Tag Archives: Theatre Education

Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet

Later this month I am participating in a Teachers’ retreat for Michael Chekhov Teachers, and one of the things we are asked to consider is the time “when we were very young and dreamed of the stage very secretly.” Michael Chekhov. To explore what that creative joy felt like.

At first when I read this, I was a bit apprehensive. Like many artists, I feel my creativity was bound keenly to a very difficult environment of family breakup, tragedy and illness. I wondered how much of these things I wanted to pick through in order to explore this and how much I wanted to share. On the other hand, I am not someone who fakes exploration in workshop; I want to explore.

I asked my intuition before I went to sleep as to how I might tackle this in a manageable and safe way and I came up with something . I came across a picture of myself at three singing ‘Living Doll’ (an early Cliff Richard song) in a talent show. It made me think of the ‘forward movement of energy ’ required to be a performer, to be able to go out there, the ability to share but also to say “look at me”. As a child, acting was a total release for me. It made me feel like I had something of value to share, that despite the dangers and disappointments of ‘real life’ here was a place I could be myself.  It felt generous and open and exciting, like a light had gone on inside me. To some extent though, this quality is also tied up with ego and narrowing selfishness, and whilst this forward movement is vital for me as a performing artist, it is only part of the story.

Where my creativity really sprang from as a child, where it really nurtured me,  was from an inward movement of energy, a lonely creation of expansive imaginative worlds through my puppet theatre, my games and by voracious reading. It was no accident that when, as a young actor, I saw the show A Chorus Line , I wept copiously during the song, “Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet”, so much so that members of the audience sitting behind me told me to shut up! This lovely song really captured for me what it was like to sublimate your pain into art, to forget your problems, and when I think about it now, to consider the work of creativity and performing as being the most beautiful important thing.

This inward energy or imagination, seems to be the true core of artistic creation. Afterwards of course, we share that with others, our co-artists and audiences, which augments and strengthens its value. And I feel it is my job to always, always be open to this impulse to both the inward creation and the outward expression.

Often though in our creative world of ‘the business’, so many of us are denied this expansiveness, or have it only for a short period of our lives. In the end I think that is what I loathe about the idea of being professional. In that world the very thing that gives the work its power is the very thing that is denied all but a very few fortunate souls. I think this is almost unbearably cruel, to snatch this raw creative power away as we try to reconcile our ideals with the raw realities of agents, headshots and survival. I think ultimately that is why I love teaching as much as I do, because what you are doing is working with this inner creative flame. You do not have to consider these materialist realities, because it is the creative imagination which is the reality.  

When I found the work of Michael Chekhov, I felt I had found someone who never lost this sense of the power of the imagination, of this liberation and joy, despite the various trials and tribulations of his own life. I can honestly say it changed my life because I found someone, and through him a whole network of people, who think and feel as I do myself – that theatre makers are primarily artists no matter what.

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?”

Absolutely.

The Importance of Having Youth Theatre

The other day, I decided to take down some pictures from my study. Among them was a large framed ‘thank you’ picture of a production of SPRING AWAKENING, the second show I had done with Galway Youth Theatre, an incredible organisation started by an indomitable committed woman called Rebecca Bartlett in the early 90s. I put the pictures up on Facebook as a memory and was soon contacted by several of the people involved in it.  It made me think about the power and value of youth theatre, and the shortsightedness of governments who considers such activities at best as worthy, rather than vital, to a young persons ðevelopment. Usually of course, the power of art in all its forms on young people is merely dismissed as an amusement rather than something which seriously impacts on the quality of life.

In the time I was working at GYT and the organisation was reasonably well funded, under the stewardship of Niamh Dillon and then Andrew Flynn, a whole host of people eventually went on to work as actors, technicians, writers, designers, and film makers. The youth theatre did productions, devised pieces [when this was less common], encouraged new writing, voice classes, theatre history and had a production course .

I have compiled a list of people I remembered had participated who went on to artistic careers. It is most certainly not exhaustive and I apologise to those I have left out, or those I am not aware of because they came after I had stopped teaching there. Perhaps we could start adding others in order to build something more comprehensive?

But Youth Theatre cannot be deemed a success simply by those who go on to achieve things in the theatre or other art forms. It also and in many ways more importantly, affects those it touches who do not go on to make a career path in the arts in some way.

One night I was coming back from an evening rehearsal and I stopped at my local garage. The woman in her late thirties behind the counter asked me what I actually did for a living that I was coming back late so often. When I told her I was working at the youth theatre, her face lit up and she started telling me about a project she had got involved with in the very early days of GYT when she was 15. Though she had not pursued anything in the field of theatre, she nonetheless had a wonderful experience at what is a very special and yet often quite tricky time of  life. I have numerous stories, as I am sure all facilitators do, of how being in a youth theatre got a young person through some challenging situation, how it helped them blossom and develop. I always remember one young woman of about 15/16 running up to me after we had done a piece of work saying how her life was transformed by being in the process of theatre . She was buoyant and joyous, as if she had been released from  a cage. It is truly amazing to see this expression of joy in someone and very satisfying to feel that in some way you have helped them have that experience.

Theatre is such a wonderful process for young people to experience. It infuriates me it is not better funded particularly in these times when people are complaining about the waywardness of young people. It explores feelings and has a wonderful embodiment of team spirit that exists almost nowhere else.

Here is my list. As I say if you are not on it then ADD yourself.

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Sean O’Toole and Cuan Muylaert in Spring Awakening

Sonia Brodie. administrator
Tommy Tiernan comedian
Hilary Kavanagh actor/admin
Judith Higgins theatre teacher/facilitator
Philip Sweeney actor/writer
Lisa Dwan actress
Simone Kirby actress
Gary MacSweeney artist,
Midie Corcaran actor,
Noeline Kavanagh artistic director
Jonathan Gunning actor/clown
Tara Bhreathnach actress
Mary Doyle designer
Peter Jordan production
Andrea Kelly actor
Sailleog O’Halloran. Costume designer
Michael O’Halloran production manager, technician, theatre tutor
Jay Ryan Childrens Theatre Maker
Sheila McCormick actor/academic
Daniel Guinnane actor/ musician
James Riordan. Actor/theatre Maker
Mia Mullarkey. Film Maker
Eddie Mullarkey theatre and Film maker
Judith Wolf production/admin
Fiona o’Shaughnessy actor
Sinead Hackett theatre facilitator
Sean o’Meallaigh actor/ film maker
Sinead Kelly actor
Dara Devaney actor
Sarah O’Toole actor/director/ teacher
Martina Carey actor/production
Lucia Evans singer/teacher
Claire Louise Bennett writer
John Cullen Actor
Aoife Heery drama teacher
Andy Kellegher actor
Conor Geogheghan actor
Eoin Geogheghan actor
Sile Ni Conghaile actor/presenter
Roisin Stack producer/ administrator
Charlene Craig actor
Donnla Hughes actor
Emer o’Toole columnist/writer
Caolinn Hughes poet
Catherine Denning actor/theatre maker
Mairead Folan director/actor
Beau Holland Actor
Oisin McGreal TV producer
Niamh McGrath actor
Kate Howard. Production
Katherine Graham. Lighting Design
Ionia Ni Chroinin. Actor
Louise O’Meara. Actor.
Grainne Moore. Actor.
Stevie Boyd Circus Artist
Glas Blue Hanley Circus/Youth Worker/technician

A vast number of others went on to do further degrees or training in arts related subjects work or work in youth related areas etc.

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.

Next

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working on a piece with actor Mary Monahan [photo John McHugh]

Auditioning is a stressful time. You can feel you are being judged, that the world is against you, that acting is a cruel competitive nightmare where you hold none of the cards. Where you have only a few minutes to prove something. Try to see it as an opportunity. This is an easy thing to write but not so easy to do. As someone who has worked as both a professional actor and  director I have seen this situation from both sides.

Desperation is a scent you can inadvertently put out and it is almost certainly lessening your chances . Forced nonchalance (which often happens as a result of desperation) suggests you do not care about the project and you would rather be somewhere else. The trick is to stay open without either of these excesses.

A way to deal with all of this is to work with Chekhov’s ideal centre. Use your imagination to create that openness. Work with personal atmosphere. Focus the breathing.

Find out everything you can about the project and the director before you go. Be informed but not smart ass. Be careful not to talk too much. ( very difficult for me!) Above all try not to give your interpretation of a role . You cannot second guess what the director wants from the character and if your interpretation is very different you could be lessening your chances.  The thing is that often your ‘interpretation’ is not an interpretation at all, just something to prove you have a view on the play. Flexibility and openness are the key here too.

Auditioning is where the concerns of the commercial world and your artistic integrity collide in a difficult moment. You need the money, you want to be wanted, you will make the best of whatever it is. These feelings inflate the situation and often stop you from giving of your best. On a practical note, come prepared. If as a director, you are asked by an agent for ‘sides’ when you are auditioning for a play like THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the actor is already creating a negative impression. This actually happened when I was directing a professional touring production a few years ago. I felt sorry for the young actor, whom I felt was depressed and unprepared. I worked with him even though I knew I would not cast him. After twenty minutes, when he was showing some serious improvement, I said as kindly as I could, “I would advise you that when you come for an audition again, that you are at this level when you come in.”

When I am auditioning as a theatre director, I want to look at how the person works on a role. This is very important to me. Some actors look horrified when I ask that question but how else can I work with them if I do not know this? I want to know in the broadest terms. Do you find the character directly from life experience? Do you work primarily from the text? Do you work primarily through imagery and the body? Maybe you could give me an example? As an actor, there is no right thing to say here. A way to answer it might be to explain how you worked on another role you did.

If you can, and some people might say something like ‘I work with my instinct’ then a director needs to use their own instinct to decide.

CHARACTERS AND AUDITIONS , a weekend audition workshop using Michael Chekhov Technique working on the process and audition pieces will be held at NUIG from the 6-8 April. The cost is 80€. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.
go to http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for more information

Twelfth Night Polarities

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Directing and Composition

If you want to be a director I believe you really ought to start work with youth theatres, young people or any group where you seriously have to adapt any plan you might have for the production and change it to make the play and production work.

On the one hand, I have to bring the team to the play and not impose too much. At the same time I have to continually be honing and sharpening my own feeling/vision about what the play actually reveals to me personally. It is like being the balancing point on a weighing scales.

For in the end I am doing the play with that particular group of creative people. They have their strengths and limitations and I have to embrace them. This is especially true when you are working with students or less experienced people but I have found it also true with professionals. We are all to some extent, limited.

Sadly many professional directors do not live in an environment which encourages this collaborative mindset, and this clunky idea, as I explained to a student who came to me to discuss production and design of a college show this week, of all the drawings having been done, and set made etc. before the actors begin their work is a really unviable process. It is actually anti-creative, with the actors like mannequins to fit into your plan. Sadly, many directors judge actors as to how well they can fulfil the director’s vision rather than their level of creativity.

When Peter Brook talks about directors having a hunch, it is completely right. Why is it? Because you cannot come with a set plan. Even with professionals it is not really acceptable to make a blueprint and stick to it because the actors creativity is every bit as important as the director’s the designer’s or anyone else on the creative team. Michael Chekhov’s view of inviting the object in, in this case, that is ‘the play’, of falling in love with it, is for me where this hunch is found.

I am not implying a free-for-all. When I direct a play I still feel I am a conductor, but that is my role. I am the conduit for the powerful creative energy that pours from my team. On the other hand though, I have to mould a creative environment for that creative energy to be fully released. and I have to be able to ‘manage’ it. if I do not manage it then the production can become horribly skewed towards a character, the set or some other detail of the production. It can  open the whole production to some kind of pseudo creative tyranny such as exists often in the professional world. This tyranny can come from awkward performers, power hungry directors or defiant designers.

This more democratic way of working is extraordinarily creative, which is one of the reasons why so many groups create ensembles; but it can also create a lack of focus in the piece [especially if it is devised] . Michael Chekhov’s rules of composition, which were not all original from him, are none the less incredible stepping stones through any piece, be it newly devised or a texted famous classic. I looked forward to exploring this aspect of Chekhov Technique with my MA group this Thursday as we worked on Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The rules of composition basically encourages the whole company to believe that we, together , are trying to say something. It encourages us to believe that our ‘piece of art’ has a beginning, middle and end. This end is not necessarily twee or cosy. It can be brutal, trailing and uncompromising, but everyone involved understands what that journey might be ….how do we want the audience to feel ideally?

Of course we cannot fully control this, but we have some general idea. It reminds us we are producing our work of art to say something about the world universally, and as it is NOW.

Then there is the law of polarity. It is another important mine of exploration for theme, character or perhaps the whole play. For the play the Three Sisters, we might say that a polarity is hope/despair. For a character we might explore -Irina – innocence/ maturity. Exploring these polarities is a visceral thing not an object for discussion (well not too much) and as always with M.Chekhov a way of charting our way through the intangible journey of the character’s life in the play.

And then there is the battle “between good and evil”, a rather fundamental polarity which appeals to our moral compass. I love this idea now though I used to get a feeling that making moral judgements was not the place of drama. However, in life we always take sides. Why should theatre be any different. and in any case haven’t we a duty as artists to have a view? It doesn’t need to be one-sided, this view can be complex but Chekhov says a view is essential – especially for us in these crisis-riven times. The conflict of good and evil makes me analyse what are the negative forces which course through this play? Are these forces the lethargy of the family; their inability to change things? Or is the main force of evil something almost like a haunting from the past? Is it the ruthless greed of Natasha as she usurps the Prozorov lives or is she the fundamental truth of a brutal reality the other women cannot face? Or is it the spite and bitterness of Solyony who, unable to have what he wants destroys life? An interesting feeling came up in our MA group that the ‘evil’ is ‘doing nothing’, as in that stasis the evil is sucked into the world of the family and does its work. This evil is not charged by one person necessarily but is something in the atmosphere which everyone breathes and Natasha steps into it. this is a really interesting view – that it is the atmosphere to which the characters respond which creates the tragedy.

And then, what is the force of goodness in this play? Is it Olga and her benevolent motherly support, or Irina’s innocence or Kulygin’s forgiveness or Masha’s ability to fall passionately in love? Perhaps we might say that it is their collective humanity. The goodness is their humanity and their ability, however idealistically, to dream.
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Prepping the Workshop -Journey Through Atmosphere

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Mary Monaghan/photo John McHugh

Imagine an aquarium beautifully appointed with fabulous features, flowing ferns and sparkling fish. Now imagine the same scene without water; the fish dead and lifeless ; the plants sagging ; the water features just lumps. That is what a performance without atmosphere is like. Fortunately in a play (or perhaps unfortunately) the actors keep moving and speaking so we can fool ourselves that everything is ok; but that is far from the truth. They might even act sensitively with each other but without the atmosphere we know there is something missing even when we cannot pin down what it is. Michael Chekhov was right that the atmosphere is one of the most potent elements when you are creating a play. Atmosphere is one of the most uniting elements in an ensemble production, above teamwork and the skills generally associated with ensemble work. If all the actors respond to the atmosphere, the audience just knows there is something which binds the characters. Of course the characters are not going to necessarily respond the same, as we do not respond the same to any stimulus but that doesn’t matter. The audience knows there is something there.

In our everyday lives, when we go away on holiday the atmosphere is constantly altering around us and we are constantly having to adjust. That’s true all the time, but I become very sensitive to it when I am travelling because I, as the traveller, am making a movement forward to my destination. I am plunging through the atmosphere to get somewhere. I notice I become even more sensitive to atmosphere when going away from my normal environment. Notice the various atmospheres in the airport alone. The security check; the cafe; the duty free shop; the bathroom . These are not only different atmospheres because of what happens in them, nor because of the shape of the room, nor just what you have to do, nor what happened there before, nor your own history in other airports at other times in your life. It is a massive culmination of all factors. One of the things I love most about Chekhov technique is the way it takes atmosphere and makes it palpable; a tool for artists, to create a navigable map through this invisible world and makes it easily accessible for both performer and audience.

But why, as artists should we really care about that at all? A play is a play, right and we should not need an atmosphere because we are in the theatre. We are in a theatre and THAT is the atmosphere. But that is not true because in addition to the theatre there is the atmosphere of the play. And this atmosphere it is not static. It is constantly moving, as Lenard Petit explores in his fantastic book, The Michael Chekhov Handbook for The Actor .

Working with Atmosphere produces results. If you take the line ” Care not for me. I can go home alone” then imagine you are in a library, then a hospital , then a beach, then in a wooden hut on a dark night, you will notice the line sounds completely different. Really take your time to imagine the atmosphere first; never start by asking yourself “what would I do in this place?” but ask how the atmosphere of the chosen location feels. As Lenard Petit talks about being “played by the atmosphere”, allow it to affect you, influence you, drive you to speak. New Histories and situations will engulf you in each location, each time you create the atmosphere around you and then say the line.

I cannot remember the number of times I have seen plays set in the open air and I never feel characters are outside for a moment. And importantly this failing does not just affect the realism – in fact often that is a small consideration here – but without the atmosphere you destroy the inner life of the characters as well.

But it’s important to understand that atmospheres are not solely circumstances or location (though they can be that as well) just as psychological gesture is not merely objective. By discovering the psychological gesture for the character, you can find out not only what they want but how they want it; through them you can discover the rhythm of a character. It is endless and wonderful.

And what if it is the atmosphere which actually drives the action?  The idea that what is in the air, whatever that is, has a direct effect on your motivation to do something and, of course, how you do it. If you consider this, this is happening to you all the time. For instance I have never really liked pubs. If I am with a few friends we can create our own atmosphere to anaesthetise me against the discomfort I feel when in the pub.  Our own atmosphere bubble makes the thing pleasant.

This is one of the things we are going to explore in Journey through Atmosphere  here in Galway. How does Atmosphere affect the characters, and what is the relationship between atmosphere and story, as we move through the various massively contrasting environments in which Pericles and his family find themselves?

There are still some places on Journey Through Atmosphere being held on the NUI Galway campus, August 24th – 27th. We will be using for our text, the great journey play Pericles by Shakespeare. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for more information on how to book for the four day workshop.

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.