Tag Archives: Michael Chekhov

Provoking feelings.


Michael Chekhov

Recently on Facebook I got rather harangued by someone on a Chekhov newsfeed. Finally the person with whom I was in dispute wrote that until an actor focussed on real emotion, real thought and real feeling we were acting only in a dysfunctional way. In other words, he was implying that the Technique was some kind of fraud and getting down to organic thought, feeling. etc. was what acting was really about. His tone was disparaging about Chekhov the actor, the technique and me.

My understanding of Chekhov Technique is that all the exercises developing centres, radiating/ receiving, qualities ,atmosphere and gesture etc are effective simply because they lead you towards a genuine emotion. They are vehicles with which you can discover the character, powered by the twin engines of imagination and body. They provoke real sensations/feelings – that is mainly their purpose. These sensations and feelings may have an identifiable connection with something from your life but usually for me they don’t. This does not make them less real. The exercises provoke more organic feelings than any intellectual discussion of a play and are more effective than only using your own accessible palette of experience. They can take you in directions you would never ever have considered, expand your range, and give you new ways to look not only at the character but the whole play. They open you to a whole new way of seeing theatre and, for some people, for perceiving the world. And the amazing thing about this is that they are not blissful ethereal waffle but the exercises show us ways to access and, to some extent, understand how we actually operate as human beings all the time. We all react to atmosphere; different people operate with different qualities; most importantly we all radiate and receive messages, which are not just ‘listening’ or ‘working with your scene partner’ but taking them in on every level, the energy from their eyes, the way they curl their mouths when they speak, the way they move their bodies, and the way we feel their energy moving backwards and forwards. These are real life processes and Chekhov simply teaches us to harness and explore them.

Of course, all techniques have their issues; with Chekhov technique perhaps it is that we can get so caught up in our images and qualities and atmospheres that we forget there are particular material circumstances to a scene which we need to honour as actors. We must guard against ignoring that. With more method-based practises, ‘my character’ can become the only thing that matters as the actor builds an armour to protect what they have so painstakingly constructed. With Lecoq and movement-based methods, there can sometimes be a sense of style over depth. I know these drawbacks are in ridiculous shorthand but I am simply making a point.

Personally I do not care whether Michael Chekhov was the world’s greatest actor (something my haranguing friend chose to use as a weapon of argument). It is impossible to judge in any case as acting styles change so much. I do know that I have seen many Peter Brook productions and some have disappointed me. However this does not diminish the genius of either Michael Chekhov or Peter Brook in my eyes. They both have pushed theatre forward and found ways to expand it and much of their work is great. They have consummate views of theatre in my opinion and a sense of the spiritual in their work. They are real explorers.

These are for me far from grandiose claims. They are how it is.

OK, now I have got that off my chest. I am glad I restrained myself from saying all this on the newsfeed and using expletives. On the rare occasion I lose my temper on FB I nearly always feel diminished . My anger makes it hard to collect my thoughts.

If you are interested in working here in class in Galway , there is an Openers class on Tuesday evening for people new to the work, and a Continuers class on Sundays which would enable people to come from a distance to do them. Both these courses start the second week of September and run for six weeks. if you are interested in either please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. The August course, Expressing the Invisible is now full.


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If you have read any of my other blogposts you will know that I am a great espouser of finding atmospheres for scenes or whole plays. Michael Chekhov said finding and expressing atmosphere was ‘the oxygen of the performance’. Without general atmosphere in a performance, there is always something missing. You as an audience member can leave the theatre dissatisfied without knowing why, feeling somehow stupid that you didn’t somehow ‘get it’.

Conversely though, atmosphere alone is not enough. As I watched the performance of Death At Intervals at An Taibhdhearc in the Galway Arts Festival this week, it appeared to me to have a lot of atmosphere but no connection between the characters; no commitment to playing the story, even though there is one in the book from which the show was developed, and for the most part a lugubrious pace (do directors these days learn nothing about rhythm?) which was meant to embody the ominous inevitability of death. So whilst I applauded this strong commitment to atmosphere and two or three powerful sequences, it did not for me hold as a piece of theatre. The piece is also about two forces/people who really need/love each other, something for me distinctly missing from the piece. There was no polarity of Life and Death. Just Death. Any commitment to structure seemed to exist by repeating, quite beautifully I must admit, the same powerful text from the beginning.

In my next Michael Chekhov Acting workshop, EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE, being held 18-21st August at NUI Galway, one of the areas we are going to look at, using Dancing at Lughnasa, is the Atmosphere of Memory. The play is suffused with it; driven by it. Like The Glass Menagerie which I directed in 2011, the play is coloured by how the narrator tells his story, which is of course not just his story, but the story of the whole family. Memory is a hard thing to invoke effectively in theatre I believe, though in life we do it all the time with spectacular effect. When I meet a friend or an ex-student and we talk about an event or a moment, I can be there in seconds imagining what happened; where I was; how I felt; what I was wearing. I remember more as the memory pools into my imagination, all sorts of detail streaming out into other events around that time. There is a strong movement in memory which is not always backwards. Memory makes a life into a swirling current. And Atmosphere is like that too. It is not a static thing. it is full of movement and flexibility.

This week has been awash with the Atmosphere of Memory. I went for a hospital checkup this week and was obliged to recall some pretty unpleasant details of hospital procedure visited on me as a small boy . As I recounted the incident fairly dispassionately from notes, it began by being objective and distant, but as I described in more detail, the feelings and painful images started to burst through and pain, fear and terror came flooding back as I described it. The body remembers. It was powerful and unpleasant and I carried it around, literally, for days.

Of course Michael Chekhov Technique takes all of this into account; body memory and the power of images. That is why I feel so attuned to it because so much of how life happens internally is very much how Chekhov explains it. So the Atmosphere of Memory is not nostalgia, that most sickly cousin of memory and in Lughnasa a dangerous substitute for it if you are not careful. Memory is on the one hand, palpable and real for all the characters , but ephemeral and chimeric on the other; something which liberates them and also defines, disappoints and imprisons them. The whole play is a memory and the atmosphere and taste of that memory cannot be just something discarded when the director and company feel like it. It somehow has to infuse everything.

The powerful sequence in the play which leads up to the Dancing of the title happens I feel rather challengingly in the middle of the first half, rather than further into the piece as I always expect. For me it is here that the energy of memory activates Maggie in particular and unlocks the door to the wildness of the dancing. Though the memory is bitter sweet, angry and joyous by turns, it stirs the women into a defiant roar of movement .

13418662_1207707572584439_8734234864553263013_oThe other personal event powered by both achievement and memory that happened to me this week was my launch in Dubray’s Bookshop of TEACHING VOICE published by Nick Hern Books . There, surrounded by many  ex-students I talked of how they had helped me with my learning as much as the other way round. Prof. Patrick Lonergan spoke glowingly of my contribution to the work of the Drama Department at the University, and my partner spoke of the pastoral care of students, vital especially when you are teaching theatre and encouraging people to be brave in the work. There were many moments which connected wonderfully to my past working life as an acting and voice coach with young people but as I was speaking, I connected at one moment with someone whom I have known since she a teenager. I saw her in her first play with me nearly seventeen years earlier  and suddenly there was a strong meaningful path back to that time which I found incredibly life enhancing. I could see her in the costume. It was one of those ‘invisible’ and profound moments any production should be full of.

I am aware this blog has been a mixture of my musings on the upcoming workshop as well as what has been quite an eventful week with regard to memory. That is what so wonderful about working with Chekhov technique; everything matters.

There are still two places on EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE if you are interested. check out the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland page on the blog here or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com.



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Janna Lindstrom and Conor Geogheghan in a recent CTPI workshop

I feel that theatre generally lives far too often in the realm of the materialist and the obvious; either that or it wallows in elitist performance art which says nothing , is riven with cliches and driven by obscure intellectual concepts. ( I watched a supreme example of this in the Tate Modern recently). And before anyone starts to write furiously, I know all performance art is not like that but some of it is.

So what do I mean when I talk about the Invisible? Is this just so much pretension? Definitely not.

Michael Chekhov called it , ‘the Intangible’. It’s like something just beyond reach, and yet ironically the ‘intangible’ is around us all the time.

In these next three blog posts , I am going to touch on what ‘the Invisible’ might mean in rehearsal and performance. In this post we are going to take the space in the text called a Pause.

What is a Pause?  We can feel it and experience it, but we cannot see it. It is invisible. But a pause is not nothing. Something is always happening in a pause, and it is not an empty space. Michael Chekhov said there was no such thing as a dead pause;

We know this movement of energy exists because we experience it every day of our lives when we pause. Actors who work more intellectually might consider ‘well, in this pause, I need to think this, this, and this’, but this thinking does not produce emotional authenticity.

“The main characteristic of a true pause is a moment of Absolute Radiation.” Michael Chekhov. On the Technique of Acting .

So a pause is a place of great movement; of energy, fullness, searching, decision and weight. It might be a place where we protect ourselves with silence or close in despair. It can be a place where we attack and send our energy to meet our partner, hungry for a response. It can be a moment where we express our love.

We need to understand the energy of the pause, to inhabit it and how to use it, to fully explore how a character might be behaving. And, importantly, to not be afraid of it. So many actors are afraid to pause, as if by stopping speaking they will somehow disappear.

A couple of years ago I was working on a student production of YERMA by Lorca. We were working on the scene where Yerma, a young woman, now truly desperate to have a child, meets her friend Maria who has two children. Maria tries to pass Yerma’s house and avoid coming in but Yerma sees her and forces her friend to come in. In a deeply painful scene reminiscent of a difficult visit to a sick relative, Maria tries to comfort her bitter friend and then, finally exasperated, Maria blurts out ” why can’t you just accept Gods will?” YERMA looks at her and then says ‘accept God’s will?” Maria makes for the door and then there is a painful moment where Yerma says ” you have the same eyes as your baby. He has exactly the same eyes as you.” Maria says goodbye and leaves.

I always start our initial exploration of any scene, lines already learned by the way, with radiating and receiving as the two actors speak their lines to each other giving and receiving energy from their scene partner, speaking quietly and with intention, and giving plenty of space between speeches. It is that time between speeches which is the most important as you get a real sense of what the other person is ‘sending out’ and how that makes you feel. You then get a sense of where the pauses might lie because you find out what is really going on. This is not just ‘listening’ (though it is that as well) but something much greater.

In the scene between Maria and Yerma, the actors by this process found several moments which were so painful and true that it had the three of us in tears. After Maria’s ‘why can’t you just accept God’s will’ the long pause was electric as Maria realised she had been almost forced into saying the one thing which would alienate her from her friend forever. At Yerma’s “accept God’s will?” I asked the actor playing Maria to receive the energy from Yerma in a pause and to move only when she couldn’t stand it anymore. As she bolted for the door, Yerma ran after her and grabbed her arm. She let Maria go and looked at her pleading, desperate and alone, and said the line about the baby’s eyes. There was a pause where Maria suddenly hardened and said “Goodbye”. What we realised with this unearthing of the invisible was that at this point in the story, Maria is saying Goodbye not just for today but for the rest of their lives; that she can no longer take anymore and they cannot have the friendship they had; that Yerma is alone. Importantly we found this without much discussion but by exploring the invisible. It was complex and unbelievably moving.

This issue of energy and the pause is one of the areas I want to explore in Expressing The Invisible, the course at NUI Galway that I am running , August 18-21. THe cost of this 3 and 1/2 day workshop is 180 euro / 150 euro concessions. There are only a few places left. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further details.

Inspired by Chekhov

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photo : Jerry Fitzgerald. photographer Sean T O’Meallaigh

When I first started working with the Chekhov Technique, it felt incredibly familiar to me. I had been using the body to find the emotions and voice of the character, and helping others to do so, for years and years. But when I discovered there was a technique which embraced fully the idea of connecting Voice, Feelings, Body and Imagination, a holistic approach to acting, it felt like I had ‘come home’. The word ‘technique’ implies rules and regulations and whilst there are some, there is an incredible flexibility within it, which opens up its use to a whole range of work. I have used the work in devising, scripted plays, applied drama and voice work. It is open to use in everything. It expands our sense of who we can be and what we can create.

Chekhov asks the question, ‘How often have we been to see plays and leave unmoved or unchanged, and yet we do not know why?’ In my case it has happened far more times than I can care to mention. When I look back, the play may have had good actors, lots of money thrown at it, good production values etc, but there is something within it which is essentially hollow. There is little or no real exchange between performers and there is not this concept of a shared experience.
I started wondering if the dissatisfaction with so many performances I saw, was me, expecting too much? But whenever I remember the massive amount of work, feeling and sacrifice that goes into making a piece of work, I remember that everything I want from this experience of watching a performance is valid. I am looking for this ‘intangible’ that Chekhov speaks of, and if it is not there I am disappointed. When I said ‘exchange’ earlier I meant the real exchange of energy between performers not just a kind of ego driven fake ‘listening’ which passes too often as acting. As an experiment, take a moment with someone you know well and look into their eyes. Hold that exchange for longer than feels comfortable and you will understand what I mean. You will feel the energy flow between you quite naturally. You might want to look away or get giggly, but you most definitely feel it. This passing of energy can have many forms and feelings, but it is happening all the time.
Michael Chekhov technique really explores the intangible invisible ingredient in depth through exploring atmosphere for instance, and puts it at the front of creation, rather than as something which might just happen if we intellectually understand our roles and can play the scenes ‘realistically’. This is what makes it very effective for devising. It encourages us to listen to our inner creative voice. Nay-sayers might suggest this approach sounds self-indulgent because we are listening to the creative spirit rather than leading with the intellect, but this is not so. It is free, but it has a discipline within it. The main part of this discipline is to honour your creative spirit and train your voice body and whole being to follow it rather than put things in the way. It gives us a new way to look at creativity and how to engage with it.
I was very inspired the other day by two things. I met a young woman artist in the street who had trained in Chekhov technique who reminded me about how important it is to share this way of working. I do not know if she realised it, but it reminded me how important it was for me to run Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland here in Galway, and create somehow a hub for this work.  Then I saw this video on my FB newsfeed where one of the people who has taught me so much about the work, Fern Sloan, from America was speaking. Check this link for an inspirational few minutes.


Our first workshop of Spring is CHEKHOV AND DEVISING (APRIL 8-10) here in Galway City. Check here on the CHEKHOV TRAINING AND PERFORMANCE IRELAND page for more info or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com or phone 0863307325.
The second CHEKHOV FOR DIRECTING ( AND INEVITABLY, ACTING) is being held May 13-15. The third , IMAGINATION AND THE BODY is being held 17-19th June.

A website is coming . For now we have the FB business page
and the particular page on this WordPress blog.


The Path of the Actor and the power of autobiography

Michael Chekhov

Michael Chekhov

At last I was given The Path of the Actor for my birthday – Michael Chekhov’s autobiography written when he was only 36. Whilst Chekhov’s classic acting technique texts To the Actor and On The Technique of Acting give you a strong sense of the man himself, this beautiful, honest and moving book gives me a real sense of the roots of his life and personality which helped give birth to his amazing work. It is a moving experience and I would recommend it to any Chekhov student. Unlike Peter Brook say, who never seems to explore his own personal world or indeed his failings in any of the books about or by him that I have read, and despite his undisputed genius always appears a kind of distant guru, Chekhov’s painful human description of his breakdown, family relationships, alcoholism, exile etc gives insight into how the artist found his path , a path that was not always clear and defined, but was a path never the less . All the personal episodes trace back however to the ‘spine’, his work, his feelings about it, and the way in which he developed his technique which give a real ‘feeling of the whole’ to his experiences. Whilst I am sure the biography is selective, and some traumatic episodes are undoubtedly left out, there are enough difficult and embarrassing episodes remaining to admire his honesty, openness and directness. Chekhov is not afraid to look challenged or foolish or strange, as many respected actor/ director theorists might be , and yet at the same time he is not being indulgent or egocentric and apologising for his behaviour or his ideas. He does not obfuscate, he illuminates. He has this amazing faith in the wonder of artistic creation that any attempt to explain it does not diminish that wonder. What comes over to me as I read, is this archetype of the Searcher. it is a spiritual search in the broadest sense.

Autobiography is a powerful tool of exploration.  In my personal experience,  and I am not trying to compare myself here, an extraordinary thing happened to me on my birthday when I played  some radio essays I had done for RTE ( the Irish broadcaster) for the assembled guests. I had recorded them over a decade earlier and they explored something of my own approach to creativity, and my life as an actor, director, teacher and playwright, beginning when I was in a play when I was 8. As I listened to one or two of the more painful episodes in this series of essays I was again reminded of the way the events had fuelled my attitudes, and shaped my path.

The very form of the essays was restrictive and the form forced a narrative. Was the narrative really there as clearly in the reality of my life? There were some aspects I did not use, both high and low experiences, but nevertheless the thrust of my journey was as I experienced it, even though I was not able to discern it always as a journey at the time it was happening. Is form only something discernible in art, when we shape our lives through creative exploration? Or does it exist intrinsically of itself? Has my life a true form? Or does form only exist in art? Hmmmm. Maybe My life is a work of art? As Chekhov speaks of every action as ‘a little piece of art’ ?

I remember when I recorded the essays, in the RTE studios in Galway. I sat alone in the studio on a sunny day and spoke to the director whom I think was in Limerick, on the telephone. There was no real human contact. It was strange. But when I had finished recording and walked out into the sun, I felt an extraordinary weight lift from my shoulders as if a part of my life had suddenly been explained to me.

Adapting and Distilling the Duchess of Malfi


Condensing Malfi to a tighter text for 8 actors whilst at the same time maintaining what I believe is the thrust and shape of the play has been an interesting challenge. For me one of the most important factors is to maintain the atmosphere and dark philosophical Vision of a critical elitist world which crumbles and sinks into the mire of its own madness and violence, taking almost everyone with it.

It is delicate work . I have already returned some text I had sliced away.

I have done a lot of adaptations over the years, since I worked on Celestina, De Rojas extraordinary play/novel for the Actors Touring Company, and adaptations for Commonweal of Faustus and The Old Law, A Jacobean play by Middleton and Rowley. The latter involved me in writing a version of the play , with my own scenes and speeches, developing the female characters in particular. This incensed some of the national right wing critics who were annoyed I gave the play a definite left wing bias, that was only hinted at in the original, though the adaptation got many fine reviews, as did the production.

What was exciting was that because I wrote in the style of the original play, my own contributions were not discernible except to the few scholars who were familiar with the play. In 2008 the original play was performed in Stratford-on-Avon. Unfortunately despite some strong performances it remained for me a museum piece, and I think they would have been well served to have done an adaptation. My own, whilst overlong, was far more relevant to the world right now and far more likely to engage audiences. In fact when I did my version with students at MIT many years later I cut it drastically. It is an interesting play, essentially a black comedy about euthanasia and the effects of legislation on society.

Michael Chekhov, when discussing Shakespeare, thought a director and cast should feel free to shape and edit his plays, and at one time I would have thought this an anathema. But as I have come to understand Chekhov’s rules about composition ,( which are shared by other techniques too) and understood that the plays were frequently co-authored, which made for repetition and occasional lack of clarity, along with the fact that there are often pieces which are incomprehensible to a modern audience, I have become much more free about the subject. Also, the obvious practical issues about performing these large plays with a more modest cast  inevitably make editing essential. Chekhov’s idea of form and his suggestion to treat the play almost as if it was a music score is an exciting consideration, and can hone not only the direction but also the whole creative team contribution.

However, there are dangers when distilling the work, of the whole play evaporating. In his short but wonderful book, Evoking Shakespeare, Peter Brook discusses the dangers of modernising a text or setting it in a different time, reminding us that whilst, as directors, we can do what we want, that we are losing something, or at the very least, changing something fundamental, whenever we make these kinds of changes.

So what are the essences of the Duchess of Malfi? A corrupt fetishistic class ridden world, which devours itself , yet is nonetheless desired and admired by the people who work for it, until they realise all too late that when you are sucked into that world, you yourself are inevitably tainted. In this world, that means usually you pay with your life.

Here is a change I have made. For me the issue of class is strong in the play though never fully explored,, and I have accentuated this a little through the character of what was once Delio, Antonios friend. He is a courtier in the original and his rather rakish behaviour In certain scenes sits uncomfortably for me with his main role of confidante to Antonio, The accountant and personal assistant to the Duchess, who eventually becomes her husband. Of course a purist might say that this is what Webster was trying to say, that even the nicest people are corrupted, but his contribution is not coherent enough to really make sense to me.  In the original he seems as corrupt as the others, and I was anxious to seek an energy in the play of someone who was a good person but who was not  tainted by the actions of the court. It is interesting Delio begins and ends the play, and that must be our abiding impression of him as a good guy, the Horatio of Malfi.

In our production the character Delia is being played by an older woman , and I sense she might come from a lower class even than Antonio. This allows us to connect with a Character, an outsider, who has to deal with the horror of what transpires, someone whose fascination for the court is obvious right from the start, in the lines she/he is given. It gives Delia a strong pertinent resonance for the present Day to which we can all relate as we look on at ineffectual and corrupt government elites across the globe. Whilst this is not in the original , we are not not living in the 17th century either, and ultimatately the play has to communicate to us now. Having said all this I have been very careful not to increase the stage time of the character, which would have unbalanced the play . It is all a delicate balance.

The Duchess of Malfi plays in the Black Box Galway February 3rd – 7th

‘The fault, dear Brutus…’ Caesar at the Bankside Globe

shakespeareI have just returned from seeing Julius Caesar at the fabulous Globe on the South Bank. I cannot believe I have never been there before but I left London before it was built. It was wonderful to see the audience watching the play in something like the kind of environment in which it would have been performed, and reminded me how important it is for young people to acknowledge where the plays were performed in order to understand and fully appreciate them. However I have to say that I was disappointed at the level of some of the actors, and more particularly, the direction.

Despite having some technically strong actors ( and some appallingly weak ones) , the production failed, for me at least. there was no real attempt to tell the story scene by scene, and speed and pace are a cheap substitute for real tension. Of course these are connected, and pace is vital, but tense moments of conflict and debate and some real character conflicts and transformations were what was required. The actors seemed to be encouraged by director Dominic Dromgoole to play the whole thing at lightning speed with no moments for pause, as if they were afraid that if they stopped speaking the whole edifice would crumble. When Brutus took a big pause during the oration it was quite clear that a few more pauses would have been completely acceptable and the actors and the story would not have vanished in a puff of smoke. I felt they needed to trust the play and the audience more .

A few sections sparkled, especially the group work which was strong and powerful around two rather too weak orations. Interestingly though, I felt that when the crowd actors came onto the stage to hear the will and see Caesar’s body more closely, they instantly forgot that the audience was part of them, and became rather less powerful . This made me feel that the actors and director had no real understanding of what that relationship might have been.

Another moment that worked for me was the moment after the murder when the conspirators collected themselves and spoke of how many times Caesar’s murder would be enacted. This had an amazing resonance in this space which actually moved me to tears for a moment. This had less to do with the acting than with the fact it was acted out in this theatre which gave its audience a strong role as co- conspirators in the tragedy. Our presence reminded us , both that Caesar’s murðer was being acted out as a play, but also that, as dictator after dictator is assassinated in the real world over the centuries, that this kind of assassination is a very hit and miss affair when it comes to creating a more just society. It felt like we were witnesses to a tragedy humanity enacts over and over again. Sublime.

Overall though ,the actors played fast and flatly with no real struggle or argument . Brutus , Tom McKay, played all on one level with no sense of the struggle of the role, despite giving ‘ it must be by his ðeath’ directly to The audience but without the real questioning of them and using the audience as an acting partner. This opportunity to explore the character’s dilemma was simply thrown away. The journey of Brutus it seems to me shows the audience how a good man can justify an assassination and put his name to something he finds questionable. If the actor does not do that, and there are many ways to do it, he has not fulfilled the role. Cassius, played by Anthony Howell, ranged around the stage with some focus to the text, but for me not enough passion. He I suspect would have made a much better Brutus. Caesar, George Irving, was not played as an egotist but as a victim just waiting to be murdered, with no sense of power or danger. The actor was so all over the place I wondered whether he was not actually feeling unwell. So the many springs of the play on which it depends, were not really in evidence.

It appeared that the actors worked on an intellectual level only, and seemed to ignore the imagery as an encumbrance rather than something that is giving real tangible multi layered psychology and atmosphere to the characters and themes. The characters talk of ‘the rheumy and unpurged air,’ when there was no feel or evidence this fetid air is filling the stage. And this dank atmosphere of sickness is a tangible and real thing which is either something created by the conspirators actions or by the tyranny of Caesar, and by the actual damp night.

When the language and acting have to do everything, the one thing the actors have to bring on to the stage is atmosphere, both realistic , a storm, a garden, a public place ( easy that) and palpable emotional ones….. Secrecy, suspicion, chaos, repression. It is as important as the scene itself, as Michael Chekhov wrote ‘ the general atmosphere is the oxygen of the performance .’ With no lighting, no sound other than music, no scenery, then bringing on this atmosphere is crucial. And ironically, it is not hard to do. It is not hard for actors to bring on an atmosphere of disease and dampness and secrecy if some attention has been put on this in the rehearsal.

It was to me somewhat ironic that a production that strived for ‘authenticity’ of costume and setting appeared to make no real attempt to connect with the language on anything other than an intellectual level, when one imagines it would have been experienced more deeply and emotionally as well.

A different way to train for performance.

There is a different way to train for performance. Sarah Kane, the renowned Chekhov teacher is setting up a theatre school, PerformInternational I believe might have some far reaching effects, not only on artists, but also on the idea of what ‘the business’ could be. She has set up a programme in East Sussex which is a performance training based on the teachings of Michael Chekhov and Rudolf Steiner, and is intending to have its first intake this autumn.
Michael Chekhov never called acting a ‘craft” but an ‘art’. He likened acting to creation on a par with artists and writers. It is a beautiful release for those of us brought up to the idea that actors are mouthpieces and in general the slaves of writers and directors.His is a more holistic approach and whilst it is incredibly practical, it totally opens up the performer to the full range of their capabilities and the creative imagination.
The way that we train shapes us in ways we cannot imagine, just like the jobs we do. Most acting conservatories are training you for the business as it is. There is nothing wrong with this, to develop your craft. It is a very specific though worthy aim. And yet teachers ask the question, what are the students being trained for? A business with only a minuscule number of practitioners actually working? But then this was always the case, even when less universities had theatre degrees and there were fewer drama schools. Theatre, tv and film actors have a massive turnover, and very few people ‘make it’ or if they do it may not be for long.
I had a conservatoire training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Whilst the training was very much geared to the ‘business’ as it then was, it was incredibly life-enhancing and valuable, not only for acting, but in my work as a teacher, writer, and director. So whilst a conservatoire training can be narrow in many ways, it still has been a massive resource for me. I have used this knowledge to teach voice, presentation, and devising to a whole range of special interest groups who have then used that knowledge in their own diverse workspaces. A conservatoire course offers you an ease with yourself, a sense of rigorous discipline, a familiarity with voice and body, performance skills, opportunities to perform and a confidence which you may well not find in a less practical training.. The good thing about this kind of school is that it is almost entirely devoted to experiential learning, which in many respects some would argue is deeper, or at least quite different to intellectual learning.

Academic courses broadly have a different focus and more importantly a different way of teaching, with a strong intellectual element. There is less contact time between tutors and students and as a practise-based teacher, you are expected to cover a lot of the same practical ground in a lot less time. Unfortunately intellectual understanding does not mean a student can always get up and perform the element they feel they understand from a book, and the danger is that the student ends up believing they can, which makes for a degrading of actual performance development, not only for the student but for general expectations.

It could be argued that this broader remit around training for theatre can only be welcomed, giving the student an academic base to augment any practical training they might receive and making them more employable, but its difference to the gruelling and extraordinary process of conservatory training makes for a very different outcome for the student. I would ask the question whether university courses can really train performers, unless the courses are run at least partially on conservatoire lines, though I am very pleased to see that universities are incorporating more practical work, because theatre is not only a theoretical study. After I had directed a show under some conservatory conditions within a university, a student said to me, ‘what this project has done has given me a real respect for what actors do and experience.’ That was a powerful and important outcome for that student, though it does not make them an actor. Unfortunately I hear from colleagues in the UK that this experiential learning is under serious threat from the powers that be.

So, going back to Perform International, what is this different way to train? PerformInternational is initiating full- and part-time professional trainings and short courses in the performing arts from September 2014, integrating Michael Chekhov’s approach to acting and theatre with Rudolf Steiner’s Creative Speech.These are spirit-inspired trainings to develop the performer’s voice, body and imagination. They offer the opportunity to acquire professional skills and recognised qualifications.

If all this sounds a bit floaty, it isn’t. The word spirit is sometimes considered a dangerous word and it shouldn’t be, because creativity is a spiritual act and every society since the Greeks has understood this. As an artist you are bringing something from nowhere, or at the very least enlivening symbols on a page with your own being, You are manifesting them. That seems to be spiritual to me in the broadest sense of the term, and nothing to be afraid of. Actors need to find ways to learn how to do that manifesting if their work is going to be deep and transformative.

I cannot speak for Steiner’s speech work because I do not know much about it, but Michael Chekhov Technique for sure has The Imagination at the absolute core of training. This does not mean a lack of discipline, nor a feeling of fantasyYou have to train the imagination thoroughly and give space to exercise it. The work is rigorous and physical as well as imaginative and emotional, and a student must have space to remember the joy of the work.. A danger of much conservatory training is that in its desire to instil rigorous discipline, the desire to create and feel the joy of acting can be massively diminished within an individual student. For some, and I have seen this several times, this joy is extinguished and may never return.

So much of professional theatre is to my mind dull .If you scroll down and read my comments about the Lear at The National Theatre [UK], fundamentals which Chekhov certainly explores and teaches in his technique were completely missing from that production as I experienced it, leaving me untouched and unsatisfied with the experience.

I am looking for that missing element .I want to find it and I want students and actors to explore and express it. A full time Chekhov course might be the way to achieve it. Check out the PerformInternational link on this blog.

Chekhov Technique and The Song

I had the privilege yesterday to work with a very open young singer who was interested in developing his emotional range as a singer. I have worked with only a few singers, but it seems to me that Chekhov is ideal for them, and a few people who have had some serious opera training have told me that the use of imagery in Chekhov to create sensations, feelings and ways of being is very similar to much of their training, that they imagine colours, atmospheres, and the like to promote timbre and emotion in their work.

I started musing when the young singer left on why it might be easier for musicians to access this way of working. I suppose the first thing is that a song is most definitely not ‘real’ . The singer still has to keep the tune and play the instrument, at the same time as accessing their imagination and their Higher Ego to find the feelings and character for the song. When someone is acting in a realistic scene there is a conflict for an actor trained in a more realistic school, because they fear that the use of atmosphere and image comes from the imagination and is not considered ‘real’. When the director or teacher starts talking about imaginary centres , atmospheres and gestures from which the actor gets the emotional juice, those who are not trained to explore a play or character like this can understandably be suspicious.

One of Michael Chekhov’s great contributions to actor training was his exploration of atmosphere,this idea that there are atmospheres everywhere out there affecting us as people, that exist at events or in locations , in addition to our own personal atmosphere which we might be carrying . The idea that a play has a definite atmosphere is one that the realists fear because they worry it will make things all the same. This of course is simply not true. if you and I both surround ourselves with an atmosphere of sadness, and we are both asked to speak the line. ‘the Queen my lord is dead.’ and we have created our atmospheres authentically , we will speak with truth and emotion through that atmosphere in completely unique ways.

Atmosphere is knit into all music. When you speak about an atmosphere to a musician they know exactly what you are talking about. In plays very often, atmosphere is something that the designers take care of, rather than this ‘oxygen of performance’ that Chekhov talks about .

Another strong and concrete thing which is in the very fibre of music most obviously is what Chekhov calls a feeling of form. A beginning, middle and end. In plays and theatre pieces, there seems to be a kind of rebellion against form, as if succumbing to form is going to create an unacceptable happy ending, again, something that is not real. but form need not be like this as any singer will tell you. A feeling of form can be subtle and deep and surprising.

The very formality and honesty that this song or piece of music IS  a work of art, and everyone knows it is, frees the performing artist to use imagery, atrmosphere and the like , without fear.




‘I , that please some, Try all…’

Some thoughts on a Winter’s Tale….

The key to the Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s apparently sprawling play , set like many others in both the city and the country, seems to be Time. Though Time has only one chorus which speaks of what has happened in the 16 year interim between Acts three and four it gives us a sense that things are turning from the bleak first three acts Into something more hopeful. Time is unstoppable, relentless, kills things off, but it also cauterises and soothes the pain of the past.  shakespeareConsidering Chekhov’s sense of the Whole, i wonder whether there isn’t something unifying in this sense of Time for a production.

Before Time’s Chorus, we have an extraordinary scene   The clown has seen the death of a man torn to pieces by a bear, and watched a ship sink in a terrible storm.  His Father, the Old Shepherd, has found an abandoned baby ….’Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn,’ he tells his son. This beautiful scene, indeed this very line, seems to be the pivot on which the play might balance.

When we examine the play we realise that both the first and the fourth act begin with a person wishing to leave where they are and go home to meet their greater responsibility and continue their lives. Their Time is up. They know this and are trying to leave but somehow they are prevented by the need of someone close to them, who is selfish or unwilling to let go and let Time move on. Ironically the person trying to leave in act one and return to his kingdom, Polixenes,  is the same man holding back Camillo from returning home in Act 4. Because the situation is not exactly parallel we tend to overlook it, but it is incredibly important. It suggests a skeleton on which to build.

The fourth act is very long indeed, and there is no way we can attempt to create the kind of impact it was meant to have ( whatever that might BE exactly) because we live in a different context, with a completely different understanding of the rural idyll such as is presented in the play. How much the pastoral world is presented as a pastiche is sometimes hard to gauge but idealised it most certainly is in all the plays in which it is explored. Perhaps it is my imagination, but in The Winter’s Tale the idyll seems satirised in some way. But what exact polarity does this world of shepherds and shepherdesses exude, with the other extreme of the polarity being the court of Leontes? Of course there are some obvious choices….. But what might that polarity be?

Interestingly , this play explores the feeling of guilt for terrible inappropriate action. Though this is not unique in Shakespeare’s plays, it seems to be a theme he seemed more concerned with in later years, and is something that I feel myself so human and worthy of exploration as i get older myself. The play gives a lot of stage time to the sense of regret  and how hard it is to accept what you have done, when Leontes is becalmed and left to deal with his pain.

Another key scene for me is the reconciliation between Perdita and Leontes, which we only hear about from the excited ( and to me quite hysterical ) trio of lords who observe what happens when the past is pieced together. It is interesting Shakespeare did not choose to present this scene, as if he was not interested in the immediate realistic response to this reconciliation, but the overall euphoric effect. This is borne out by the beautiful but strange ending. In the Footsbarn production of 1998 which came here to Galway, there was a wonderful moment when the family was left laughing with joy at the end of the play. It was incredibly moving.

Of course there is no Mamilius nor Antigonus to step into the light to laugh with them.They are dead.