Tag Archives: education of teachers

The Alchemy of Teaching


picture: Sean T O’Meallaigh

This week I have been thinking a lot about teaching theatre, about the dynamic exchange between student group and teacher. Learning theatre, learning practical theatre is one of the most powerful things you can learn; its encourages confidence, develops voice, imagination, body and feelings in every individual student. It can be utterly transformational.

I am really loving my classes this year; University, freelance and Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops; students who really want to ‘find out’ , to explore and develop. It is not always the case. Sometimes when we teach we have to manage expectations, deep resistances and fears of individuals at the same time as minimising the detrimental effect that the student in question might have on the group learning: because in theatre, though we can develop and learn individually, much of our learning comes from the interaction of the group. 

Of course it is up to us as teachers to create the environment where development can grow but occasionally circumstances can be challenging. This is especially true teaching theatre when students come up against their own limitations. Training for sport provides a similar challenge.

The interaction between tutor/facilitator/teacher and the individual student is paramount. It requires a strength and at the same time a huge sensitivity to the student’s needs. There is a wonderful moment in the Michael Chekhov Masterclass DVDs produced by MICHA where Joanna Merlin is explaining Psychological Gesture, an element of the Michael Chekhov Technique where we physicalise our intention. She says something like, ‘if I was to make a gesture of teaching what would it be?’ She makes a generous open-armed gesture, offering towards the students.

When I have asked (in teacher training sessions) teachers and lecturers to show the group a gesture/statue which suggests teaching, there are sometimes surprising responses ; closed finger-wagging gestures, stern faces, standing on the back foot. For me what Joanna demonstrated with her psychological gesture is exactly what teachers should aspire to be. The thing is that sometimes there is a need for kind firmness as well as coaxing and when you get a challenging response from the student it can be quite hurtful because you have to stay open at the same time as being firm. I am lucky that challenging responses have happened rarely but when they have, and there is always a potential for it, it can be unnerving. You have to remember that whilst you may be partly to blame for a student’s defiance, awkwardness or accusations of injustice, their response may have little or nothing to do with you but more to do with what is going on in their lives at that moment. This happened  more to me when I was teaching Ensemble and Devising, because individuals sometimes resisted the fact that in ensemble work, the group is paramount. Because theatre training is challenging anyway their reactions can be strong.

For this last year though i have felt truly blessed with my students and what is amazing is that the more committed they are, the more you can give. The energy, like a performance, is not one-sided; it is completely reciprocal. It is a moving energy from you to the student and back again. In Michael Chekhov terms it is radiating and receiving. Many students do not understand this; that they also carry responsibility for the efficacy of a workshopSONY DSC.

In addition to my university teaching, I am especially looking forward to my two weekend workshops for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland. Just my Imagination, working with Chekhov Technique. (October 18-20) and Good vs. Evil :The greatest Polarity of All – working with King Lear. (Nov 29th- Dec 1) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  to book your place. check our website www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland@gmail.com

‘Those who can’t, teach…’

shaw I never expected to teach. When I trained as an actor as a young man, I believed Shaw’s axiom, ‘those who do, do, those who can’t, teach’ but I have been teaching/facilitating now for over two decades. Now I am so passionate about teaching , that both teaching voice and Chekhov technique and directing plays ( and directing at whatever level, is still at least a kind of guiding) are the significant things in my working life. I understand that for me at least, when I teach/facilitate, I have to feel  that it is a beautiful and wonderful thing I am helping the student explore. I don’t need to work hard at this because whenever a student ‘gets’ something and something shifts for them, especially when you are teaching voice or Chekhov, it often happens suddenly, joyfully and visibly.

I have been writing busily this last week, and will mostly be doing the same thing for the next six weeks. Previously I have written a variety of papers, essays, a novel, and most of all a whole number of plays, many of which have been professionally performed, and have won two awards. ( check out my cv for details). What’s unusual and exciting for me is that this book I am writing now is for facilitators and teachers working with young people in theatre.

I have spent some considerable time teaching voice to lecturers and teachers at second and third level. But as well as teaching voice  in these courses we are also dealing with the philosophy of teaching and the well being of the lecturer and teacher themselves . I often invite them through exercises to consider and reconnect with the love and commitment they feel to their subject and to the whole process, which so many people lose sight of when working within an institution, especially when it is dysfunctional in some way. It is no good to just teach them tricks and games, but vital to get them to reconnect at a deep level with the whole process of sharing energy, and imparting knowledge. Chekhov’s ideal centre work, and radiating/ receiving are great for this work. When I started this work with teachers, one lecturer said, a little irritated, “we are not here to entertain them!” And I replied, ” but you are there to enthuse, share, and help them! If you are bored and therefore boring, how can you possibly expect them to be interested?” Teachers sometimes believe that the learning is enough, [i was a little like this at the start] without realising they are the pathway to learning for the student  and a pathway to learning much more than intellectual knowledge. One teacher said to me once, “how can I possibly put any intensity in teaching someone how to use this surgical instrument?” ( I can’t remember what it was) “Because if they do it wrong, the patient will die.” I replied.

It is easy to get seduced into feeling when writing workshop plans as I am for part of my book, that these are exercises you have done a million times, instead of infusing your workshop plan with the sense of an exciting journey and exploration on which you are taking the facilitator and their group. I have suddenly become fully awakened to the fullness of this opportunity. i am offering a map which teachers and groups can change, spend longer time in one spot than other , avoid certain areas they are not ready for yet, and so on, whilst hopefully being encouraged by my advice.

It is so important to me to present an ethos, not just a recipe book of games and workshop plans, to show how I brought myself to believing what is important about acting or Voice and how I try to help students find something of the joy that I feel about it myself. That way the book must be more helpful

As Michael Chekhov says in Lessons for Teachers.

“if you are teaching, you must be active. ….The teacher must radiate action.

oh well, back to work……