Tag Archives: psychophysical

Expressing The Invisible 2:THE ATMOSPHERE OF MEMORY IN LUGHNASA AND MY LIFE

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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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EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE 1 -PAUSES

 

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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.

Teaching Chekhov Technique

I always feel profoundly humbled when teaching an Intro to Chekhov weekend, at what I consider the enormity of opening this imaginative and visceral world to the participants. This last weekend they did not disappoint me. What was exciting was that all the participants were meeting the work for the first time, but for one who was revisiting it after a long absence.

Teachers reading this are all too aware I am sure that often we do not have participants at the same stage on short courses and this can be frustrating for the participants and tricky for the teacher. There was no such problem this weekend, and it was a true delight to watch people open and develop as the weekend progressed. The development was really palpable as people got braver and bigger and deeper. It was a real opening up. Ultimately people were performing short scenes which had depth and power.

Another issue with introductory weekend courses is whether to work with an actual play or not. It would be simple of course with Michael Chekhov Technique to not touch a text for a long time. It is probably the purest way to do it. After all, when you first encounter psychophysical work the most important thing is to experience it. Then you need to practise, to really get it into the body. It was interesting how everyone said that repeating a particular exercise made it so much easier. The group seemed to grow together in the moment that feeling was voiced, as they all agreed.

However, whilst on the one hand it is important to move slowly, I think it is also important to give those who are meeting the work for the first time an opportunity to see where the work might be going once they achieve proficiency so they can not only feel it in their being but also experience how they might use it as actors. That also gives them the incentive to go on, practise alone, come to more courses, and deepen their learning.

IMG_2033 copyIt is so easy when you feel as passionately about the work as I do to go into really serious intricacies which are not at all appropriate for participants opening to the work. I caught myself doing this once or twice and inwardly laughed at myself. The more experienced I get, paradoxically, the harder it is to stick to fundamental basics and riff away on some detail. I guess it is the teacher’s excitement and ego getting the upper hand. I have sometimes been in classes like that myself as a participant where the teacher has let that happen and it is not edifying or helpful. In fact, as the student, it can be deeply annoying. On this weekend we were exploring strong first principles and those were what I needed to impart. It reminds me strongly of the quote from Lessons For Teachers by Michael Chekhov, that I have in the front of my book, Teaching Voice.

“If you are teaching you must be active…. Try and speak as if from your whole being.”

When you do that, you do not digress. But following that principle requires an incredible concentration from the teacher. You have to be fully open to the students and yet at the same time, guide them. And you have to speak clearly and give instructions as clearly as you can. When we are asking the students to open themselves up to different stimuli , an uncertain instruction that confuses can feel like a kind of betrayal, if that isn’t too strong a word. This requires a phenomenal degree of focus.

This weekend has made me feel it even more important to start defining beginners and those more developed, so in the Autumn term I am intending to run an opening class , and an intermediate class in an effort to provide a structure.

For those coming to the August Workshop EXPRESSING THE INVISIBLE August 18-21, some basic understanding of the principles is required but the workshop will have a wide arc and is being planned for that. That workshop if filling up fast , so if you are interested then please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com . There’s more info on the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland FB page and on the CTPI page on this blog.

Ask Questions Later! Starting the Chekhov Work

It feels like a big (but extremely pleasant) responsibility.

 

As I begin with a new Chekhov group this weekend, most of them completely new to the work, hoping to excite and enthuse them about what is the most creative acting technique I have experienced, I am trying to consider the advice I might give them.

Some people find the technique challenging – all techniques are – everything that is worth doing has its periods of challenge. Any challenges there might be, however, are nothing compared to the incredibly rich creativity the technique can unearth in an artist, and Michael Chekhov always worked from the idea that that is what we ARE – artists; to say nothing of what using this method of exploring creativity can develop in the person.

IMG_1970 copyBe ‘in your body’ and ‘in the moment’ as much as you can. If you are, then the work of gesture will be thorough and complete and all the sensations and feelings your body offers up can be open for the character. Some people come to this very very easily, but just because the results can be immediate, the work has only just begun!

When asked to use images, invite them into you. When asked to concentrate on an image don’t treat it like an examination or a memory game. Invite the image into you, Let it engulf you, as if you were in love with it. Always respond to the images truthfully and completely, with your whole being. The only thing you can do wrong is to not respond truthfully and with too much intellectual interference.

‘Ask questions later’!  When working on an exercise just do it. don’t think, don’t procrastinate, embrace the exercise with joy, don’t consider exactly what you are going to do before you do it; if you are working with a character don’t intellectualise or over complicate; just commit to the quality, the centre, the atmosphere whatever you are working with. Do it! When an exploration is over you can think and talk about what you did. There will be plenty to talk about, believe me.

Develop and fully explore the feeling of ease, one of Chekhov’s guiding principles. As young or new actors we tend to hurl ourself into stuff and whilst he demands serious commitment we also need to somehow keep a hold of this feeling of ease which is somewhere in the base of anything we might do. The feeling of ease sounds like a contradiction to the will of the character and the intensity of feeling which some of the work brings up but paradoxically it isn’t. As actors (and indeed as people) we are working on so many different levels at once .Remember that working with Chekhov involves us admitting and exploring a multilevel approach to work, artistically at least. Remember when you are acting you are not wholly being the character; part of you is, but other parts of you are picking up on the audience, entering and leaving and speaking on cue.

Which leads us on to higher ego and energy body – don’t be afraid of these things. They are not weird, they are creative realities.

And finally, when you are concentrating , don’t forget to breathe.

Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland

Those who know me know I have been studying and teaching the Michael Chekhov Acting  Technique for some years now. I teach the technique at NUI Galway and have taught it on many other courses including at The Lir. I intend to focus more upon that work more. My book Teaching Voice, Workshops for Young Performers, is to be published by Nick Hern Books in June which explores using Voice and Chekhov technique in tandem to develop voice work for young people

I have set up Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland which I hope is going to make the West of Ireland a hub of the Chekhov work. I hope to join with other Chekhov teachers here and abroad to develop and expand the training. In addition I am hoping that CTPI will be a focus for performance using Chekhov technique as the bedrock of the rehearsal process.

The training which explores using the body and imagination primarily to develop and explore new performance, to use it to work on scripted drama, to create character and use it to enable us to see old drama in a new way.

Weekend One April 8th – 10th: Chekhov and Devising.

Chekhov talked a lot about The Theatre Of The Future and in addition to working with text based plays, his techniques are excellent for devising new work, something the first inaugural training weekend will explore, working on imagination and ensemble techniques.  Galway City.

Weekend Two  Directing with the Chekhov Technique. 13th -15th May.

One of the strands I want to work with is using Chekhov technique in directing. The more directors understand and use the work, the more actors can use the technique themselves in a supportive environment in rehearsal. In addition, the number of shows I have directed using Michael Chekhov’s work, plays I have known well, have often resulted in revelatory discoveries which completely gave me fresh eyes on the play. And the palpable cohesion the Chekhov technique gives to an ensemble at a very deep level is truly mind blowing.

Weekend Three . Imagination and The Body. of June 17th – 19th .Galway City Ireland.

Finally we are going to explore the basic training of imagination and body through atmosphere, gesture and centre, archetype and composition to introduce and develop the use of Chekhov technique to help us  become the artists we truly are. T

 

In addition, I want CTPI to explore the wider use of the Chekhov technique on a more therapeutic level, for use in applied drama. Opening people to using their bodies to explore feelings and qualities, to explore how powerful the body can be in that regard, and importantly how to join up voice body and feelings together. CTPI is definitely going to explore Chekhov within this setting of applied drama.

Additional further workshops will explore Chekhov and Voice, Chekhov Technique and Song, Expressing the Invisible, as well as weekends on specific training in particular aspects of the technique.

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The first course CHEKHOV AND DEVISING WORK will be held on April 8th – 10th in beautiful Galway City Ireland. A little knowledge of Chekhov Technique is useful but not essential. The weekend will cost €75. €25 deposit required . for a bit more information on the Chekhov Technique itself, visit the Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland page on this blog. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

 

 

 

Centres – an interesting discovery.

Me Teaching at The michael Chekhov Training in Dublin last year.

Me teaching at The Michael Chekhov Training in Dublin last year.

I taught my first class dedicated to Chekhov’s centres on my performance course the other day. Recently I have become aware that for some people exploring centres is one of the hardest exercises for them, yet in actual fact it can be produce the most fundamental results in terms of character.

For those who have no experience of this work, the idea of centres is to find a centre for the character, usually within the body, which is like the engine or soul of the character , a place from which all their impulses spring. A kind of source. This centre can be a colour or a shape or a concrete image of something ( a lighted candle for Juliet is a good example) . You connect everything to this centre, your limbs and your very being and see what happens as you explore the space, the character and the text operating from the centre. There is no ‘wrong’ thing to do; you just fully connect yourself to this image or centre and respond . It can produce amazingly transformative results.

It has come to my notice though, that this aspect of Chekhov can be hard to grasp. Not only have you to imagine an image but you are also imagining it is inside you and powering all you do. This is quite a lot of imagining to do all at once! There is a lot of explanation in the Chekhov books about inviting an image or an object into you but even then, this is quite advanced. Leave it till later, you might say, but when you are running a short course you have to balance your careful instruction with the fact that there is not much time. Besides which, working with a character centre can change the actor so extraordinarily that it for me goes to the very heart of what Chekhov Technique can do for an actor.

When I was considering this session the other day, I remembered an exercise I had used with Galway Youth Theatre for working on character, decades ago, before I had even heard of Michael Chekhov . I had done a lot of work with the group and they really trusted me – so I risked it. I asked everyone to pick an object in the space, examine it carefully for use and size and texture and where it was within the room and I asked them to BECOME it , to become it as fully as they could, to imagine it had a voice and character . Then I would interview them as the object for a few minutes each and they would tell me about their lives as this object. Some of the work with the youth theatre was truly moving and remarkable, and some very funny. But for some reason I never used the exercise again.

Until last night. I considered that this exercise might be a good bridge to understanding what having a relationship to an object or image might be in terms of character and how it could be useful. It encouraged everyone to have a serious relationship with the object, an absorption and a response in a way they would not have done as effectively if I had asked them to describe it or use it as a centre straightaway. Of course in a way “becoming it” is making the object your centre in a very literal way. I suppose that is it. It cuts out one area of imagining that the actor has to do when creating a centre which makes the process a little easier.

The interviews last night were touching and funny. We then took the same centre into the body, imagined it powering us, moved it to different places in the body and experimented with this. But what I felt profoundly was that stuðents had a much stronger understanding and identification with the image because they had done this bridging exercise of simply becoming the object first. .

When we moved on to exploring centres for the characters we were working on, it was a lot easier.

thanks, group!

Connecting the Voice to the Imagination

I write this after running a Voice workshop In Galway this last weekend. It always gives me the greatest joy to watch, as people start to connect their bodies, voices, imaginations and feelings. To realise how the tensions in their bodies can be melted with imagination, how the breath really is the fuel of the body, how life is all about radiating and receiving energy from one to the other, how words have energy and a direction of their own, before we even embark upon character, and how learning can be much more visceral than when writing an essay or passing an exam. As we worked on a chorus from Thebans,a retelling of the Oedipus/Antigone story, by  Liz Lochead, soon to be visiting Galway for the Cuirt Literature Festival, we found wonderful moments of power .

When people come initially to a voice class, I feel they sometimes expect to experience something from a dimly remembered Speech and Drama class , which is not where I take them. Without marrying the technical practise with an imaginative psychophysical response, technical proficiency alone is almost worthless. Watching some of the participants in my course finding a powerful expression of language and feelings through voice and the body this weekend empowered not only them, but me.