Tag Archives: Imagination

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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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

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!

Conceptually challenged

 

A few weeks ago I was doing an imagination exercise in a voice class with an undergraduate group. I would say a phrase like ‘torn curtain’ and would ask them to speak the images they saw from that phrase into the centre of the room. This is an exercise I use a lot to connect language and imagination. Sometimes I speak phrases and sometimes use the opening from novels or the start of a play.

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When it came to discussing the exercise afterwards , I think I used the phrase, ‘prison cell’, one student said something very interesting . ” When you said the word I immediately saw an image and it grew and became more complex, but I felt unable to speak aloud what I saw. I found myself just saying words like captivity, criminal etc. So I could not say what I saw. I could only speak in concepts.’

It is very hard to be creative on a concept. To act with a concept. It can be done, but a concept is several times removed from a feeling. However, I puzzled to myself, you can move with a quality and a quality is a concept. Let’s move with pride, for instance. We can experience that concept because we can put it into our bodies by moving proudly . But can we put captivity or honour or acceptance into our bodies? A concept is like a hard nugget, not a softer more sensitive set of images. I find it hard to make an image from a concept. Images are easier to explore in a sensory and imaginative way than concepts…. “Well it depends what you mean by captivity...” I can hear someone saying.

And yet isn’t that what an academic approach basically encourages? Crisp concepts? Concepts can be tested and evaluated more easily than experiences, it seems. That means they can be graded. They can be assessed more easily. They can be valued. In short a price can be put upon them.

But in relegating experience, are we not denying a whole spectrum of learning not just in the arts but in all other spheres of life? It is very true that experience is being devalued in education.

To me it is rather like when the cd evolved as the way to play music. One of my friends told me about this, a BBC Engineer. He asked me to listen to the range of sound on a cd and then listen  to an LP record. I had to confess that in comparison to a pristine LP record, the range of the cd sounded tinny. It is like the difference between a DSLR camera and a camphone. There is a depth with the DSLR camera which is not achieved with the phone even though both pictures are clear. So it seems to me with sensations, movement and feeling against exploring something through concept.

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Franchine Mulrooney and Andrea Rawat  directed by me .Blood Wedding 2007.

Interestingly my MA Chekhov group explored polarities in Blood Wedding this week . Polarities, for the uninitiated, are as they sound; life/ death, wealth/ poverty etc. They are the polarities the performers and director see in the play. They are the nearest Chekhov technique gets to concepts, but, and this is important, in order to explore them you have to use another more imaginative intuitive tool to plumb your character and the depths of the play. The concept cannot be explored purely intellectually. For acting it would be almost worthless.

So let’s say we are exploring wealth and poverty through the play. I name one wall wealth and the other, poverty. Using your character centre as your lodestone you place yourself as the character in the studio as to how they feel about these two polarities at the start. Are they more influenced by wealth? They stand nearer to it. Are the poor or aware and preoccupied with poverty ? They stand nearer to it . Then moving the character through the play , the actor moves first to one wall then another, sometimes running from one polarity to another ; sometimes pulling away from one only to be sucked back towards it. if they love Wealth, then perhaps they slide up and down against the wall… it is not just a question of placing themselves like some kind of status exercise. All the movement comes from their centre and the instinct they feel in their bodies. This is not an intellectual decision, but something that comes from somewhere deep inside. They move like this as they follow the character through the whole play.

In Blood Wedding Money and Land are important factors in the drama. The Bride and Leonardo were allegedly stopped from marrying because he was too poor. So is the Bride obsessed with her wealth and security at the start of the play, or is she simply unable to go against the wishes of her family? Is Leonardo obsessed with his poverty? this is more likely.  None of these of course are discussed until after the exercise is completed, because you make the discovery by doing the exercise, not by discussing the concept. This exercise can provide those kinds of options/answers for the actor.

When you know the play well, these exercises can provide answers so specifically that you can even find precise moments where these changes in shift of polarity and changes for the character happen.And that’s of course another thing. In order to work in this imaginative way you have to know the play well. This approach is not an excuse to not do homework. You just do a different sort of homework.

More Light – Imagination and Simplicity

IMG_0780Beginning serious work on a play is for me like jumping into the ocean. You have to be alive and awake to the currents and yet at the same time find your own way. Your way is not only influenced by the writer’s imagination – in this case a spectacular flight of the imagination – the actors’ imagination, the design team etc, but something else, something intangible. Michael Chekhov says that as artists we ” make the intangible, tangible” I love this idea; that something completely unique and unknowable comes from this process, dependent on every single member of the creative team and their alchemical contact with each other , with the characters and the score that is the play. As a director I have to be open and yet focused. It is like living in a dream sporadically through the day.

The students on the Current Core Performance course and I are about to embark on the short play More Light by Bryony Lavery .We are working mainly with Chekhov Technique to produce this work. The play depicts an ancient empire where the Emperor is God. He arranges for a tomb to be built and all the artists and craftsmen who build it are left to die with the Emperor in the tomb. Along with the emperor are the concubines who have not borne him sons. They are expected to tend him, serve him – and die with him. Left in this terrible position the women take a momentous decision.

The world they create is like a crucible for the imagination, not without its terrible compromises and polarities but one in which the women for a while at least survive and thrive. Bryony Lavery constantly describes impossible stage images which only the most well funded company might produce but nonetheless her images make you gasp at her vision when you read them. Her vision is little short of audacious. The images are an important part of the fabric supporting one of the most important themes of the play, the place of Art and imagination in our lives. It seems to me now that we are going to mime many of these impossible images or create them with sound – in other words we are asking the audience to engage their imaginations as much as the writer and the creative team have done, in bringing this play to performance; that it will be a truly collaborative piece of work for the audience as well as for us. Only then will creating many of these extraordinary images, like the flying flock of origami birds become possible. Anyone who has seen a real origami bird knows they are, disappointingly, quite heavy !

So simplicity will be the key. Simplicity in fact is a liberating force. Simplicity and Imagination encourages magic in a way that literal presentation can hardly ever do. This of course does not mean that you eschew the visual aspect, in fact ironically, by simplifying , you can often enhance it. As Peter Brook said in a recent interview, ‘simplicity is not a style’ . You might check this deeply inspiring interview out on   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx2qHHFS5Yk  if you have not seen/heard it.