Tag Archives: Online Acting classes

Exploring Higher Ego (more)

In the third exploration of the Higher Ego classes with our intrepid group searching to identify , trust, and place their Artist in the comedic space, we embarked on a joyous series of ensemble  games which made us explore what we felt the act of performance was and how we connected to the Artist/Higher Ego, working with it in a practical way. Michael Chekhov talks quite a bit about this, how we give in performance and what act actually is, and through a series of gesture/statues we explored what the act of performing meant to us individually.

All our exercises have invited questioning about performance and the way we operate as artists.

Does connecting the Higher Ego and a sense of joy let the evil characters off the hook  when we perform them with this sensibility? Or does feeling this Artist’s mission to present and explain a tyrant’s motivation allow us this joy, without exonerating the character?  When I play Macbeth am I exonerating him if I play him with some degree of compassion or understanding? Does this lightness in our Higher Ego allow us to make definite comment and criticism of the character or not? In a Brecht play for instance, like Arturo Ui I would say it does, in Macbeth I am not so sure…

We did not have answers for these complex questions just possibilities.

Someone said they felt that acknowledging the lightness freed them to express heavier atmospheres around them; but then, did allowing this lightness to live whilst we tried to express some darker qualities,  somehow belittle or devalue those darker feelings , betraying them and making them superficial?

I would say that in my own acting training (many moons ago) that the idea of Higher Ego, the objective eye, the inner artist etc. would have been frowned on by many as something which sounded dangerously superficial. You had to be ‘in’ the role. This I now understand (and have discussed in earlier pieces) to be a difficult and actually fraudulent position because you are never wholly  ‘in’ the role, only for certain sections of the play to a lesser or greater degree when you are drawn to be. It is all about how you play your instrument. It seems that what the exploration of the Higher Ego suggests to us is that the Art of Theatre is an amalgamation of many levels of experience going on at once (I am sure there have been several PhD studies about this) and in order to explore them and how they work in you you need to do many practical exercises, really listening and experiencing your subtle movements of energy. This class is teaching me that finding out how we all personally play our instrument is what is the most important joyous and empowering thing of all, releasing our creativity to our audiences and ourselves. What an acknowledgement of the Higher Ego can do is give to the artist a strong sense of self when navigating and expressing the character without sacrificing the character’s authenticity. 

Next week we focus on Creative Individuality.

God bless Us, Everyone!

Here is, as Chekhov might say, my ‘lab assistant’ moment after four on your feet weeks looking at Atmosphere and A Christmas Carol. After the final session, I felt we could have gone on for three weeks as some of the participants started to create pieces around episodes in the book. It made me realise yet again the profundity of exploring something through the Chekhov Technique especially through atmosphere because it does not come through the direct route . What I mean is that exploring atmosphere is much less of an ego driven experience. You are not considering what a character is doing you are creating an atmosphere when as Lenard Petit says, “the atmosphere is playing you”; in other words you are surrendering to the moment and not involving yourself too much in whether you are doing it right or doing what the character might want. You are seeking the character who is responding to outside influences which your imagination is creating.

I said in my last blog that a rich vein for us with the character of Scrooge was a general atmosphere of Generosity surrounding , enveloping and swirling around a tight package of meanness . How the personal atmosphere dwelt in and managed the general atmosphere gave a strong prompt to the conflicting problems of Scrooge; how he managed them and how they made him feel. We had done some exploration of the atmosphere of the three ghosts, Past, Present and Future. But something we touched on yesterday were the Cratchits and a possible polarity in their situation and the atmosphere surrounding them . I suggested a personal atmosphere of happiness with a general one of drudgery.  It was extraordinary how, when the general one was added, the actors tended to lose a little of their sparkle in the greeting or work harder to break through the thick blanket of drudgery around them. The conflict gave texture.

As intrinsic as atmosphere is however, used alone it can give the characters a lack of agency and make them appear victims of everything that happens around them . It can also give the piece we create a lack of ‘feeling of the whole’. Whilst the reactions between personal and general may well provoke a response, they are not an act of will. So there is something the character is trying to ‘do’ irrespective of atmosphere, even though the atmosphere might distort and alter it. Let’s take the Cratchits again. Whilst on the one hand they may have a collective personal atmosphere of Happiness, amidst a General atmosphere of Drudgery, they are embracing each other, supporting each other, lifting each other, in very difficult circumstances; that is what they are doing, specifically and without that ‘doing’ we ignore the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of the character and the piece can easily lose its shape.

Without the atmosphere though, we lose what Chekhov calls, ‘the oxygen of the performance’. We need both.

Our work today made me feel that the book was not about Christmas at all, that Christmas was merely a symbol in the novel, a window of opportunity for us to be kinder to one another and see things differently; that Scrooge was Everyperson, not necessarily simply a mercantile miser from Dickens world, but someone given an opportunity , a magical opportunity to look at his whole life and consider how he has come to where he is, something we all do eventually, ruminating on our successes and failures, brave moments and cowardly moments, things we could have done better and things we should not have done at all. When Scrooge  accepts his life he then makes a choice and changes unequivocally. Ultimately we played a lot in class with the atmosphere of redemption/salvation.

God bless Us Everyone. (As Tim says)

Tangible Atmosphere

If a piece has no atmosphere it has nothing. An atmosphere is the place in which a character or situation lives. Without an atmosphere I do not believe a play or film can transmit much of anything.  Atmosphere can give you everything, psychology, character journey, motivation, a deep understanding of the world the writer has created. It is one of the great ‘intangible’ gifts given by the Chekhov Technique to illuminate and grow your performance.

I have been working with my Atmosphere/ personal atmosphere group online,  with A Christmas Carol . For those unused to this terminology, the Personal Atmosphere is one we carry around with us; it can be as modest as a passing mood or as strong as a sense of fate or destiny which fills and surrounds us. The General Atmosphere is one which permeates the environment we are in. It is more than this but let’s leave it there for now. 

In a previous session we had explored a personal atmosphere of meanness with a general one of abundant generosity surrounding the character which seemed to fill his world. Through this exercise, we began to discover Scrooge’s dilemma and the psychological dynamic (or a possible one) for his response. His rejection of Christmas was for him a matter of holding on desperately to his world view that life was mean and cold and hard.  Generosity was not just a nuisance, but a life-threatening sickness, which might bring his whole world view tumbling down. This incredible dynamic went far beyond the standard mean old Scrooge but allowed us to explore how he might lash out at those who refused to believe in the ‘Christmas spirit’. It reminded us all of how we actually relate to our environment and the energies which are around; that when that environment/general atmosphere opposes our view, what we carry with us (our personal atmosphere and world view) can often be the main conflict we carry in life. Interestingly, when I suggested to the group that they change the general atmosphere from ‘generosity’ to ‘grey’, immediately everyone settled . A few said they felt easier with ‘grey’ even though they were still carrying around this personal atmosphere of meanness because the general atmosphere did not rub against it. It almost justified their sourness.

General atmosphere falls for me into three broad categories; the literal environmental atmosphere (library, hospital, beach for instance) ; the visceral sensory atmosphere; (oil, feathers, gravel for instance) and the general atmosphere of feeling (suspicion greed love for instance). All of these categories have pitfalls. The environmental one can be too narrative (“What character am I in the atmosphere?”) the visceral one too literal (“but how can I breathe in oil?) and the third (“so there is an atmosphere of suspicion but why do I not feel suspicious?”).

It is easier to work with directions of energy and atmosphere when we tackle it using a texture or material or even a feeling. A way to find the direction of energy can be to breathe in the atmosphere and through your imagination allow it to shape you into a form or statue. You will soon find the direction and nature of the energy then. To my mind we should always use what is useful for our imagination and our work with the character and not get over caught-up iover-literal responses. By working with the directions of energy alone and experiencing the subtleties of what an atmosphere might be, this opens us to its full impact.

Because as artists we generate the atmosphere which appears to come from outside a much more subtle and powerful response can be gleaned for the character.  To watch how the participants wrestled in their meanness with the open generosity around them was a powerful reminder of what atmosphere can do.

Courses begin in the first week of January with INVITING THE CHARACTER which runs twice a week for a month, and a one-day workshop with myself and Declan Drohan exploring WHAT IS STYLE? email chekhovtpi@gmail.com for more details.

Creating where you are – My Site Specific Room

I remember when I was a child and played in my room. Areas of my room had a particular atmosphere or feel there . Under a table became a tent or a cave, a place of safety. My bed became a rocket ship . I closed the curtains and used a torch to create lighting. The room disappeared as I dived into my fantasy. The walls melted….

Like Max in his wolf suit in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

In the new course, My Site Specific Room,  starting on the 9th November, we have an opportunity to return to this absolutely crucial element of creation; imagination, atmosphere and energy. When I was a teenager I had a fantasy that I would have an imagining room, completely white, in which I would be free to imagine anything. I loved exploring the imagination; it made me feel fully alive.

As I became embroiled in the business of becoming a professional actor, I paradoxically lost much of my attachment to imagination. Acting became a serious material business. It was only with playwriting , teaching, directing and more especially my fortuitous discovery of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique which has as its bedrock the Imagination and the Body, when the Imagination reassumed its majesty as a creative tool. Working online, I returned even more to the core values of ‘lets pretend’. This is one of the great plusses of learning online at home, in your room…

 For fourteen years on the NUIGalway Drama MA I taught ensemble and devising, before it was the fashionable thing, and have worked extensively with youth theatre and applied drama on devising. One of the exercises at the Uni  was to give sub groups the opportunity to find a spot on campus they could explore and use and make the venue the inspiration for a short dramatic experimental piece as we brought the audiences to them. Pieces in a squash court, a ladies toilet, a long corridor with stuffed animals in it, a church ante-room… four of the exciting venues that were memorable. 

The Michael Chekhov Technique elements for the course will of course be atmosphere. What is the atmosphere of the room in which you are working? And of course Imagination, so that the piece you create is not about your past life in that room but comes from somewhere else. We will also work with composition elements  and tempo and variety  .

For instance, I use my study. If i sit in a chair in the corner I feel differently to when I stand at the window or sit at my computer.  Note how when you sit in your living room that you probably choose where to sit. You don’t even think about it. This is not necessarily ‘your chair’ per se.. I have a fireplace – how do I feel when I sit at the fireplace? Could this be the start of my story/piece… how does it feel to sit by the fire…maybe there is only a small fire in the stove…i am cold…. my story begins… who am I? who am i speaking to? 

In the course you will craft a 5 minute piece using where you are as your inspiration.  It could come from a corner or a texture or something about the whole room. 

if this is of interest to you then email chekhovtpi@gmail.com . We begin on the 9th. at 4.00pm GMT. there are five workshops! Below is a video link for more info

Video link https://youtu.be/G17m3GsFMzM

Being Real, Feeling Joy and The Dangerous Moments of Emptiness.

Over the last few posts I have been exploring and sharing my experience of teaching the Chekhov Technique online, both the joys and problems with it. When I am planning a workshop I am not trying to replicate an actual workshop. I am constantly looking for points of contact and positive developments, ways of teaching the work, developing opportunities along with the comfort (and issues) of trying to liberate oneself whilst still at home. I have talked about this in the last post.

Whilst most seem to be having a very positive experience, for a few the fact of working online weakens the main thing from which they learn; the sense of community and group experience. In the room this dynamic more-or-less comes naturally but online it doesn’t ; I work hard at fostering that and as soon as I give the opportunity, most people grasp it with both hands.

I was discussing this with my partner the other day, a retired teacher and therapist himself, and a moment he isolated was the ending, when you finish the session. I have been considering this a lot myself and find moments of sharing and breathing at the beginning and end of sessions but he talked about that moment when you turn off the monitor and everyone leaves. That moment can feel rather scrappy. Declan Drohan my colleague here in Ireland in the Chekhov work called it, ‘ the dangerous moment of emptiness’.

Even in an actual workshop there can be a moment of ‘back to reality’ after it ends but online this feeling can be acute. Let’s consider what happens when an actual workshop ends. You do a final exercise which bonds everyone together and acknowledges the work. You finish and there is a sense of completion and high. People say their goodbyes, they hug and thank each other. They maybe come and chat to me about some aspect of the work or come to say thank you. The ending of the workshop is often both sad and beautiful.

If you think about the times (especially in times gone by when communication was more difficult than it is now) when you have been speaking with someone you love faraway on the phone and the long call is over, there is an adjustment required for you to re-inhabit your world. This can stir up a lot of ‘stuff’. It could stir up feelings of frustration, an intensified loneliness; rather than feed us as participants, as artists practising our art, it could make us feel futile. This is, of course, completely the opposite of what we want and why we go to actual workshops in the first place. It’s particularly bad because in order to practise our art we have to treat our room as the studio and be as uninhibited as we can. If you are not careful closing a session can be  like inviting people into your house with a smile, letting them in for an hour then pushing them out of the door, leaving them out on the pavement and slamming the door behind them.

 My partner suggested something and I want to share it because it goes some way to acknowledging this  problem. I tried it this week and it seems to go some way to healing this difficult moment and acknowledge their experience with this group. I asked the participants who had just had their last class that, when they turned the monitor off after saying goodbye, they sat with the monitor and continue the radiating done towards the group in the final moments. I asked them to consider what they had explored through the whole course and moments of connection they had and who they had met and watched working in the course. What could they hear and feel going on in the building, outside, and notice how ‘the world’ came back into their space. I suggested they acknowledge that what they had done was ‘real’ not some diversion and they had learned and experienced things. These things were like Chekhov said, ‘intangible’ yet they did happen and we were affected by them. They could then share their responses if they wanted. I have been given permission to produce one of them here. 

“And just like that, it was over… After saying good-bye to everyone, all the faces disappeared. I was in front of my computer, and I was contemplating the Zoom access page on the screen, that I will later need to shut down.

Suddenly, my roommate was shouting at his video games, people and cars were making noise outside but I stayed in front of the computer screen, watching the monitor, still receiving.

As I put my glasses down, I became suddenly aware of the people who were missing today and how disappointed I was they couldn’t come and how I couldn’t properly say goodbye to them. There was a feeling of ease with a touch of sadness.

My phone started to ring but I didn’t want to see who was calling, I needed one more minute to fully process all this. I wrote down some words regarding polarities on a piece of paper, knowing I will have to keep practicing in order for them to stay meaningful.

As I would do in a theatrical exercise, I shook up, breathed in and click on the red cross of the website, as if it was “saving” these 5 weeks in my memory.”

Working online is real. It stirs my soul and I hope most of my students. There is a connection. It is simply a different kind of real. Not a substitute but not nothing either.

Chekhov Online

IMG_6132AS I get more used to teaching Chekhov technique online, I have started to feel something of the buzz I feel ‘in the room’. I could be fooling myself but I am beginning to see a transmission of something between myself and my students which I feel in real time. Part of that is a sense of trust which is building not just between them and me, but between me and the technology, which though it is limited, has its spin offs. Radiating and receiving cannot quite happen the way it does in actual life, but it can happen.

Chekhov Technique is so much a technique of Energy, Imagination and Body, When I started teaching online I wondered how I would have to scale everything down, but the more I am practising, the less I feel it is necessary or desirable. With Chekhov you have to start big but authentic, before you internalise, ‘veil’ it, at the same time as keeping whatever your gesture or image is giving you, strong. Bringing your discoveries to the monitor is a great way to actually assist the understanding of this internalising within the body. I find the sight of people exercising their bodies in their own rooms using their imaginations to create a sense they are in a much bigger space than they are, still something quite magical to behold.

What is essential for me is to acknowledge where everyone is and that their room is their studio and a place where they can create. Rather than deny where they are it is important to acknowledge it and then encourage them to transform it. This can be very hard when they are home depending on what is beyond the door of their room; neighbours, parents, partner, flatmate. When participants enter an actual  workshop they are each in a different space both emotionally and psychologically and it is easy to forget that as the teacher/facilitator. Online, there is no escaping it.  In an actual workshop they have entered a dedicated space and left their homes, to some extent , behind.What has brought them together is the love of the work. The very act of coming to an actual workshop creates a strong bond between the participants and I always feel a special bond with someone I actually trained with. Online much of that is gone, so a little time needs to be spent in that bonding process if possible. On the other hand, the diversity of the participants can be extraordinary online and can only occasionally occur in an actual workshop. In the new House Arrest Group on Chekhov and devising,  creating imaginative responses to the idea of quarantine, imprisonment, whatever you want to call it, there are people from The Netherlands, Uruguay, US, Canada, Ireland and France. This is one reason I will continue to teach some classes online when the pandemic is over.

Thanks to attending other online classes and discussing with colleagues I am learning the positivity of giving people the space to work alone with camera off.

Groups are small. I cannot work with more than 8-10 people if i want to give constructive feedback, though I might get more easy about it when I possibly have to do it later in the year at the university! The group sessions right now are only an hour  (they always overrun a bit) and from the next group we will be making 90 minute sessions. This gives time for people to meet and exchange pleasantries approaching the way they might in a workshop. I am still playing with ways to end. To make the link with the whole group meaningful to each and every one of them.

Individual coaching online is a beautiful activity in many ways. It is personal and you can give the participants your full focus. It is true you cannot always fully sense the person of course which can sometimes be frustrating. I as the teacher have to work harder to make that intangible connection which feels effortless when you are both in-the-room but I feel I am having some success with it.

I am running a three module one to one project on the introduction to Chekhov for Beginners on which there are always some spaces.  I think it is quite a good way to learn principles because it puts the focus on the individual meeting and practicing the technique and going off to practise during the week. For more info contact chekhovtpi@gmail.com

  • Currently Running : advanced Groups (those with some Chekhov experience) Focussing and Discovery Group: 5 weeks/ 1 session per week. Imagination/concentration/General Atmosphere
  • Currently running : House Arrest.Devising/ The Feeling of the Whole/Atmosphere/Polarity. 5 weeks/ 1 session per week.
  • Beginners One to one : First Principles/ Character work 1/ Character Work 2 (four weeks each one session per week)

To Come :

  • ‘To Whom Shall I Complain?’ MEASURE FOR MEASURE .Chekhov and Shakespeare. 8 weeks/ 1 session per week.
  • HOUSE ARREST (GROUP 2)
  • Focussing and Discovery Group 3