Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov

The Sacred Space

“a place where prayer has been valid”. T.S Eliot.

I have rehearsed and worked in many strange and often inhospitable places but whatever has happened I have for many years tried to instil in people a respect for the space. When we make work we can do it anywhere under the most challenging circumstances because, of course, it is the work that is important. However, the work exists in a space and if the room is cold or inadequate it can be a huge challenge, because that space tells everyone whether you and your work are respected in an institution or by society at large. As artists are continually under-valued, this issue of a clean, resourced and purposeful space can be a sensitive one.  I feel we are very lucky in NUI Galway to have a new theatre building which has two lovely studio spaces.

The whole concept of space is fascinating. Right now, Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland is remounting Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and we are taking it up to the prestigious Heaney Homeplace in Northern Ireland. The venue is beautiful and extraordinary with a theatre inspired by a Greek Amphitheatre. The audience are on three sides with tiered seating . There are more seats at the sides than the front. When we performed the piece over a year ago in the Cuirt International Festival in Galway Ireland,  in the Town Hall Theatre Studio, a small end-on studio space with seating on the long side of the studio, it made for a wide stage space. The piece, extremely powerful, was very still, confessional, and formal. This space was almost entirely the opposite type of space to the Heaney Homeplace.

Working within this almost promenade setting in the new venue has given us the opportunity to open up the piece into a much more physical almost Shakespearean presentation, in the way the characters explain and justify their actions around and during the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In fact, and this is what is most interesting, it is the space itself which has demanded this change rather than any demand of mine or the actors. Things we used to find gloriously effective do not alway work in this different configuration. This is not merely a question of the technical considerations but something that happens when people inhabit a particular space and creating a new dynamic.

When I start teaching next week with my undergrad group on Shakespeare, part of the course involves looking at the shape of Shakespeare’s theatre and how that structure affected the nature of the drama and the way the plays were written; particularly with relation to the connection with the audience which the thrust stage provides.

And do these shapes and spaces not have something to do with atmosphere, that most potent element explored in detail by Michael Chekhov in his technique? That the shape of the space and its purpose help create an atmosphere uninfluenced by those who enter that space? That the atmosphere has, of itself, great power and its own demands on what happens within it?

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Orla Tubridy Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning – The Sacrificial Wind

Catch The Sacrificial Wind at the Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy Co. Derry +44 (0)28 7938 7444 on the 22nd September 7.30 http://www.seamusheaneyhome.com

or on the 28th September Free performance at the ODT on campus at NUI Galway at lunchtime 1pm . You will need to arrive early to ensure a seat.

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The Feeling of the Whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensemble and Michael Chekhov

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students in the prep week for 12th night recently working on themes from the play

Michael Chekhov was not the only exponent of ensemble playing. A whole raft of practitioners and teachers espouse it. What for me is most profound about Chekhov’s contribution to playing in ensemble is it is on the one hand a spiritual connection between players and a practical connection with the group. The very tools of radiating/receiving, atmosphere, composition and form speak directly to these connections. They give you practical guidance on how to make this intangible connection between your fellow performers.

ENSEMBLE is concerned primarily with the sense of the group , rather than the individual actor. So it’s not how I relate to this play and the director, and maybe my lead actor, but how I relate to all the actors, the technicians, the writer, the play(if there is one) and the director. This is not to say the individual actor may not shine, but he shines because of his/her ability to work with the group powerfully and effectively, like the member of an orchestra.

And for me, the art of ensemble and form is shown no more powerfully than in the classical orchestra, where the individual players unite with all their artistry and skill to produce a wonderful performance. The violin may have a fabulous solo but it is still reliant on the group. What Ensemble does require is a realization that you are only as powerful as the group. You get power, but you also relinquish it. When people have seen this group work in operation, it can be spectacularly powerful.

Michael Chekhov believed very strongly in the laws of composition and the idea that everything has a feeling of form and that we all understand it is vital to a successful satisfying piece of theatre.

But surely this power of performance should happen anyway? Thats true of course, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because of egos, the pressures of time, the desperate nature of actors to please the director to hopefully get another job, the director’s often dictatorial attitude or many other pressures brought to bear on the professional in particular.

We have all read the reviews… “This actress shines in the small but telling part of Anfisa, endorsing the feeling of ensemble in this splendid production of the Three Sisters”! Ensemble used in this context usually means simply that everyone acted well, it is still a buzz word and I am very sceptical when I hear it being used. The job description of the ensemble performer extends far beyond that of the conventional actor, who makes a good job of a small part.

A sense of ensemble is not always about what kind of theatre you are producing but HOW you produce it. It means seeing your part in context with the piece (if it is a conventional play that is, and you have a ‘part’ in the normal sense of the word.) remembering that there is no character without the play . You CANNOT separate the character from the play, nor from the other characters, nor from the other performers either. If you have ever had to go on as an understudy or to act with one, you know this to be true. The piece is fundamentally changed when someone else takes over.

An ensemble performer needs to know, find and agree with the group and director the highs and lows of the play, the moods and atmospheres, so that everyone can work with them… they must know what performer they are working for at any given moment . For me, it encompasses some of the jobs given as the director’s preserve in conventional theatre….Many actors will say to you this is the director’s concern…
It accepts that theatre is a team sport, not merely an ego driven exercise . Michael Chekhov says,

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part is in full harmony with it”
To the actor – Michael Chekhov

ENSEMBLE THEATRE recognises the special circumstances of the theatrical experience; that it is a live event ; that somehow a covenant is drawn up between audience and performers that anything can happen.

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participants in Imagination and the Body last year

To my mind, all theatre should be ensemble theatre.

Very much looking forward to Chekhov and Ensemble in two weeks time here in Galway.
Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for details

Twelfth Night Polarities

IMG_3934As we put the production of Twelfth Night to bed here at CTPI and NUI Galway , I am thinking back to something I discovered about this play through the production, through my editing and through the process..

I had never before thought of Twelfth Night as a tragicomedy. Before we start to talk about the idea of polarities and how they exist in the play we should perhaps explore the unique form of tragi-comedy, because for me at least, that is certainly how 12th Night seems to work for a modern audience. Tragicomedy was made very popular through writers like Middleton and Rowley after Shakespeare, but it was clearly part of the collective psychology of the Elizabethan theatre goer way before then. Tragicomedy is not simply putting  comic scenes in with serious or tragic scenes in order to keep the wide social demographic of many Elizabethan audiences satisfied and connected to the performance. The tragicomic dynamic is a visceral engine, a cruelty which actually consciously rubs sadness and grief against laughter and joy. Tragicomedy is a genre which actively uses polarity to heighten the work. We ignore this at our peril or the play is constantly unsettling in the wrong sort of way. The scenes somehow do not sit together without embracing the full force of what tragicomedy unleashes. Indeed Shakespeare’s language constantly compares opposites, especially in soliloquy when a character is asking the audience what they should do about their particular dilemma. It’s built into the fabric.

Michael Chekhov focuses on polarity as part of discovering the score of the play. Often when I am working I like to take the actors as characters through the play considering one polarity only, to see where the character fits and travels along that theme through his/her story. I do this quite early on and whilst it may  be somewhat transformed once the scenes start to be played, it is amazing how the alchemy of imagery and instinct often reveal jewels of character we could never have imagined through discussion.

In Twelfth Night one of the polarities I see is Riot and Order. Feste represents the former and Malvolio the other. These two characters are diametrically opposed and it is their battle, culminating in the highly ambiguous prison scene, which for me is one of the big polarities of this play. The other is Love and Death, not exactly opposites, but in the Elizabethan world view, they are. In the beautiful Act 2 sc 4, the disguised Viola and Orsino speak intimately and lovingly, are then faced with the haunting song Come Away Death. Orsino’s mood is transformed and he becomes violent and desperate, whilst Viola refers to her brother [supposedly dead]. In that moment the two young people are forced to face the dark side of their souls.

IMG_3994The production has been a delight. Now back to working in my garden, writing, reviving The Sacrificial Wind and the first of three weekend workshops .The first – Chekhov and Ensemble will be held on March 9th-11th in Galway. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

 

 

Messin’ with the Bard

shakespeareThe last time I mentioned the subject of editing Shakespeare quite innocently on FB there was quite a strong reaction –  a ‘don’t mess with the Bard’ reaction. These remarks made me feel quite the revolutionary! For the last two weeks, on and off, I have been cutting and shaping a production of 12th Night which I am doing with college students in Valentines week 2018.

So how does “messing with the Bard” work so that we don’t make a mess of it? First of all we need to acknowledge a few things.

1) Shakespeare did not write all of the plays alone nor were the plays fully written down so certain errors are inevitable. This co-writing frequently makes for whole sections of repetition which to my mind is not just reminding the audience about situations but it happened because the plays were sometimes written piecemeal by different people. The brothel scene in Measure for Measure is classic, where the same information seems to go round and round and lines have to be cut and reassigned for the scene to make any sense at all.

2) Why are key players in the stories frequently missing from key scenes? Answer most probably because they were playing another character in the scene. (why is Maria totally absent from Act 5 of 12th Night? Why is Cassius missing from two key scenes before Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar.? Could it be that he is playing the ailing Caius Ligarius?

3) Most scenes have very long lead-ins because in a stage with no ‘lights up/lights down’ actors needed to keep the energy going and so they enter talking -.often these intros are simply to get the people on the stage and the scene really starts about 8 lines in. This is not true of every scene but it is true of many.

In Peter Brook’s fabulous slim tome Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare,(Nick Hern Books) he talks about what we do when we, as directors, change things. He says directors can do what they like, yet there is always a trade-off with every single decision made. If you modernise a design too specifically the play is inevitably not illuminated but reduced. That’s his view and I share it.

If you change the order of something, there are consequences. Let’s look at Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the RNT which originally began with ‘To be or not to be’ instead of the ghost scene on the battlements, which I understand was returned to its traditional place after some kind of outcry. I never saw this production but let’s examine what changing the position of this speech says to an audience. It says  clearly, ‘This play is about Hamlet, and everyone else is relatively superfluous’. It says ‘this is not about a world of corruption but an individual’. It’s about a star role not a world. In Zefferelli’s Hamlet , which starred Mel Gibson, the Ghost did not appear until Hamlet met him. This made for a tension and apprehension for anyone not familiar with the story and enabled the audience to play with the idea that Hamlet is imagining, or maybe he isn’t. It gave the play more of a kind of ‘thriller’ engine. Unfortunately, I felt this engine ran out of juice before the end. Whether you agree with my assessment or not, these two examples of textual adjustments have a profound effect on the response of the audience and the trajectory of the piece. So Peter Brook is right, you have to be careful ….

But….

I don’t know about you but I get heartily sick of Shakespearean productions in which actors crack dirty jokes which no one understands nowadays, then in order to help us understand the actors laugh lasciviously and make some kind of crotch-grabbing gesture to which everyone onstage responds with hilarity. The audience then laugh and everyone thinks they did their job. This tedious behaviour has been happening for decades! Therefore something is revealed; many of these jokes have to be cut because no one, including the actors, really ‘gets’ them. THIS IS NOT A CRIME .It is simply facing the facts that some of Shakespeare’s work is really hard to communicate to a modern audience. Some jokes are still funny but some have to go; you have to keep some because if you don’t then the flavour of the text would be gone and anyway some are more accessible and are funny. However, care is needed.

And then there is the quality in Shakespeare’s writing which is lampooned, occasionally effectively, in Ben Elton’s TV sitcom Upstart Crow, which centres on the ups-and-downs of the Bard’s life. Very often he takes a  long flowery paragraph to say something incredibly simple. When you start to dissect some of the actual Shakespearean text you know when the imagery takes you somewhere amazing, illuminating the character’s psychology and when you just feel it is decoration. You have to use your own judgment and, as Brook says in his book, be very careful how you edit. We have to remember that in Shakespeare’s day, language was literally magic, a fabulous tool which charged our imaginings. So not only the descriptive power, but the punning and wordplay were like crackling conjuring tricks. These days we do not respond in quite the same way.

I have found that European companies are not so precious about the text. I remember seeing a splendid Latvian production of Romeo and Juliet with raunchy street boys at the Dublin Theatre Festival some years ago, where the two families ran pizza factories (much more successful than it sounds). One of the highlights of the production was the Queen Mab speech which became a strangely pivotal tragic moment as the whole ensemble was consumed by sleep, only to awaken and set the whole tragedy in full swing.

Michael Chekhov, whilst highly respectful of form and wholeness (two of the planks of his Technique are built upon this) nonetheless was of the opinion that we could be robust with Shakespeare. As someone who has done a lot of adaptation and dramaturgy of plays of this period, I most heartily concur.

The further from my own home I get – devising theatre for the ‘abroad’

One of the fundamentals of creating theatre is to share. It is an act of sharing. Nowhere is this more true than when you are devising with a group, and especially when the group is devising a piece of theatre based on their experience. So it was with an American student group from Principia College whom I met for two periods of devising; once at the beginning of their trip, and once at the end. The devising of their piece around their trip to Ireland, what they experienced both literally and emotionally, is the subject of their dramatic piece. Indeed this process is not over as the summer intervenes and they recreate and further develop the piece next term with their drama professor John O’Hagan.

I have devised many pieces, particularly with young people’s groups, and with this piece in particular it was important to share the idea that this was not a lecture or a slide show, but a feeling response to their experience. This highlights for me what is absolutely unique about a theatre experience; a direct response from the hearts of the performers pouring their energies into the theatre space, either through the filter of character and story or in this case, the more direct route of their own writing, and their own experiences.

It is very often the case that initially students come at devising very intellectually and make thin work. Once the feeling response starts to happen and the instincts kick in, the work gets deepened. It is wonderful to watch this opening up to the “intangible” as Michael Chekhov would say. Only when you approach the intangible and start to use and express it can an audience truly get a sense of what the experience was like. “Atmosphere” is a very valuable tool in accessing this intangibility, particularly in this group when they wanted to get a sense of place, for example, Dublin, Belfast or Tara.

Whilst you need to also play to the group’s strengths (all of this group could sing beautifully) I am a firm believer that it is unfair in all but the most basic of circumstances not to develop the skill level in the group, so I always mesh a number of skill workshops in with the devising to help the participants maximise their power; except in exceptional circumstances creation is not enough. So in this series of workshops we meshed tools, ensemble, voice and devising together. There was of course a large Chekhov component; we used the imagination and the body first to find expression, which freed many of the students up and widened the range of feelings they could express. Meshing devising and skills work is complex in that you have to choose exercises to suit the material they produce on the day so the leader cannot prepare the exercises in advance, except in a broad way.  You as the leader risk more but you also gain more when the magic comes and their devised material is enriched by the skills you have offered.

Because we were always dealing with the participants’ own material it was vital to show the utmost sensitivity towards it. The deviser is usually revealing something about themselves directly, especially in written solo work. It is often not appropriate to use this material as an acting exercise and push the student into difficult areas. A play enables more of a distancing between the actor and the material. It means students can be more robust in their acting because they are playing the impulses and feelings of the characters rather than themselves. The work is seen through the atmosphere and situation of the play ; it is not theirs but they nonetheless have to inhabit it in order to perform successfully. Often with devising the work is very very close and as a leader I am aware of a delicate balancing act, which often involves how much they want to reveal.

This, along with rules of composition which we touched on and the creation of a rough structure and some deep honest work was the total of the time i spent with them. it was amazing to actually see them in their first tentative days and then in their last days in Ireland, like a beginning and an end in itself. Thanks for such an enriching experience.

I will be returning to atmosphere specifically in the summer school Journey Through Atmosphere,August 24 -27th being held on the NUI Galway campus. We will be working with Pericles, a play with a myriad of journies and atmospheres. Plays with Journies, like devised pieces about journies seem to me to have atmosphere almost as their engine. check out http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for info or contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

Bacchic Alchemy

16112706_10207462147903095_4596838258018514637_oTHE MOMENT when you have finished working through the play for the first time and then run it all is a strange moment. It is the moment when you get a sense of how this play will work in this venue with this cast. Just by speaking it, by acting it out, however roughly, a moment sparks when you realise the magic of the play in a way you did not know before. This alchemy gives you glimmers not only of the ultimate performances but the journey that the play takes and how it might affect a potential audience .It tests your decisions on composition even when not fully realised by the cast (as yet) and the atmospheres and qualities on which you have agreed. It is a stage along the way, a moment of achievement. Whilst it is far from ready, I was inexpressibly moved by its power.

Of course that first run through also tells us what practically does not work; e.g. clunky blocking and how far you have as a group still to go but nonetheless a stage has been reached. It is also a crossroads. It is now time to consolidate and sharpen, but also judiciously discard. It means honing skills and making firmer decisions. This production of The Bacchae performed by students on the MA and BA programmes at NUI Galway in the version by David Greig requires great voice and movement work, singing, character, a strong sense of ensemble ,the ability to play with the audience, fearlessly explore vicious humour, ecstatic joy and the grimmest tragedy as the play descends into hellish and human despair.

On that note, along with getting a full sense of the humour of David Greig’s version of the play when we acted it out this evening, I also got a stronger sense of the tragic trajectory as the remaining  human characters, Agave and her father Kadmos, realise their folly and are left to deal with the consequences. It is extraordinary to me that two characters we have hardly seen in the earlier part of the play are able to carry the weight of this tragedy, and yet somehow they do not seem like some kind of tagged-on thing; they are most definitely ‘part of the whole’. They speak for each of us who has suffered tragedy; who understand the nature of endurance.

The clarity of this is something I would put down in part to our work on M. Chekhov’s ‘feeling of the whole’ in our first few days of work. Composition is an extraordinary thing and even though we do not refer to it too much in rehearsal, I feel by getting people to get the story into their bodies a sense of the composition settles there within us all.

You cannot get a full sense of a play’s journey simply by reading . As Oliver Taplin says in his book Greek Fire, the Greeks make you face up to aspects of cruelty and cataclysm to an unbearable degree but within a ritualised structure which makes it bearable – just. Because it is poetic it enables us to face it unflinchingly. That is why Agave and Kadmos’ scene does not feel at all tagged-on. Because it is where the play is going.

The Bacchae by Euripides in a version by David Greig, is being performed at the Mick Lally Theatre from Feb 14th-Feb 18th by students of the NUIG Drama Programme directed by Max Hafler