Tag Archives: Theatre Education

Tangible Atmosphere

If a piece has no atmosphere it has nothing. An atmosphere is the place in which a character or situation lives. Without an atmosphere I do not believe a play or film can transmit much of anything.  Atmosphere can give you everything, psychology, character journey, motivation, a deep understanding of the world the writer has created. It is one of the great ‘intangible’ gifts given by the Chekhov Technique to illuminate and grow your performance.

I have been working with my Atmosphere/ personal atmosphere group online,  with A Christmas Carol . For those unused to this terminology, the Personal Atmosphere is one we carry around with us; it can be as modest as a passing mood or as strong as a sense of fate or destiny which fills and surrounds us. The General Atmosphere is one which permeates the environment we are in. It is more than this but let’s leave it there for now. 

In a previous session we had explored a personal atmosphere of meanness with a general one of abundant generosity surrounding the character which seemed to fill his world. Through this exercise, we began to discover Scrooge’s dilemma and the psychological dynamic (or a possible one) for his response. His rejection of Christmas was for him a matter of holding on desperately to his world view that life was mean and cold and hard.  Generosity was not just a nuisance, but a life-threatening sickness, which might bring his whole world view tumbling down. This incredible dynamic went far beyond the standard mean old Scrooge but allowed us to explore how he might lash out at those who refused to believe in the ‘Christmas spirit’. It reminded us all of how we actually relate to our environment and the energies which are around; that when that environment/general atmosphere opposes our view, what we carry with us (our personal atmosphere and world view) can often be the main conflict we carry in life. Interestingly, when I suggested to the group that they change the general atmosphere from ‘generosity’ to ‘grey’, immediately everyone settled . A few said they felt easier with ‘grey’ even though they were still carrying around this personal atmosphere of meanness because the general atmosphere did not rub against it. It almost justified their sourness.

General atmosphere falls for me into three broad categories; the literal environmental atmosphere (library, hospital, beach for instance) ; the visceral sensory atmosphere; (oil, feathers, gravel for instance) and the general atmosphere of feeling (suspicion greed love for instance). All of these categories have pitfalls. The environmental one can be too narrative (“What character am I in the atmosphere?”) the visceral one too literal (“but how can I breathe in oil?) and the third (“so there is an atmosphere of suspicion but why do I not feel suspicious?”).

It is easier to work with directions of energy and atmosphere when we tackle it using a texture or material or even a feeling. A way to find the direction of energy can be to breathe in the atmosphere and through your imagination allow it to shape you into a form or statue. You will soon find the direction and nature of the energy then. To my mind we should always use what is useful for our imagination and our work with the character and not get over caught-up iover-literal responses. By working with the directions of energy alone and experiencing the subtleties of what an atmosphere might be, this opens us to its full impact.

Because as artists we generate the atmosphere which appears to come from outside a much more subtle and powerful response can be gleaned for the character.  To watch how the participants wrestled in their meanness with the open generosity around them was a powerful reminder of what atmosphere can do.

Courses begin in the first week of January with INVITING THE CHARACTER which runs twice a week for a month, and a one-day workshop with myself and Declan Drohan exploring WHAT IS STYLE? email chekhovtpi@gmail.com for more details.

Discoveries in Space

an office can be somewhere else –

I had a real moment when I was teaching today online in my second class on qualities of movement .. 

I did not sit down for pretty much one and a half hours this afternoon. If I had something to say I mostly spoke stood up and so did everyone else. It meant that the energy kept flowing, and I felt my body charging and recharging with energy which does not happen when one is constantly parked in front of the monitor.

Try this as an experiment . Sit in front of the monitor for a minute and then stand up. Even if you get an impulse to stand up it takes a tremendous effort. Sit down again. Feel the energy sink into your hips . It feels like work.

Like the read-through of a play, when the actor is sat down, there is a disconnect, a sense of not fully engaging with your whole being. The reason you feel that is because you aren’t connected. We are still over conditioned to the idea of the read-through as some kind of communal starting-point, some kind of reverence to the text. I remember how boring they were as a young actor, that I was always itching to get on my feet as soon as possible, rather than watching everyone deal with their nerves, try to impress the director or enjoy the adulation of younger less experienced people. The read through was something to be endured. I have always been of the opinion that a read-through has only a value if you are standing up, because the energy flows through you and it is easier to engage with the text and everyone else. 

And Chekhov is all about the movement of energy, and without that physical movement it is hard to bring up the more subtle movement of energy that happens when we are not moving. So Zoom or no Zoom we have got to MOVE!

We did sit for a few minutes to fly back but mostly I really felt like I was in the studio. Maybe i am getting more used to the process of teaching online but maybe it is not just that.

Free movement in the qualities class

My study normally has a bed and it used to double as a guest room. Now there are no guests and the bed is gone which enables me to stand more, to show more. The room is an oblong and much longer one way than the other. When I first moved the bed I planned to turn the monitor round so we could work lengthways but initially I  only turned the monitor occasionally to show things. Today for the first time, i turned the monitor throughout the class and it transformed my energy. . I didn’t want to sit down at all. It changed the focus. This was not a sitting down class where you stood up to do exercises; it was an active movement based class, where you occasionally sat down.  when I gave the class that focus, they gave it too. People were more able to move….  It felt to me like an actual workshop. My energy was clearer and much more like I was ‘ in the room’ .

So where students do their work is absolutely crucial as to how much they get from a class. Of course I know people are often very compromised with space so they need to understand that space and what they need to do to improve on it. This includes lighting (not too much from behind them) and making everyone aware in the house that they will be making noises. It requires removing things that might get broken or personal stuff they do not want people to see. 

That class was a blast. Thanks students

if you are interested in courses from Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland then email chekhovtpi@gmail.com

Chekhov Online

IMG_6132AS I get more used to teaching Chekhov technique online, I have started to feel something of the buzz I feel ‘in the room’. I could be fooling myself but I am beginning to see a transmission of something between myself and my students which I feel in real time. Part of that is a sense of trust which is building not just between them and me, but between me and the technology, which though it is limited, has its spin offs. Radiating and receiving cannot quite happen the way it does in actual life, but it can happen.

Chekhov Technique is so much a technique of Energy, Imagination and Body, When I started teaching online I wondered how I would have to scale everything down, but the more I am practising, the less I feel it is necessary or desirable. With Chekhov you have to start big but authentic, before you internalise, ‘veil’ it, at the same time as keeping whatever your gesture or image is giving you, strong. Bringing your discoveries to the monitor is a great way to actually assist the understanding of this internalising within the body. I find the sight of people exercising their bodies in their own rooms using their imaginations to create a sense they are in a much bigger space than they are, still something quite magical to behold.

What is essential for me is to acknowledge where everyone is and that their room is their studio and a place where they can create. Rather than deny where they are it is important to acknowledge it and then encourage them to transform it. This can be very hard when they are home depending on what is beyond the door of their room; neighbours, parents, partner, flatmate. When participants enter an actual  workshop they are each in a different space both emotionally and psychologically and it is easy to forget that as the teacher/facilitator. Online, there is no escaping it.  In an actual workshop they have entered a dedicated space and left their homes, to some extent , behind.What has brought them together is the love of the work. The very act of coming to an actual workshop creates a strong bond between the participants and I always feel a special bond with someone I actually trained with. Online much of that is gone, so a little time needs to be spent in that bonding process if possible. On the other hand, the diversity of the participants can be extraordinary online and can only occasionally occur in an actual workshop. In the new House Arrest Group on Chekhov and devising,  creating imaginative responses to the idea of quarantine, imprisonment, whatever you want to call it, there are people from The Netherlands, Uruguay, US, Canada, Ireland and France. This is one reason I will continue to teach some classes online when the pandemic is over.

Thanks to attending other online classes and discussing with colleagues I am learning the positivity of giving people the space to work alone with camera off.

Groups are small. I cannot work with more than 8-10 people if i want to give constructive feedback, though I might get more easy about it when I possibly have to do it later in the year at the university! The group sessions right now are only an hour  (they always overrun a bit) and from the next group we will be making 90 minute sessions. This gives time for people to meet and exchange pleasantries approaching the way they might in a workshop. I am still playing with ways to end. To make the link with the whole group meaningful to each and every one of them.

Individual coaching online is a beautiful activity in many ways. It is personal and you can give the participants your full focus. It is true you cannot always fully sense the person of course which can sometimes be frustrating. I as the teacher have to work harder to make that intangible connection which feels effortless when you are both in-the-room but I feel I am having some success with it.

I am running a three module one to one project on the introduction to Chekhov for Beginners on which there are always some spaces.  I think it is quite a good way to learn principles because it puts the focus on the individual meeting and practicing the technique and going off to practise during the week. For more info contact chekhovtpi@gmail.com

  • Currently Running : advanced Groups (those with some Chekhov experience) Focussing and Discovery Group: 5 weeks/ 1 session per week. Imagination/concentration/General Atmosphere
  • Currently running : House Arrest.Devising/ The Feeling of the Whole/Atmosphere/Polarity. 5 weeks/ 1 session per week.
  • Beginners One to one : First Principles/ Character work 1/ Character Work 2 (four weeks each one session per week)

To Come :

  • ‘To Whom Shall I Complain?’ MEASURE FOR MEASURE .Chekhov and Shakespeare. 8 weeks/ 1 session per week.
  • HOUSE ARREST (GROUP 2)
  • Focussing and Discovery Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zooming with Chekhov

index

Michael Chekhov.

I want to begin with an extract of a note I sent to my group of Chekhov students yesterday after a Zoom session.

‘First of all thankyou again for a committed session on atmosphere. There were three big plusses for me, one in that sense of commitment, two when you all crossed the threshold into your room between the hallway and your room, reminding us that for now your study was your stage; and three when,  in the movement exercise, I suggested you imagine the walls of the room were not there. In that moment, it was as if everyone’s walls vanished, rather like in the children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.’

A polarity within this strange time in which we find ourselves is whether the work we are doing is primarily for the ease and betterment  of the people who come to the virtual class or to be really teaching the technique to actors for the enlightenment of an audience. The virtual workshop puts this dilemma up front and centre. everyone has a different focus but I would say myself that the work is always a balancing act and has to be both.

When I saw that moment in my workshop, when I asked people to imagine their energies were pulsating out through the walls, I felt something happened. Something very powerful was communicated to me very strongly through those little zoom squares. And that thing was even more powerful exactly because they were working within their rooms rather than the studio. It made me connect with prisoners in darker situations than most of us and how the imagination liberates and compensates us all when in difficult situations provided our will is not broken by the weight of what is happening to us;  when we are not actually ill or oppressed or struggling financially so much that we are in danger.

Today in the class for the first time I encouraged a lot of work in their rooms away from the monitors, and above all to not always allow the monitor to be the focus of their radiation, to trust the participants more to commit for themselves; to allow the cord of energy from the monitor to link us together rather than them (and I) feeling like it was a rope we had to hang onto for dear life. Of course there are distractions where they were and we did talk about that a bit. It is not dissimilar to when you are working on a film and a whole pile of things are going on around you, but you have to be there in your reality and your truth with your fellow performers.

I personally feel like an artist who has to kind of work underground, like Shakespeare and his company hiding out during the plague years or theatre in times of war and oppression.

I particularly wondered about theatre companies in the English Civil War when theatre was banned as ungodly. What did the actors do during this strange and difficult period of many years? What was lost? Who died in penury, their living and their creative talent and opportunities wasted?  I want to keep this Chekhov work vibrant while we are in lockdown because it is a unique way of seeing the world and creating art; because even in this difficult time we have a duty to preserve our artistic wholeness.

“The artist of today cannot be an artist if he is disconnected from real life; it has never been possible in any ethos, in any culture.”  Michael Chekhov Lessons for Teachers

Ironically, whilst Zoom is strange, for now it is a reality. I have been surprised at sometimes just what comes through. We have to stay awake.

One thing that is lovely is that I am much more in contact with international colleagues, and that people from all over the world are coming to study with me. That is fun.

(email chekhovtpi@gmail.com for courses)

 

Being In The Room

51090851_617034175402228_8035195185824530432_nThe Michael Chekhov acting technique, with the movement of energy in the body as one its central tenets, requires you to really be ‘in the room’ when you are working with people. It is hard to express the sensation I feel when teaching, as if I am moulding the session with the help of the participants, or like a boat, steering the class into the wind but aware that some discovery by either myself or the group can send us off into different waters. It is a communion with every single person in the room.

I have been holding back from teaching online partly because my internet coverage is so inadequate – on a Zoom conversation with colleagues the other day I watched everyone as their faces became degas dabs,  their words turned  into the sound of piano keys, then every so often I caught a sentence or two before finally being  cut off. It was upsetting and frustrating particularly as I thought I had found a way to increase my speed and I am still working on it . I am sure these things can work and be embraced, but for now big classes are not the way forward for me personally. One thing I want to do is develop and make time for my own practise and development in the work as I did when I began to train.

For me right now the tools of the Chekhov Technique are as much about maintaining and expanding our sense of mental well being as they are about developing our skills as performers I have used many of the elements  in applied drama to help people communicate more effectively and importantly to connect up voice, body, imagination and feelings which makes us into more whole human beings. I am making short voice exercise recordings for radiating/ receiving, breathing and voice. I am putting them on my FB page ‘Teaching Voice’ . These will include some Chekhov work. If you are interested, check these out (there will be six).

In addition I am seeking to run four sessions for beginners one to one, These will be on Skype and Face Time,  exploring the very basic principles of some of the work.  They will involve exercises and offline practise. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com if you are interested.

There will also be an advanced study group which is more likely to be a discussion/ development  group without camera, maybe with audio or just typing. … These will be small groups and be initially free . They will be conducted on Skype.. 

One to One sessions- Let It Begin. 

If your connection to the Chekhov technique is fairly new then these  4 / 45 minute sessions will act as something for your understanding and practise. Perhaps you want to reconnect with the work after an absence. After my own in depth training courses, i would go for months practising alone, before the next one. Above all we have to remember that Chekhov Technique is an experiential practise so much of our time together will be working on Flyback, that is looking back on the experiences you have had when practicing the technique, though we will do SOME exercises in our face to face time together. Clearly we will be restricted somewhat but for now that has to be ok.

You will need to have learned an 8-10 line speech from a play you know well. I would prefer it not to be from a movie.     

Session One: Qualities of movement and an introduction to Gesture

Session Two: Ideal centre. Directions of Energy/ radiating and receiving. 

Session Three: General Atmosphere

Session Four:   Psychological Gesture.

Focussing sessions for those with some Chekhov Experience(GROUP) SKYPE

This pause in our inability to meet together to practise and develop our acting skills through the Chekhov technique, is also an opportunity to really focus on our practise in the technique, to take more responsibility for it rather than simply getting a buzz from the workshops, which I know is a massive learning tool in itself but it is not everything . So yes, in a sense this might give us a breathing space to give us a chance to focus personally on our relationship to the technique and how it lives in us. 

Each week each participant will undertake to do at least 20 minutes per day practising and focussing on a principle of the Chekhov Technique and keep some notes of their discoveries which we will share in our on-line sessions. these on line sessions might be 40 minute checking in sessions and talking through our discoveries. (it’s ok if you don’t have any) For this first four weeks I propose that I suggest the four topics to give us a shape and suggest a few exercises to go with them.  The discussion will either take place in chat or with video or audio, which ever works. what’s important is that we connect together. IMG_4945

WEEK ONE : The Dramatic Imagination. Developing our imagination for creativity …working with fairy stories

WEEK TWO Concentration on working with object images to create character. ‘Falling in love’ with the object. Working with images. Making the image larger or smaller 

WEEK THREE Working with Energy. energy body. Expanding and shaping the centre.

WEEK FOUR General Atmosphere. Working with a short poem or song. noticing atmospheres in your daily life…  

Finally , I have been reflecting a lot about Michael Chekhov himself; how the world was in this completely turbulent and awful madness, violence and cruelty for much of his life. It seems easy to dismiss our work and disrespect the inner artistic development of our lives when ‘there are more important things to think about’.  We must not let that feeling win . Our creative soul is every bit as important as it always was, perhaps even more so. in times of deep crisis.

“The artist of today cannot be an artist if he is disconnected from the real life” Michael Chekhov : Lessons for Teachers

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.

‘The reward of artists brave enough…’

IMG_6498_1When I run a weekend course in Chekhov technique (or anything for that matter) I want to feel that I am exploring something with the group, that it is not me merely imparting, but it is a traffic between them and me and them and each other.

I am aware that sometimes when running short courses it becomes easy for the teacher to either stay in the basics (which can irritate your faithful participants who come back for more advanced work) or to move too quickly to certain elements of the Chekhov work to encourage application of the work without providing the building blocks required for everyone, teaching with a kind of vague hope that everyone will ‘get there in the end’.

I feel I have found something out. When I structured this weekend on incorporating images I focussed almost totally on the imagination. Of course when you visit centres or atmospheres or almost anything in the Chekhov work you are heavily engaging the imagination. By learning how to use a particular element you can get a lot of focussed power. However if you do not give a space to awaken the imagination first, it makes exploring those elements much harder. We began the workshop with me asking the group, without thinking, to each create a statue of concentration and then imagination. The former produced narrow, focussed downward-looking shapes (with most people frowning) whilst imagination produced upward, open shapes (with most smiling) . This provoked immediate discussion on how we felt about these concepts and the differences between them as Chekhov described them. This gave us a great physical springboard into some of the early exercises in concentration and imagination.

So we spent a lot of time engaging the imagination first with a myriad of stimuli and then moved on to only an exploration of Ideal Centre and then imaginary centres (only making an image in the heart centre). We also did a brief exploration of General Atmosphere, but again in the preliminary sense of working with environments (the beach a library etc) rather than exploring abstractions and colours and feelings through atmosphere to introduce the concept more broadly.

The more I explore teaching this work, the more I realise that, rather than being a hindrance, an attempt to apply the training, even when you have not wholly grasped it , gives the student a feeling of where things are going and that, with guidance, you can help out when the stuðent is not following the image, the gesture or the atmosphere as faithfully as they might. After all one of the main rules is that you simply are faithful to your imagination or the sensations your body gives you and follow them in trust and faith. That is it.

We worked with a play called Love and Information by Caryl Churchill which has a number of short scenes powered with themes and conversation but not, immediately at least, with imagery. Working with images first enabled us to create scenes which were much deeper and multilayered than going immediately for the obvious, materialist telling. They were fascinating, sometimes dangerous and people used the images to create powerful dynamics between the actors.

As Chekhov says in On The Technique of Acting “what is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of the Imagination?” We found that the answer was to open a text to a whole different layer of exploration through image first and logic second.

IMG_6406The next workshop explores a world that tips into chaos; we question in some measure the purpose of art  in these difficult times (as Chekhov did himself) The next workshop here in Galway is on polarity, good vs evil and we will work with King Lear. It is November 29th-Dec 1st. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for one the remaining places.

 

 

Apply Generously

IMG_6274Reviewing the recent four day course in Chekhov Technique which I co-led with colleague Declan Drohan here in Galway with 15 enthusiastic and committed practitioners, I was delighted with the amount of scene work we managed to explore from Woyzeck by Buchner. As always the course was joyous and creative but this issue of application was something Declan and I discussed at length as we prepared the workshop.

WOYZECK, is short poetic and political; it mixes expressionist ensemble and naturalism. Grimness jostles with dark humour. But it is, above all, short. What that shortness allowed in our four day workshop was to allow everyone to get a sense of ‘the whole’. The brevity allowed them to feel they knew the play and could access the Chekhov elements which they explored with more confidence. To some extent this knowledge might be illusory because we ultimately were quite selective with our short scenes and only got a few scenes on their feet. But it felt like we did more, because the play was short.

However, you cannot always pick a short work. In the last summer School, ‘A little Piece of Art’ we used The Cherry Orchard ( a very long play) and explored the Feeling of Form and the Feeling of the Whole. I gave short duologues out and we also worked in depth on three short group scenes; one was the arrival of Ranevskaya to the house with her entourage, another was the episode with The Vagrant and we also worked on the final moments when the family leave the house. Applying Form and a Feeling of the Whole to these short passages gave everyone a real sense of where our exploration was going. But we could not get a full sense of the whole play, even though we explored the beginning and the end of it.

If you are going to really approach application then the elements you teach on your course are the very elements you teach as if you were working on the play in reality. In that way the play you pick is a fundamental part of your teaching. Many people come to my courses not just to learn technique but because they are attracted by the play we are going to look at.

However you cannot teach everything , despite the fact that all of Chekhov’s elements are all connected. Sometimes it is a little frustrating to know you cannot do everything all at once (the curse of short courses in particular). There is not time to work on concentration and imagination with the detail and intensity I would like when I have to explore other elements in order for people to use the scenes. The more application I do, the less time there is for that block building. It is a fine balance and different for every course I do.

IMG_6260However, what substantial application offers even in a mixed group, even if it has different layers of success depending on your level is the chance to work with everyone in the group on the play ( especially so when as with WOYZECK, we consciously worked with two or three big ensemble elements in the play). It also offers a freedom for the participant so they do not have to worry quite so much about getting the technique ‘right’. There is a bit less pressure paradoxically through more application.

Some people believe that when learning technique you should not rush into application too soon. Students may mess up. It may not work for them and put them off forever. But this is only so for a few. For others, breakthroughs will happen and, provided you create the right environment, those who are only beginning will be encouraged.

Thanks to everyone who made such a great workshop over the last few days. Next up are two weekends: October 18-20 on Images for Character and November 29- December 1 on Good V Evil, playing King Lear ( there’s a short play!) email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

Radiating and Receiving/A Political Act

The last time I was in Leeds was 1983. I was appearing in a play at Leeds Playhouse, playing a disruptive prisoner in a play about the Hull prison riots, which in its own way confronted and provoked the audience to consider the prison system. This week I went back to Leeds having been asked to attend a conference at Leeds University on Politics, participation and performance, and provide a voice workshop.

After a thought-provoking keynote on citizenship by Professor Stephen Coleman, an exciting and Intense workshop run by Proper Job Theatre in which we were invited to participate and make decisions on a mythical intense family/political drama followed by a presentation on a young people’s project on exploring elections by Miranda Duffy, I then led people towards some psycho-physical exploration of the voice.

All the opportunities given above enhanced my understanding of the challenges of political theatre in all its forms and whilst I have a strand of my work which has a distinct political focus around devising work, I was there to lead a voice workshop. When preparing the workshop I considered many of the voice exercises I have used and developed over my decades of teaching voice and devising with young people and special interest groups  but I wanted to offer something else. It seemed to me I might be offering tricks or easy-fixes when I felt there was something more fundamental at stake. The idea of giving people a voice is the absolute basis; understanding what to say and enabling them to say it in the fullest way possible, in a way that is connected and full of conviction. It is of limited use devising a piece we cannot hear (unless it is meant to be silent). Whîlst we can support groups with multimedia and microphones, the most effective way, if possible, is for them to use their own voice.

Someone said at the end that teaching skills to those who are not usually offered them is a political act in itself. Someone alluded to the fact that business people and lecturers are offered skills like voice whereas those not in so privileged positions are bypassed. It makes them feel that these skills are not for them.

Yet even more than effective and committed speech, the one area of exercise which is absolutely fundamental to community, theatre and political action is Michael Chekhov’s radiating and receiving. As Professor Jonathan Pitches, who gave a response to the day suggested, radiating and receiving has a political dimension because you share and integrate a response on a fundamental level. You feel an understanding with your partner in a visceral way which enables a negotiation. It is something I too believe. We spent a good deal of my strand of the workshop working with radiating and receiving to the group and our partners. (As Professor Coleman said in his keynote address, “citizenship is not something that happens alone.” )

So just as teaching voice requires both technical and imaginative development through exercises, perhaps political theatrical engagement requires us to generate not only how we feel about civic and personal qualities we might deem vital for action, it also needs us to develop a deep connection with our body, voice, feelings and imagination to give these qualities a holistic and truly revolutionary dynamic. Perhaps politics has a more spiritual dimension than we might immediately think. For me, without actually touching base with the intangible power of theatre (which Voice and Chekhov technique provoke in abundance) we are missing a chance to make the elemental change that people want and need on all levels.

Having said this, I am not denying the huge material challenges which quash artistic endeavours deemed ‘political’ and make them suspicious to schools and funders. Those who are suspicious fail to realise that all performance is pushing an agenda, for what is an agenda but a view of life? Of course if the agenda is rammed down an audience’s throat it is probably going to be unconvincing, unless you already agree with it, and the probability is it will not be great art. Unless it presents the polarities of the argument it is not empowering, merely proselytising.

Looking at all the threads which knitted themselves in this conference, we seemed to be exploring how theatre empowers people directly; perhaps that is what ‘defines ‘political’. If theatre does not empower or enlighten, well, what use is it?

There was talk about the dynamics of university attitudes to performance and those of the conservatoire training. Much conservatoire training has a kind of attitude I call “training the racehorse”, in other words preparing the student for ‘the business”. If you are already preparing actors for this capitalist enterprise, you are unlikely to encourage political engagement in your students. For me, the nature of theatre education has to change to break this mould. However, the alternative to the “racehorse” model is the more academic approach offered in third level with a lot less contact hours. This is not really adequate either; performance expertise can not be magicked up in a few hours, not if you want to encourage a deep learning; nor is it fully effective as research, unless you are practically proficient in the first place.

One thing is for sure: political theatre in the broadest sense has to be empowering for audiences, participants and actors alike. Chekhov said you have to have a view; how do you want your audience to feel at the end of a play? This view does not have to be polemical but it needs to have a direction. There has to be something or why bother? As artists we have to be responsible.

Thanks to everyone at the conference and to Doctor Sarah Weston for organising it. It gave me a lot to think about.

Assessing Artistry (Strictly Come Dancing and Marking Graduate and Undergrad Performances)

One of my guilty pleasures has got to be Strictly Come Dancing but this is the first series that I have ever watched through to the final. And interestingly, the issue of assessment, who is best in an artistic endeavour which is highly skilled and requires an incredible amount of performance flair, determination and courage, has been the subject of much debate. There have been discussions on TV about fairness, in particular, the unfairness of pitting contestants who have some dance background against those people who have none. On Strictly, to a certain extent, the way they deal with it in the final is ultimately through a “let the people decide” kind of vote, where the judges give some kind of advisory scores and comments and the audience vote on the winner. The assessment of the judges seems to be on merit; that of the audience seems to be based on a sense of who has made the biggest journey and still delivered to a high standard. This means that even though they might not have technically been the best, the length of journey and the way they coped with that journey also comes into focus when people decide. (Just to be clear, I wanted Stacey and Kevin to win – I didn’t think they would).

On the other hand, some might say this is a competition, so should the people who were simply the most skilled in performance, win?

This brings me back to my ‘real’ world; marking for performance on a course which is not strictly a drama training but at the same time has a strong measure of performance in it, on which students get assessed. Some of the students want to be actors; others not.

What does marking actually do? It gives us as students and lecturers alike a sense of what skills and knowledge a student has received and understood. Through performance one gets  a sense of whether they can apply it.

However, it does not actually mean that the student who performs their scenes best and shows the most promise is the person who actually gets the highest overall marks if they cannot back that up with some academic understanding. Furthermore, the journal they submit to me is key to both my understanding not only of their progress, but how well they actually did in performing their final speeches or scenes. For me, it gives an insight into their journey and how far they have come. Without the journal, an assessment of the performance would, for me at least, be almost impossible.

This approach of assessing a whole number of levels of understanding, has the possibility to be quite holistic. This is not true of many conservatoire courses, too focussed on preparing people for ‘the industry’, which do not spend sufficient time on wider educational goals, setting out alternative careers for those who have learned the many transferable skills that the conservatory theatre training gives you.

On the other hand, without some performance proficiency, which requires putting in a sizeable number of contact hours for student and lecturer alike, it is very hard to assess whether students have really understood, in the way that matters most in art, experientially, holistically and through doing. Performance practise cannot  ever be about seeing merely whether your intellectual ideas stand up,  because if it is, there is inevitably a fragility to the practical work, which results in a kind of wishful thinking that if only people had the skills, then something amazing might have happened. The reality is that without high performance standards then no performance can effectively be made, except in rare circumstances where the piece itself is completely geared to the particular actor’s limitations and strengths. The relationship between practise and intellectual rigour is a lively one and should be encouraged, but without sufficient practical contact time it is incredibly hard to strike that balance.