Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Thoughts on Finishing the Book.

Finally the proofs of ‘What Country Friends is this?’, are gone to Nick Hern Books. Viola the girl plucked from the sea whose brother she believes is drowned speaks this line as she arrives on the shores of the dreamlike country of Illyria. It seemed like an apt title for a book about working on Shakespeare and Chekhov Technique, working with young actors, be they in youth theatre, school or on college courses. It would, I believe be useful too for young directors.

It covers basic work, voice and ensemble, teaching and directing. Whilst essentially a book of practical exercises I hope it explores much of the philosophy on the power of theatre particularly as it pertains to the involvement and education of young actors. This philosophy is not something floaty or esoteric but something visceral and gutsy and alive which can be transmitted and shared. I feel that working creatively, developing your imagination, listening to your body, finding your voice and connecting them all together is amongst the most powerful gifts you can offer to people. I truly hope that the book gives teachers/facilitators/ directors this feeling of my own passion and belief in theatre and the arts in general. You may not always agree with my approach but I hope it will stimulate you to find your own way.

The book, which uses scenes from many Shakespeare plays, culminates in exploring a foundation week plan for a production of Twelfth Night which I did with students on the Drama programme at the National University of Ireland Galway in 2018. I feel I want to offer a special thanks to them for their extraordinary commitment to the adventure we went on.

It is a strange feeling when you finish a practical book which covers such an important part of your life ; for me the book is like a vessel for holding experience which can then be shared, the learning I have gleaned from those who taught me and of course especially the young actors I have worked with. I have felt this sense of completion even more with my two teaching books than with plays I have written. 

Making the book , getting it out there (It was due to be out last year but got delayed because of Covid) gives one’s experience even more meaning than it had before. I realised this when TEACHING VOICE came out in 2016. It is a great opportunity.

check it out on www.nickhernbooks.co.uk to prebook.

Through short scenes we can find a whole world, a whole production or a whole direction for the character if we only have the courage to embrace them…

Michael Chekhov gave a particular suggestion when directing which can be terrifying to actors, He suggested not to direct the play in sequence, to sometimes take the performers by surprise. It suggests to me that working with short snippets of scenes from all over the play, can actually open the doors and reveal amazing aspects of the characters’ relationship to each other, and suggest the atmospheres in which they might exist.

In the course I am leading called TO BE OR NOT TO BE each participant creates their imaginary production in which they will play the central character of Hamlet. They then apply things they have discovered about their production to one of the big central soliloquies of Hamlet. So we begin in directing territory and continue into acting territory. Michael Chekhov says in To The Actor:-

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all-embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part in full harmony with it.”

My thinking behind this is to link directly our imaginative discoveries to the performances we give, and stop over-thinking and over-talking to the extent that  these ideas remain just talk and do not feed into our experiential performance. The discoveries we make in workshop through our imagination can be revelatory and huge. Describing your image of Elsinore, or getting into your body one word or theme the play might be about  through gesture takes you off into worlds. This is similar to another thing teachers notice all the time, a question they ask…How can actors who produce amazing work in workshop find it so hard to use that work to make their performance deeper? For the word ‘workshop’ here you can substitute the word ‘rehearsal’. This course is an attempt to tackle that issue with my fellow explorers. 

Though everyone is to ultimately play Hamlet (which shows an extraordinary abundance of Hamlets and an amplification of the idea of Creative Individuality , something which underpins Chekhov’s work) we spent time exploring Hamlet’s relationship to others. for some reason Zoom lends itself to exploring these powerful moments. I don’t know why, perhaps because we are more focussed on the face of our partner. In the most recent session we explored rich short exchanges of big moments in Hamlet. Hamlet and Horatio as he attempts to tell his friend that the Ghost of his father is walking; the moment the Ghost tells his son that he has been murdered; the short exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet when she returns his gifts, and finally the initial exchange between Hamlet and Gertrude in her bedroom. 

We explored first through expansion and contraction  and then experiments in our pairs through particular Psychological Gesture. This opened up a wealth of possibilities One thing that occurred to me (we were an odd number so I partnered one of the group) when I was working as the ghost is that HOW the ghost  gives Hamlet the news, perhaps with love, perhaps psychologically lifting his son in order to prepare him for the massive task in hand, or perhaps entrapping him and forcing him to take revenge or a whole myriad of other possibilities completely dictates aspects of the production way beyond how I, the actor, Max wishes to play the role. Obviously with the actor playing young Hamlet this is an obvious observation but it is true of any of the major characters.

This is proving an exciting exploration and one which is hoping to help us really connect the role of the actor with that of the director and enable participants to truly connect their vast imaginative plain with the root of their performance.

After this course which ends in two weeks, CTPI is taking a break till the end of August where we will still be online. More on that later, and on my upcoming book, “What country Friends is This?” on Shakespeare, Chekhov Technique and young people which has been delayed due to Covid but which should be out before too long published by Nick Hern Books

‘Bring your music forth into the air’

ISABELLA FIGHTS BACK - Copy

Measure for Measure 2013 Sarah O’Toole as Isabella

People have become quite exercised of late that actors are ignoring the rhythm of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare and that this is something of a problem. Michael Billington further examined this statement in an article in The Guardian today. This is a really useful article which asks some very interesting questions. The idea that the RSC was going to create,  ‘a Shakespeare “gym” in Stratford-upon-Avon to ensure, in the words of its artistic director Gregory Doran, “Everyone has the iambic pentameter in their bloodstream.”‘ is a pretty funny idea. (I imagine pentameter press-ups, and caesura stretches…)

The point is in Shakespeare’s day the language pretty much carried EVERYTHING; deep character psychology, description of place, general atmosphere, told the story and on and on. People had a different more magical relationship to language than we do now. That is what people should be focussing on. The loss of the rhythm is something, that we cannot feel the rhythm in the language; but I abhorred Peter Hall’s slavish concern (mentioned in Billington’s Article) with metre and even punctuation. You have only to look at the various Arden Editions of any Shakespeare play to realise that where you put a comma or a semi-colon is up for discussion, not a sacrosanct thing to take you back to the real meaning of the words. This rigid, tedious and over-intellectualised exploration becomes another prison for the actor, not a form on which to ride and express. That,I think, is part of the reason why many actors have moved away from the rhythm. They feel instinctively it denies them an authenticity rather than a form that can help them create. I actually destroyed Peter Hall’s book rather than give it away, I thought it so damaging for young actors. This does not mean I do not think the rhythm is relevant but it needs to be correctly placed within what is important.

There are of course, trends. When I was training in the 70s as an actor, there was a deep suspicion of anything too ‘poetic’, a real reaction away from Olivier and Gielgud. There was a feeling that the character and the language were kind of separate; There was the story and there was the beautiful poetry which we had to appreciate but  it was not the same as the character. This made for either flat verse speaking (making the language ‘speak for itself’ which for me is like that other 70s acting maxim ‘do nothing’ which meant precisely that); or it made for a stylised way of speaking. It all depended on the kind of actor you were.

Michael Billington  talks about great actors ‘flouting the rules’ of iambic pentameter and isolating a word or phrase, rather than sticking slavishly to the metre. That is as it should be; the rhythm is a score but not to be played slavishly or it becomes this ridiculous Shakespearean  canter through the text, which we are supposed to believe is wonderful. Billington says “Like a jazz trumpeter, an actor has to know the rules in order to bend them.” This is for me, absolutely spot-on

What people have to do is yes, be aware of the rhythm but, more importantly, exercise to really get inside the imagery and the language using body as well as voice to make that happen at least in the workshop/rehearsal . To use the language fully and to trust that it can do it; that used well, it is magic.  Above all they need to be sensitive to sound and to the metaphor which tells us so much more than creating some flowery language. …the language is not something to get over so we can explore the character; it tells us how the character’s mind works. That, for instance, was why Andrew Scott’s HAMLET which I saw on tv last year was so disappointing (and he is an actor I admire) because his delivery was not based on a habitation of the text.

I have just finished writing a book about Shakespeare, ‘What Country Friends, Is This?’ which tackles a lot of these issues of language in a practical way  through the Michael Chekhov technique; it is something I feel passionate about. It is to be published by Nick Hern Books on Shakespeare’s birthday.

 

And in Good Time you gave it!

IMG_6406LEAR: I GAVE YOU ALL 

GONERIL: AND IN GOOD TIME YOU GAVE IT.

The more I look at King Lear, which I am using for my next Michael Chekhov workshop on the polarities of Good and Evil here in Galway, the more I consider how we, the older generations, will be leaving the world for those to come after.  

Chekhov said that most drama was in some senses, the battle between Good and Evil and our relationship with these moral forces. This of course is a minefield because some in some ways morality is a personal issue … Yet, is it? We know it is wrong to murder, to steal, to lie or to betray. Some would say, however that, it is the context which defines a moral act. Of course , Good and Evil is not the only polarity which charges this play: youth and age, cruelty and compassion, loyalty and betrayal, honesty and deceit, are a few potent polarities.

These forces, though they exist under all circumstances, needs something to grow in to thrive. What is the dark soil of King Lear in which this evil grows, an evil which utterly transforms the world of the play?  Is it a good approach that we make assumptions about Lear’s tyrannous behaviour, about his perhaps abusive behaviour towards his daughters ? In order to consider this, we might examine another short scene in which Lear is not present ;Gloucester’s grudging presentation of his illegitimate son, Edmund, to Kent.

“He has been out nine years, and away he shall again.”

In other words, back into exile. In this short sequence Edmund has very few lines, so what does the scene do? Perhaps it presents a moment where a young person is disregarded, made a joke of. Gloucester is only embarrassed by his presence in a kind of laddish way, boasting about the attractiveness of Edmund’s mother.  To a modern audience, this is excruciating.

Lear has overstayed his tenure of the Crown. and the younger people are restless and embittered. Whether Lear’s view of the world is accurate or not is not the point; the young need to have their say, their moment of power before they too become the older people. Edmund has been exiled, hidden away, brought briefly to court only to be promised a further sojourn away. Let’s consider how many young people are on the march for revolution right now across the globe, often fighting the legacy of what the older generations are leaving them. 

Lear and Gloucester are seduced by their own authority, entitlement and naive view of the world. Gloucester is made to believe that Edmund is good and Edgar is plotting to kill his father; Lear to believe that Goneril and Regan speak the truth; that Cordelia is ungrateful and that everything bar Lear’s workload will remain the same whilst he maintains an unruly and boorish retirement. 

It is comfortable to believe the old certainties, the old props that have supported the story of your life, but it is also dangerous because they can entrap you. Lear’s utter refusal to accept he has made a terrible mistake, despite all the warnings, is perhaps his most grievous error. His action of stepping down and handing the kingdom to his children causes such change that it unleashes horrors. as an audience, It makes one realise in how delicate the balance is between Order and Chaos (another potent polarity). This is true of our own lives and the bigger picture in the world right now

IMG_6260It is easy to consider King Lear as some kind of folktale; it carries so many of the tropes . Old King tests his daughters, finds them deceitful and eventually horribly cruel. And yet another interesting point to consider is the how of Lear’s test of love. Lear is by his own words a very materialistic king. He asks his daughters to declare their love in competition, like some kind of contest in exchange for their particular parcels of land and wealth. When Cordelia refuses to play this humiliating game, she loses her father’s love and her dowry. Burgundy refuses to take Cordelia for herself.

“ Since that respect and fortunes are his love/ I shall not be his wife.”Cordelia retorts…..Cordelia, unlike her father appears disinterested in wealth, especially when comparing it as a marker for love and companionship.  Later, when Lear who has demanded to have a retinue of 100 knights in his retirement is given the option to keep only 50 by Goneril , and then receives the offer from Regan to bring only 25, Lear reckons it is better to go with Goneril because she has allowed him to keep more companions. So much of his journey is about measuring the material against the intangible and spiritual. It is only when he loses everything  and the material  world becomes completely meaningless can Lear move on; that he can become reborn. it is perhaps in this context that the idea of good and Evil can be thoroughly embedded and tested.

Looking forward to this weekend workshop, November 29th.

“Of Imagination all Compact.”

IMG_6045For me, A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM has at its core the speech of Theseus in Act V where he basically demolishes the story of the lovers’ magical night in the forest. His materialistic attitude attempts to invalidate the great power of the Imagination.

In defiance of the materialist Theseus, this last dismal damp weekend was transformed by the work of the twelve participants in Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s weekend workshop who together explored Archetypes and Atmospheres using Chekhov Technique with Shakespeare’s magical play.

Lenard Petit’s The Michael Chekhov Handbook speaks eloquently and clearly about the use of Archetypes. It is an area that can be confusing. It is challenging for us in this individualistic world to trust the power of archetypes, the names of which appear to belong to a fairy tale rather than actors in the 21st Century. Perhaps we fear that involving them in our creative work is going to make cartoon characters rather than characters who are fully rounded. Handle them well and this fear is utterly unfounded. Basing your character on an archetype or at least having this archetypal energy as a kind of unconscious pool does exactly the opposite. Working with the archetype gives the character added depth and the performer incredible freedom.

To recap on the previous blogpost, an archetype is an energy or set of energies which constellate around a type or idea: The Lover, The Soldier, The Coward, The Queen, The Wizard. The archetype is not all a character is, but it is a set of energies or way of behaving which penetrates our lives at moments or in particular situations. As esoteric as this might sound, think of times when you have on the spur of instinct, as if from nowhere, acted in a particular way, perhaps heroically, or aggressively, or maybe subserviently. this is what I understand by archetypal energy. As with all the concepts we explore through the Chekhov Technique, we can always focus it on an actual real way of experiencing our world as it is.

By creating moving statues of the Archetypes, we began to understand the direction the energy of the archetype was moving in. Several participants noticed something interesting with regard to this; that though The Lover, say, may have a forward energy, reaching forward and looking to the object of their love, there was also a pull downwards to keep them grounded and on their feet, which made for a feeling of egotism and selfishness in love. By really experiencing this polarity of feeling, the energy of the beauty and agony and unsettled nature of love came into their beings. Whilst being “in love” is empowering, it can also make a person incredibly vulnerable. Using this example alone tells us that basing your character on an archetype provides you with a number of conflicting feelings the actor can really experience and play with.

One of the most interesting discoveries of the weekend was the idea of Hermia being The Rebel. Very often Hermia is played as sweet and good, rather than a feisty young girl who is willing to defy society to get the man that she loves. This was a very exciting revelation to me. Suddenly an angry Hermia and Lysander were really partners making plans to have a life together.

Playing the Archetype can of course initially make for overblown playing: it is a stage you have to go through. Looking at the scenes and radiating/receiving between the acting partners first, then adding the archetype and radiating and receiving that towards your partner, you finally start to play the scene moving freely using the archetype. You commit fully and wholeheartedly to the archetype, playing your scene. After that, you just use it as a basis and let your own creative instincts and responses to your acting partner come to the fore, with the archetype falling back and then intensifying at moments through the scene. Even more than centres or psychological gesture, which are fantastic elements but more forensic, using archetypes in this free way is a truly liberating experience for the performers.

Having explored that, we started to look at moments where other atmospheres or driving forces needed to be strong, for instance in the scene between Titania and Oberon when he removes the spell.  I asked for an atmosphere of magic to fill the space. This was a lovely moment.

IMG_6052

Next up is the fast-filling up 4th Summer School, August 15-18 working with Buchner’s Woyzeck led by guest tutor Declan Drohan and myself. It is four days training 10-5 .For more info visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com ,visit the fb page or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to express interest and pay a deposit.  The cost is €200 for four days training.

Article of Faith

pwords

Just a short word to say that IF you are working in a school or college that takes this magazine, you might like to explore the excellent articles, including my own on working on Shakespeare with young people. It covers voice work, a little Chekhov Technique, and some of the issues my group and i encountered as we worked on Twelfth Night earlier this year! this exploration is going to be expanded soon! Here are Fiona and Patrick from the production and there are other pictures inside.

http://www.nationaldrama.org.uk/dramamagazine/

“The fault,dear Brutus…” Julius Caesar BBC4

I am sorry, but I had to turn the JULIUS CAESAR [BBC 4}off last night. This is not because I am old school, nor is it that I don’t believe women can play mens’ roles. This prestigious production by Phyllida Lloyd and with Dame Harriet Walter playing Brutus was set in a women’s prison, something which we were tediously reminded of during the play itself with the odd expletive which undermined the play on several occasions. It presumably was meant to emphasise the relevance of the production.

Setting a play with ‘a concept’ like this often rides against the play and you have to be incredibly careful how you do it. Also could we not simply accept as adults that you can do this play with an all female cast and something integral will happen to it, without adding another layer which in the end merely obfuscated what the play was about? In other words, though one might say in the production’s defense, that the play is about patriarchal power and these women prisoners are victims of that power, I do not really see that resonating enough to make it work. and for me it failed almost totally. Only the performance of Jackie Clune as Julius Caesar really excited and challenged me.

Violence, we observe, is sadly more and more common in our society and presumably some of the prison ‘characters’ had witnessed it, been victim to it, or acted it out. They would also perhaps understand about lobbying for position in a gang situation. None of this – where the ‘concept’ may have actually really served the piece – was apparent to me in the production.

In the end though, whether it was the ‘concept’ that confused actors, the text, though incredibly clear, beautifully phrased etc had one blanket of emotional panicky pace which meant to me almost nothing . I neither cared about the prison ‘characters’ nor the characters in the play.

As someone who has been in a production of this play, I do think the second half is challenging for cast and director .The play does such a great job of building to the unleashing of violence that it is hard to know what happens next. i suppose it is simply that having committed the assassination the characters fall from their lofty heights with Brutus struggling for his honour in a sea of dishonour and bloodshed which ultimately overwhelms him.

 

Twelfth Night Polarities

IMG_3934As we put the production of Twelfth Night to bed here at CTPI and NUI Galway , I am thinking back to something I discovered about this play through the production, through my editing and through the process..

I had never before thought of Twelfth Night as a tragicomedy. Before we start to talk about the idea of polarities and how they exist in the play we should perhaps explore the unique form of tragi-comedy, because for me at least, that is certainly how 12th Night seems to work for a modern audience. Tragicomedy was made very popular through writers like Middleton and Rowley after Shakespeare, but it was clearly part of the collective psychology of the Elizabethan theatre goer way before then. Tragicomedy is not simply putting  comic scenes in with serious or tragic scenes in order to keep the wide social demographic of many Elizabethan audiences satisfied and connected to the performance. The tragicomic dynamic is a visceral engine, a cruelty which actually consciously rubs sadness and grief against laughter and joy. Tragicomedy is a genre which actively uses polarity to heighten the work. We ignore this at our peril or the play is constantly unsettling in the wrong sort of way. The scenes somehow do not sit together without embracing the full force of what tragicomedy unleashes. Indeed Shakespeare’s language constantly compares opposites, especially in soliloquy when a character is asking the audience what they should do about their particular dilemma. It’s built into the fabric.

Michael Chekhov focuses on polarity as part of discovering the score of the play. Often when I am working I like to take the actors as characters through the play considering one polarity only, to see where the character fits and travels along that theme through his/her story. I do this quite early on and whilst it may  be somewhat transformed once the scenes start to be played, it is amazing how the alchemy of imagery and instinct often reveal jewels of character we could never have imagined through discussion.

In Twelfth Night one of the polarities I see is Riot and Order. Feste represents the former and Malvolio the other. These two characters are diametrically opposed and it is their battle, culminating in the highly ambiguous prison scene, which for me is one of the big polarities of this play. The other is Love and Death, not exactly opposites, but in the Elizabethan world view, they are. In the beautiful Act 2 sc 4, the disguised Viola and Orsino speak intimately and lovingly, are then faced with the haunting song Come Away Death. Orsino’s mood is transformed and he becomes violent and desperate, whilst Viola refers to her brother [supposedly dead]. In that moment the two young people are forced to face the dark side of their souls.

IMG_3994The production has been a delight. Now back to working in my garden, writing, reviving The Sacrificial Wind and the first of three weekend workshops .The first – Chekhov and Ensemble will be held on March 9th-11th in Galway. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

 

 

Follow your heart

IMG_3875Two moments from rehearsal for the college production of Twelfth night last week turned my thoughts away from any idea that Shakespeare was necessarily making a satire of his own lost twins drama of romantic love.

It is so easy to see Orsino as a superficial matinee idol who is merely a fool who is in love with love, and therefore to see Viola as a fool for loving him. I would have fully supported this from reading and the various productions I have seen over the years where the romantic characters are either uncomfortably unbelievable or sent up rotten.

IMG_3886But this week when Viola began to speak of her fictitious sister whilst thinking of her own dead brother , the young actor playing ORSINO came up behind her and held her tenderly . It was a really beautiful moment When I asked him how the character felt at that moment he said, ” he just wanted to be close to Cesario. For that moment whether she was a man or a woman was completely not the point. He just wanted to hold him.” The directness and clarity of this response was lovely.

IMG_3861A similar moment occurred when Sebastian and Antonio said their goodbyes . We discussed a lot about whether the two had had any kind of physical affair. It is of course a popular choice to say yes, but we decided against it. It does not stop the characters from being physically close to each other in a moment of grief, nor from Antonio wanting more than Sebastian is prepared to give him. In fact the very fact that they have not consummated the relationship makes it all the more touching and edgy.

It maðe me consider that perhaps the play is about what happens when you follow your heart; that there are winners and losers, but that not following your heart is closing your life off. It will all be over soon enough anyway, as Feste tells us, so you must travel with an open heart. I am particularly moved as an older person looking at these young actors perform this; that the fact they are young makes this interpretation, growing from our work , all the more poignant.

Put me into good fooling!

IMG_3885One of the things that has struck me again and again in this preparatory week with the exuberant and talented student actors at the Centre of Drama Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway is the joy of working with young people, their boundless energy, talent and enthusiasm, such as may elude them if they enter the world of ‘the profession’ . It also reminded me of the issues.

When working as a professional director you expect to develop a vision at a high and competent level because the actors have most of the skills you will need, well they are supposed to. Of course this sometimes falls short with certain individuals as clashes of style develop between performers and directors, and often between performers themselves. In actual fact, the collaborative element in directing, whilst important in both professional and student spheres, is much easier to achieve with young people and hence paradoxically  the work is often ultimately more interesting despite the youth of the group and the fact they have to work harder at skills.

Interestingly, and I find this more and more as I get older, it seems that any vision I have needs to be tempered by the young people. They are coming from a very different place to me and as the exploratory week of the production evolves so does my sense of direction, because it is not just mine but theirs. This does not mean that I just go along with their wishes because sometimes, from inexperience, they are not seeing the play in a deep way or perhaps in a way what seems like a good idea at the beginning is going to become derailed by the needs of the play itself (Actually many professional productions suffer from this problem too – what seemed like a good idea at the start goes wrong).

In addition what is important for me in that first week is assessing their individual strengths and challenges . It is nearly always true that in the beginning the student actors after being free as birds in the first week where the story is explored through sound and the body suddenly come up against the needs of the text and the expectation they feel is there. ie talking in an English accent. While I always do a lot of physical voice work based on Michael Chekhov Exercises which promotes variety and grounded truth, the old stalwarts of breathing and diction are frequently serious challenges. Whîlst on the one hand I wouldn’t want to over force the practice, on the other hand without decent clarity all the depth in the world will not be radiated through the text. Weeks 2 and 3 often have this constant feeling of a plane landing uncomfortably as adjustments of time and focus need to be made. Once the lines are understood and learned, we can really play again.

What keeps emerging from our work with this play is this deep sense of loss and loneliness in so many of the characters, that the search for love is a search to forget loneliness. Maybe the play says that no matter how hard we try we are always lonely; that in relationships we save ourselves from loneliness but to some extent sacrifice our identity. This is an interesting if rather sad thought –  and particularly because the play is a comedy.