Tag Archives: Rudolf Steiner

Freedom and Discipline – A visit to Emerson College

Just recently I took a trip to London to visit my publisher, meet my old friends, and visit my friend Sarah Kane, who with Gregors Binch and Geoff Norris, have set up PerformInternational, a new performance training project, which unites the training of Michael Chekhov with Rudolf Steiner. As many readers will know Chekhov was heavily influenced by Steiner’s work, though this influence was diluted, at least publicly, in order to make him more commercial and readily available to a more materialistic public

One of the things I loved about my 36 hour flying visit was the beautiful venue, Emerson College. After a short train journey from London to East Grinstead I was picked up and driven into the countryside. Steeped in its great history of alternative learning and in enormous grounds, some of which were now given over to organic farming, the old White House sits on a slope surrounded by a host of other buildings all of which have their own distinct atmosphere. Many of the buildings house environmental projects, one of them had water purification fountains. There were sculptures at every turn, and I really felt as if I had stepped back in time, and was in a place where art and creativity were truly valued. Sarah took me into a room which was now the centre of the storytelling course, that felt thick and heady with the imagination, with cosy chairs and colourful hangings. It smelt of myth.

The delicious vegetarian food was really wonderful, all made in the kitchens there.

PerformInternational were offering an exploratory week of training in voice and Body. We worked in Eurythmy house, a large warm space. The day was focused and long, and I made my own contribution by leading an hour of centre work and radiating and receiving. A highlight for me was working with some wonderful musical instruments, creating scores and making wonderful sounds together, singing and working with atmosphere, the body and poetry. Something that many trainings ignore is that in order to create you have first to find freedom. Most trainings believe that discipline comes first, but i am not so sure this is true, having seen many instances where the discipline of drama school often alienates the person from their creative nature. Of course you need to create a disciplined  environment where freedom can be allowed to exist, just as you do for a child. Ultimately you have to have discipline in this freedom, but I do not believe it is true that discipline necessarily creates freedom, any more than doing what you want alone creates discipline and focus. Creativity has got to be a balance. Now we can be free, now we can be focused and controlled and now we can do both.

Chekhov trainng in Dartington Hall

Chekhov trainng in Dartington Hall 1936

Later on in the day there was some quite rigorous work on poetry which was the opposite of the day’s work. But this is what I mean, the balance of the polarity of discipline and freedom makes for true release.

At the end of the long day, as  I stepped on the train to head back to London I reflected that where i had been  both physically and spiritually had the feel of those wonderful photos from the thirties of Chekhov training actors at Dartington Hall.


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.