Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov Technique

Magnetic Polarity

As one of our colleagues, the esteemed Jobst Langhams says, we are always, ‘making researches’  when we are teaching. How true this is, I thought, as I embarked on leading an online course on Polarities and we explored its uses for creating a character and a production. with participants thousands of miles apart.

Michael Chekhov talks about making the biggest journey, the biggest transformation we can make in the journey of our character and the journey of the play. We as an audience crave transformation. And as artists we crave it too. We might say that this is the deepest aim of theatre, to show how things can change. Nowhere is this clearer than when we explore Polarities. They are opposites, conflicts within the character, and within the play. A polarity can be the axis on which a whole character’s struggle or the whole play rests.

If we consider it, we are full of these polarities or we certainly encounter them in our everyday lives. Perhaps we have struggled with one specific polarity all our lives; perhaps Power and Powerlessness. Between these two extremes, there is a thread and the opposites operate on our psyche like magnets, pulling us this way and that (as two of my students remarked the other day). So even this one polarity is not a linear journey.This one polarity presents us with worlds of behaviour to consider. Then, when you add all the other elements guiding your character through the play, you are starting to create something rich and strange. Like Archetypes and Atmospheres, when The Door to Polarities opens, we can be surprised by what bursts from the Imagination. How we respond to these surprises, hone things down and make our decisions about the character, like most of the Chekhov Technique, is up to us as artists to consider.

The most obvious polarity we can find in our bodies is when they are open and when they are closed. It was there we began, opening and closing our bodies. Our lives are powered by this constant opening and closing of our energy; of generosity and meanness; of confidence and shyness; of aggression and fear; of joy and despair. If we are in any doubt this is a truth, think about what happens when you are scared suddenly . There is a contraction, like an anemone closing.

Generally, though not always, one of these polarised feelings/qualities encourages us to open and one to close. Of course it is not quite as simple as that and we should avoid value judgements. Closing can be a desire to withdraw and be with yourself for a bit. It can focus a positive desire to protect.

I am so looking forward to next week, when we will be embarking on the aspect of the character’s journey and how polarities can be used to find the road the character might be on. This of course can be vital for those who are appearing in film and tv with little time for rehearsal.  


The Actor and the Audience

I have just come off an exciting Zoom call with colleague and guest Liz Shipman. We discussed and planned our course The Shakespeare Connection which begins online on April 15th. The discussion was very exciting , focussing as it did on the character of language and the relationship between the audience and characters in Shakespeare. In my preparations I decided to have a look at my second book, “What Country,Friends is this?” which explores directing Shakespeare with young people using (primarily) the Michael Chekhov technique. 

Chekhov technique and Shakespeare’s plays seem to me to have a few things in common. They are both transformative in the way true artistic processes are. Like Chekhov, Shakespeare believed in atmosphere, in his case created by the amazing imagery of his text. Both believed in Theatre and the Power of the Actor. Although Chekhov was keen to edit and transpose speeches from Shakespeare when doing a production to make the work flow in a way more akin to what he believed were modern sensibilities, there is no doubting his respect for the work of Shakespeare.   

A few years ago, I went to see a rather annoying production of Julius Caesar at the Globe Theatre in London and I remember only one excellent moment. After Caesar is killed the conspirators come around the body, all of them covered in blood. Suddenly, they are completely alone as all the Roman crowd have fled. Because I was sitting at the side of the Wooden O, I was seeing the backs of the actors and beyond them a sea of audience. 

Brutus and Cassius are speaking:

Cassius: How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

Brutus:  How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,

That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,

Now worthier than the dust?

This for me created such a timeless moment and I realised the immense power of the theatrical metaphor, used so much in Shakespeare’s plays. It made me feel we were in the world of the play, the world of the modern theatre at that precise moment, as well as having a strong connection to a performance in the 16th Century. It gave an incredible sense of Time and History. I was very moved. We, the audience became more than observers; we were participants. In a darkened modern theatre when you do not feel at one with audience other than as an observer this collaborative feeling is much harder to bring forth. In Shakespeare’s Globe, in the seventeenth century, as was apparent to me here at this moment, it seemed much easier.

These dichotomies where an audience is actively involved in the play at the same time as being the observer is something which was absolutely imperative in the Elizabethan theatre and this dramatic shift in the audience’s role still has an emotional effect. Sadly and too often, characters addressing the audience for advice and counsel make a generalised ‘zoning out’ (often over compensated for by loud shouting!) When you commit as a performer to an involvement that the audience is there and their views actually matter, the atmosphere becomes charged.

The other key to this multi layered experience is the language and the imagery and the effect this has on the imagination without which the story and psychology of the characters is empty.

In my book, “What Country Friends is This?” (Nick Hern Books 2021) which gives help and guidance on working with young actors on Shakespeare, I emphasise working with the language through the body. I also talk a lot about this relationship with the audience. Is the audience actually a character in their own right? Usually not, or not exactly, because it’s important that their participation allows them to retain their identity as an audience. The key is the duality of this identity. If you make it too specific, let’s say the audience are the people of Rome, the chances are the audience are going to let you down. Like unsuspecting stooges plucked from the audience by a comedian they are never going to facilitate your performance. It is wrong to expect it. I saw one disastrous experiment of this whilst I was still living in England of Coriolanus directed by Sir Peter Hall with Ian McKellen as Coriolanus. The poor audience, some of them co-opted to be onstage as the incredibly important force of citizens, were expected to shout and yell on cue; it made for an embarrassing spectacle. The rage of the people on which this play actually rests was inevitably absent, leaving egg on the faces of all concerned!

The soliloquy especially is a bridge to the audience:

“You are both your character in his world and addressing the audience. You are doing both simultaneously, talking to yourself and talking to them”

(“What Country, Friends, is this?” 2021.p177.)

So what is this ‘character’ that we might give to the audience when we are speaking to them? Ask yourself, “What has the audience to offer me?” What is their role? In Macbeth for instance, I get the feeling that the audience are his judges, or accusers, maybe his conscience.  

On April 15th I am beginning a set of online weekly workshops called The Shakespeare Connection which run till May 6th with guest tutor Liz Shipman who runs The Integrated Meisner and Chekhov Training in California. We will be looking at some opening and closing text from Richard III, a character who initially at least seems to have a real need of the audience. We will be using practical physical work, Chekhov exercises and doing examination of the text.

It costs 120€ for the four sessions. email chekhovtpi@gmail.com if you wish to book a place or have any questions to ask.  

What Did You Find Out? ‘Connecting Up’ in the Chekhov Technique.

There is something extremely profound and magical about running specifically online workshops in Chekhov Technique. Despite the distance, the occasionally grainy pictures,  the different rectangular universes you see into; despite the fact I must have run many workshops online in the Michael Chekhov Technique there is still a sense of wonder and a sense of intimacy as you send  your energy towards the monitor down this tunnel across countries and continents.

At present I am leading a workshop called Connecting Up from my online studio in rural Ireland . It has always felt to me that the Voice and its power to radiate its own energy has not been focussed on enough within the Chekhov discipline. When I started my training I was always disturbed watching people find a gesture and then when they spoke on that gesture the words were often strangled or disconnected from the truth and energy of their gesture. I learned the principles of Psychological Gesture particularly from Joanna Merlin who was always keen for you to see if the gesture brought out a sound from your body as you were moving and to speak on that sound. This was such a helpful tip. 

Nonetheless I still found that people’s voices and bodies were often disconnected and furthermore that the Imagination, the other main element of our instrument , can, despite wonderful imaginings, be separated from the body too. One of the great things about Chekhov is that it is a genuinely holistic process.

Ultimately, while you have got to be selective when dealing with your artistic work and choosing Atmosphere, Centre, Gesture etc, your body,voice and imagination are the clay with which you work and they all have to be open to influences not only to the outer and inner worlds, but also to each other. They have got to be Connected Up.

It is, as they say, about ’getting out of your own way’.

I thought about how to introduce this workshop a lot before I started leading this. Would I focus on the ‘connecting up’ aspect or simply explore the three elemental pathways in various classes? I decided to work first with the body primarily and whilst of course words sound and imagination all came in, I decided to accent the body first. We also explored a little work on the energy body. I accented the individuals’ access to their own bodies for their psycho physical work and we worked with a little piece of text. What I found out almost immediately is that it is impossible to disassociate one pathway from the other for long without expressing through the other two (voice and imagination). However, you can accentuate  one of these elements to explore more fully what it means to clear away the blocks in your body work, say.

This week the accent was on Voice; finding the voice, connecting it to the body. In addition to some imaginative exercises we also did a degree of technical exercises. Of course , voice work IS body work which is perhaps a fact we need to focus on. Without breath and a consciousness of the breath you cannot radiate your voice. It is amazing how we all know this instinctively; yet for many people this is a big discovery because of stress (perhaps) and learned tight patterns of breathing. I have an exercise in my book, Teaching Voice (2016) called Blue Voice/Green Voice where you imagine your belly is blue and your breath is blue. You start to make a blue sound. How does that make you feel…what does it say about you (or your character)? How would it be to start there when researching your character? Change the colour to orange how does that feel? Or to pink. Try and say your speech and change your voice colour from blue to orange…

There has been much debate of late in the Chekhov International Studios Collective that I am a part of, about the difference between teaching and research. The more I teach and plan courses the more I feel that teaching is research. The more I teach the more I want to find out. I want to find out and I want my students to find out. It is like opening a fascinating new book that whilst you have some idea of what you might find, you do not fully KNOW. Of course it is important for me to retain a balance; the goal is for the students to find out .

The Shakespeare Connection: with guest tutor Liz Shipman and myself starts online on April 15th. four, one weekly sessions on how we connect with the audience and their role in the play

Inspiration and Impulse: Colleague Declan Drohan is leading an in-the-room class in Sligo for creatives and makers, also April 15th from 10-4

For more information about these courses email chekhovtpi@gmail.com

The Performance Is The Process (or Part of It)

In the final part of this term, I have been working with a mix of undergrad and MA students here at the University of Galway on a project called the Eurydice Project. We worked on a ‘block week’ from 10-5 and then, after a weekend off, for a full day before presenting to colleagues and a small invited audience. The spine of this project has been three elements of the Michael Chekhov Technique ; general Atmosphere, psychological gesture and imaginary centres with a ‘work-in-progress’ in the end.

What I want to focus on here is how the engine of performance, even if it is for fellow students and friends, can empower and focus students to learn how to employ acting technique more effectively than if there was no performance at all. There are problems with approaching training this way, primarily around whether they can actually use elements of any technique when they have only been introduced to it fairly recently. This is a justifiable concern and some students understandably find it challenging. However if you, as the tutor/director, understand that the goal is to assist with application rather than produce exactly the characterisation you might like for the production then you as the tutor director are less likely to get frustrated with outcome and ironically the actual work from the students is likely to be better. Even in a short space of time, some magical things can happen.

The focus a performance gives is absolutely invaluable because it truly creates an event for the student, an ‘occasion’. Creating a theatrical event is also empowering because it involves an audience, however small. It creates that alchemical dynamic. As leader/director/teachers, we need to balance though;  we must be careful that creating the event of a performance is not the whole story, we have to go back to the learning. I found for myself that I had to balance those two roles very carefully, in other words, let the work come as much as possible from them and their use of the elements of the technique I was teaching rather than me trying to push too much of a directorial concept on them (not something I would do in any case whatever the circumstances, as I prefer hunches [as Peter Brook suggests] rather than concepts). This does not mean that I as the director have no say but it has got to be a partnership.

Giving the students this freedom can be tricky because the structure and form of sessions needs to be quite disciplined, even more than with a ‘regular’ production, as time is of the essence, when you have only a week or so to put together something that has a ‘Feeling of the Whole’, to quote Michael Chekhov .

A common complaint with the immersive project week is this:  “Trying to get them to apply the technique to a performance is too early for them! They won’t be able to do it and they will get confused and dump the technique altogether!” If we consider that trying to apply it is part of the learning process and the actors will have various degrees of success. Application is part of the journey. 

A big problem for me was to try not to teach too many elements of the work. You can of course refer them to the lightbulb diagram in Chekhov’s ‘On The Technique of Acting’  (as suggested to me by colleague, Lisa Dalton) and reassure them that once they have one or two of the techniques under belts then other aspects of the technique will fall into place and, to some extent I believe this to be true. The problem is you have to tailor every element you teach to the piece you are working with.. 

But then you cannot believe that you have to do everything!!!!

However you cannot just dive in to the elements you want to use, because there is such a deep philosophy here, which comes mostly  through the body and all the students have to experience and get some understanding of it. By introduction, we did a lot of work with energy, radiating/receiving, qualities of movement and the ‘Feeling of Form’. I always feel that if your body is pliant (and even sometimes when it isn’t!) getting a sensation from your body through a gesture is easy. What’s hard is to put yourself in a place where you can actually revisit that sensation/feeling. That is the harder part. However as those who teach and work this way know, even these introductory exercises can achieve transformation in the students.

After a few detailed atmosphere exercises, we looked at ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ for the World and the Underworld (terms suggested by one of the students which took any value judgements out of them)  I then asked them to work with either a psychological gesture or an imaginary centre. That was complicated enough! Also because we were focussing on a piece we were able to look at the beginning and end of it and address issues of what we might want our piece to be saying. We did not have enough time to explore it but we did ask the question and some of our questions were answered. 

Ultimately though what comes over to me loud and clear is that performance is essential if we want to teach future directors, performers and yes, academics. Doing this as a project through concentrated time where the students were doing only this work and not having to focus too much on other stuff was invaluable. I thank the college for their support in scheduling this  and wish other schools would embark more on these ‘project weeks’ .

They are powerful forms for teaching.

Free To Perform

Yesterday I embarked with colleague Rena Polley (Michael Chekhov Canada) to lead a group of intrepid theatre explorers on asking “What is it to be ‘Free in the Form’? in the first of four workshops; how do we prepare ourselves for spontaneity,if that isn’t an oxymoron in itself? How do we keep ourselves fresh and in the moment when we are performing? And is spontaneity, as Rena was suggesting to us, a muscle that we as performing artists need to keep exercising, that if we don’t use, we forget? That we go back to a blocking intellect and become constipated by ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’? 

We played (oh how we played online), our participants from Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the US and UK. It was my first time back teaching online for a few months and I was reminded of how joyous it could be. Many people feel more secure in their own space and i find there is more time to talk; paradoxically there seems a stronger desire to share experiences. this is because, I believe, that people find it easier to drop the exercise when they have completed it; they are not so overwhelmed by the power of it, so when you ask people to fly back and sit at the monitor and share, they are more able to articulate what just happened to them. Also there is something physiological about it. When you share you are sitting on your seat, and when you work you are usually standing. That is such a great way to learn some aspects of the work. 

On the other hand, when exercising in your own space, there is the temptation to lose concentration. You have to stay free but focussed which can be hard when you are in your home, when notifications of emails nudge into your screen or other people make noise outside your room. However if you let it, the time online can be a really special time where you meet, share views and work with people you might never otherwise meet simply because you are geographically separated. Although the classes are usually shorter there is rarely the feeling online that we have to push on and keep things moving relentlessly. There is no doubt that Zoom is here to stay and that despite its drawbacks it has advantages.

I recall the first time I was back in the live room, without a mask on, earlier this year, I was riding high for about three days afterwards. But that feeling of delight and forward energy can stop us ‘flying back’ and never allow what Chekhov calls the ‘intellectual lab assistant’ to assess our amazing instinctive work in order that we can anchor it and earth it. We also get a chance to see ourselves performing back on the class recording, a massive bonus.

We have to try and do both online and in the room to make the training rounded.

For our next few months

First off in Sligo, The Actor Is The Theatre, an in the room day on Chekhov Technique  held in Sligo run by Declan Drohan December 10th 10-5

Planning our next term we are looking for participants for  six full in-person Saturdays of Chekhov and Ensemble , the first is on January 21st. And they run for every fortnight, the last one being April 1st . Tutors Max Hafler and Declan Drohan and others

and there will also be an online Chekhov and Shakespeare course. 

Email chekhovtpi@gmail.com

Sustaining and suspension.

Michael Chekhov on Autumn and Sustaining:

“We call autumn the sustaining. We experience the same thing when we see a Child, an animal or a plant growing, developing, increasing in size, and then, after a time, slowly wasting away, fading and withering”

What is so wonderful about this is the way Chekhov uses these examples from nature to enhance art, psychology and brings us to thinking about energy, the rhythm of life and art. Whether I believe that autumn is actually ‘sustaining’ in the sense that things are still trying to grow and move forward even as they at the same time start to sink and die is not quite the point. A look at my soggy lawn and falling wet leaves will tell you that things are certainly on their way to dormancy. To me this is beautiful and holistic. It is what puts his acting technique way above any others I have studied because its principles connect so much of how life seems to operate. It seems to encourage us to dig under the surface to experience and generate particular energies for our acting and we do this through the body and through expansion and contraction in particular.

When I was a child I took my Instamatic camera with me to Marineland, a rather inhumane place where dolphins in large tanks were encouraged to jump through hoops and make massive leaps for fish, held out by their keepers. Before I went, I remember watching a science programme on tv that said the way to get an action shot of a dolphin was to wait until it had reached the climax of its jump, the highest it would go; for that moment the animal was suspended, neither going up nor going down. So, there is a moment of impulse and huge effort , followed by a moment of physical stillness before the dolphin begins to dive down.

With the technique, when making a psychological gesture like a reach there is always this moment when the impulse is to pull your arm back; in this case there is an inner movement which tells you to do this as if your arm can no longer reach out with commitment but needs to be retracted and brought down beside your body ( like the tree surrendering its autumn leaves). If you hold out your arm longer than the impulse suggests you can feel your energy retracting even if you keep your arm extended, because the intention and energy to reach has been lost either because you are bored, embarrassed, feel like you are following the orders of the teacher, or are simply thinking about something else. The arm looks and feels dead. It has no spirit in it.

Let’s look at what happens when you imagine your energy flowing from your centre out forward towards that reach you made. You immediately feel committed and connected. If you speak, the reaching gesture affects you. Now try sustaining that gesture; you might have a moment where the will decides to go no further because your arm hurts (for instance) . On the other hand, sustaining might have the opposite effect and actually intensify the feelings and sensations the gesture is giving you. As long as you keep the energy flowing forward with the reach this can happen. Sustaining certainly helps you understand the constant to-ing and fro-ing of energy.

Back to the dolphin, he is never really still; when he gets to the top of his jump he is more than likely grabbing the fish from the keeper; but it appears he is still so you can get the picture. Likewise we are never really still, our energy churns and moves, expands, contracts, especially when we are responding to stimuli….we are in constant inner movement..

COURSES BELOW EMAIL chekhovtpi@gmail.com



I will be working with Katelyn Ressler which will explore the differences in  demand from the musical ‘book’ to the song it gives birth to. We will be using the Chekhov technique tools to help us explore.

Venue: University of Galway 



This workshop is for those who feel stuck in their head or need to be in control of their audition or performance. Acting demands a feeling of spontaneity and play within the confines of a script. How do you find this freedom within the form? Using elements of improv, play and tools from the Michael Chekhov technique, we will explore how to spark and expand the imagination and then allow this to be alive within the structure of a scene. Online, as we practise, the container is your room, but within it you need to be free. You need to be Free in the Form. You need it for filming especially, as you might be asked to do things with specificity yet still find the much needed freedom and spontaneity within your scene

This online course is taught by Max Hafler from Galway Ireland and Rena Polley from Toronto, Canada. 



For the audience, the actor is the living, radiating presence at the heart of drama.

What skills and tools make the performer subtle, responsive and capable of transformation? The ability to transition into someone other than themselves…To convey a character.

Working through the Imagination and the Body, the Chekhov Technique offers a suite of strategies for the actor to achieve exactly this.

The journey begins here. this day long workshop will give you an exploratory look in seeing acting in a different way. 


What is it to be Oneself? Looking at Peer Gynt through the Chekhov Technique

Over this last weekend I have been looking with the Chekhov Technique at a play I have previously thought opaque and difficult for me, Peer Gynt in the translation by Frank McGuinness.As Mcguinness says himself,  Peer is “this creature I wouldn’t let into my house” and this was a feeling I shared . To be unable to empathise with the main overarching character might have been a problem and yet…….. 

Looking at this play through the lens of Archetypes, Atmospheres and Image Centres (all elements of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique), I started to come to terms with this difficult play which has struck me with an incredible sense of profundity. 

When we are working with a play only for a weekend, Declan Drohan, my colleague, and I are careful to select particular elements, those we felt would be useful for the play/scenes we wanted to explore. Our subject was Fantastical Characters; how does an actor play a character who is not recognisable in the material world and yet also prevent them from being stereotypical, cliched? If, as Chekhov asserted, all actors are Artists, how do you make your version of the Button Moulder particular to your interpretation? How do we find a depth and a richness for the characters and situation?

From the fifth Act when Peer is an old man we looked at three short scenes. In one scene, we discovered what happens when Peer is confronted by various forms of nature; threadballs, leaves, wind, dewdrops, broken straws; they voice his regrets, taunting him. Even as I write, I realise how challenging this is to envisage; one might be tempted to ‘float off’ into some kind of ethereal mushy madness and use spooky disembodied voices. Chekhov was convinced that with commitment , everything can be found through activity, through the body, and we experimented with a Peer while the whole rest of the group became this group of non-animal objects. Because of the sheer commitment of the group what became clear was the way the whole of nature was reminding him of his failings and regrets. Each thing which spoke to him we felt was activated by shifting movement; nothing was still. As the group changed from one element to the other it was as if he was surrounded, as if everything he saw was telling him of his terrible mistakes  and every time an element came and went he had the possibility for change and recovery. Then he found some excuse or reason to reject the advice of the various elements of nature and a new group emerged to warn him of his failings.Activating the scene in this way gave us an awareness of the energy in this act ; of these offerings given to Peer that he continually tries to reject or wriggle out of through humour, sarcasm, stubbornness or wiliness. It gave us a profound feeling of the rhythm of what happens when we are trying to force our way through anything. conflicting energies are constantly in play. On the page this scene looks ripe for cutting, worthless, impossible to stage; but at its core there was something incredibly powerful which told us something profound about Peer’s energy. Guilt comes in waves in this short scene as it does in life.

Peer has an archetypal energy; Declan explored  the Hero  and the Fool with the group; later we explored the Joker, to investigate Peer’s wiliness. Archetypal energy is not the whole of the character, but it offers us as performers an insight into something powerful which drives the character, something that can almost consume them. As I said in the group when we were discussing the Archetype , it is an ‘essence’. Chekhov uses the idea of Lion to explain this . There is an archetypal Lion which all lions have. It is not a stereotype but a real energy. One of the actors explored the idea of an old wounded lion in the centre of Peer’s body. This so transformed the young actor that suddenly he was this determined figure, weakening more and more as he searched for his essence in peril of his life.

Peer’s journey in this final act seems to be to try to discover what he essentially is as he does in the famous onion speech where he peels the layers of an onion to try and find its core. It has occurred to me that this is what we all do as we get older. Who are we? What really matters to us? Are we not all in our older days, trying to discover our essence, to find out what matters? It certainly resonates with me. This idea is more often referred to as ‘coming home’ but it is the same thing. 

My partner, Tony, had a dream on the night the course was finished. In the dream, he was trying to walk home from a night out as he had many times when a young adult. It would have been bitterly cold, as he grew up on the North West coast of England. In the dream he struggled to reach his goal, exhausted, and was presented with various archetypal figures and a strange tower. It reminded me of Peer on his journey to find his essence, his home place, his humanity. 

Back in the group, we looked at a scene where Peer is on a ship, searching, perhaps sailing home. There is a storm but before the ship capsizes, he is confronted by a Fellow Traveller, an extraordinary, cold scientist/vampire figure. No one else on the ship acknowledges the Traveller’s presence. We explored here the idea of Peer being in the storm while the Traveller remains still, unaffected by the gales and tossing of the bark across the dark sea. 

The deep profundity of this exploration was quite something . It comes from the power of Archetypal characters far removed from our everyday world and our ability, through the technique, to access them in a deep and unique way.

Our next workshops are 


I will be working with Katelyn Ressler which will explore the differences in  demand from the musical ‘book’ to the song it gives birth to. We will be using the Chekhov technique tools to help us explore.

Venue: University of Galway 


This workshop is for those who feel stuck in their head or need to be in control of their audition or performance. Acting demands a feeling of spontaneity and play within the confines of a script. How do you find this freedom within the form? Using elements of improv, play and tools from the Michael Chekhov technique, we will explore how to spark and expand the imagination and then allow this to be alive within the structure of a scene. Online, as we practise, the container is your room, but within it you need to be free. You need to be Free in the Form. You need it for filming especially, as you might be asked to do things with specificity yet still find the much needed freedom and spontaneity within your scene

This online course is taught by Max Hafler from Galway Ireland and Rena Polley from Toronto, Canada. 

Venue Zoom




The Button Moulder’s Breakfast – Tools for Fantastical Characters

I have just finished rereading Peer Gynt by Ibsen, which I understand was a play meant to be read. Its swirling epic nature makes it hard to bring to it any kind of earthy reality. It  has always struck me as a massive problem to stage, especially if you are not familiar with the specific Norwegian culture from which it comes. Declan Drohan and I are using scenes from the play to explore how we approach fantastical characters using the Michael Chekhov technique on October 8th and 9th here in Galway. It is always an exciting by-product that you get to revisit these plays.

The first production of Gynt I saw was unsatisfying because of ‘where I was at’ as a teenager when I saw it, and 60s and early 70s realism was king. I wanted to see the early part of the play as realistic, with Peer as a realistic figure albeit in a mythological landscape, someone with whom I could identify and recognise as the hero.  I wanted to like Peer and saw nothing to like, just a lecherous teenage thug who grows into a tyrannical arrogant monster of exploitation, and then in an attempt to find himself  in later life tries to evoke sympathies he doesn’t deserve. Had I looked at his character in a more mythological archetypal way, the play and production would have had  a holistic feeling and had a lot more power. Had I thought of him as one of the characters from the Ring cycle, or The Fool in the Tarot deck I would have immediately connected better both as an audience or as a character had I been acting in the production.

Paradoxically in a more recent production  (though still a while in the past) I saw  Peer in a shell shock hospital during/after the First World War and his story was a hallucination. To me this proved a disastrous concept, belittling the enormity of the play and literalising (or excusing) the dream like nature of the play. It left the actors with too many things to play. It materialised and belittled  the play, rather like when people say King Lear has Alzheimer’s or Macbeth is a psychopath. This is a very reductive approach to epic literature. It may yield something but it most likely won’t. 

So when we embark on these plays which are inhabited by fantastical characters we need to find something in the character with which we and the audience can relate to without necessarily bringing a feeling that we might meet them at the bus stop, if you you see what I mean. We need to find resources which are more than our personal egos. As actors we cannot use our immediate life directly on these characters. No one cares whether the button moulder prefers eggs or cereal for breakfast or whether he/she has breakfast at all. What they want to feel is the ominous nature of this character, their rage, perhaps their exasperation at waiting for Peer to change before the Button Moulder takes him away to melt him down into buttons to finally be some thing useful to the world in which he lives. they need to find their archetypal power. This does not mean stereotyping but something which unlocks something very deep. At their best, fantastical characters can allow us to explore things we would not have the capacity to explore. That’s why people put them in plays and stories. That’s why there are fairy tales.

Let’s play with Chekhov’s idea of imaginary centres. Perhaps the button moulder has an outworn scuffed button in his centre, at his imaginary heart. When I inhabit that idea, when I imagine that the character has at its heart this old button, the character becomes weak and strained….  holding things together with a few threads and a round circle of wood  as buttons do. He is old and needy. If I truly embody that imaginary idea a whole extraordinary character is created through my imagination if I am open to the image. These are the kind of things we as actors can explore when we learn to trust this process. Or perhaps his heart is a gleaming button, a gleaming black button, polished and shiny. That makes me feel gleaming and cruel. It gives me a different body shape, size and voice.

Often these characters are the bearers of qualities we can easily find through atmospheres archetypes and centres. These characters express intangible qualities and this is what Chekhov talks about, ‘making the intangible, tangible’

Our workshop, “A human heart for me” – playing the fantastical runs October 8th and 9th at University of Galway. email chekhovtpi@gmail.com to book your place. Tutors Declan Drohan and Max Hafler.

Simply Playing Cards.. finding Direction with the Chekhov Technique

Last Saturday, in our final class of a series which were about Connecting (to our selves, to each other as people and performers, and the character we played), a group of us explored Connecting to the Play, in our case, Anouilh’s Antigone

For some time we did several exercises getting the sensation of beginning and ending into our bodies through various exercises. We did this through journies across the space. If you think about it, every performance we go to see ought to take us on some kind of journey, ideally some form of transformation, if only temporary. Sadly this is not always the case. If you think about it, beginning and ending something gives it a tremendous significance. Even if we believe that life is formless and pointless (though we know we are born and will die – a pretty profound beginning and end), acknowledging a beginning and an end in a work of art gives it relevance . And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the story that carries it; it can have a beginning and end in feeling or movement of energy. It does not need to be didactic. Once you start playing with energy and images the effect can be incredibly multi layered and subtle.

We began to get involved in the beginning and ending of the actual play. After inviting the group to write down images as I read the beginning and the end of the play aloud to them, I wanted to emphasise the idea that “all art aspires to the condition of music” a quote by philosopher Walter Pater which heads up a chapter in Chekhov’s book. If we consider what that might mean, it emphasises that the performance of a play has an artistic wholeness, whilst at the same time affecting us on many layers at once, just like a piece of music does. One thing Michael Chekhov presses in his chapter on composition is that everyone involved in the creative team has to find ownership of the work in order to find their characters place within it, just like a musician in an orchestra. It has to have a Feeling of The Whole. As those of us who have directed or acted professionally know, the good actor is often considered the one who produces what the director wants rather than being an artist in their own right. Chekhov was never of that view; for him, “The actor is the theatre”.

To emphasise this feeling of the journey, of a transformation, that I spoke of at the beginning I invited the group to work with polarities from the beginning to the end . Of course this is not the only way to use polarities but it was what we needed here. We explored the idea that the play began with one polarity or opposite and ended with another. For instance, there is a brittleness in the beginning as the chorus introduces the cast of characters and a softness at the end as “a melancholy peace” descends. We could explore Light/dark; Life/Death; Avoidance/Acceptance; Noise/Quiet; Conformity/Rebellion… to name a few!

But we had not the time to work on the beginning in any detail; only the end. We made two groups who were going to create an ending or a number of endings for this challenging play. Chekhov was a firm believer in the idea that you could have a lot of starting points for a production. What better, with a play which puts up a challenge to principle and political rebellion to the audience than to focus on the ending? What are we trying to say with this play and how do we say it? When we stop speaking, what settles on the auditorium before the lights go down and the play ends? There were some wonderful examples of that polarised atmosphere that landed on the watching group as we began to explore and present possibilities. You could taste what was filling the room.

Many actors would have the horrors to attend a first rehearsal where you began at the end but for many plays it is completely appropriate. Reassure people that any good endings we find may completely morph into something different but that it would be useful for us all to imagine where we might all be heading. What this approach does is it  allows us to consider what the play might say; what our production might say to a modern audience. The actors need to be brought into this decision as I said because if they are not, the director might be ignoring a valuable energy within the group response. You also might be  making trouble for yourself for later as an actor rebels against your interpretation. 

The only proviso I set for their explorations was that everyone must speak and the chorus speech must be split between the group.

Both groups had an Antigone in their Chorus, though they were played very differently . In One group Antigone seemed the victim ( though less in one polarity/Atmosphere than the other). In the other, Antigone was the moral victor. Suffice to say whatever we decided were we to do the play , you leave the audience with a very different energy. All the pieces they made left an energy hanging in the air. An energy we could feel, consider and discuss.

More subtly, I asked one group to return  with exactly the same choreography they had developed yet play it through two different polarity/atmospheres, and I and the others watched, how this radically altered the ending of the play. It left a different feeling in the air. It said something quite different in the space. This was an incredibly powerful exercise because by retaining the general shape and the choreography but giving it a different impulse we were able to test out different possibilities with ease and speed, then come back and decide which would be better. .

We found a number of viable possibilities for the ending. All were strong visceral possibilities. Thrilling.

Our next few workshops this autumn are as follows.

September 10th/11th Two day workshop in the room on Actable choices auditioning; Declan Drohan and Max Hafler

October 8th/9th Two day workshop in the room on playing Fantastical characters. Declan Drohan and Max Hafler

Nov 1-22nd, 4-6 pm Irish time Online.

To Be Free In The Form. Rena Polley,(Michael Chekhov Canada) and Max Hafler

and in preparation !

Nov 12th One day workshop in the room 

 Max Hafler and Katelyn Ressler (more info to follow)

December 11th/12th. Sligo. Declan Drohan  (more info to follow)

Connections : Creating a Score in Ensemble.

Our last three in the room workshops have been about re establishing connections ; with ourselves, with an audience, with the character and finally with a play. Of course I, often with my Colleague Declan Drohan (co-director of CTPI) and guest Rena Polley from Michael Chekhov Canada, have been doing that work with people throughout the pandemic, primarily online. Whilst it can often be challenging to make those connections I talk about online it is possible to do it , but I must confess there is nothing like the incredible impact of working live in the studio. Working in the Room is more of an experience than an exploration. It is incredibly energising whereas working online is more thoughtful; satisfying in a different way; it is easier to discuss and consider. Sessions in the Zoom room does not have the same electricity. On the other hand working online does make what we call the’flyback’, reviewing our practical work after we have explored it physically, easier.

That’s why we are going to keep doing both; online and in the studio.

For this last workshop in the ‘Connecting’ up series, we are going to look into connecting to the play and production. How do we all lead as director/teachers without didacticism? How does the actor fit into the ‘score’ of the production? How do we reach into the play and decide on a guiding idea? In this workshop we will inevitably reach into the realm of the creative hierarchy and look at that tetchy question, “What does the director actually do?” To me the director is like the conductor of an orchestra. There is a score and everyones creativity needs to be focussed towards the production. The orchestra has the vessel of the musical score but there are freedoms once you accept that. The symphony can never be about the individual musician and nor should the artists who create a theatrical production ever believe it is anything other than a team effort.

“At best, a director enables an actor to reveal his own performance, that he may have otherwise clouded for himself.” PETER BROOK THE EMPTY SPACE

In terms of the Chekhov elements we will be looking at Form and The Whole and how to experience those sensations in our bodies. We will be looking at Polarities in the play; opposite energies which polarise the play and the characters and how these might play into the score of the production. Deciding how a play might begin and end might give your whole piece a shape, a focus, and of course I do not mean exactly, nor is it set in stone . Through rehearsal you might make a profound sense of direction and that is ok.

Or the spine of the production might make another turn because of the actors. I write about this in my book, “What Country Friends is This?’ (published by NHB 2021) where I discuss a production I did of Twelfth Night with young actors.   I had a middle aged view of love and romance which for me dictated certain elements of the production. I found that, as we worked, I had to jettison many of those ideas because my vision was not where they were at,  though we retained some very dark moments in the production.

In the workshop we will be looking also at General Atmosphere to try and find possibilities for what the texture of the play might be, what the characters might be living and breathing in, and how that affects the way they behave. What decisions could we take together to make this a ‘score’ in the true sense of the word?

As before we will be using the play, Antigone. 

And mostly we will be doing this on our feet.

Connecting to the World of the Play and the Production.  will focus on atmosphere, the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the  Whole. Michael Chekhov believed that whilst there was a different contribution made by actors director and all theatre artists, that somehow there needed to be something of a unified creative vision. It was an essential component to creating a satisfying and powerful piece of theatre. Again we will use Antigone for this workshop. 

The workshop costs 60 euro runs from 10- 4 and will be held at NUI Galway