills work is complex in that you have to choose exercises to suit the material they produce on the day so the leader cannot prepare the exercises in advance, except in a broad way.  You as the leader risk more but you also gain more when the magic comes and their devised material is enriched by the skills you have offered.

Because we were always dealing with the participants’ own material it was vital to show the utmost sensitivity towards it. The deviser is usually revealing something about themselves directly, especially in written solo work. It is often not appropriate to use this material as an acting exercise and push the student into difficult areas. A play enables more of a distancing between the actor and the material. It means students can be more robust in their acting because they are playing the impulses and feelings of the characters rather than themselves. The work is seen through the atmosphere and situation of the play ; it is not theirs but they nonetheless have to inhabit it in order to perform successfully. Often with devising the work is very very close and as a leader I am aware of a delicate balancing act, which often involves how much they want to reveal.

This, along with rules of composition which we touched on and the creation of a rough structure and some deep honest work was the total of the time i spent with them. it was amazing to actually see them in their first tentative days and then in their last days in Ireland, like a beginning and an end in itself. Thanks for such an enriching experience.

I will be returning to atmosphere specifically in the summer school Journey Through Atmosphere,August 24 -27th being held on the NUI Galway campus. We will be working with Pericles, a play with a myriad of journies and atmospheres. Plays with Journies, like devised pieces about journies seem to me to have atmosphere almost as their engine. check out http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for info or contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

In my beginning…devised work and composition

In the last few weeks I have watched a number of ensemble based  theatre pieces developed through a devising process in the burgeoning Galway Theatre Festival and whîlst I have a whole number of responses and questions to consider with regard to these pieces, developed by groups at all different stages of development, I want to focus on one or two aspects of these productions, primarily concerning composition and its importance in making a real contact with audiences.


In order to explain this further I suppose I need to just go over what that Michael Chekhov term means, though the name composition is on the surface pretty self explanatory. Composition involves the idea of beginning middle and end. This is not peculiar to Chekhov and has been around for centuries; that a work of art has a ‘feeling of the whole’, like a painting has a frame, and this is important for the audience. This is not to say that life appears always to have that structure, though in the wider sense it does. In the words of Helmut Berger in some woeful 70s movie I saw he said “you live, you fuck, you die” , reminding us that even we have a beginning, middle and an end. We understand this organically as people and respond to it in art. These stages in a work of art are vital to what we want to say, and how we are going to say it. When I say this I do not mean that a piece has to have a happy ending or we cannot leave things open; but, if we do, as artists we have to know what the purpose is , what responses we might want to invoke in our audiences and be honest with ourselves as to whether it is  successful.


In the last few devised pieces I have seen there have been issues with really successfully making that form, either because it was not desirable or simply overlooked as unimportant. In the Brokentalkers production THE BLUE BOY which I saw recently, the piece seemed to have ending after ending, emphasising the fact that the piece was over long and did not  know where to settle. Many endings suggest no ending, and for me, drain the emotion from the piece. It left me ultimately as an audience member feeling, ‘well is that it?’ As this was a piece about child abuse in Irish industrial schools, this was a very unsatisfactory feeling to be left with. Sometimes I think it is the devising process itself that’s to blame. Authors have customarily a problem with editing their own work, and when this also might mean cutting ‘a good scene’ either for yourself or someone else, then editing can difficult. Add to the fact you have an ensemble of co-creating authors, finding an ending can be problematic.



But then there are also beginnings; the BLUE BOY and another piece MY POET DARK AND SLENDER  opted for a fairly casual ‘sliding in’ to the piece , a kind of ‘we are just actors talking’.  It’s a device which was used a lot in the 60s and 70s. it establishes a different sort of contact with the audience but is also dangerous because it prepares the audience for less energy ,less commitment and less involvement. Though more successful in the Brokentalkers show through the charisma and focus of the first performer who spoke, and the feeling for me that this low key energy was a preparation for where they were going to take us, generally this kind of approach  is not a beginning, but an apology.


Indeed in some cases, this ‘sliding in’ can appear like a ‘screw you,’ to the audience ,’we can do what we want’. I  saw a production of The Cherry Orchard done in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival by a company from Belgium called STAN. I have a piece about it on the blog called Selling The Cherry Orchard With Stan . In that case, for me, the effect was worse, because they were doing The Cherry Orchard and it prepared us for the fact they would do what they liked with it, which I was expecting in any case, and so the opening was, well, juvenile.


In any case, if you are going to call this ‘sliding in’ a beginning, you need to be very clear about what you are doing and the intention you have in preparing your relationship with the audience.  Why deprive me the audience of an interesting start to a piece to prepare and involve myself with the work and what the artists are trying to say? What is the purpose? If the purpose is good, and what you as the devisers are really committed to, then fine. If not, well the news is, devising has as many cliches as any art form.


Which brings me to a devised work in development called STREET , which was about poverty and subsidy and being an out of work actor. I made a very strong connection to this piece for two reasons initially. I knew and have had many of these actors in my classes over the decades I have been teaching, and have directed some of them as adults. Secondly, as someone who has acted myself, I knew all too well the problems they were facing. What clinched it for me though was the work was emotional and raw and really reached out to the audience. They radiated their commitment. Yet it was not overblown, just open. I felt it cost people to ‘go there,’ and felt the potential of a piece which tackled why theatre was important, partly because  the problems the artists face are so universal these days, with the eroding of employees rights for all walks of life . As we just watched pieces of this show and this was very much ‘in development’ ,there was no structure to consider , but I was excited to see where this piece might go.


The piece which for me was most successful though, was CARE performed by WillFred. It was literally about endings. The piece, about how hospice workers care for dying patients was incredibly moving and for me embodied a deep understanding of theatricality. The person we followed who was dying was in fact a mannequin, a brilliant device, because as I sat watching the show it made me think of all the people I had known who had been ill and died. It left me imaginatively free to fully engage my emotions. There was beautiful live music to go with this work. This show has survived the original devisers but amazingly you would never notice this, such was the commitment and skilful direction. Like many of the other pieces I saw it was very factual but there was an incredible unforced imaginative element, which BLUE BOY for me did not have. In comparison, The Blue Boy  for me wore its art on its sleeve which obfuscated rather than illuminated.


Because we followed our dying person, CARE had a strong ‘feeling of the whole’ despite the fact that all manner of means were employed to tell the story. If I had any qualms it was a little stronger vocal delivery ( a common problem in devising work), and perhaps a scene where one of the nurses could not cope with the stresses of the work. A small complaint, when I emerged from the theatre so moved.

To boldly go – Chekhov and devising

devising8 copyThis was the first workshop in my new project, Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland and my first real experience of applying Chekhov Technique to the process of devising theatre completely from scratch.  I have used the technique with circus performers (see an earlier blog post) in leading and facilitating ensemble, as a tool for physical theatre, as well as working with actors on regular plays , but this was the first time connecting  the technique with the absolute core of our creativity – devising from nothing.

Yet isn’t that what Chekhov and his technique asks us to do? To just open ourselves to the creative spirit and allow a character to walk into the room from the mists of the imagination, to introduce itself, and inhabit our frame, without the structure or proscribed world of the text? It was both exciting and daunting to ask the participants to come with no lines learned, no books read, nothing.

Devising is a very very personal process with as many approaches and seeds of creativity as there are people on the planet. I felt this issue of the ‘seed point’ of where we start was absolutely crucial for our work this weekend. So I did not want to bring in a theme from which we would begin nor did I want to impose any kind of mythic structure, like looking at a folk tale or myth, something which Chekhov himself used as an exploratory tool, because in this instance I felt that that too might be an imposition. what i was trying to get my group to connect with was this absolute root or seed point of creativity.

So we began with body sensitising; qualities, ideal centre and radiating/receiving before moving on to creating body-statues which led on to spontaneous sketches of characters. Each participant made three sketches of characters with their bodies and then was asked to choose one. Further imaginary body  and inner life work followed, and gradually characters began to emerge and fill the room.Tiny scripts began. we also worked, through gesture, that they find a polarity of the character’s energy, an open warm gesture say, which closed to a hurt closed gesture and the actors started to get a sense of a force within the character.

I decided that within the weekend we would also look at general atmosphere so we could put our character into an environment. After some initial imaginative and atmospheric exercises we tried putting the characters into two atmospheres and it was heartening to hear people say things like “I never thought she would behave that way.”

What was quite daunting to me at the start of my own Chekhov exploration was the massive palette of choices working this way can produce. When you don’t even have a script to hold you down and you realise that you as the creator are also completely steering the ship it is quite a prospect. In this process you are on your own -it’s you and your creativity. Being creative requires a curious mixture of strong will power and an extraordinary openness, of freedom and discipline. For me the Chekhov Technique really offers that freedom.

Our next weekend (13th – 15th May ) here in Galway will be looking at the Chekhov technique with regard to directing  and acting and working with a yet to be decided text. you need to have some Chekhov knowledge.contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or phone 086 330 7325

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.