Tag Archives: Ensemble

Ensemble and Michael Chekhov

IMG_3885

students in the prep week for 12th night recently working on themes from the play

Michael Chekhov was not the only exponent of ensemble playing. A whole raft of practitioners and teachers espouse it. What for me is most profound about Chekhov’s contribution to playing in ensemble is it is on the one hand a spiritual connection between players and a practical connection with the group. The very tools of radiating/receiving, atmosphere, composition and form speak directly to these connections. They give you practical guidance on how to make this intangible connection between your fellow performers.

ENSEMBLE is concerned primarily with the sense of the group , rather than the individual actor. So it’s not how I relate to this play and the director, and maybe my lead actor, but how I relate to all the actors, the technicians, the writer, the play(if there is one) and the director. This is not to say the individual actor may not shine, but he shines because of his/her ability to work with the group powerfully and effectively, like the member of an orchestra.

And for me, the art of ensemble and form is shown no more powerfully than in the classical orchestra, where the individual players unite with all their artistry and skill to produce a wonderful performance. The violin may have a fabulous solo but it is still reliant on the group. What Ensemble does require is a realization that you are only as powerful as the group. You get power, but you also relinquish it. When people have seen this group work in operation, it can be spectacularly powerful.

Michael Chekhov believed very strongly in the laws of composition and the idea that everything has a feeling of form and that we all understand it is vital to a successful satisfying piece of theatre.

But surely this power of performance should happen anyway? Thats true of course, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because of egos, the pressures of time, the desperate nature of actors to please the director to hopefully get another job, the director’s often dictatorial attitude or many other pressures brought to bear on the professional in particular.

We have all read the reviews… “This actress shines in the small but telling part of Anfisa, endorsing the feeling of ensemble in this splendid production of the Three Sisters”! Ensemble used in this context usually means simply that everyone acted well, it is still a buzz word and I am very sceptical when I hear it being used. The job description of the ensemble performer extends far beyond that of the conventional actor, who makes a good job of a small part.

A sense of ensemble is not always about what kind of theatre you are producing but HOW you produce it. It means seeing your part in context with the piece (if it is a conventional play that is, and you have a ‘part’ in the normal sense of the word.) remembering that there is no character without the play . You CANNOT separate the character from the play, nor from the other characters, nor from the other performers either. If you have ever had to go on as an understudy or to act with one, you know this to be true. The piece is fundamentally changed when someone else takes over.

An ensemble performer needs to know, find and agree with the group and director the highs and lows of the play, the moods and atmospheres, so that everyone can work with them… they must know what performer they are working for at any given moment . For me, it encompasses some of the jobs given as the director’s preserve in conventional theatre….Many actors will say to you this is the director’s concern…
It accepts that theatre is a team sport, not merely an ego driven exercise . Michael Chekhov says,

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part is in full harmony with it”
To the actor – Michael Chekhov

ENSEMBLE THEATRE recognises the special circumstances of the theatrical experience; that it is a live event ; that somehow a covenant is drawn up between audience and performers that anything can happen.

IMG_2998

participants in Imagination and the Body last year

To my mind, all theatre should be ensemble theatre.

Very much looking forward to Chekhov and Ensemble in two weeks time here in Galway.
Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for details

Changing The Module: Ensemble to Chekhov Technique.

In two weeks time, I will be saying goodbye to my autumn module in Ensemble/Devising on the Masters in Drama and Theatre at NUI Galway that I have been teaching since the course began in 2000. Next year I will be teaching a Chekhov Technique class instead, working with the technique and with text and I am very excited about that.

In some ways the work will be similar, especially as so much of what we work with in Ensemble/Devising is to sensitise the body to sensations, qualities of movement and emotions which is very much part of the Chekhov Technique too. But it is still with a degree of sadness that I say goodbye to Ensemble and Devising. It has been a wonderful journey, and many extraordinary people who have since become actors, writers, directors, teachers and academics have experienced the module and hopefully learned something about the essence of what theatre is and might be. I know I have learned a lot myself.

As someone said the very first year the module was running, “Isn’t this amazing to get an MA while exploring how to play and doing yoga?” That is the basic tenet of all theatre learning as far as I am concerned, to learn how to play. The ideas we explored that first year were bold and anarchic, the group brave and extraordinary. Whilst I struggled with the rubrics of working within a university context, we produced a defiant piece about Christmas, and within the site specific exercise one group performed a disturbing scenario within one of the squash courts, whilst another created a massive snakes and ladders board projected onto a steep bank of desks. Over the years the site specific work, whilst sometimes problematic from a practical point of view has been extremely rich .One of the highlights for me was a group piece performed in a ladies toilet. The place became a chamber of transformation as actors were ‘born’ from cubicles and discovered themselves in the mirror, and then found the wonder of running water. Another was a hilarious ‘chimps tea party’ in an enclosed garden of semi tropical plants in the science department.

I remember someone I had always considered rather self absorbed, saying in a group discussion one year that she found when she started in the group that she would only gravitate towards working with the people she felt were at her level, until she discovered that to make good work, if you had someone within a group, you had to embrace them . Everyone mattered. This is one of the most profound and revolutionary acts of learning that working in ensemble can give us, and as far as I am concerned one of the most value in working with theatre. It is at least as important as anything you learn from a book.

The one time in fourteen years when serious personality disruption occurred ( many years ago) it crippled the group from producing very much valuable work. It was a truly difficult experience for everyone. It made me realise how dependant we are on each other to produce anything valid and worthwhile, not only in theatre but often in life.

Another wonderful experience was when Martin Sheen, who actually studied at NUI Galway for several months, appeared one morning to talk to us, not about The West Wing or Apocalypse Now, but about his time with Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre when he was a young actor in New York.

The module has always been 75% practical. I have always believed the practise has to come at least with the reading, and preferably before, in order to learn something truly of value. That way the person gets a learning inside of what ensemble is, deep in their very being. The work has a degree of the spiritual and ‘making the intangible, tangible,’ as Michael Chekhov said. That has always been been what has attracted me to ensemble , especially to the likes of Brook, Lecoq, Grotowski and of course Chekhov, because they were trying to somehow explore the invisible. This does not have a lot of place in the ‘business’ which is probably why I have never liked it.

Through the course I discovered that many acting techniques and theories have the same basis and ethos, and that whilst a group can be bound by a technique whichs give them a vocabulary, a fixed process can also limit the group. I discovered that there was such a thing as ensemble ethos and ensemble style and the two things were intrinsically separate . Ensemble style was something we were far more likely to see in the commercial theatre, where the ensemble buzzword is so often used.

IMG_0175

For several years I have incorporated more and more Chekhov Technique in the exercises of our time-limited sessions, to encourage more creativity, which has certainly paid off and equipped the student imaginatively. The first performance exercise  in the module for many years has been  to recreate a fairy tale through ensemble and little dialogue.  This incorporation of Chekhov exercises has been fruitful and interesting because although so much Chekhov work is used for scripted work, he himself used a lot of myth and fairy tale work in the early training.

In the early years of the module much more time was spent in rigorous exercises of discipline and team building, and whilst there have still been plenty of those this year I have preferred to encourage the team building as much with imagination and radiating and receiving as I have from technical prowess. Technical skill alone can result in a thinner performance, if it is not  supported by the cradle of the imagination.

So, may the final site specifics begin , and may the new intake prepare to be immersed in the Chekhov Technique and deep work on a play written by his famous Uncle! I can’t wait!.

Chekhov, Ensemble and Theatrecorp

 

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conoir Geoghegan

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

When I was at a Chekhov conference in Zurich in 2013, we were asked to put forward ideas about how Chekhov Technique might be used in the future, and someone said how he would like to see Chekhov being developed in devising and more experimental forms of theatre, as well as in text-based plays.

I have been using Chekhov in my ensemble/devising class for the MA Drama programme at NUI Galway for several years. The technique is an extremely successful way to unite a team of performers in a deep way, and is highly effective even though the performance is going to be in a different style and created in a different way. While the goal of some exercises  may be different when working towards a text, they are still the same exercises. The qualities of moulding , floating, flying radiating for instance which normally focus on finding psychological states/ sensations through movement and movement, in order to eventually address dialogue and conventional character, in this class excite a bodily awareness which come as much from the imagination as physical flexibility. Again, they are still the same exercises, with a slightly different focus.

When the students work on their non verbal folk tales in my class, we work through a lot of Chekhov’s atmosphere exercises which help the students with their feeling of ensemble as well as the creation of what they believe is the appropriate atmosphere for the moment or environment in which they are playing. It helps them create the score of the story and to return to it authentically and swiftly should it be needed. We also explore a lot of archetypes through the imagination and the body. Archetypes are so near the surface in myths and folklore that it gives ready access for the student and allows them to explore their own unconscious, safely, and often think and experience  outside the box of what an archetype actually might be. The lack of intellectual exploration suits devising, along with the desire to connect voice,feeling, body and imagination, which should I feel be at the heart of all live performance, devised or otherwise.

When students move on to their site specific work towards the end of the semester, which works to creat a non-narrative piece with the feel of a piece of music, Chekhov work helps thematically again through atmosphere and gesture in a very pure way. Chekhov inspires, often through abstracts, the most concrete and actable forms.

Darragh O'Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Darragh O’Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Right now I am building an idea for a series of sessions with the Theatrecorp group, using Shakespeare and modern locations. In addition to considering and feeling the atmosphere of the location , we need to consider the subtle interplay between the text and the location in a very literal way, which is more than just the character and the play from which the speech is taken, but responding also to the atmosphere of the location and what is happening in the world right now, what the words suggest now. It is not an intellectual exploration, though the way I am describing it might make it sound that way. For instance when an actress stands at the statue of Equality and looks across at Galway’s Cathedral, in almost the same spot where the Galway Magdalen laundry once stood and speaks a speech of defiance from Catherine of Aragon , which appears in Henry 8th, we are looking at many layers of meaning. These layers can be looked at in much detail using the technique with very little discussion. This is powerful and though text based, it is not a conventional approach to it. it is not based first and foremost on character and the situation in the play but on text through gesture, and the effect of the atmosphere and environment around it.

The photos are both from our first session on the Shakespeare work. Very exciting.