Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov Europe

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

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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!

Selling The Cherry Orchard with STAN

STAN is bark2not short for Stanislavski but Stop Thinking About Names, a Belgian theatre company founded in the 1980s dedicated to classic and modern work. I attended last Saturday’s performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin, part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Anton Chekhov has to be the most humane and moving writer we have been privileged to have as part of the human race. His exploration of the passing of Time, the difficulty of change and transition for everyone, how our hopes and dreams so often jar with the circumstances of our lives, be they personal or political, is sublime. If anyone helps you understand the human condition, it’s him.

I notice that the production is having its premiere at the festival. Hopefully this is the
start of a journey. In the programme notes it says that their performances are not a result or a finished product but “an invitation to engage with an ongoing dialogue”. That is what I am trying to do here. This is not a ‘review’ but a series of observations and questions about making classics moving and relevant for now. It is also about what we believe is the role of the director.

The set and style of the production reminded me of watching a reasonably good rehearsal runthrough. The set and studiously haphazard costume got me into this atmosphere right away. I was not averse to this; some of the best things happen in rehearsal as any theatre worker will tell you. I rather liked it initially. However, it is a style now, a formula. Someone comes to the front and says “ok we are starting now,” smiles at the audience and we slide into the play. This approach was fresh and new once but, for me, not any more. And rather than an ‘approach’ perhaps I should call it a ‘style’ because it did not seem to have, for the most part , the spontaneity it claimed to espouse.

Unsurprisingly, I discovered on reading the programme that the show was directed by the company. At any rate there seems to be no director listed. This was utterly apparent. Whilst I am all for people exploring work without a director there are definite pitfalls. Tell tale signs in this production included: actors crossing the stage at the back, pulling focus, destroying atmosphere in the space during scenes which were being quite well acted, a marked differentiation in acting level and style, a sense of no one really having a sense of where the piece was going, a lack of cohesion as to how they felt as a group about the whole theme of the play. I felt there were many great ideas not fully explored or really taken to their limit – ideas and feelings about the subject matter that is, not the style.

In ‘The Empty Space’ where Peter Brook discusses the role of director, he says:

“Without leadership a group cannot reach a coherent result within a given time. A director is not free of responsibility – he is totally responsible – but he is not free of the process either. He is part of it. Every now and then an actor turns up who proclaims that directors are unnecessary: actors could do it by themselves. This may be true. But what actors? For actors to develop something alone, they would need to be creatures so highly developed that they would hardly need to rehearse together….” BROOK THE EMPTY SPACE (1968)

I did however enjoy some of the generally relaxed connection to the audience,
not usual in productions of this play, a kind of Shakespearean connection. The company feels this is an important mark of their work, as it says in the piece about them at the back of the programme. One or two of the actors, particularly the actor playing Firs and Yepikodov, who set up this connection at the beginning, frequently pulled focus by changing gels and moving furniture at the beginning whilst scenes were happening in what was for me a totally pointless and ineffective manner.

I suppose what follows on from this style is a decision to say: “we are not the characters and we do not want you to think we are, so we will make no effort to become them. We will commit ourselves to the idea we are actors and not play with this polarity.” This decision, which I take it is the company style, whilst it has some novelty value and can occasionally uncover some more modern immediate truth, also presents problems. Fir’s final moments in the play seemed pretty meaningless to me in that he played just himself, and not the old retainer. My feeling is that when you throw out the fact that he is an old man, you are throwing out one of the most important things about him.

Only in sections were the themes and atmospheres really captured. For example, Trofimov’s philosophising in Act 2, where all the characters listened to him railing against them and Pishchik’s windfall in Act 4 [ wonderfully played by Bert Haelvoet] was another
wonderful section. But there were not enough of these moments for me. Quirky giggles and modern responses do not make for realism or connection. Eccentricity is not depth.

Something I thought was wonderful though was the dancing. In Act 3 as the cherry orchard is being auctioned off, there is a dance held at the house. The music they used was modern dance music. Behind the movable screen which maðe up the set, the rich family, their servants, dependants and hangers-on danced the night away, emerging into the main space to have their scenes.

I loved this; it connected me to the play in a way most of their acting could not; it made me feel the whole notion of civilised society dancing its way towards chaos; of privileged people hanging on for grim death to a life where they can do as they please only to discover, that even for them, time marches on. For me, it is what is happening right now in the world.

What would it have taken to make this production moving and meaningful for me overall? Not much. More focus. Less anarchy with the costumes. More care with the cross casting. A little more acknowledgement of character rather than the rather tiresome ‘Brechtian’ cleverness which yielded little to me of the humanity of this amazing play. An understanding that everyone in the audience will not necessarily know the play. Some more direction which focussed the action and atmosphere.

This does not mean I want the play presented in a traditional way; I simply craved more depth.

On that point of depth; I attended a summer school run by Michael Chekhov Europe in Zurich a few years ago. All the people in the group I was in were advanced professional performers and teachers from Europe and America, already with loads of experience in Chekhov Technique (Michael, that is). We worked on The Cherry Orchard. Many scenes I saw that week were modern, moving, revelatory, spontaneous and extraordinary. Many had that depth of which i am speaking.

That’s what I want and what speaks to me.