Tag Archives: Teaching theatre

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.

The Alchemy of Teaching


picture: Sean T O’Meallaigh

This week I have been thinking a lot about teaching theatre, about the dynamic exchange between student group and teacher. Learning theatre, learning practical theatre is one of the most powerful things you can learn; its encourages confidence, develops voice, imagination, body and feelings in every individual student. It can be utterly transformational.

I am really loving my classes this year; University, freelance and Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops; students who really want to ‘find out’ , to explore and develop. It is not always the case. Sometimes when we teach we have to manage expectations, deep resistances and fears of individuals at the same time as minimising the detrimental effect that the student in question might have on the group learning: because in theatre, though we can develop and learn individually, much of our learning comes from the interaction of the group. 

Of course it is up to us as teachers to create the environment where development can grow but occasionally circumstances can be challenging. This is especially true teaching theatre when students come up against their own limitations. Training for sport provides a similar challenge.

The interaction between tutor/facilitator/teacher and the individual student is paramount. It requires a strength and at the same time a huge sensitivity to the student’s needs. There is a wonderful moment in the Michael Chekhov Masterclass DVDs produced by MICHA where Joanna Merlin is explaining Psychological Gesture, an element of the Michael Chekhov Technique where we physicalise our intention. She says something like, ‘if I was to make a gesture of teaching what would it be?’ She makes a generous open-armed gesture, offering towards the students.

When I have asked (in teacher training sessions) teachers and lecturers to show the group a gesture/statue which suggests teaching, there are sometimes surprising responses ; closed finger-wagging gestures, stern faces, standing on the back foot. For me what Joanna demonstrated with her psychological gesture is exactly what teachers should aspire to be. The thing is that sometimes there is a need for kind firmness as well as coaxing and when you get a challenging response from the student it can be quite hurtful because you have to stay open at the same time as being firm. I am lucky that challenging responses have happened rarely but when they have, and there is always a potential for it, it can be unnerving. You have to remember that whilst you may be partly to blame for a student’s defiance, awkwardness or accusations of injustice, their response may have little or nothing to do with you but more to do with what is going on in their lives at that moment. This happened  more to me when I was teaching Ensemble and Devising, because individuals sometimes resisted the fact that in ensemble work, the group is paramount. Because theatre training is challenging anyway their reactions can be strong.

For this last year though i have felt truly blessed with my students and what is amazing is that the more committed they are, the more you can give. The energy, like a performance, is not one-sided; it is completely reciprocal. It is a moving energy from you to the student and back again. In Michael Chekhov terms it is radiating and receiving. Many students do not understand this; that they also carry responsibility for the efficacy of a workshopSONY DSC.

In addition to my university teaching, I am especially looking forward to my two weekend workshops for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland. Just my Imagination, working with Chekhov Technique. (October 18-20) and Good vs. Evil :The greatest Polarity of All – working with King Lear. (Nov 29th- Dec 1) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com  to book your place. check our website www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland@gmail.com

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (and William Shakespeare)

Everyone has at least one important inspirational teacher. I am lucky to have had several. Mrs. Florence Robinson was the first. To say she was a front room drama teacher belittles her impact on me. She was inspiring, intelligent, funny, enthusiastic and joyous as a teacher. I hope I have taken that from her, because as a teacher, enthusiasm and joy are what makes you effective. They are the things you remember about someone.

She was about fifty when I met her. Her husband worked on the railways and she had two sons both of whom went into theatre administration. Like many women of the period, once married, she did not feel she could take her life into a theatrical career. She satisfied herself with youth and amateur work, doing lessons in her front room and helping people like me get to drama school. She spent many unpaid hours working with me and several other aspiring young actors.

Over the eight years I worked with her, she gave me a love of spontaneity and imagination at the same time as giving me a love of technique and precision. When I went to drama school nine years later, I found I had a lot of the building blocks already in place because she had encouraged them in me.

I was ten when I started taking class with her. She decided to give me the incredibly challenging Puck speech from act 3 sc 2 of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “My mistress with a monster is in love,” in only my second week. ” I am not sure you are ready for this yet, but if you want to be an actor, then you must give Shakespeare a try.” The idea that Shakespeare was not for the faint hearted or only for a privileged few is a myth which still exists today, Florence implied it was difficult but in some ways I noticed that actually it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Yes there were some tricky words but the rhythm and excitement of the piece which rattled through was what thrilled me. As a young man said who played Puck for me decades later in a production in Galway,  “I was scared of doing Shakespeare and now I am not”. In fact in many ways, Shakespeare is easier for young people because it is poetic and out of their immediate reality.

The day we began on that speech was the first time I heard about breathing. I realised that where you breathed in a line was important and gave you control which you needed, at the same time as having to radiate and fully inhabit Puck being boastful and wild. It was a big discovery, very early in my life. Like lots of my own students, who I am sure find the discipline of marking breath boring and counter-intuitive, it took me many years to realise that discipline and spontaneity needed to be symbiotic. She opened the door for me to the universality of Shakespeare, that poetic drama as great as this can encompass the world, at the same time as being intimate and personal.

Another thing Florence taught me quite quickly was emphasis and how emphasis could totally change meaning. It still astounds me how often actors speak text and emphasise words which make a line almost nonsensical or trite. This happened most annoyingly recently in the Andrew Scott Hamlet. This is so bad because it fails to acknowledge that language is the main thing in Shakespeare, the main conduit for everything; psychology, atmosphere, character, motivation. We can of course say, “well now we have visuals we don’t need to worry about painting a picture with words,” and “don’t people know the story anyway?” but really there is no escape; the language is everything.

And when I say that, I mean it. The story is important too of course, but Shakespeare used stories from Plutarch and other sources, like most of the Elizabethan playwrights. So the stories may well have been familiar to some. Part of the fun, for the nobles in the audience at least, might have been to see how the playwright had adapted the story. But some of the audience will not have known the story and that is a place from which we should always start if the play is to have an impact. Too often for me, professional actors carry the great weight of history on their backs, a kind of cynical exhaustion which says , “yes, I know you have seen and heard this a thousand times”.

Florence demanded enthusiasm and spontaneity. She could smell it if it wasn’t there! Though we did a whole variety of material, it is my work on Hamlet, the choruses of Henry V, Enobarbus, Puck and Romeo that I remember.

Florence and I got a little estranged during my later teenage years as I began going to youth theatre and thought devising far more cool, making theatre with my friends (something I recognise in some of my own students now!) I none the less went back to her to help me with my drama school entry audition.

Florence disappeared from my life after I started LAMDA . However, after my first term I went to visit her in her little house on a dangerous bend in the road. I looked at the stairs where I had sat as a little boy going through my poem  before i went in for my lesson . That day she arrived and hugged me and brought me into the room in which I had been given so much learning and encouragement. It was full now of her watercolours ,a hobby she had taken up over the last few years. She loved to show them. I particularly remember I loved the one of a puppy sleeping. She was lively as usual that day but I noticed that the oft repeated stories which had accompanied my later classes with her, had got more insistent. Later, I heard from others that she would go out and not be able to find her way home. This vibrant wonderful creative person was succumbing to Alzheimers.

One of the things she said to me at that visit after I had started drama school was that she wanted to know everything I had learned in my first term. She asked me, “do you think that the work we did here was….well…..was on the right track?”


Talking Teaching Voice


a member of Dublin Youth Theatre works with gesture and language – photo Sean O’Meallaigh

Yesterday  I had a launch of my book, ‘Teaching Voice’ at the National University of Ireland Galway. I had just come back from teaching my 2nd year Voice and Shakespeare class which had been a great exchange of energy and learning. In fact, a student said something which I am going to make the centre of a blogpost soon.  After a lovely introduction by Marianne Ni Chinneide, whom I have known for many years both as a youth theatre member and an MA student many years before she became a colleague, I said this [ with a few embellishments to clarify further]-


‘Before I came to Galway, I had had some success as an actor but had enough of acting and was starting to make a name for myself as a playwright. What do I mean by, ‘had enough of it’? I was worn out by ‘the business’ and the destructive and ridiculous cliches with which a young actor is encouraged to live. Cliches like  ‘talent will out’, that if you work hard , you will make it in the end, whatever ‘make it’ is supposed to mean. I knew that despite some success, that somehow the love for acting had somehow been seriously eroded and I was losing my way,  that there had to be some other route forward for myself. I had done a bit of teaching but really wanted to explore teaching theatre and particularly voice.

My first contact in looking for a place to teach theatre was actually here in the university, though of course no drama programme existed. I remember meeting Kevin Barry, then Head of English,  who sent me off to the feisty and determined Rebecca Bartlett, the founder of the Galway Youth Theatre, which was actually a part time programme for young people here.  After a talk with her  I decided that what they needed was a specified voice programme. It was only a few hours per week but it meant a serious improvement in performance skills, and to begin with, that is how I viewed the voice training. Despite the fact that voice can often be perceived as tedious – I can remember dreading double voice on Monday morning of my second year at college – I was determined to make it as energetic and joyous as possible.

Working there was a big part of my life for the next twelve years, with subsequent directors Niamh Dillon and Andrew Flynn, teaching voice, ensemble, and directing many productions there. It was exciting and I found that I loved teaching. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And whilst I still love to direct and write, teaching is what really fascinates me because as we discovered the other day, when you are in a class you often do the best work, the most subtle and the most exciting. The reason for this is perhaps, as one of my students suggested, because your ego is not so much in the way. And I, as the teacher, am priveleged to get to see and nurture that work . For instance in my Continuers Michael Chekhov class the other day I experienced a most beautiful nuanced version of ‘Our revels now are ended, “ from the Tempest. I have rarely heard it done as movingly.

The more I worked in this sector of youth theatre, eventually being sent by the National Association of Youth Drama all over the country to a massive variety of youth theatres , the more I understood that voice work is essential, not just for acting or for the myriad of jobs and situations in which the voice is important , but also into making us a whole person. If you connect your voice, imagination, feelings and body you operate holistically, completely. That’s got to be good for you.

Further work at the Blue Teapots Theatre, a programme for adults with learning difficulties with a thriving theatre company, taught me not only about teaching voice, but also the art of teaching itself. I realised that teaching was not just about me imparting knowledge but was an act of service.

Students were not there to garner my pearls of wisdom or simply learn skills, but to really truly develop they need to be encouraged by my care and enthusiasm for my subject and for them. It taught me that you cannot just expect students to do as they’re told or to ‘know what is good for them’. That as a teacher, it was as they say, ‘not about me’. You might say that about all group endeavours actually. Even directing a play is not ‘about me’ either. Its more about ‘me’ than teaching is, but still…

Later I discovered that whilst it was my job to build a bridge between the knowledge and the students in a way they could appreciate and build on, it was vital at the same time not compromising your knowledge by making it so ‘cool’ that it became unrecognisable; that there was an integrity there.

On the other hand, as I learned from that wonderful Michael Chekhov teacher Ted Pugh, students have to find out. It is their job to find out, and you as the teacher cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. I find this balance actually can be quite challenging, and of course it varies from class to class, from student to student. Of course I can say these things, because in drama I have the luxury that the classes are invariably small. And of course the learning you do through drama can often be life changing quite quickly, so the impact, when a light goes on in a student’s learning, can be immediately visible though of course it does not always last.

As some people might know I have taught a number of voice courses to lecturers here and in other colleges as well; what was ostensibly a voice class became also something about the philosophy of teaching, how we actually feel about teaching. Whilst I was not trained to be a teacher myself, I do now understand that teaching is a skill, it’s a generosity and an offering, whilst at the same time setting limits and boundaries. Its an art form in itself.

This book of mine, in addition to being a book of workshops and exercises, which covers a whole range of themed sessions on different aspects of voice, including acting with poetry, rhythm, delivering presentations, Shakespeare, working in productions, holds some of that ethos. It’s for anyone who works with young people and wants to help them express themselves, to help them find a voice, especially if you have only a little training and are working in a kind of keyhole situation  as you might be in the college environment.  I trained at drama school and did five hours of voice per week for two years. I am running a class here where the students have two hours contact time per week and have to practise daily  without me. That course however is still invaluable especially if people do practise. It is not wasted time. With limited time you can still do something useful.

And learning is not linear either. I remember driving down to facilitate  at a youth theatre project a few years ago with Miquel Barcelo, an excellent movement and ensemble teacher, and he and I were discussing training . He said something which I kind of knew but was a good reminder. He said when he was training at Lecoq there were many things he didn’t understand and sometimes it was only when he thought about them years later that he truly understood them. Sometimes it takes years to sink in. Truly understanding something is not about instant gratification.

That’s certainly been true of my own learning.

Teaching Voice is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased from their website  and is available in, as they say, all good bookshops!


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.

‘Those who can’t, teach…’

shaw I never expected to teach. When I trained as an actor as a young man, I believed Shaw’s axiom, ‘those who do, do, those who can’t, teach’ but I have been teaching/facilitating now for over two decades. Now I am so passionate about teaching , that both teaching voice and Chekhov technique and directing plays ( and directing at whatever level, is still at least a kind of guiding) are the significant things in my working life. I understand that for me at least, when I teach/facilitate, I have to feel  that it is a beautiful and wonderful thing I am helping the student explore. I don’t need to work hard at this because whenever a student ‘gets’ something and something shifts for them, especially when you are teaching voice or Chekhov, it often happens suddenly, joyfully and visibly.

I have been writing busily this last week, and will mostly be doing the same thing for the next six weeks. Previously I have written a variety of papers, essays, a novel, and most of all a whole number of plays, many of which have been professionally performed, and have won two awards. ( check out my cv for details). What’s unusual and exciting for me is that this book I am writing now is for facilitators and teachers working with young people in theatre.

I have spent some considerable time teaching voice to lecturers and teachers at second and third level. But as well as teaching voice  in these courses we are also dealing with the philosophy of teaching and the well being of the lecturer and teacher themselves . I often invite them through exercises to consider and reconnect with the love and commitment they feel to their subject and to the whole process, which so many people lose sight of when working within an institution, especially when it is dysfunctional in some way. It is no good to just teach them tricks and games, but vital to get them to reconnect at a deep level with the whole process of sharing energy, and imparting knowledge. Chekhov’s ideal centre work, and radiating/ receiving are great for this work. When I started this work with teachers, one lecturer said, a little irritated, “we are not here to entertain them!” And I replied, ” but you are there to enthuse, share, and help them! If you are bored and therefore boring, how can you possibly expect them to be interested?” Teachers sometimes believe that the learning is enough, [i was a little like this at the start] without realising they are the pathway to learning for the student  and a pathway to learning much more than intellectual knowledge. One teacher said to me once, “how can I possibly put any intensity in teaching someone how to use this surgical instrument?” ( I can’t remember what it was) “Because if they do it wrong, the patient will die.” I replied.

It is easy to get seduced into feeling when writing workshop plans as I am for part of my book, that these are exercises you have done a million times, instead of infusing your workshop plan with the sense of an exciting journey and exploration on which you are taking the facilitator and their group. I have suddenly become fully awakened to the fullness of this opportunity. i am offering a map which teachers and groups can change, spend longer time in one spot than other , avoid certain areas they are not ready for yet, and so on, whilst hopefully being encouraged by my advice.

It is so important to me to present an ethos, not just a recipe book of games and workshop plans, to show how I brought myself to believing what is important about acting or Voice and how I try to help students find something of the joy that I feel about it myself. That way the book must be more helpful

As Michael Chekhov says in Lessons for Teachers.

“if you are teaching, you must be active. ….The teacher must radiate action.

oh well, back to work……

Chekhov for young people in Ballitore! Joining The Dots.

Orpheus charms the natural world

Orpheus charms the natural world

This week I went to the extraordinary town of Ballitore in Co Kildare to take part in ‘Joining the Dots’ a youth theatre project which this week is offering learning in alternative performance skills not always part of the youth theatre vocabulary , or if they are, to be given a bit of space to be explored at a deeper level. I and Sarah O’Toole went there to introduce the young people to some Chekhov principles. Griese Youth Theatre which is the focus of this project, run by the inspirational Leish Burke, is an extraordinary mix of professionalism , care giving and social inclusion , and this project is supported by the County Council and the Arts Council [and hopefully others]. It was and is absolutely brilliant. I say is because the 30 young people are spending their final day with Louise Lowe making site-specific work. If anyone is in the slightest doubt about the efficacy of drama to encourage more rounded and joyful human beings, they should pay this youth theatre a visit.

The sixteen young people in my group of 16 – 20 year olds came to explore some basic Chekhov technique and I could see instantly how the easy access to the feelings through gesture appealed to them. Once working with qualities of movement , it filled me with a great sense of positivity and joy as a number of them started to really let go and and more fully experience what it is to be fully awake in the way Chekhov understands it, which is important not only for performance but for experiencing the world in a more full way. Often when working with radiating and receiving , young people get a touch embarrassed and giggle but there was remarkably little of this. Above all though, it was watching them respond to the exercises which reconnect to the imagination which were really powerful.

What I love about teaching theatre , and especially Chekhov are these moments of breakthrough when people realise something about themselves, the sheer power of their imaginations and their acting skills which they never felt before. It is more exciting for me than almost anything.

To show or not to show? that is the question…

This teaching question as to whether on a short course you can or should develop a performance, however rough it might be, is a perennial one. In this case, this is particularly true when you are primarily exploring skills. The danger is that if you introduce a perfomance element then for the young people ( and sometimes yourself) this is all the weekend can be about. After all, surely you need as much of your precious time as you can to teach skills?  The issue is though, that you have to be honest with yourself and understand that you are only exploring the skills, so that actually trying to use them is all part of the process. The young people almost always like to perform, and if they are truly enjoying it, some of the things you are teaching them are likely to stick. It gives the course a structure too.

We opted for low key performance, just to the other group, [Sarah took the younger group of incredibly imaginative and funny 13 – 15 year olds]  so there was very little pressure. A main goal of making the piece was that they might experience how radiating/ Receiving, qualities and atmosphere might be applied. We also did a little work on gesture.

Whilst ultimately the areas I chose to work on, became somewhat governed by what I thought the young people might be able to use within the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice I had brought in, it was vital that the introductory exercises which made up two thirds of our time together were  completely free, imaginative and not tied to the piece . This was an important discipline otherwise they would have got no sense of the power of the work overall .  It had to be Technique first, piece second. This discipline is as hard for the facilitator as it is for the group! It was also important to explain to them them that the Technique could be used, indeed was primarily for work with more conventional plays.

Whilst developing a piece does not mean that these skills can always be utilised fully because the participant has not had the time to master them, but only meet and hopefully experience them, it does give them an idea of where the work might lead. This is a vital component of youth theatre work when one is so often only introducing an experience, technique or way of working to a person.  In other words you have to make sure that it works for them to some extent right there, after only a few hours. To be crude , they need once or twice at least an instant ‘hit’ in order to retain faith with the work. This is more true in youth theatre than other of the many fields I have worked in. Then you might be in with a chance that they might seek out more classes, read, practise etc.

In order to make the piece valuable for our learning however, I was very structured about the style of the content and our goals because I wanted to keep the skills they had explored uppermost. By using the skills they of course went deeper which made them [I think] feel good. Had I allowed them complete license with the story ( to send it up for instance ) the performing exercise would have had a totally different focus.

Having said that, they still had a lot of creative choices to make. We used very clear building blocks; three subgroups of five making four tableaux of their part of the story, We then added transitions which were then developed for qualities of movement, rhythms and atmosphere. We then added ensemble work which involved qualities and atmosphere, then finally one short dramatic exchange of dialogue within each group which involved psychological gesture. Our opening was a use of archetypes, another area we explored in our exercises. This strongly structured creation is something I will use again when teaching Chekhov to young people, because it gave very definite indicators as to ways of using the technique, whilst at the same time presenting a serious and powerful 8 minute piece with which I hope they were pleased.

An absolutely fantastic two days. Leish Burke and Griese Youth Theatre I salute you.

How came these things to pass? Magic, Chekhov and Shakespeare.


MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM must be one of the most performed plays of all time. It is also the most interpreted. I myself have tackled this play twice and was in a cut down version when I was 8. ( the subject of a radio piece broadcast I did on RTE in 2003 )

So many interpretations and experiments have been performed on this play and therefore anything I might say subsequently might have the riposte, ‘oh, I saw that done in xxxx’s production in 1993!’ But I am going to plough ahead anyway because it is the manner in which this was discovered that was interesting, as much as the discovery itself. In my extremely brave and adventurous Chekhov and Shakespeare class this week, we explored general atmosphere with the empty rectangle which you fill with a given atmosphere from your imagination. We are working with Midsummer Night’s Dream

Chekhov and General Atmosphere.

For those not in the know about atmosphere, Chekhov believed that atmosphere was a palpable thing, the oxygen of performance. All characters operated within this atmosphere, accommodating it in some way, or absorbing it. He also believed that atmosphere was something that existed whether an individual was there or not, that it was not something that we brought into a space, but something that was there and we walked into it. Much of this kind of idea has been supported by science. All you have to do is go into a church or a hospital or a library to feel the weight of this truth.

This was demonstrated to great effect last night when we moved from our working room into a smaller kitchen/ utility room to illustrate this point and sense the difference in atmosphere in each place . As we came back into our working room, I watched the faces of people as they came back into our room, amazed at the difference. To cap it all, as if on cue, a man on his way to another meeting arrived to try and cross the room ,and the feeling of him facing our resistance was palpable. It was as if he hit a wall of atmosphere. It was incredible yet an ordinary everyday occurence. One of those palpable invisible things made visible once you are aware of it.

As we worked on the Dream , we explored the world of Athens from words and pictures created by the actors. We filled the rectangular space with an atmosphere of COLDNESS and CONTROL . As the actors explored these thoroughly with their bodies and feelings, and began using pieces of text, I got one of the actors to take in a new atmosphere of her own, one of the colour RED and she was to say to each person, ‘I love Lysander!’ As she responded to each of the others in turn, she came upon someone who she felt put up more resistance , [ an older man who could have been Theseus] and became joyous loud and defiant . It felt like she was real threat to the atmosphere and everyone responded. It was most exciting, and filled the room with something fundamental about the play. This is what is so wonderful about the Chekhov work, that it brings from the abstract something tangible, actable and real.

The role of Theseus.

It made me realise something about Theseus , something I had struggled with before. Theseus is a difficult part because he does not really have enough stage time to take an emotional journey and yet he is important enough to make one. He and Hippolyta are the first characters we see and so somehow they need to be key. In the first scene he is established as the ruler and lawgiver. He has just defeated an army of women and is about to marry their leader, so the two of them set up the theme of the challenge of heterosexual relationships which is then played out through nearly all the major characters one way or another. It has often been supposed and there have been many productions exploring this , that Oberon and Theseus are cross cast with Titania and Hippolyta, thereby giving the Theseus/Oberon character a running emotional/poetical journey through another character ( note how this appears to be the case with Cordelia and the Fool in Lear too.), but what if we are to consider Theseus alone?

It occurred to me through our atmosphere exercise, that the threat of Lysander and Hermia’s love to the very essence and atmosphere of what Athens represents is much more serious than it appears. The unruly sway of the emotions against order and control is what provokes the wrath of the state against them, to the extent where Hermia’s father calls for her execution and they have to run away into uncertainty and danger. Theseus as the ruler should be the one most threatened by Hermia’s defiance , but also moved by it, as he changes her prospective punishment from execution to banishment to a nunnery. When they emerge from the forest towards the end of the play and Egeus pleads for his punishment , Theseus has a change of heart, and all ends happily. But through this exercise I discovered that perhaps this change of heart is set in motion from the moment that Hermia defies him in Act one and she sets this change in motion to take him from a cold rational man to a warmer human being. In the production I did in 2008 , it was Hippolyta who caused his repentance by kneeling silently before him after Egeus had demanded the full punishment, a nice idea I had not seen before which gave some closure to her own defiance. The Theseus act 5 speech ‘ I never may believe these antique fables….’ where he challenges the story of the lovers in conversation with Hippolyta suddenly makes sense in this context, with this journey.

As I watched my class going off into the sunny evening discussing how energised they were feeling, and the words imagination and discovery were heard repeated again , I felt so empowered by their energy and the power of our work.

If that sounds ‘blissy’, I’m not apologising!

What comes first? Emphasis or Intuition ?

Sarah O'Toole, darragh O'Brien, Mary Monaghan

Sarah O’Toole, Darragh O’Brien, Mary Monaghan

“Even if a concept is necessary in speech, it is a tragically pathetic portion of the whole that speech can offer.” Peter Brook : Evoking Shakespeare [a short but wonderful book.] 

Despite the fact that Chekhov addresses all the hidden stuff that Brook might be alluding too here, nonetheless I took two groups working on Shakespeare back to very basic work this week. Technical , intellectual work. Sense, finding the words that carry the meaning and underlining them, making sure you have enough breath to follow your intention, and radiate the sensations and feelings they evoke. We did this work in tandem with the Chekhov work, but I felt it essential to spend some time intellectually exploring sense with pens and text.

When I trained I hardly ever underlined anything. It was not laziness, I almost could not bear to do it, as if underlining would somehow destroy my acting, that it would fix me in some trap that would restrict the way I played the character forever. I understood that acting was something personal and invisible. Of course I still believe this. I still believe, as Chekhov stated, that Actors Are Magicians. I still find the idea that working from logical sense as if it was the way to unlock the mysteries of art or the universe a deeply reductive path, as if logic could ever be a legitimate tool of exploration for an evocation of huge lives of complex characters and deep story. I now understand that it is important to explore intellectual meaning and emphasis without necessarily sticking to it, because the very act of doing it reminds you that on some level it is still very important.

As I write this I am reminded of the way I was taught ‘actioning’ , a gruelling and to my mind pointless process, where every single line is analysed for an action. It is mind and spirit numbing. A young director friend worked with me like this and we had to part company. For me this process totally denies spontaneity, response, the energy of other performers, and the audience. It is acting as cold science, and denies creativity. Like eating dry muesli .

Back to emphasis. I think it was Gielgud who talked about the need to emphasis the correct word so that the audience, whilst not understanding the whole meaning of a sentence or phrase , was able to follow. It is amazing how often even the most experienced actors emphasise inappropriate words, and how even the sense is lost.

I find when we work with Psychological Gesture that sometimes the power of the sensations and feelings a gesture provokes can overpower the sense of the text. We might think this doesn’t matter because what the gesture evokes in us is so unbelievably authentic that we are happy with it. The issue with poetic dialogue and especially Shakespeare is that the sensations and feelings are embedded in the language, so the rhythm of the gesture and the images need to somehow mesh. I am not trying to make a rule here, rather just express a line of enquiry.

I suppose the question we have to ask as teachers, directors and performers is what comes first here? Is it the intellectual logic , place to breathe , etc or is it the intuition and the emotional response to the work that we find through our Chekhov exploration? I believe that it is much better to use the Chekhov route first, better to explore the invisible than the logical as the base. The emphasis and place to breathe can come later and can change, provided the actor has had some training.


Feelings in Chekhov Technique

Yesterday someone new to the work was doing an exercise with Centres and found herself crying. She looked astounded and moved. Having taught many people now through the early stages of Chekhov training this is very common, as many fellow teachers know.magician max push

What always amazes and fascinates me is how surprised people are when this release happens and how we often fail to give the proper respect to the reality of the memory in the body. When I say ‘we’ I suppose I mean I! Despite having involved myself in various body therapies in the late Seventies onwards, (including an intense session of rebirthing which I had found incredibly disturbing) this discovery in my own Chekhov training came as a bit of a shock at the beginning. Many times I would do an exercise, particularly with Psychological gesture and would end up weeping uncontrollably . It actually made me feel good afterwards, the release of it. It made me realise something bigger than acting was going on, about how I had held so much in, and not allowed myself to feel things in so many different life situations. This was a surprise as I always saw myself as being a very emotional sort of man. I have never shied away from the idea that ones work as an artist of any description is somewhat self-therapeutic. It goes with the territory when you go deeply. However this release  had more to do with me than with the character, and was a process i needed to go through in order to be able to use the Technique more effectively.

When I encountered this big emotion at first I was concerned that the Chekhov work might be rather disturbing, and it was not until I had discussed it with various teachers that I realised it was a lot safer than using your own personal memories of tragedies and triumph to eke out feelings for your character as I had been taught myself in Acting Technique at college. I had never really been comfortable with this approach.

I soon associated this intense emotion from the Chekhov work very much like the way we are encouraged to deal with thoughts and feelings in meditation, that you are mindful of them and they will flow through you and away. That ‘you have your feelings, but you are not your feelings’, that we are a conduit for these things but most of them get expressed . Of course sometimes there are strong residuals which stay in your body, which was probably why I got such strong release when I started the Chekhov work.

Time and again I see some people afraid of emotion, afraid to radiate their energy or root a gesture because subconsciously they are afraid of what it will unlock . I remember a very moving example of this a few years ago, when a young woman who was working on Irina’s confession to Olga [3 Sisters]  about her unhappy life was using a reaching gesture, and she simply would not allow the emotion through. I just asked her to radiate the energy out a bit further, engage her hands and the emotion was released. She spoke the speech and it was quite beautiful, and then worked with diminishing the gesture. I remember discussing it with her and reminding her that nothing bad had happened, and she was relieved and surprised. I feel I have to be very careful with this process, because a student may not be ready, and whilst the goal of this work is not to make people cry, it is for them to find sensations which lead to feelings and energies to use for the plays they are in.

When I asked a teacher early on how they dealt with this emotion in class, she told me she worked with a student with breathing into the feeling, calming it down, and reminding the student that it was only an image or a gesture, and it was something she was in control of. She was far more likely to be able to control an image or a gesture than some memory of an event that had happened to her. In my experience this always works.

Only once have I felt seriously unnerved myself by a set of exercises, and that was working in a brave and advanced class in which I was a participant, and we were asked to deal with two contradictory energies, one of power[ an archetype]  and one of powerlessness. This set up an incredibly strong polarity in me, and I started to feel uncontrollably angry. I marched up to the top of the auditorium sitting there feeling angry and sorry for myself. I wanted to join them but I didn’t feel worthy, and I started to feel hate towards my classmates. I pulled away from the feeling because I was afraid. I thought to myself ‘ok, I can fake this feeling, it is very ugly indeed, or I can just opt out altogether, but I am here training, so I will follow this a little further. If I get any sense of going over the mark, I will breathe deep and step out of it.’ So I allowed this polarity of feeling again . I screamed and shouted and then went up and sat alone. Then I came down to the stage again and raged some more. Eventually I stepped out of it and sat down because I found it too strong. It is amazing how one can make these decisions through the Higher Ego, and have these experiences safely.  At the end when I reviewed my experience, I felt this impotent rage might be how people who kill senselessly might feel . It was awful, and took me some few minutes to breathe it out of my system. It was the kind of feeling I would never want to act myself. What pleased me though was that, despite the immensity of my feelings , There was a solid part of me still in control. the wonderful thing for me about Chekhov is that you do not chase feeling, you experience a gesture or imagine an atmosphere or an image and the feeling comes to you.

Sometimes I am asked, ‘why do you have to feel anything at all on stage?’ And of course, this is a question, in our materialist theatre, because so many actors get away with that.  I feel myself that usually I can tell when it is not rooted, and this strange alchemical  thing that happens between actors and the audience needs sensation and feeling and emotional exchange to be as nuanced as it can be, in order to produce something transformational.