Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov Technique

Nothing Like Medea – working with Archetypes

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Shannon McHugh and Cillian Hegarty using an Archetype exercise in The Bacchae 2016

“I mean, how could I possibly play Medea from my own life experience?”  said one of my wonderful teachers, as I sat completely overwhelmed after one of the early workshops I attended in the Michael Chekhov Technique, “There has got to be a way of finding her truth through Imagination and the Body”. Then she smiled and was gone for her lunch.

And the more I have worked with the Technique the more I have understood the massive palette this way of working has given me to rehearse, direct and teach.

One of the most powerful ways into the work on character is through The Archetype and Archetypal energy. This expression of the Archetype in acting class often gives rise to people assuming that an archetype is a stereotype; in other words something superficial: but it isn’t.  Consider the archetype as an energy, rather than an obvious cartoon character and you are on the right track. That way you can really explore the profundity of what the Archetype can give you.

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Ciara Brady and William Loughnane as Titania and Oberon

In the next Chekhov Weekend here, (June 21-23) we will be seeking some connection to this archetypal energy, and then using it to build our character, exploring archetypes using A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

On the surface, there are a lot of obvious archetypes in this play. Kings, Queens, Fairies, Clowns, Actors, Lovers, Fathers, Servants and exploring these archetypes is useful for us because we often have no experience of many of these qualities in our modern life.

 

 

 

I remember spending time, when I was directing The Duchess of Malfi,  exploring with the actors what it was like to be The Servant, not just in a realistic sense but finding this profound archetypal energy to understand  the psychology of those characters who were servants.

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Muirreann Ni Raghallaigh, Zita Monahan, Reidin Ni Thuama and Eoin Dillon  as Cariola, The Duchess, A Nurse and Antonio respectively. The Duchess of Malfi: Theatrecorp 2016

But there are several layers to this “way into” the character, and one thing we need to consider is  what exactly the charácter does and whether this could shed any more profound light on the archetype which drives the character.

Puck, for instance, could have at his core a number of possible archetypes: the obvious ones , goblin, sprite, etc  are all helpful but to some extent superficial. But what does he do? He is a servant, a magical one. He makes mischief. He makes mistakes. Perhaps he is a rebel? A child?

But what about the orphan as his archetype? Robin Goodfellow is sometimes considered a kind of half-sprite, neither a fairy, nor a human. If you took this archetype orphan  or even that of outsider think how different those two performances might be.

And of course it is important to remember that these archetypes are not ‘the character’ in total but they are a fundamental component of the character and its energy. They are a driving force . They can even be a core.

Let’s take Helena. Spoiled brat might be seen as a helpful archetype  but the name spoiled brat creates a strong value judgement within it and as soon as you make a conscious critical judgement you create something stereotypical and therefore not that helpful in creating something powerful and true.

There are still two places on this weekend course in Galway. Working with Archetypes. June 21-23, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place. 

 

 

 

 

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Like A Dog – Exploring Kafka’s Trial with Chekhov Technique

IMG_5791 copyI remember meeting a playwright who came to the university and he told us how a theatre company had asked him to write them a play. He agreed and, on the day he was to start, they brought in a large rock and asked him to use this piece of rock as an inspiration for his play. A tangible, poetic image to start his work, no story, not even an issue. A rock.

Anyone who believes the Michael Chekhov technique is only for plays is missing some massive opportunities to use the work and expand and develop devising and adaptation.

I love to use Chekhov technique for adaptation – in this weekend workshop we were using Kafka’s Trial – because it enables you to worry less about narrative and focus in on the essence of what is going on through images and atmosphere ( like the playwright who uses the rock to inspire him). If you do it this way round, if you look for what is going on underneath first, then you will find something which imbues the narrative with a depth you could never have found otherwise. This frightening and rather formless-sounding idea was nonetheless structured in our weekend workshop as I had the group look specifically at two episodes: the beginning and the end.

It is always a good plan to consider the beginning and the end of whatever you are making. It is true you can just ‘wait and see’ but that way the creator can easily get lost. However, if there is a beginning and end, you have a grasp of the piece. It does not mean that you cannot make radical changes, indeed it is right that the end might change, but you have addressed the piece as a whole from early on.

Working with the essentials of radiating/receiving/ease and form/ general atmosphere and working with images, we then began to work on the two episodes, looking for images and atmosphere, which we firstly made into non-narrative pieces. I wanted to encourage the group to resist any temptation to ‘tell the story’ in the initial pieces. This made, in the first piece particularly, a violent animalistic rat-infested world.  I then suggested that they looked at the atmosphere of the mundane world of Joseph K and for both groups to explore narrative tableaux. They then started to mesh the two elements, the mundane and the imaginative, of the story and the image, together.

IMG_5798We then added some text, both narrative and conversational, from the passages I had chosen, building our pieces with several ‘showings’ as we built up the pieces. This was a very supportive and creative group. I am going to run another of these workshops which take first principle elements of Chekhov and a novel.

Next up is Archetypes and Archetypal Atmospheres and as it is Midsummer, we will be working with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so we will be doing some voice work too. It takes place on June 21-23.  There are still places. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place. The Venue is NUI Galway.

 

 

 

Radiating and Receiving/A Political Act

The last time I was in Leeds was 1983. I was appearing in a play at Leeds Playhouse, playing a disruptive prisoner in a play about the Hull prison riots, which in its own way confronted and provoked the audience to consider the prison system. This week I went back to Leeds having been asked to attend a conference at Leeds University on Politics, participation and performance, and provide a voice workshop.

After a thought-provoking keynote on citizenship by Professor Stephen Coleman, an exciting and Intense workshop run by Proper Job Theatre in which we were invited to participate and make decisions on a mythical intense family/political drama followed by a presentation on a young people’s project on exploring elections by Miranda Duffy, I then led people towards some psycho-physical exploration of the voice.

All the opportunities given above enhanced my understanding of the challenges of political theatre in all its forms and whilst I have a strand of my work which has a distinct political focus around devising work, I was there to lead a voice workshop. When preparing the workshop I considered many of the voice exercises I have used and developed over my decades of teaching voice and devising with young people and special interest groups  but I wanted to offer something else. It seemed to me I might be offering tricks or easy-fixes when I felt there was something more fundamental at stake. The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible, in a way that is connected and full of conviction. It is of limited use devising a piece we cannot hear (unless it is meant to be silent). Whîlst we can support groups with multimedia and microphones, the most effective way, if possible, is for them to use their own voice.

Someone said at the end that teaching skills to those who are not usually offered them is a political act in itself. Someone alluded to the fact that business people and lecturers are offered skills like voice whereas those not in so privileged positions are bypassed. It makes them feel that these skills are not for them.

Yet even more than effective and committed speech, the one area of exercise which is absolutely fundamental to community, theatre and political action is Michael Chekhov’s radiating and receiving. As Professor Jonathan Pitches, who gave a response to the day suggested, radiating and receiving has a political dimension because you share and integrate a response on a fundamental level. You feel an understanding with your partner in a visceral way which enables a negotiation. It is something I too believe. We spent a good deal of my strand of the workshop working with radiating and receiving to the group and our partners. (As Professor Coleman said in his keynote address, “citizenship is not something that happens alone.” )

So just as teaching voice requires both technical and imaginative development through exercises, perhaps political theatrical engagement requires us to generate not only how we feel about civic and personal qualities we might deem vital for action, it also needs us to develop a deep connection with our body, voice, feelings and imagination to give these qualities a holistic and truly revolutionary dynamic. Perhaps politics has a more spiritual dimension than we might immediately think. For me, without actually touching base with the intangible power of theatre (which Voice and Chekhov technique provoke in abundance) we are missing a chance to make the elemental change that people want and need on all levels.

Having said this, I am not denying the huge material challenges which quash artistic endeavours deemed ‘political’ and make them suspicious to schools and funders. Those who are suspicious fail to realise that all performance is pushing an agenda, for what is an agenda but a view of life? Of course if the agenda is rammed down an audience’s throat it is probably going to be unconvincing, unless you already agree with it, and the probability is it will not be great art. Unless it presents the polarities of the argument it is not empowering, merely proselytising.

Looking at all the threads which knitted themselves in this conference, we seemed to be exploring how theatre empowers people directly; perhaps that is what ‘defines ‘political’. If theatre does not empower or enlighten, well, what use is it?

There was talk about the dynamics of university attitudes to performance and those of the conservatoire training. Much conservatoire training has a kind of attitude I call “training the racehorse”, in other words preparing the student for ‘the business”. If you are already preparing actors for this capitalist enterprise, you are unlikely to encourage political engagement in your students. For me, the nature of theatre education has to change to break this mould. However, the alternative to the “racehorse” model is the more academic approach offered in third level with a lot less contact hours. This is not really adequate either; performance expertise can not be magicked up in a few hours, not if you want to encourage a deep learning; nor is it fully effective as research, unless you are practically proficient in the first place.

One thing is for sure: political theatre in the broadest sense has to be empowering for audiences, participants and actors alike. Chekhov said you have to have a view; how do you want your audience to feel at the end of a play? This view does not have to be polemical but it needs to have a direction. There has to be something or why bother? As artists we have to be responsible.

Thanks to everyone at the conference and to Doctor Sarah Weston for organising it. It gave me a lot to think about.

Adapting with Chekhov

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In 2003 I directed a production of  Kafka’s The Trial in an adaptation by Steven Berkoff for the Cuirt Festival of Literature with Galway Youth Theatre. It was a success. We revived it, took it on tour to England and got an incredible review in the Irish Times by the late Eileen Battersby.

Berkoff’s stark version is intensely theatrical, a full throated ensemble version of the text and the young actors threw themselves into the performance with enthusiasm and precision. Berkoff demands an ensemble be onstage throughout and be focussed, disciplined and inventive. In that we were extremely successful.  However, looking back, the adaptation itself has a hard unbending edge to it from the very beginning and affected where we went with it.

I remember reading the novel before I did the production and really missing the kind of mysterious depth I feel is in it, a kind of overwhelming onset of thick darkness as if the unfortunate Joseph K is drowning and cannot escape. There is the feeling of a labyrinth in it, different from the empty doorframes Berkoff used in his adaptation and we used for ours. In the novel K is a much more likeable chap than the uptight guy created by Berkoff. I never saw his own production so maybe I am misjudging it. But for me that harshness in the adaptation meant that the production was hard to evolve. It was hard to make a journey. Indeed, the way it seems in the adaptation it seems like it is K’s nightmare which does not give the other characters anywhere to go. As we were working from that adaptation, I got the actors and designer to embody that view, which was theatrically effective, but also lost something.

Maybe you always lose something when you adapt. I have been interested in adaptation for a long time, having, in another period of my life, written a lot of plays and made a number of adaptations for theatre companies in Ireland and the UK. Right now I am writing a book about Shakespeare and part of it is about editing and transposing; how it can be successful and how it can be a disaster.

I was teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway for many years and over my final years with Ensemble, more and more of my Chekhov training was coming into my approach; imagination, qualities of movement, atmosphere, gesture and composition were incorporated as other things were let go. Composition and Form are particularly important as there is such a danger in adaptation and devised work that a piece can lose its thread and become shapeless.

I have always been a big believer that the Chekhov Technique is not only for regular plays but for a much wider body of work, and more people are using the work in that way. So in the weekend of May 17th -19th for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  I want to look at episodes in this novel, The Trial, and explore them through the Michael Chekhov technique, to see if we can find something different, something deeper. One thing I have found with the Technique is that I always discover something new with anything we look at in these courses.

If you wish to attend, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to place a deposit and book your place. The weekend is being held at NUI Galway, runs from May 17-19 (The 17th is only a short evening session). The cost is €90 for the weekend.

 

 

Body

IMG_5703In many plays, the idea that our character has a different body is generally limited to how we are clothed, our size, a disability perhaps, or age. That’s if it is specified in the text at all. Yet our bodies are the vessel for everything we are.

Like most things with Chekhov technique any accusations that our exercises are ‘floaty’ are completely refuted by the fact that what the technique explores is the reality of things as they are; in this case how we relate to our bodies and how the character relates to his own body.

In our workshop this weekend, as we explored the troubled characters in The Crucible, I began by asking the group to make considerations of their own bodies. This needed to be done with a degree of delicacy and limited sharing; the most important thing is for the actor to experience the body rather than talk about it, in any case. I asked everyone to consider how our bodies affected how we dress, what colours we wore, where our weight was centred, what parts of the body we liked and what we didn’t like and how those responses affected our every move; it is a sobering thing for actors to consider and experience. If we like our hands we are going to move them differently to how we would if we don’t like them. If we think our lips are attractive, we will use them differently.

So what if the character has this interconnected relationship to their body?  By putting on the body like a coat, we can find out.

This work on Imaginary Body goes so much further than just creating a convincing and particular shape for the character; it gives you a huge part of the character’s psychology. The body dictates how we breathe, our level of confidence and health, the tensions which build up in us; as we age the frame is restricted  and can freeze us into a cypher of everything that has happened to us through our lives.

How we relate to the body makes resonances and echoes in every single thing we do. To take an example, if Abigail Williams is aware of her sexual power from the start it makes a very different character to an Abigail Williams who does not.

Furthermore we have the impact of the environment on the bodies of the characters. On examining the hands of the characters, we considered those who had soft hands and those who did not . That one fact created a whole layer to a possible world; those with rough hands, physically strong but somehow in another world from the likes of the preachers and judges who govern the play. The soft-handed are trying to preserve their status, maintain control and impose morality upon the townsfolk. How do they feel about their hard-handed brethren? Do they feel superior, closer to God, fearful, guilty about their own inactivity?

It was interesting how both the power of Imaginary Body and Character Centre created really strong atmosphere on their own in our studio, though we did little work on atmosphere directly. It reminded me of Chekhov’s Chart for Inspired Acting where Chekhov said that if you inspire just one area, if it is effective, many of the other elements of the scene will fill effortlessly. Working for a good while on the idea of everyone having a centre that was a large spade brought the smell of the earth into the room; a sense of digging in; a world that was rough and shifting as the characters spoke to each other.

Very powerful.

IMG_5698The next Chekhov weekend is Actors Are Magicians, working with Form , atmosphere, directions and Tempo principally. It is here in Galway and runs from Friday evening till mid afternoon Sunday. We will be working on chapters of The Trial by Kafka. It is for Directors, actors, students and devisers. book by emailing chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and visit the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

The Invisible Voice

IMG_5579The voice is invisible. And, as Michael Chekhov technique is about “making the intangible, tangible”, there is something which connects it to the creation of voice, even though Chekhov did not address voice too specifically in his writings. Through my work I am attempting to further these connections as I feel there is something magical about these sounds that come from the caves of our bodies.

Words are vehicles for energy, thoughts, feelings and concepts. Through the breath and the body we express all of these things. There is an alchemy that happens between people and words. In order to achieve this alchemy, we need to connect voice, body, feelings and imagination. To have a full voice, we need to make this holistic connection, with each of these elements influencing and feeding the other.

That was what we set out to explore and express in this workshop, The Epic Voice which was held this weekend with twelve artist/explorers as part Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s Spring season of Weekend workshops.

The question for me was; what is it that colours the language and makes it so profound and full of meaning? Is it what the word sounds like? Is it the rhythm? Is it our response to it? is it an image we have when we imagine the word? The answer we came to is that it can be any or all of these things, but one thing is for sure, that if your whole being isn’t involved in its expression then, especially in poetic drama, the performing artist is missing something fundamental. We explored physically and through sound, several single words. We discovered that if we explored a word merely by its sound or rhythm, it did not always take us to an authentic place. Sometimes it was our response to the word that was more important.

Then there is the actual direction of the word. So much of my exploration of directions, (A Michael Chekhov concept) has been stirred by Lenard Petit’s exploration of directions of energy. Words are expressions of energy as much as a gesture or movement. If we express the word ‘Hope’ through movement alone, we automatically make a move forward and upwards. If we make a movement for the word ‘memory’, we are dealing with the backspace.It is something coming to us from behind. If you get a sense of the direction of the word in your body as you speak it, you can feel a new dimension to your text.

Working with voice is so much more than technical dexterity and diaphragmatic breathing. Without breath we have no power to radiate anything. Whilst we need the technical tools, they are very far from being the whole thing.

IMG_5608We worked on two pieces primarily on our workshop; ‘Afterwards’ by Thomas Hardy, a poem which on the surface seems slight and whimsical, about his passing and what the neighbours might say about him when he was dead. For the record, this poem is used as the centrepiece for one of Seamus Heaney’s Oxford lectures, recorded in the book, “The Redress of Poetry” which alerted me to its attempt to build a bridge between the spirit world and the everyday (though wonderful) life of the country. The second piece was a piece of Yeats; the opening speech of the Musician from The Last Jealousy of Emer. Much development of atmosphere was done on these pieces and some interesting work done. Curiously though, what we discovered was that one of the pieces did not hold its power as well, when the group started to ‘set it’. It immediately became a bit mechanical. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to discuss process over product, and how with Chekhov all you have to do is commit to the image, commit to the gesture or atmosphere and the performance power will be there. Rather like Thomas Hardy you will be bringing these extraordinary spiritual elements to the mundane concerns of the everyday world.

And then, in true alchemical style due to someone having to leave the workshop early, I found we had an hour to explore something else. i had intended to do this earlier, but had not found a place for it. in two groups, the participants  take the piece and then create a musical soundtrack of it, using instruments and sound alone. No words from the poem were allowed.You had to more or less follow the form of the piece you were using. This exercise gives you a sense of what is important, what is the form, what images are important and what is the general mood or feel in a way that just reading or intellectualising it can never do. it gives you a strong sense of a direction for the piece, that, had we time to return to the original spoken work using the poem, would have influenced it a lot. it was fitting end to our exploration.

IMG_5585The next workshop Imaginary Body,Character Centre, will be working with a well known play and using two elements a performer can explore in their private work developing character. To book your place, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or info@chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com the workshop is March 29-31 and will be held in Galway.

The Vessel and The Soul

Imaginary Body and Centre through Michael Chekhov Technique.

People often ask me, “How ca51090851_617034175402228_8035195185824530432_nn I use Chekhov training in my everyday rehearsal preparation, when no one else in the room uses it?”

Of course as actors we have our private work, and in that space we can easily use the technique to help us find the character, whatever others might be doing.

I have often encountered intransigent actors using more dogmatic approaches than Chekhov Technique who announce in rehearsal “the character would not do that”, effectively stone walling the creativity of their scene partner and the director and writer too. I personally find this a rather puzzling and insulting approach but it partly comes I believe because the professional actor so often has to compromise his art and therefore his whole belief in himself due to circumstances (bad directing, no money, bad script) so he digs his heels in and just says ”no”.  He has decided on his character through his private work, and that’s it.

Private work can start with some premises but has to be developed when you radiate/receive with your scene partner. If you had a different scene partner they would radiate/receive respond/differently and so you would have to change your performance or risk ending up looking as if you were “acting in a box”.

Unlike some other techniques, Chekhov technique allows a more labile approach. It allows you profound private work but does not build walls around you. It accepts and encourages flexibility.

Imaginary Centre is an extraordinary element of the technique which asks you to incorporate an image into your body through imagination; a lighted candle; a fizzy drink; a lonely person at a street lamp; a paper bag. This image is something core as to how the character behaves and feels; how they see themselves. It can be inanimate or animate, whatever helps the actor connect with the character. Furthermore this image changes the impact on the actor profoundly if it is put into different parts of the body. For me, at some level, this image is the character’s soul.

The soul is clothed in the character’s Imaginary Body; a detailed body; not just their height, colour, hair and age; but their scars, hands, eyes, the way their body breathes, where their tensions might be. You cannot change your body completely, but you can imagine what it might be like to have such a body. And what I love about this, is it acknowledges that what your body is like affects how you behave.

And this is not observation, traditionally used in acting but the use of your imagination. Chekhov says that observation is useful and has its place, once you know what you are looking for.

“The desire and ability to transform oneself are at the heart of the actor’s nature.” Michael Chekhov.

These two elements alone can transform a character and create a dynamic within the actor’s body which makes an exciting character. The body especially can make for miraculous changes where the person absolutely feels they have inhabited the character.

For me, of course, it is not only the body which can change, but the voice also does not have to be the actor’s usual voice , and to that end we have a full house for The Epic Voice which starts this evening for the weekend.

Imaginary body, Character Centre is being held at the end of March, (29-31) here in Galway. If you wish to apply, email info@chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com or chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com.