Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov Technique

Devising and Structure

IMG_4165 2

a recent devising workshop  radiating and receiving…

After seeing a devised piece by students the  other night , I was prompted to ask a question of the performers, that I never asked during the Q and A as time ran out. The piece was lively and varied and  reminded me of many devised pieces I have facilitated in the same college, the myriad pieces I have worked on in youth theatres and in National Youth Theatre Ireland festivals of Youth Drama .

I wanted to ask whether the students found the process different and better or worse than working on a play.

Devising is a wonderful thing; making a piece from nothing. It has a long history. In recent times it has been popular with youth theatre, applied drama with non-actors as well as on the professional stage. With devising, actors can initially make almost anything they want; they can own the piece completely as they have joint ownership; they can mix styles and give their piece the flexibility of a piece of music. It gives them a massive buzz and is an invaluable part of theatre education and practise.

However whatever devising model you use, there are restrictions. Whilst the group can explore something emotionally daring, it is very hard to develop certain acting skills within it. The students HAVE to feel safe, and when you are using feelings which are more iðentifiably yours the danger of fully exploring what is going on is riskier. It is difficult in that situation to make them act better, go deeper, because you as the facilitator have no idea what you might be dealing with, hidden beneath the subject matter that they have created. I had this experience myself quite recently with a group and it was a curious realisation that devising and acting skills are not always mutually compatible.

Looking back on my own experience I wondered whether restricting the scope of the material actually helped.

I facilitated a project many years ago on the theme of spirit for a youth theatre festival. The theme was given to us. It was a tricky one. At the end of this project there was to be a public performance and I was much less experienced, afraid we would not be able to make anything presentable in the time frame. I took with me an idea based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead which begins with a wake and then we follow the spirit going off to four levels, to be decided by the group, before leaving to eternity. Eventually the Spirit was released. This structure enabled us to find so many things about ‘what we let go of in death’ ‘ what does it mean to be alive’ that we could never have explored without that structure which I had taken in with me. The structure empowered them; it restricted their freedom a bit but also gave them lots of scope. Unexpectedly, four young actors devised a hilarious strand about four dead grandmothers who sat in an eternal front room, watching their living relatives on telly and supporting and criticising them, until one of them decides it is time to take the journey to departures. Their sections were scripted whereas the others were mainly movement -based ensemble pieces.

But even though we did a lot of things in experiment and discussion, I felt concerned to not push them in terms of their performance especially during the funeral/wake section. I was very gentle. After all I did not know these people and who knew what their relationship was with death? In fact, as it happens, one of the participating facilitators had had a close bereavement in the family and we had to talk about his involvement which was quite a moving story in itself.

The structure  enabled us to make something which challenged everyone. Restriction can mean freedom.

In a scripted play though, the actors have the conduit of their character to push their energies. The actors may or may not be like them and especially when working through the Chekhov technique you are never asking them to directly tap into their own experience but to find the feelings and the journey through imagination and the body first. That also allows you through the score of the play to express parts of them they do not show and to encourage them to work with those energies and radiate them to the audience convincingly. The character gives them a safe place because you are never directly working with them or their lives.

This is what I wanted to explore when I didn’t ask the question at the Q and A I mentioned at the start of this piece.

Not long ago I facilitated a devised piece about Ireland with a group. The piece was quite beautiful, but for various reasons, I found it was very difficult for them to express negative feelings about how they felt about the place, and when we started to explore this, some difficult feelings came up. Next time I work with them we are going to work with some scenes from plays as well as devising a piece, so they can work as free authors in their comfort zone and then push the boundaries when they have a structure and are playing someone other than themselves.

Advertisements

Next

35

working on a piece with actor Mary Monahan [photo John McHugh]

Auditioning is a stressful time. You can feel you are being judged, that the world is against you, that acting is a cruel competitive nightmare where you hold none of the cards. Where you have only a few minutes to prove something. Try to see it as an opportunity. This is an easy thing to write but not so easy to do. As someone who has worked as both a professional actor and  director I have seen this situation from both sides.

Desperation is a scent you can inadvertently put out and it is almost certainly lessening your chances . Forced nonchalance (which often happens as a result of desperation) suggests you do not care about the project and you would rather be somewhere else. The trick is to stay open without either of these excesses.

A way to deal with all of this is to work with Chekhov’s ideal centre. Use your imagination to create that openness. Work with personal atmosphere. Focus the breathing.

Find out everything you can about the project and the director before you go. Be informed but not smart ass. Be careful not to talk too much. ( very difficult for me!) Above all try not to give your interpretation of a role . You cannot second guess what the director wants from the character and if your interpretation is very different you could be lessening your chances.  The thing is that often your ‘interpretation’ is not an interpretation at all, just something to prove you have a view on the play. Flexibility and openness are the key here too.

Auditioning is where the concerns of the commercial world and your artistic integrity collide in a difficult moment. You need the money, you want to be wanted, you will make the best of whatever it is. These feelings inflate the situation and often stop you from giving of your best. On a practical note, come prepared. If as a director, you are asked by an agent for ‘sides’ when you are auditioning for a play like THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the actor is already creating a negative impression. This actually happened when I was directing a professional touring production a few years ago. I felt sorry for the young actor, whom I felt was depressed and unprepared. I worked with him even though I knew I would not cast him. After twenty minutes, when he was showing some serious improvement, I said as kindly as I could, “I would advise you that when you come for an audition again, that you are at this level when you come in.”

When I am auditioning as a theatre director, I want to look at how the person works on a role. This is very important to me. Some actors look horrified when I ask that question but how else can I work with them if I do not know this? I want to know in the broadest terms. Do you find the character directly from life experience? Do you work primarily from the text? Do you work primarily through imagery and the body? Maybe you could give me an example? As an actor, there is no right thing to say here. A way to answer it might be to explain how you worked on another role you did.

If you can, and some people might say something like ‘I work with my instinct’ then a director needs to use their own instinct to decide.

CHARACTERS AND AUDITIONS , a weekend audition workshop using Michael Chekhov Technique working on the process and audition pieces will be held at NUIG from the 6-8 April. The cost is 80€. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.
go to http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for more information

Put me into good fooling!

IMG_3885One of the things that has struck me again and again in this preparatory week with the exuberant and talented student actors at the Centre of Drama Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway is the joy of working with young people, their boundless energy, talent and enthusiasm, such as may elude them if they enter the world of ‘the profession’ . It also reminded me of the issues.

When working as a professional director you expect to develop a vision at a high and competent level because the actors have most of the skills you will need, well they are supposed to. Of course this sometimes falls short with certain individuals as clashes of style develop between performers and directors, and often between performers themselves. In actual fact, the collaborative element in directing, whilst important in both professional and student spheres, is much easier to achieve with young people and hence paradoxically  the work is often ultimately more interesting despite the youth of the group and the fact they have to work harder at skills.

Interestingly, and I find this more and more as I get older, it seems that any vision I have needs to be tempered by the young people. They are coming from a very different place to me and as the exploratory week of the production evolves so does my sense of direction, because it is not just mine but theirs. This does not mean that I just go along with their wishes because sometimes, from inexperience, they are not seeing the play in a deep way or perhaps in a way what seems like a good idea at the beginning is going to become derailed by the needs of the play itself (Actually many professional productions suffer from this problem too – what seemed like a good idea at the start goes wrong).

In addition what is important for me in that first week is assessing their individual strengths and challenges . It is nearly always true that in the beginning the student actors after being free as birds in the first week where the story is explored through sound and the body suddenly come up against the needs of the text and the expectation they feel is there. ie talking in an English accent. While I always do a lot of physical voice work based on Michael Chekhov Exercises which promotes variety and grounded truth, the old stalwarts of breathing and diction are frequently serious challenges. Whîlst on the one hand I wouldn’t want to over force the practice, on the other hand without decent clarity all the depth in the world will not be radiated through the text. Weeks 2 and 3 often have this constant feeling of a plane landing uncomfortably as adjustments of time and focus need to be made. Once the lines are understood and learned, we can really play again.

What keeps emerging from our work with this play is this deep sense of loss and loneliness in so many of the characters, that the search for love is a search to forget loneliness. Maybe the play says that no matter how hard we try we are always lonely; that in relationships we save ourselves from loneliness but to some extent sacrifice our identity. This is an interesting if rather sad thought –  and particularly because the play is a comedy.

Where has it all gone to? 3 Sisters discoveries from Anton’s nephew!

In the final presentation of my MA Chekhov Technique class, six of the students performed the opening of Act 2 of the 3 Sisters by Anton Chekhov. As we worked on scenes from the first two acts, each act had a prevailing general atmosphere and for Act Two it was helpfully suggested by one of my students that it was fog or mist. This seemed a perfect atmosphere for the act as everyone starts to radically lose their way without really knowing why. it gave the characters a sense that things are not quite right. By using this general atmosphere, the first scene of Andrey and his wife became a  tragic pivotal scene with them losing each other, rather than watching a weak man dominated by a wily desperate woman. Andrey became a lost confused soul and Natasha a woman full of disappointment testing her husband to see if he would ‘man up’ and take charge of the house.  With regard to the ‘fog’ the whole cast of characters is on its way to confusion but at the moment it is not possible to quite discern what is wrong.  Anyway, this wonderful idea for an atmosphere fed not only the act but the whole play with a what was for me a wonderful new direction. This is the wonderful thing about atmosphere and indeed all of Chekhov Technique work – it leads you to avenues you would never imagine possible without over-engaging the intellect. The Higher Ego and the Creative imagination are the leaders of our creativity.

In an earlier class on Chekhov’s theory of composition this group started to look at the idea of good and evil in the play and someone said it appeared that the family and their situation create a vague hole into which evil creeps..” In a way everyone is culpable; all the characters, not just the usual culprits – Natasha and Solyony. The fog/ mist atmosphere really brought that out.

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations through our work was in tackling the comedic aspect of the play. In Act two Vershinin and Masha come in from the cold night about to start their affair. This scene played very passionately by my two actors was interupted by a raging exhausted speedy Irina desperately trying to cling onto the idea of going to Moscow, pursued by her puppy Tusenbach .She is totally oblivious to the sense of subdued passion in the room as Masha and Vershinin try to act normally. The resulting scene kept the tragedy and comedy running side by side, and I learned something.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of many of Chekhov’s full length plays working really as comedies whilst at the same time retaining the human tragedy of the characters. I have seen some very unsatisfactory versions at each end of the spectrum, treating the play as high tragedy and others at uneasy comedy. And now I wonder. Is this comedy in A. Chekhov’s play rather more like the idea of tragicomedy which exists in Jacobean drama and which I am very familiar with. So the playing engine of the work is not that one scene is serious and one is funny but that both of these qualities exist in the same scene at the same time. This dynamic rubs against its opposite like it does in the best tragicomedies of Thomas Middleton, actually heightening both tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Interesting.

 

Making an Entrance

IMG_3462

Ronan Cassidy, John Cullen and Mary Monaghan in workshop

‘She really made an entrance ‘. We all know and understand this saying instinctively as we have all entered a room for a party or an event and felt eyes on us. I am fascinated by this element of performance and my next workshop MAKING AN ENTRANCE, LEAVING THE STAGE NOVEMBER 24TH – 26TH is going to consider and explore it with the participants.

In the past, in what are euphemistically called ‘well made plays’ often bound for the West End or Broadway, these entrances and exits were often punctuated with histrionic moments as characters came and went. A particularly campy exploitation of this power is present in James Goldman’s hit play THE LION IN WINTER from the 1960s . This comedy, based on a fictional meeting between the royal family of Henry 2 (which was later made into a movie) gloried in outrageous witty remarks made as people came in and out. Ultimately this process became formulaic and was often not rooted sufficiently in the reality of the situation nor did an entrance move towards an exit emotionally. The movie tried to redress this balance by setting the whole thing in a freezing castle and offering some more in-depth performances. However, the play for me is superficial and little more than a series of witty exchanges. However, it tells us something. It tells us that something happens to the character as they pass through the scene and that movement must be a genuine movement even if they do not make their objective. The fact they fail in their objective is an emotional movement in itself. It is a journey. As Michael Chekhov would say, it is “a little piece of art” from entrance to exit. Chekhov’s exercises which explore this element of form help the actor to give full meaning to the entrance and exit as a small beginning and ending to a journey we the audience are privileged to observe.

So how do we make the entrance meaningful and yet not melodramatic, taking advantage of the moment when we come in to the space as the character?  After all the audience is full of curiosity about who we are , where we have come from, what we might do and how the characters already onstage respond to your presence. the way we do it is by radiating our energy, not necessarily in a grand fashion but in the subtler way of imagining the energy emanating from our entire being.

I remember Philippe Gaulier saying in a workshop I attended, that when you entered the space, even if you did nothing more than bring in a message, for a moment you were the most important person on the stage. I am not always sure that it is quite true for every entrance or character but frequently it is so, if only for a few seconds. Certainly the audience is highly interested in a new character, a new energy entering the space. Their curiosity is aroused, even if what has been happening up to your entrance is pretty interesting. A new energy, a new dynamic opens to the audience; a new perspective. When the new actor is somehow not tuned in, the whole performance can be mortally wounded, because it is really disappointing. Your entrance is like your part in the relay, your piccolo solo in the orchestra, your dive into the swimming pool. You have to be sensitive and ready.

I think more than anything you have to bring on the atmosphere of the next room or wherever is immediately off stage. When I say the atmosphere, that’s what I mean. I do not mean the colour of the carpet or what pictures were on the wall necessarily, but what it feels like to have walked through that outer room. I remember seeing a really good actor coming onstage as if coming from a snowstorm, hanging up his overcoat, shaking it, shivering a bit, chatting away rubbing his hands etc. Despite all this carefully observed detail, all I could think was, ‘wasn’t that clever?’ At the time I did not know why but now I think I do. The details meant nothing without bringing on the atmosphere of the street. What he did felt to me studied and external, however accurate it might have been.

And then there is the past. I remember watching an exercise where actors were asked to imagine the past of their characters in a long chain behind them as if they were at the head of their life parade as they made their entrance. it reminded me of Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol. Of course, what is in your ‘life parade’ might be holding you up and propelling you into the room rather than holding you back.

Then there is the impact your entrance makes upon the others in the room, to say nothing of the audience. Right now I am working with some students on the opening of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Something came up where we had to consider how everyone tolerated the strange Solyony. He enters making an irritating remark. |These continuous objectionable and insensitive remarks exacerbate an atmosphere thick with the past even though everyone is attempting to celebrate Irina’s birthday. We should immediately consider him an outsider. For me, he has a personal atmosphere which collides with the general many times. The connection between the personal atmosphere of the character and how s/he adapts to the atmosphere in the room is an absolute key to making the first moments true for yourself.

Making an Entrance, Leaving the Stage is now taking bookings. It takes place on November 24-26th [ a weekend]. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and check out the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

Directing and Composition

If you want to be a director I believe you really ought to start work with youth theatres, young people or any group where you seriously have to adapt any plan you might have for the production and change it to make the play and production work.

On the one hand, I have to bring the team to the play and not impose too much. At the same time I have to continually be honing and sharpening my own feeling/vision about what the play actually reveals to me personally. It is like being the balancing point on a weighing scales.

For in the end I am doing the play with that particular group of creative people. They have their strengths and limitations and I have to embrace them. This is especially true when you are working with students or less experienced people but I have found it also true with professionals. We are all to some extent, limited.

Sadly many professional directors do not live in an environment which encourages this collaborative mindset, and this clunky idea, as I explained to a student who came to me to discuss production and design of a college show this week, of all the drawings having been done, and set made etc. before the actors begin their work is a really unviable process. It is actually anti-creative, with the actors like mannequins to fit into your plan. Sadly, many directors judge actors as to how well they can fulfil the director’s vision rather than their level of creativity.

When Peter Brook talks about directors having a hunch, it is completely right. Why is it? Because you cannot come with a set plan. Even with professionals it is not really acceptable to make a blueprint and stick to it because the actors creativity is every bit as important as the director’s the designer’s or anyone else on the creative team. Michael Chekhov’s view of inviting the object in, in this case, that is ‘the play’, of falling in love with it, is for me where this hunch is found.

I am not implying a free-for-all. When I direct a play I still feel I am a conductor, but that is my role. I am the conduit for the powerful creative energy that pours from my team. On the other hand though, I have to mould a creative environment for that creative energy to be fully released. and I have to be able to ‘manage’ it. if I do not manage it then the production can become horribly skewed towards a character, the set or some other detail of the production. It can  open the whole production to some kind of pseudo creative tyranny such as exists often in the professional world. This tyranny can come from awkward performers, power hungry directors or defiant designers.

This more democratic way of working is extraordinarily creative, which is one of the reasons why so many groups create ensembles; but it can also create a lack of focus in the piece [especially if it is devised] . Michael Chekhov’s rules of composition, which were not all original from him, are none the less incredible stepping stones through any piece, be it newly devised or a texted famous classic. I looked forward to exploring this aspect of Chekhov Technique with my MA group this Thursday as we worked on Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The rules of composition basically encourages the whole company to believe that we, together , are trying to say something. It encourages us to believe that our ‘piece of art’ has a beginning, middle and end. This end is not necessarily twee or cosy. It can be brutal, trailing and uncompromising, but everyone involved understands what that journey might be ….how do we want the audience to feel ideally?

Of course we cannot fully control this, but we have some general idea. It reminds us we are producing our work of art to say something about the world universally, and as it is NOW.

Then there is the law of polarity. It is another important mine of exploration for theme, character or perhaps the whole play. For the play the Three Sisters, we might say that a polarity is hope/despair. For a character we might explore -Irina – innocence/ maturity. Exploring these polarities is a visceral thing not an object for discussion (well not too much) and as always with M.Chekhov a way of charting our way through the intangible journey of the character’s life in the play.

And then there is the battle “between good and evil”, a rather fundamental polarity which appeals to our moral compass. I love this idea now though I used to get a feeling that making moral judgements was not the place of drama. However, in life we always take sides. Why should theatre be any different. and in any case haven’t we a duty as artists to have a view? It doesn’t need to be one-sided, this view can be complex but Chekhov says a view is essential – especially for us in these crisis-riven times. The conflict of good and evil makes me analyse what are the negative forces which course through this play? Are these forces the lethargy of the family; their inability to change things? Or is the main force of evil something almost like a haunting from the past? Is it the ruthless greed of Natasha as she usurps the Prozorov lives or is she the fundamental truth of a brutal reality the other women cannot face? Or is it the spite and bitterness of Solyony who, unable to have what he wants destroys life? An interesting feeling came up in our MA group that the ‘evil’ is ‘doing nothing’, as in that stasis the evil is sucked into the world of the family and does its work. This evil is not charged by one person necessarily but is something in the atmosphere which everyone breathes and Natasha steps into it. this is a really interesting view – that it is the atmosphere to which the characters respond which creates the tragedy.

And then, what is the force of goodness in this play? Is it Olga and her benevolent motherly support, or Irina’s innocence or Kulygin’s forgiveness or Masha’s ability to fall passionately in love? Perhaps we might say that it is their collective humanity. The goodness is their humanity and their ability, however idealistically, to dream.
.

14054473_10154682691336412_5668573929344102049_o

New Starts

magic jer off

Jerry Fitzgerald. MA alumni. working with first principles. photo:Sean O’Meallaigh

Starting again on teaching the basic tenets of Chekhov in a fairly methodical way and for its own sake fills my heart with joy. Whîlst on the one hand I love running short courses that start with a more specific exploration, it has its restrictions. I am leading a weekend later in late November focusing specifically on entrances and exits, working with threshold, atmosphere and composition about which I am very excited, but because of its length, the weekend focuses equally on application as well as raw training. It means of course that the application may not be as effective in the longer term though the immediate impact on participants is still often profound. However it may not stick as well as it would if they had undergone a more thorough basic training. So going back to the nuts and bolts, through repetition, of ideal centre, feeling of ease and form, radiating and receiving, qualities of movement and imagination etc is for me like plunging back into the wonderful pool of exhilaration and discovery when I first found this way of working myself. I watch people experience this work, many of them for the first time, some tussling with nervousness or with the rubrics of their past training which put the intellect and the why of the character first, instead of the Chekhov work which asks us to plumb the imagination, the body, and the how and the what of the character at the forefront of discovery. I watch the penny suddenly dropping as they get a rush of feeling when they make a gesture and a realisation that acting is a channelling and a release of energy rather than a forensic exercise which often inhibits and restricts their creativity. This does not happen immediately of course. It happens with work; with practise.

At the same time I feel it is imperative in these early stages to reassure them that the ultimate goal of this work does ultimately lead them to an emotional understanding of the text where they can be open to their fellow actors, the playwright, director and audience in a way which they may have thought impossible. For those who find making the connection between voice, body, imagination and feelings tricky at first, this reassurance is especially important.

Another aspect of going back into the basics is that it focuses me back into my own practise with regular work at home alone in my wild garden, weather permitting, on the basic rubrics myself.

In a few weeks we will be starting short scene work on Chekhov’s 3 Sisters. I had thought of using The Crucible and then decided that exploring that dark, grim atmosphere for 12 weeks if only for a few hours per week was just too much. I feel that when we explore a text with the technique, especially at the beginning, it needs to be one with a variety of atmospheres and intentions because the work can be so intense and powerful, that something as unremittingly oppressive as The Crucible may not be the best play to start with.

When Irina cries out in Act 3  of the Three Sisters in despair ‘ I can’t even remember the Italian for window!’ This is of course ridiculous. She is not starving and does not have a terminal disease. It is not really a tragedy. And yet on another hand it is; she realises her life is falling apart and her dreams are going to remain dreams. In a sense her life is already over. This moment, when she expresses this realisation that her dreams are unachievable, is something I suspect every single person has experienced at some time in their lives. To make her dilemma wholly successful the actor has to somehow make us feel the ridiculousness of her statement and yet at the same time have the utmost sympathy for her predicament. Chekhov technique thrives on this complexity… These wonderful invisible yet palpable polarities which exist within characters, between characters and between characters and audience.