Tag Archives: Joanna Merlin

The Alchemy of Teaching

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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

The Feeling of the Whole.

IMG_4945This four day summer school, “A Little Piece of Art’ has been one of the most exciting teaching projects I have done. With my group of 12 intrepid explorers, with a wide age range, working as student actors, actors, teachers and directors it has been a diverse yet at the same time homogenous group of varying experience in the Chekhov work.

The title comes from Chekhov’s assertion that everything we perform is ‘a little piece of art’. Everything has a preparation, a beginning, middle and end. So every moment in a play contains this truth. This is not so much like a ‘beat’,  but more like a flow of energy, a tune that exists in a piece of music.

Our task was to explore and discover the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole using sections of The Cherry Orchard (by Uncle Anton) . These two aspects of Chekhov Technique have been very much in the forefront of my thinking lately as I see so many theatre pieces, both plays and devised work that are formless; so that even though they hold good pieces within them, they leave me empty, as if I have wasted my time. I have been considering also how to teach directing through Chekhov Technique, finding aspects of the technique which are crucial to both actors and directors alike. I found out that Form and the Whole along with General Atmosphere are it.

Whilst I was in Grozjnan in Croatia at an extraordinary Chekhov teachers’ conference organised by Michael Chekhov Europe and the Michael Chekhov Association earlier this month, Joanna Merlin, the Founder of the Michael Chekhov Association, said that she felt that the technique needed to be taught to directors. I feel this very strongly myself as it is only then that the actors will fully feel they have permission to work with the method, and will seriously learn it. Also, because Chekhov’s approach is very much ensemble based, it requires a whole different level of thinking as to what the director does, what the relationship is between the actor and director, and how the group creates the play together.

For instance, we considered and worked mainly through General Atmosphere, on the episode in Act 2 of The Cherry Orchard when the house party meets the Passer By, an extraordinary character in the play. The character appears for only three minutes unnerving the group like some kind of ominous future, carrying a portentous weight as to the meaning of the entire play. How that character is played has an enormous influence on the production and the audience’s connection with what the play might be saying. The director cannot decide this on her own! It has to be done in collaboration with everyone or the actor will feel alienated and used. Chekhov said, “The Actor is the Theatre” and whilst I think directors are vital, Chekhov is really right. There is no point in imposing concepts on actors. What’s more it belittles their contribution.

Sometimes, when I lead a course, I really feel I want to explore something. Perhaps this is wrong and perhaps I should be more rigid and set upon the various elements of Chekhov technique in a methodical way. Sometimes I do do that. But if you want to explore, you have to take the whole group with you, and you have to make sure they have the requisite tools for that exploration to take place or you are simply exploiting them. On short courses this can be quite challenging. In Grojznan a couple of us had some very interesting talks about short courses and what elements they should contain. For myself often what text you are using [if you use one] might dictate where to start.

IMG_4870One thing Chekhov discusses is that you do not need to start at the beginning of the play to explore it. As we were working on a play which had lots of people in it and very few duologues, I decided to use very short pieces around climaxes or episodes with a lot of people in them, no more than a page. So for instance, we used the lead up to the arrival of Ranevskaya and the family, the Passer- by episode, and the end of the play. We had done some good lead-in on Radiating/receiving forms in movement and text, ideal centre, impulse and general atmosphere . Of course what we did was rough, we had done very little character work other than possible gestures/journies for the characters, but we found nonetheless that there was something interesting and valuable there in terms of form, of a feeling of the whole and of general atmosphere. something valuable we should not have found so powerfully nor so easily through other techniques.

And that brings me on to the difficult topic of Application and whether you should do it or not…. another day.

More weekend classes in the autumn. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to get on the mailing list