Tag Archives: NUI Galway

Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

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Talking Teaching Voice

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a member of Dublin Youth Theatre works with gesture and language – photo Sean O’Meallaigh

Yesterday  I had a launch of my book, ‘Teaching Voice’ at the National University of Ireland Galway. I had just come back from teaching my 2nd year Voice and Shakespeare class which had been a great exchange of energy and learning. In fact, a student said something which I am going to make the centre of a blogpost soon.  After a lovely introduction by Marianne Ni Chinneide, whom I have known for many years both as a youth theatre member and an MA student many years before she became a colleague, I said this [ with a few embellishments to clarify further]-

 

‘Before I came to Galway, I had had some success as an actor but had enough of acting and was starting to make a name for myself as a playwright. What do I mean by, ‘had enough of it’? I was worn out by ‘the business’ and the destructive and ridiculous cliches with which a young actor is encouraged to live. Cliches like  ‘talent will out’, that if you work hard , you will make it in the end, whatever ‘make it’ is supposed to mean. I knew that despite some success, that somehow the love for acting had somehow been seriously eroded and I was losing my way,  that there had to be some other route forward for myself. I had done a bit of teaching but really wanted to explore teaching theatre and particularly voice.

My first contact in looking for a place to teach theatre was actually here in the university, though of course no drama programme existed. I remember meeting Kevin Barry, then Head of English,  who sent me off to the feisty and determined Rebecca Bartlett, the founder of the Galway Youth Theatre, which was actually a part time programme for young people here.  After a talk with her  I decided that what they needed was a specified voice programme. It was only a few hours per week but it meant a serious improvement in performance skills, and to begin with, that is how I viewed the voice training. Despite the fact that voice can often be perceived as tedious – I can remember dreading double voice on Monday morning of my second year at college – I was determined to make it as energetic and joyous as possible.

Working there was a big part of my life for the next twelve years, with subsequent directors Niamh Dillon and Andrew Flynn, teaching voice, ensemble, and directing many productions there. It was exciting and I found that I loved teaching. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And whilst I still love to direct and write, teaching is what really fascinates me because as we discovered the other day, when you are in a class you often do the best work, the most subtle and the most exciting. The reason for this is perhaps, as one of my students suggested, because your ego is not so much in the way. And I, as the teacher, am priveleged to get to see and nurture that work . For instance in my Continuers Michael Chekhov class the other day I experienced a most beautiful nuanced version of ‘Our revels now are ended, “ from the Tempest. I have rarely heard it done as movingly.

The more I worked in this sector of youth theatre, eventually being sent by the National Association of Youth Drama all over the country to a massive variety of youth theatres , the more I understood that voice work is essential, not just for acting or for the myriad of jobs and situations in which the voice is important , but also into making us a whole person. If you connect your voice, imagination, feelings and body you operate holistically, completely. That’s got to be good for you.

Further work at the Blue Teapots Theatre, a programme for adults with learning difficulties with a thriving theatre company, taught me not only about teaching voice, but also the art of teaching itself. I realised that teaching was not just about me imparting knowledge but was an act of service.

Students were not there to garner my pearls of wisdom or simply learn skills, but to really truly develop they need to be encouraged by my care and enthusiasm for my subject and for them. It taught me that you cannot just expect students to do as they’re told or to ‘know what is good for them’. That as a teacher, it was as they say, ‘not about me’. You might say that about all group endeavours actually. Even directing a play is not ‘about me’ either. Its more about ‘me’ than teaching is, but still…

Later I discovered that whilst it was my job to build a bridge between the knowledge and the students in a way they could appreciate and build on, it was vital at the same time not compromising your knowledge by making it so ‘cool’ that it became unrecognisable; that there was an integrity there.

On the other hand, as I learned from that wonderful Michael Chekhov teacher Ted Pugh, students have to find out. It is their job to find out, and you as the teacher cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. I find this balance actually can be quite challenging, and of course it varies from class to class, from student to student. Of course I can say these things, because in drama I have the luxury that the classes are invariably small. And of course the learning you do through drama can often be life changing quite quickly, so the impact, when a light goes on in a student’s learning, can be immediately visible though of course it does not always last.

As some people might know I have taught a number of voice courses to lecturers here and in other colleges as well; what was ostensibly a voice class became also something about the philosophy of teaching, how we actually feel about teaching. Whilst I was not trained to be a teacher myself, I do now understand that teaching is a skill, it’s a generosity and an offering, whilst at the same time setting limits and boundaries. Its an art form in itself.

This book of mine, in addition to being a book of workshops and exercises, which covers a whole range of themed sessions on different aspects of voice, including acting with poetry, rhythm, delivering presentations, Shakespeare, working in productions, holds some of that ethos. It’s for anyone who works with young people and wants to help them express themselves, to help them find a voice, especially if you have only a little training and are working in a kind of keyhole situation  as you might be in the college environment.  I trained at drama school and did five hours of voice per week for two years. I am running a class here where the students have two hours contact time per week and have to practise daily  without me. That course however is still invaluable especially if people do practise. It is not wasted time. With limited time you can still do something useful.

And learning is not linear either. I remember driving down to facilitate  at a youth theatre project a few years ago with Miquel Barcelo, an excellent movement and ensemble teacher, and he and I were discussing training . He said something which I kind of knew but was a good reminder. He said when he was training at Lecoq there were many things he didn’t understand and sometimes it was only when he thought about them years later that he truly understood them. Sometimes it takes years to sink in. Truly understanding something is not about instant gratification.

That’s certainly been true of my own learning.

Teaching Voice is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased from their website  and is available in, as they say, all good bookshops!

 

Chekhov, Ensemble and Theatrecorp

 

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conoir Geoghegan

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

When I was at a Chekhov conference in Zurich in 2013, we were asked to put forward ideas about how Chekhov Technique might be used in the future, and someone said how he would like to see Chekhov being developed in devising and more experimental forms of theatre, as well as in text-based plays.

I have been using Chekhov in my ensemble/devising class for the MA Drama programme at NUI Galway for several years. The technique is an extremely successful way to unite a team of performers in a deep way, and is highly effective even though the performance is going to be in a different style and created in a different way. While the goal of some exercises  may be different when working towards a text, they are still the same exercises. The qualities of moulding , floating, flying radiating for instance which normally focus on finding psychological states/ sensations through movement and movement, in order to eventually address dialogue and conventional character, in this class excite a bodily awareness which come as much from the imagination as physical flexibility. Again, they are still the same exercises, with a slightly different focus.

When the students work on their non verbal folk tales in my class, we work through a lot of Chekhov’s atmosphere exercises which help the students with their feeling of ensemble as well as the creation of what they believe is the appropriate atmosphere for the moment or environment in which they are playing. It helps them create the score of the story and to return to it authentically and swiftly should it be needed. We also explore a lot of archetypes through the imagination and the body. Archetypes are so near the surface in myths and folklore that it gives ready access for the student and allows them to explore their own unconscious, safely, and often think and experience  outside the box of what an archetype actually might be. The lack of intellectual exploration suits devising, along with the desire to connect voice,feeling, body and imagination, which should I feel be at the heart of all live performance, devised or otherwise.

When students move on to their site specific work towards the end of the semester, which works to creat a non-narrative piece with the feel of a piece of music, Chekhov work helps thematically again through atmosphere and gesture in a very pure way. Chekhov inspires, often through abstracts, the most concrete and actable forms.

Darragh O'Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Darragh O’Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Right now I am building an idea for a series of sessions with the Theatrecorp group, using Shakespeare and modern locations. In addition to considering and feeling the atmosphere of the location , we need to consider the subtle interplay between the text and the location in a very literal way, which is more than just the character and the play from which the speech is taken, but responding also to the atmosphere of the location and what is happening in the world right now, what the words suggest now. It is not an intellectual exploration, though the way I am describing it might make it sound that way. For instance when an actress stands at the statue of Equality and looks across at Galway’s Cathedral, in almost the same spot where the Galway Magdalen laundry once stood and speaks a speech of defiance from Catherine of Aragon , which appears in Henry 8th, we are looking at many layers of meaning. These layers can be looked at in much detail using the technique with very little discussion. This is powerful and though text based, it is not a conventional approach to it. it is not based first and foremost on character and the situation in the play but on text through gesture, and the effect of the atmosphere and environment around it.

The photos are both from our first session on the Shakespeare work. Very exciting.