Tag Archives: The Importance of Being Earnest

Polarities in a Handbag

These days when I am teaching courses I want to retain the nature of the Michael Chekhov teaching, through practise and basic principles, but at the same time I want to explore something particular in application. It is a tricky balance to retain the  integrity

IMG_3433of the basic work and go off exploring and developing. For the more advanced in a group especially it makes for a dynamic new and exciting programme whilst at the same time maintaining some of the necessary groundwork. So in my recent course, we explored The Importance of Being Earnest with the Chekhov Technique. I have usually taught courses in Chekhov Technique using drama or tragedy. I wanted to explore how to use the technique specifically for comedy.

Chekhov himself makes strong differentiation between the different theatrical genres. He cites Comedy in TO THE ACTOR as requiring strong radiation from the performer. I considered this a lot. What does it really mean? Comedy is not over-acting, but transmitting your performer’s energy in a particular way. It does intrinsically have within it the idea that the audience are there in the auditiorium with you and they are laughing and smiling with you, that they are participating actively, by audibly responding. You need to fill the space with your energy in all live performance, but with comedy that transmission is even more essential in order to elicit this response. Comedy requires a truth, by using a centre for the character, say,  but the performer needs to really fill the space in different way in which both the theatrical truth and the collaboration with the audience totally co-exist.

Chekhov also emphasises the feeling of ease which permits and encourages  this transmission. Full ease reminds the performer that, however involved she is on one level with character and situation, she is always performing.

For comedy, Chekhov suggests playing one overriding quality for a character. I thought about this a lot and decided rather to suggest that each character should instead play a polarity;  a range of quality along one basic line, like ‘bitter-sweet’, ‘defiance-obedience’. Though this polarity might seem a hard narrow track, in reality it can elicit a wide range of responses. I felt it was a wonderful discovery. On working say, with Lady Bracknell and using a polarity of ‘order-chaos’,  a whole paranoid character is effortlessly created which infuses the character who feels her power threatened and eroded at any moment. Played with boldly, the potent torque of this polarity creates some fabulous comedy. If we then consider Jack, the polarity for him could be ‘pride-shame’. This provides him with a sense of pride/worthiness as a prospective husband and pillar of society against the shame of his lack of family. With each character playing their own line of polarity and radiating fully, there’s a robust feel to the scene, yet at the same time it still allows the improvisational intuitive energetic level that Chekhov insists on. If these lines of polarity don’t work for the character the actor can always replace them with new ones. What’s important of course is that these polarities never become disembodied concepts and are experienced and brought into the body immediately. And also what polarity encourages is emotional movement.

I have used polarity a lot when working with composition and with psychological gesture but never so directly as a character tool. Polarities always seemed to me to be an excellent way for the group to look at the themes of a play and how these themes carry the characters together on a journey through the play. They help us to get into our body what the plays are about and what we as a group want to say about them. Please note I do not leave that all to the director to decide!

IMG_3430What has characterised this course for me almost more than any other I have run is the sheer joy it seemed to have filled us all with. Often after a course there is a profound sense of discovery and fascination but this time there was also an amazing freedom in the air and a feeling that everyone came and left full of excitement.

Someone said, at the end of this course, that he had been involved with The Importance of Being Earnest  many times , but in the workshop so many of the lines and situations were emerging in a fresh and exciting way. That lines he had heard a lot were completely new. The work does that; it freshens everything.

So now there is a break before Journey through Atmosphere where we are working primarily with atmosphere, voice and psychological gesture, exploring both the inner and outer worlds of characters and how they affect each other. Actors, students, directors and designers would find something of use. there are still places. The course is August 24-27th here on the NUIGalway campus and we will be working with Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you are interested in attending please email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and we will send you details.

Keeping those Cucumber Sandwiches Fresh! Working with Chekhov Technique

IMG_3278When rehearsing/performing a well known play, artists often  behave as if the audience already know every single twist and turn of a story.  It is unconscious – people often do not even know they are doing it. That dreadful mistake completely blunts the immediacy and urgency of the playing, flattens the pace, and often bores the audience who may applaud but leave the theatre unsatisfied without necessarily knowing why. It often belittles the work by making something very cosy out of something which can be much more visceral. This is a massive issue in Shakespeare but equally with Wilde, which I am working on with my group of fellow explorers in the comedy Chekhov and Cucumber Sandwiches course. It was only when we started to tell the story of The Importance that we realised how complicated the story actually was, how the series of ‘reveals’ occurs, and how it initially unravels the lives of Jack Worthing and the others.

The thing is that even if the audience have studied the play and do know it, you have to play it as if they don’t in order to keep it fresh and potent. This may sound so obvious that it is not worth saying and yet this simple fact is often totally disregarded. I have seen many a production of Shakespeare when this development of the plot is lazily and glibly presumed, and not in the way we know the ending in a Greek tragedy, say, where the foreknowledge adds to the import and weight of the tale. Do not misunderstand; this complaint is not an excuse for protracted ‘table work’,  but  the actor’s inability to be able to respond to impulses .

I remember when I was working on Macbeth in Galway decades ago, this was the first thing I said to them; we have to treat this as a play that was written last week. no one knows he is going to die; no one knows she will kill herself; no one knows he will become King and ‘get away’ with the murder[s]; no one knows that Lady M will not wake up during the sleepwalking scene and have the doctor and gentlewoman killed; No one knows that Fleance will escape. If you remember this, much of the play is delivered to you.

One of the great things about the Michael Chekhov Technique is it immediately rockets you from your comfort zone both as a performer, director and designer. A few years ago I ran a weekend on Importance and was staggered at its potential depth of situation and character. This is somehow often ignored in favour of the incredibly witty dialogue and the sophisticated veneer. One has to ask oneself of course, is this a comedy of manners, about a whole society, or is it also about the idea of people struggling to find their hearts in a privileged rigid world of do’s and don’ts, a kind of gilded prison of their own making? What ultimately should the audience feel at the end of this play? A smug satisfaction that everything turned out right ? A despairing comment on the folly of convention? As the group potentially working on this play we need to know. Michael Chekhov alerts us to the fact that we must know what we want the audience to take away when all are united and Lady Bracknell’s privileged world is saved from disintegration by some extraordinary coincidences.

Last night we made some extremely interesting discoveries through the intense ghost exercise, something I learned at MICHA (The Michael Chekhov Association) many moons ago; a character called Jack with dark and terrible secrets which are gradually exposed  only to eventually have the very key to his happiness within his secret life – as he uses his wealthy ward as a bargaining chip to buy all the young people their happiness; a woman called Lady Bracknell desperately holding on to a sense of Order; Miss Prism carrying within her her grief at the loss of a baby; Algernon, a fixer who plays the system but then who unexpectedly  falls madly in love with a beautiful young girl etc etc. This exercise not only enabled us to explore the darker possibilities of these characters but also find a whole trajectory for them. A great plus for the Chekhov work is how very very fast it is and how you can uncover things about characters and the play if you will but commit wholly with your imagination and your body.

The challenge for us now is to explore through the feeling of ease and the alchemy of the play, the possibility to transform these serious journeys into comedic possibilities. This is already starting to happen.

Earnestly Chekhovian

earnest2I first met Wildes ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ as a film, the famous 1952 one with Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans. It set the seal on the way to do this play for decades. When I had occasion as an acting student to work on scenes, the lightness and precision and wit were the only elements constantly highlighted by my teachers. They emphasised a kind of stiffness and artificiality. [this was all long ago]. And of course that stiffness and artifice is most certainly there but how does this stiffness and artifice make us feel when we play Jack or Algernon or Cecily or Gwendolen? Are these people as trivial and foolish as they appear?

I am very cogniscent of a kind of looseness that has developed in the playing of this kind of play [ especially when transferred to film] in an attempt to modernise them and make us see these characters as more recognisable people, but actually that does not really help us explore the world of a play like Earnest. Equally, it does not help us to dismiss the language as a style without substance or purpose, though stylish it most certainly is.

Joe Orton the subversive English 60s playwright modelled much of his work on Wilde, and he saw something in Wilde’s plays, which I was not clever enough to see at the time; the thematic grandeur of his work which Orton particularly emulated in What The Butler Saw. But if Earnest is a ferocious send up of the times, then what exactly could it be a send up of? This subversion, presuming it is there, does not reveal itself with cross gender casting necessarily, as fun as that might be, but through something more subtle.

Through using two of the Michael Chekhov tools of exploration , atmospheres and centres, I would like us in the weekend workshop I am running in late June in Galway, to possibly explore how that play might manifest to us now. Is it more than a shiny jewel box of a play? One of the interesting things about working with the Chekhov Technique, it seems to me, is that any production really grows organically from one’s imaginative response to the play. It enables you to be a bit more ‘out there’ , in a much more grounded way. What I mean is, you don’t just suddenly say ‘let’s do this in modern dress’ or ‘ here is an appropriate political world to put this play into.’ But you explore something deep within the play to explore the needs and insecurities of the characters within the atmosphere and society in which they live. That contrast between the characters’ needs and insecurities and the prevailing atmosphere of their environment is where the humour might lie as much as with the language.

The atmosphere of the world constrains and presses down on everyone. It has a kind of Alice in Wonderland kind of feel, dangerous and disturbing, with a bubbling anarchy under the surface of all the apparent frivolity. The centres of the characters might well be very contrasting to that atmosphere, soft and desperate, quivering or searching , looking for a way out. I don’t know – it is very exciting to consider.

The last three plays I have directed have been through the Chekhov technique with cast and crew  which has provided myself and my casts with original and deep explorations of the plays we have explored. I am looking forward to playing with the play in this weekend and perhaps a possible production next year.

Chekhov and the Big Play workshop June 26-28, led by Max Hafler at Branar Theatre Company contact coretheatrecollege@gmail.com for more info. Check out http://www.coretheatrecollege.com