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 .
The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.