Tag Archives: the Centre for Drama theatre and Performance NUI Galway

The Sacred Space

“a place where prayer has been valid”. T.S Eliot.

I have rehearsed and worked in many strange and often inhospitable places but whatever has happened I have for many years tried to instil in people a respect for the space. When we make work we can do it anywhere under the most challenging circumstances because, of course, it is the work that is important. However, the work exists in a space and if the room is cold or inadequate it can be a huge challenge, because that space tells everyone whether you and your work are respected in an institution or by society at large. As artists are continually under-valued, this issue of a clean, resourced and purposeful space can be a sensitive one.  I feel we are very lucky in NUI Galway to have a new theatre building which has two lovely studio spaces.

The whole concept of space is fascinating. Right now, Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland is remounting Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and we are taking it up to the prestigious Heaney Homeplace in Northern Ireland. The venue is beautiful and extraordinary with a theatre inspired by a Greek Amphitheatre. The audience are on three sides with tiered seating . There are more seats at the sides than the front. When we performed the piece over a year ago in the Cuirt International Festival in Galway Ireland,  in the Town Hall Theatre Studio, a small end-on studio space with seating on the long side of the studio, it made for a wide stage space. The piece, extremely powerful, was very still, confessional, and formal. This space was almost entirely the opposite type of space to the Heaney Homeplace.

Working within this almost promenade setting in the new venue has given us the opportunity to open up the piece into a much more physical almost Shakespearean presentation, in the way the characters explain and justify their actions around and during the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In fact, and this is what is most interesting, it is the space itself which has demanded this change rather than any demand of mine or the actors. Things we used to find gloriously effective do not alway work in this different configuration. This is not merely a question of the technical considerations but something that happens when people inhabit a particular space and creating a new dynamic.

When I start teaching next week with my undergrad group on Shakespeare, part of the course involves looking at the shape of Shakespeare’s theatre and how that structure affected the nature of the drama and the way the plays were written; particularly with relation to the connection with the audience which the thrust stage provides.

And do these shapes and spaces not have something to do with atmosphere, that most potent element explored in detail by Michael Chekhov in his technique? That the shape of the space and its purpose help create an atmosphere uninfluenced by those who enter that space? That the atmosphere has, of itself, great power and its own demands on what happens within it?

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Orla Tubridy Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning – The Sacrificial Wind

Catch The Sacrificial Wind at the Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy Co. Derry +44 (0)28 7938 7444 on the 22nd September 7.30 http://www.seamusheaneyhome.com

or on the 28th September Free performance at the ODT on campus at NUI Galway at lunchtime 1pm . You will need to arrive early to ensure a seat.

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Devising and Structure

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a recent devising workshop  radiating and receiving…

After seeing a devised piece by students the  other night , I was prompted to ask a question of the performers, that I never asked during the Q and A as time ran out. The piece was lively and varied and  reminded me of many devised pieces I have facilitated in the same college, the myriad pieces I have worked on in youth theatres and in National Youth Theatre Ireland festivals of Youth Drama .

I wanted to ask whether the students found the process different and better or worse than working on a play.

Devising is a wonderful thing; making a piece from nothing. It has a long history. In recent times it has been popular with youth theatre, applied drama with non-actors as well as on the professional stage. With devising, actors can initially make almost anything they want; they can own the piece completely as they have joint ownership; they can mix styles and give their piece the flexibility of a piece of music. It gives them a massive buzz and is an invaluable part of theatre education and practise.

However whatever devising model you use, there are restrictions. Whilst the group can explore something emotionally daring, it is very hard to develop certain acting skills within it. The students HAVE to feel safe, and when you are using feelings which are more iðentifiably yours the danger of fully exploring what is going on is riskier. It is difficult in that situation to make them act better, go deeper, because you as the facilitator have no idea what you might be dealing with, hidden beneath the subject matter that they have created. I had this experience myself quite recently with a group and it was a curious realisation that devising and acting skills are not always mutually compatible.

Looking back on my own experience I wondered whether restricting the scope of the material actually helped.

I facilitated a project many years ago on the theme of spirit for a youth theatre festival. The theme was given to us. It was a tricky one. At the end of this project there was to be a public performance and I was much less experienced, afraid we would not be able to make anything presentable in the time frame. I took with me an idea based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead which begins with a wake and then we follow the spirit going off to four levels, to be decided by the group, before leaving to eternity. Eventually the Spirit was released. This structure enabled us to find so many things about ‘what we let go of in death’ ‘ what does it mean to be alive’ that we could never have explored without that structure which I had taken in with me. The structure empowered them; it restricted their freedom a bit but also gave them lots of scope. Unexpectedly, four young actors devised a hilarious strand about four dead grandmothers who sat in an eternal front room, watching their living relatives on telly and supporting and criticising them, until one of them decides it is time to take the journey to departures. Their sections were scripted whereas the others were mainly movement -based ensemble pieces.

But even though we did a lot of things in experiment and discussion, I felt concerned to not push them in terms of their performance especially during the funeral/wake section. I was very gentle. After all I did not know these people and who knew what their relationship was with death? In fact, as it happens, one of the participating facilitators had had a close bereavement in the family and we had to talk about his involvement which was quite a moving story in itself.

The structure  enabled us to make something which challenged everyone. Restriction can mean freedom.

In a scripted play though, the actors have the conduit of their character to push their energies. The actors may or may not be like them and especially when working through the Chekhov technique you are never asking them to directly tap into their own experience but to find the feelings and the journey through imagination and the body first. That also allows you through the score of the play to express parts of them they do not show and to encourage them to work with those energies and radiate them to the audience convincingly. The character gives them a safe place because you are never directly working with them or their lives.

This is what I wanted to explore when I didn’t ask the question at the Q and A I mentioned at the start of this piece.

Not long ago I facilitated a devised piece about Ireland with a group. The piece was quite beautiful, but for various reasons, I found it was very difficult for them to express negative feelings about how they felt about the place, and when we started to explore this, some difficult feelings came up. Next time I work with them we are going to work with some scenes from plays as well as devising a piece, so they can work as free authors in their comfort zone and then push the boundaries when they have a structure and are playing someone other than themselves.

Ensemble and Michael Chekhov

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students in the prep week for 12th night recently working on themes from the play

Michael Chekhov was not the only exponent of ensemble playing. A whole raft of practitioners and teachers espouse it. What for me is most profound about Chekhov’s contribution to playing in ensemble is it is on the one hand a spiritual connection between players and a practical connection with the group. The very tools of radiating/receiving, atmosphere, composition and form speak directly to these connections. They give you practical guidance on how to make this intangible connection between your fellow performers.

ENSEMBLE is concerned primarily with the sense of the group , rather than the individual actor. So it’s not how I relate to this play and the director, and maybe my lead actor, but how I relate to all the actors, the technicians, the writer, the play(if there is one) and the director. This is not to say the individual actor may not shine, but he shines because of his/her ability to work with the group powerfully and effectively, like the member of an orchestra.

And for me, the art of ensemble and form is shown no more powerfully than in the classical orchestra, where the individual players unite with all their artistry and skill to produce a wonderful performance. The violin may have a fabulous solo but it is still reliant on the group. What Ensemble does require is a realization that you are only as powerful as the group. You get power, but you also relinquish it. When people have seen this group work in operation, it can be spectacularly powerful.

Michael Chekhov believed very strongly in the laws of composition and the idea that everything has a feeling of form and that we all understand it is vital to a successful satisfying piece of theatre.

But surely this power of performance should happen anyway? Thats true of course, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because of egos, the pressures of time, the desperate nature of actors to please the director to hopefully get another job, the director’s often dictatorial attitude or many other pressures brought to bear on the professional in particular.

We have all read the reviews… “This actress shines in the small but telling part of Anfisa, endorsing the feeling of ensemble in this splendid production of the Three Sisters”! Ensemble used in this context usually means simply that everyone acted well, it is still a buzz word and I am very sceptical when I hear it being used. The job description of the ensemble performer extends far beyond that of the conventional actor, who makes a good job of a small part.

A sense of ensemble is not always about what kind of theatre you are producing but HOW you produce it. It means seeing your part in context with the piece (if it is a conventional play that is, and you have a ‘part’ in the normal sense of the word.) remembering that there is no character without the play . You CANNOT separate the character from the play, nor from the other characters, nor from the other performers either. If you have ever had to go on as an understudy or to act with one, you know this to be true. The piece is fundamentally changed when someone else takes over.

An ensemble performer needs to know, find and agree with the group and director the highs and lows of the play, the moods and atmospheres, so that everyone can work with them… they must know what performer they are working for at any given moment . For me, it encompasses some of the jobs given as the director’s preserve in conventional theatre….Many actors will say to you this is the director’s concern…
It accepts that theatre is a team sport, not merely an ego driven exercise . Michael Chekhov says,

“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 is in full harmony with it”
To the actor – Michael Chekhov

ENSEMBLE THEATRE recognises the special circumstances of the theatrical experience; that it is a live event ; that somehow a covenant is drawn up between audience and performers that anything can happen.

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participants in Imagination and the Body last year

To my mind, all theatre should be ensemble theatre.

Very much looking forward to Chekhov and Ensemble in two weeks time here in Galway.
Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for details

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.

Where has it all gone to? 3 Sisters discoveries from Anton’s nephew!

In the final presentation of my MA Chekhov Technique class, six of the students performed the opening of Act 2 of the 3 Sisters by Anton Chekhov. As we worked on scenes from the first two acts, each act had a prevailing general atmosphere and for Act Two it was helpfully suggested by one of my students that it was fog or mist. This seemed a perfect atmosphere for the act as everyone starts to radically lose their way without really knowing why. it gave the characters a sense that things are not quite right. By using this general atmosphere, the first scene of Andrey and his wife became a  tragic pivotal scene with them losing each other, rather than watching a weak man dominated by a wily desperate woman. Andrey became a lost confused soul and Natasha a woman full of disappointment testing her husband to see if he would ‘man up’ and take charge of the house.  With regard to the ‘fog’ the whole cast of characters is on its way to confusion but at the moment it is not possible to quite discern what is wrong.  Anyway, this wonderful idea for an atmosphere fed not only the act but the whole play with a what was for me a wonderful new direction. This is the wonderful thing about atmosphere and indeed all of Chekhov Technique work – it leads you to avenues you would never imagine possible without over-engaging the intellect. The Higher Ego and the Creative imagination are the leaders of our creativity.

In an earlier class on Chekhov’s theory of composition this group started to look at the idea of good and evil in the play and someone said it appeared that the family and their situation create a vague hole into which evil creeps..” In a way everyone is culpable; all the characters, not just the usual culprits – Natasha and Solyony. The fog/ mist atmosphere really brought that out.

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations through our work was in tackling the comedic aspect of the play. In Act two Vershinin and Masha come in from the cold night about to start their affair. This scene played very passionately by my two actors was interupted by a raging exhausted speedy Irina desperately trying to cling onto the idea of going to Moscow, pursued by her puppy Tusenbach .She is totally oblivious to the sense of subdued passion in the room as Masha and Vershinin try to act normally. The resulting scene kept the tragedy and comedy running side by side, and I learned something.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of many of Chekhov’s full length plays working really as comedies whilst at the same time retaining the human tragedy of the characters. I have seen some very unsatisfactory versions at each end of the spectrum, treating the play as high tragedy and others at uneasy comedy. And now I wonder. Is this comedy in A. Chekhov’s play rather more like the idea of tragicomedy which exists in Jacobean drama and which I am very familiar with. So the playing engine of the work is not that one scene is serious and one is funny but that both of these qualities exist in the same scene at the same time. This dynamic rubs against its opposite like it does in the best tragicomedies of Thomas Middleton, actually heightening both tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Interesting.

 

New Starts

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Jerry Fitzgerald. MA alumni. working with first principles. photo:Sean O’Meallaigh

Starting again on teaching the basic tenets of Chekhov in a fairly methodical way and for its own sake fills my heart with joy. Whîlst on the one hand I love running short courses that start with a more specific exploration, it has its restrictions. I am leading a weekend later in late November focusing specifically on entrances and exits, working with threshold, atmosphere and composition about which I am very excited, but because of its length, the weekend focuses equally on application as well as raw training. It means of course that the application may not be as effective in the longer term though the immediate impact on participants is still often profound. However it may not stick as well as it would if they had undergone a more thorough basic training. So going back to the nuts and bolts, through repetition, of ideal centre, feeling of ease and form, radiating and receiving, qualities of movement and imagination etc is for me like plunging back into the wonderful pool of exhilaration and discovery when I first found this way of working myself. I watch people experience this work, many of them for the first time, some tussling with nervousness or with the rubrics of their past training which put the intellect and the why of the character first, instead of the Chekhov work which asks us to plumb the imagination, the body, and the how and the what of the character at the forefront of discovery. I watch the penny suddenly dropping as they get a rush of feeling when they make a gesture and a realisation that acting is a channelling and a release of energy rather than a forensic exercise which often inhibits and restricts their creativity. This does not happen immediately of course. It happens with work; with practise.

At the same time I feel it is imperative in these early stages to reassure them that the ultimate goal of this work does ultimately lead them to an emotional understanding of the text where they can be open to their fellow actors, the playwright, director and audience in a way which they may have thought impossible. For those who find making the connection between voice, body, imagination and feelings tricky at first, this reassurance is especially important.

Another aspect of going back into the basics is that it focuses me back into my own practise with regular work at home alone in my wild garden, weather permitting, on the basic rubrics myself.

In a few weeks we will be starting short scene work on Chekhov’s 3 Sisters. I had thought of using The Crucible and then decided that exploring that dark, grim atmosphere for 12 weeks if only for a few hours per week was just too much. I feel that when we explore a text with the technique, especially at the beginning, it needs to be one with a variety of atmospheres and intentions because the work can be so intense and powerful, that something as unremittingly oppressive as The Crucible may not be the best play to start with.

When Irina cries out in Act 3  of the Three Sisters in despair ‘ I can’t even remember the Italian for window!’ This is of course ridiculous. She is not starving and does not have a terminal disease. It is not really a tragedy. And yet on another hand it is; she realises her life is falling apart and her dreams are going to remain dreams. In a sense her life is already over. This moment, when she expresses this realisation that her dreams are unachievable, is something I suspect every single person has experienced at some time in their lives. To make her dilemma wholly successful the actor has to somehow make us feel the ridiculousness of her statement and yet at the same time have the utmost sympathy for her predicament. Chekhov technique thrives on this complexity… These wonderful invisible yet palpable polarities which exist within characters, between characters and between characters and audience.