Tag Archives: Galway

Prepping the Workshop -Journey Through Atmosphere

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Mary Monaghan/photo John McHugh

Imagine an aquarium beautifully appointed with fabulous features, flowing ferns and sparkling fish. Now imagine the same scene without water; the fish dead and lifeless ; the plants sagging ; the water features just lumps. That is what a performance without atmosphere is like. Fortunately in a play (or perhaps unfortunately) the actors keep moving and speaking so we can fool ourselves that everything is ok; but that is far from the truth. They might even act sensitively with each other but without the atmosphere we know there is something missing even when we cannot pin down what it is. Michael Chekhov was right that the atmosphere is one of the most potent elements when you are creating a play. Atmosphere is one of the most uniting elements in an ensemble production, above teamwork and the skills generally associated with ensemble work. If all the actors respond to the atmosphere, the audience just knows there is something which binds the characters. Of course the characters are not going to necessarily respond the same, as we do not respond the same to any stimulus but that doesn’t matter. The audience knows there is something there.

In our everyday lives, when we go away on holiday the atmosphere is constantly altering around us and we are constantly having to adjust. That’s true all the time, but I become very sensitive to it when I am travelling because I, as the traveller, am making a movement forward to my destination. I am plunging through the atmosphere to get somewhere. I notice I become even more sensitive to atmosphere when going away from my normal environment. Notice the various atmospheres in the airport alone. The security check; the cafe; the duty free shop; the bathroom . These are not only different atmospheres because of what happens in them, nor because of the shape of the room, nor just what you have to do, nor what happened there before, nor your own history in other airports at other times in your life. It is a massive culmination of all factors. One of the things I love most about Chekhov technique is the way it takes atmosphere and makes it palpable; a tool for artists, to create a navigable map through this invisible world and makes it easily accessible for both performer and audience.

But why, as artists should we really care about that at all? A play is a play, right and we should not need an atmosphere because we are in the theatre. We are in a theatre and THAT is the atmosphere. But that is not true because in addition to the theatre there is the atmosphere of the play. And this atmosphere it is not static. It is constantly moving, as Lenard Petit explores in his fantastic book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook for The Actor .

Working with Atmosphere produces results. If you take the line ” Care not for me. I can go home alone” then imagine you are in a library, then a hospital , then a beach, then in a wooden hut on a dark night, you will notice the line sounds completely different. Really take your time to imagine the atmosphere first; never start by asking yourself “what would I do in this place?” but ask how the atmosphere of the chosen location feels. As Lenard Petit talks about being “played by the atmosphere”, allow it to affect you, influence you, drive you to speak. New Histories and situations will engulf you in each location, each time you create the atmosphere around you and then say the line.

I cannot remember the number of times I have seen plays set in the open air and I never feel characters are outside for a moment. And importantly this failing does not just affect the realism – in fact often that is a small consideration here – but without the atmosphere you destroy the inner life of the characters as well.

But it’s important to understand that atmospheres are not solely circumstances or location (though they can be that as well) just as psychological gesture is not merely objective. By discovering the psychological gesture for the character, you can find out not only what they want but how they want it; through them you can discover the rhythm of a character. It is endless and wonderful.

And what if it is the atmosphere which actually drives the action?  The idea that what is in the air, whatever that is, has a direct effect on your motivation to do something and, of course, how you do it. If you consider this, this is happening to you all the time. For instance I have never really liked pubs. If I am with a few friends we can create our own atmosphere to anaesthetise me against the discomfort I feel when in the pub.  Our own atmosphere bubble makes the thing pleasant.

This is one of the things we are going to explore in Journey through Atmosphere  here in Galway. How does Atmosphere affect the characters, and what is the relationship between atmosphere and story, as we move through the various massively contrasting environments in which Pericles and his family find themselves?

There are still some places on Journey Through Atmosphere being held on the NUI Galway campus, August 24th – 27th. We will be using for our text, the great journey play Pericles by Shakespeare. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for more information on how to book for the four day workshop.

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Woyzeck in Winter

This is a note I put on FB today after seeing WOYZECK IN WINTER  part of the Galway Arts Festival. I repeat a version of it here because I felt it might be missed. I feel the project yields up a lot of questions/considerations for directors – some complex and some downright elementary. The show, a meshing of Buchners Woyzeck and the beautiful Wintereisse music was a bold and interesting idea with some talented performers…well i am not going to do a review of it.  I have no idea of the journey they went on and can only respond to what I saw.  I called this on FB , Notes to a Director

Please, especially if your production has a massive budget, get a fight director who can make a fight look real from ALL angles, and also tell the actors, supposed to be poor soldiers, how to split logs.

Never use traversing an amazing set as an an excuse to fill in time when you are not quite sure what to do emotionally, nor rely on superb lighting, music and paper snow to create atmosphere entirely.  The snow for instance , at the beginning when it was effective, implied to me misery, cold, starvation. I rarely felt this atmosphere coming from the actors and they were more than capable of generating it.

Overall, rely more on your extremely talented actors to do the work. Believe me they have far more resources than you think, especially if you give them the right tools to work with; and by tools I do not mean set costume lights etc. but their inner tools.

Allow the actor more expression of the characters journey, conflicts and polarities to prevent sameness, leaving the audience and characters ploughing the same furrow over and over again. Be ruthless with them if there is no ‘feeling of the whole’ because without it, I as the audience member will leave dissatisfied and indifferent.

Remember that pacey entrances and strong energy whilst they keep the audience involved are not the whole answer.

Have a clear idea of what you are saying with your production and make sure the whole creative team know about it and are willing to go with you on it.

Beware of microphones. Though they seem to create variety and intimacy, very often they hamper the artists ability to do just that.

Congratulations to Rosaleen Linehan though who carried an incredible beauty and weight to her role and made the opening and the last two minutes really special.

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.

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.

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 rest is silence; poses and pauses

IMG_3037 copySo for the final weekend in the series of Michael Chekhov workshops, we embarked on an exploration of silence, of pauses, in a play. We began with the whole question of ‘What is a pause?’ And how do we find that ‘what’ in our bodies, so as to better understand it? As Chekhov said, a pause is a place of great inner movement even when the character is physically still. Often when we watch a play, actors pause because it says so in the script, or because the director has asked them to, or sometimes one of the actors feels a pause is right and the other doesn’t. The unwilling actor tries to look meaningful when the actor who wants to take the pause does it. Often the pause has little or nothing to do with the character or situation but has more to do with the actor’s ego. When this happens the unwilling actor struggles to support the other but the pause is ultimately empty and meaningless. These are ‘poses’ rather than pauses. A pause has to be organic.

Within this apparent stillness of the pause there can be an entire universe of experience; of battle; of understanding; of love;of defeat.

The only time there is no movement of energy through and within us is when we are dead. It’s inner movement. Very violent sometimes. It has direction and power. There is usually a change of psychological direction and quality after a pause, even if it is very subtle. So pauses are less about stillness than change. A useful thing to consider is when you get bad news. The energy comes into you and plunges down and back. When you get good news it usually goes up .

A pause is to do with the invisible, with energy. Michael Chekhov says it is often to do with something that is going to happen or a response to something that has happened. It has an impact. We do know that when there is a pause,something happens. Even when we are stunned by news we feel an impulse to make sense of it, to journey round or through the information we have just been given as if it was some kind of material terrain like a maze or jungle or barbed wire. There is an ocean of energy swirling around us and between people. That is often how it feels anyway, and if we want an audience to feel the full potency of that, we need to believe it.

So we started to explore this movement of energy in our bodies, to explore the nature of a pause and stillness. At first I asked everyone to stand still and asked them to consider what happens. Do you listen to the birds? the rain? Do you zone out your eyes? Do you close your eyes. Do you start thinking? What about? what happens.

I suggested people might move if  they wanted to. What happens? They change the atmosphere by moving don’t they? You want to move too, yes? Or if you want to stay still you need to somehow increase your efforts to somehow block out the moving person.

I suggested they walk slowly then Stop; walk fast, then stop. Then I asked them to sense the nature of these pauses and how did they change when you changed the tempo of the outer activity? Then I asked them to try stopping and then deciding to change direction. Changing the direction of energy gave us surprising feelings.

I asked them to explore making an action and just stop doing what they were doing and then continue. THE QUALITY OF THE ENERGY CHANGES OF ITSELF You cannot go on as you did before .You cannot keep it the same. Your whole being demands difference.

With exercises like this we listened to our bodies; radiating and receiving; opening and closing.We found that a pause was an ending or a new beginning. When you listened to your body this all became abundantly clear. The invisible became something of palpable experience. Something we could perhaps talk about and change.

One of the big moments for me over the weekend was our work using personal atmosphere and pausing. I asked the group to work in pairs with their text from THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (no better a play to work with silences). At first I asked them to experience their personal atmosphere as they worked with their scenes facing their partners. Then I asked them that every time their character spoke they were to imagine that their personal atmosphere almost engulfed their partner so they were,yes, responding to their partner, but also attempting to somehow control the other with their words, to make them compliant with the speaking character’s world view. This resulted in some excellently filled moments of pause because this to-ing and fro-ing of personal atmosphere does not just happen when we speak but in the silences between words. and it does not only happen between personal atmospheres either but between the personal atmosphere and the general atmosphere surrounding the characters.

It reminded me of the nunnery scene in Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE when the debauched Lucio arrives at the nunnery to persuade Isabella to come and plead for her brother’s life. Here we are in this holy cloister when this man brings in his personal atmosphere of the brothel. It collides with this overpowering general atmosphere of the cloister. As the text goes on and he becomes more serious, there is a real palpability in the idea that it is the atmosphere of where he is that makes him be more serious. This possibility that personal atmosphere is a serious player in not just how a character does something but what they do is an interesting consideration of how characters and we as humans operate.

A fabulous weekend. Thanks to all. As someone said at the end of the weekend, ‘I found out that the pauses were at least as important as the words.’

My next Chekhov School is to be with Hugo Moss from Michael Chekhov Brasil. Registration is open. The title of the workshop is Giving Voice to the Imagination. May 23rd-26th. You can find more information on the Dublin Workshop page of this blog. or visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

Chekhov Teaching, beginning and learning

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Participants in Body and Imagination First, the opening of a series of Chekhov Workshops this spring here in Galway.

So here’s a new crop of Openers for this year, an exciting and very international group with people who hail from Greece, Italy ,Turkey, Spain as well as from nearer home . Last weekend we concentrated on some opening body and imagination exercises in Chekhov technique and using an old song Cruel Sister to explore them with. This doom laden song full of bitterness, jealousy and karma has resonances with Cinderella but is more of a revenge tragedy.

It is always an exciting time for me when I help people to make their early forays into the Chekhov work. To many it is a revelation. I find it both humbling and thrilling. It reminds me of when I first found the work and a light went on in my whole being. someone said this weekend, “it just makes acting so effortless”.

I feel a great sense of responsibility to the Technique and to be true to it especially when working on these profound beginning tenets.This does not mean I do not create my own exercises nor work intuitively when I teach but that I have to feel true to the principles. As an experienced teacher it is always vital to remember not to skip over nuts and bolts.

Of course everyone has a different starting place. Does one start with concentration, qualities, focusing on imagination, the ideal centre, radiating receiving, energy body, what? For me the first goal is to show people how the connection between body, sensation, feeling , voice, imagination works inside them, and how, in a sense, easy it is to express that. That does not mean I think it is all easy, especially at first, as we are constantly getting in our own way; our bodies house tensions and blockages; our minds block us often from trusting imagination and body. Strapping the intellect into the passenger seat is often a hard call.

I am a firm believer that the teacher needs to keep seriously training at home and in other courses. As a teacher I find I need time to be a student; to not be the leader; to be challenged encouraged and critiqued. Chekhov Technique , despite the fact its effect on the performer is powerful is like anything really worth its salt, a life long study.

Many teachers behave as if they do not need to train themselves, or keep any training a secret, for fear it might belittle them in the eyes of their students. On the contrary I feel doing your own training enhances you in the eyes of any right-minded student because they see you as constantly developing. You are also setting an example. By training yourself you are saying ‘look I do not know all this stuff, you need to go on and learn with others or with me.’ Of course you learn from your own practise and from the art of teaching yourself but it is not the same as being a student. The problem is the older and more experienced you are the harder it is to feel you can properly put yourself into the student role. It is easy to feel angry, jaded or bored when the teacher does not matchup to your own standards.

So in a few weeks I will be packing my bag off to Hamburg to attend a week long course run by Michael Chekhov Europe taught by amongst others the Master teacher Lenard Petit, who runs Michael Chekhov New York. His book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook, is for me one of the great books on the Chekhov technique. Lenard’s teaching was a revelation to me when I had the privelege of being in his class some years ago in that he was sufficiently challenging on the one hand and warm and encouraging on the other.

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Ciara Brady and William Loughnane  as Titania and Oberon

Another challenge to being an experienced student more used to leading workshops is coming fresh to material. In the Hamburg workshop we are going to be working with Midsummer Nights Dream. It is hard to come fresh to it. I have directed it twice. I played Bottom when I was 8 in a trimmed down version, the first piece my first drama teacher gave me was Pucks Aria in Act 3 sc 2 and I frequently use the play for teaching.

So how will I choose a character I like, learn some text from the character in a fresh manner? It’s a challenge but I have always found the Chekhov Technique opens for me some fresh doors even when I approach a play I know incredibly well. I often try to place myself in the situation of ‘what if I had never met this play before? Which character would touch me?’

A way that works for me for courses is to choose a character I would not be asked to play because I am the wrong gender or too old. I am considering Helena but Bottom and Egeus [whom i might well play] are also calling.

Continuers courses on March 24-26 in Voice and Chorus and based upon my book Teaching Voice and March 31 – April 2 in Using Silence are still booking here in Galway.
and on May 23-26th Hugo Moss from Michael Chekhov Brasil and i are running a four day workshop in Dublin ,Giving Voice to the Imagination. contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

More on Dublin in the next post or go to the Dublin workshop page on the blog!