Tag Archives: Theatre Training

Like A Dog – Exploring Kafka’s Trial with Chekhov Technique

IMG_5791 copyI remember meeting a playwright who came to the university and he told us how a theatre company had asked him to write them a play. He agreed and, on the day he was to start, they brought in a large rock and asked him to use this piece of rock as an inspiration for his play. A tangible, poetic image to start his work, no story, not even an issue. A rock.

Anyone who believes the Michael Chekhov technique is only for plays is missing some massive opportunities to use the work and expand and develop devising and adaptation.

I love to use Chekhov technique for adaptation – in this weekend workshop we were using Kafka’s Trial – because it enables you to worry less about narrative and focus in on the essence of what is going on through images and atmosphere ( like the playwright who uses the rock to inspire him). If you do it this way round, if you look for what is going on underneath first, then you will find something which imbues the narrative with a depth you could never have found otherwise. This frightening and rather formless-sounding idea was nonetheless structured in our weekend workshop as I had the group look specifically at two episodes: the beginning and the end.

It is always a good plan to consider the beginning and the end of whatever you are making. It is true you can just ‘wait and see’ but that way the creator can easily get lost. However, if there is a beginning and end, you have a grasp of the piece. It does not mean that you cannot make radical changes, indeed it is right that the end might change, but you have addressed the piece as a whole from early on.

Working with the essentials of radiating/receiving/ease and form/ general atmosphere and working with images, we then began to work on the two episodes, looking for images and atmosphere, which we firstly made into non-narrative pieces. I wanted to encourage the group to resist any temptation to ‘tell the story’ in the initial pieces. This made, in the first piece particularly, a violent animalistic rat-infested world.  I then suggested that they looked at the atmosphere of the mundane world of Joseph K and for both groups to explore narrative tableaux. They then started to mesh the two elements, the mundane and the imaginative, of the story and the image, together.

IMG_5798We then added some text, both narrative and conversational, from the passages I had chosen, building our pieces with several ‘showings’ as we built up the pieces. This was a very supportive and creative group. I am going to run another of these workshops which take first principle elements of Chekhov and a novel.

Next up is Archetypes and Archetypal Atmospheres and as it is Midsummer, we will be working with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so we will be doing some voice work too. It takes place on June 21-23.  There are still places. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place. The Venue is NUI Galway.

 

 

 

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The Vessel and The Soul

Imaginary Body and Centre through Michael Chekhov Technique.

People often ask me, “How ca51090851_617034175402228_8035195185824530432_nn I use Chekhov training in my everyday rehearsal preparation, when no one else in the room uses it?”

Of course as actors we have our private work, and in that space we can easily use the technique to help us find the character, whatever others might be doing.

I have often encountered intransigent actors using more dogmatic approaches than Chekhov Technique who announce in rehearsal “the character would not do that”, effectively stone walling the creativity of their scene partner and the director and writer too. I personally find this a rather puzzling and insulting approach but it partly comes I believe because the professional actor so often has to compromise his art and therefore his whole belief in himself due to circumstances (bad directing, no money, bad script) so he digs his heels in and just says ”no”.  He has decided on his character through his private work, and that’s it.

Private work can start with some premises but has to be developed when you radiate/receive with your scene partner. If you had a different scene partner they would radiate/receive respond/differently and so you would have to change your performance or risk ending up looking as if you were “acting in a box”.

Unlike some other techniques, Chekhov technique allows a more labile approach. It allows you profound private work but does not build walls around you. It accepts and encourages flexibility.

Imaginary Centre is an extraordinary element of the technique which asks you to incorporate an image into your body through imagination; a lighted candle; a fizzy drink; a lonely person at a street lamp; a paper bag. This image is something core as to how the character behaves and feels; how they see themselves. It can be inanimate or animate, whatever helps the actor connect with the character. Furthermore this image changes the impact on the actor profoundly if it is put into different parts of the body. For me, at some level, this image is the character’s soul.

The soul is clothed in the character’s Imaginary Body; a detailed body; not just their height, colour, hair and age; but their scars, hands, eyes, the way their body breathes, where their tensions might be. You cannot change your body completely, but you can imagine what it might be like to have such a body. And what I love about this, is it acknowledges that what your body is like affects how you behave.

And this is not observation, traditionally used in acting but the use of your imagination. Chekhov says that observation is useful and has its place, once you know what you are looking for.

“The desire and ability to transform oneself are at the heart of the actor’s nature.” Michael Chekhov.

These two elements alone can transform a character and create a dynamic within the actor’s body which makes an exciting character. The body especially can make for miraculous changes where the person absolutely feels they have inhabited the character.

For me, of course, it is not only the body which can change, but the voice also does not have to be the actor’s usual voice , and to that end we have a full house for The Epic Voice which starts this evening for the weekend.

Imaginary body, Character Centre is being held at the end of March, (29-31) here in Galway. If you wish to apply, email info@chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com or chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com.

 

 

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.

 

 

The Emotional Gym -Psychological Gesture

IMG_5164When I was first teaching Chekhov Technique, one of the participants said,  in the break, “This is like being in an emotional gym.” Of course it is always like that when you are working with an acting technique to some extent; you are seeking the ‘how’ to play the character; the ‘how’ to find the feelings; the ‘how’ to find the way they respond to things. This search inevitably involves some courage.

But to my mind, nothing exemplifies this exploration more than working with Psychological Gesture. This psychophysical practise where you are finding the sensations and the feelings within your body that will suit the character has a visceral quality that gives you the feeling you are digging into your soul, at the same time as expanding your sense of self. As we found in the recent course, it gives a sense of the personal at the same time as something universal.

IMG_5126Whilst the gesture encourages you to find the character’s intention, it does much more than that. Through working on qualities of movement you can discover how the character fulfils their intention, and through working on directions you consider where the characters energy is moving. You also find the character’s rhythm, which is not necessarily your own. By sustaining the gesture and radiating it outwards you can really explore what the character is feeling intensely in your body.  It is a vibrant, varied tool of discovery that produces a transformation and intensity in the performer which is for me unrivalled.

I always start by making sure the breath, body and voice are connected. I do this with every Chekhov class I do now. A common challenge to my mind for participants is not connecting the body and voice, and nowhere is this more of an issue than when practising gesture. There is no point in doing a psychological gesture and then having a weak voice which is not connected to it. You are exhausting yourself for nothing. I always liked Joanna Merlin’s idea that you made the gesture first, got happy with it, then you let out an open sound that came from the gesture before you started to speak the text on that bed of sound.

I have not unflinchingly taught gesture for a whole weekend for a while because I know it is demanding, and when you have a group with mixed levels of exposure to this work, to do two and a half days of gesture alone can be daunting. For those only touching the work it can put them off and, because there is less focus on the imagination than in other areas of the Chekhov work, the participant can feel less in control of the sensations and feelings the gestures invoke. However this last weekend I was determined because I am getting tired of just brushing the subject on a three hour class or at best, one day. Michael Chekhov Technique is so holistic that whilst I find it important on short courses to provide adequate prerequisites to lead the participant to the principal area we are exploring, it’s also important that we do not leave the principal area left with inadequate time to explore in depth. Everyone, I believe, who runs short courses has this conundrum to deal with.

IMG_5128PG, as it is called, is so crucial, so valuable, and I was determined that everyone would get some idea of the demands of it even though it was challenging. They would get a sense of their limits and know that was where they had to go if they wanted to break through them.

I am pleased to say that there were several breakthroughs of this kind and people explored new aspects of the way they might play a character and what the rhythm of that character might be. The rawness and truth of the rough scenes we presented finally were an excellent example of the power of working this way, reminding me that there is no way out but to find that rawness from somewhere, to deliver it safely for the performer, but to none the less, ‘go there’.

The next Chekhov weekend , THE REST IS SILENCE, takes place in NUI Galway, November 9-11.The 9th is just an introductory evening, the other days are two full days. We will be exploring the universe that is the pause, the silence, so often just an empty pose in performance, but we are going to fill those silences and make them to speak to us and the audience.

email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to reserve your place

The Body of an Actor

IMG_4561Gesture is the result of impulse. It comes from the core of our desire to express something. But often we have forgotten this. We are kind of dislocated and unconnected to our bodies, to the feeling impulse of our bodies. This is our challenge when we approach the psychophysical technique of Michael Chekhov, to connect the energy and feelings to the body. Once we have gone some way to reconnecting this impulse/ body pathway, we can find the intention through the body. To find everything about the character and make us fuller human beings to boot.

This understanding of Chekhov’s practise is not necessarily assisted by ballet, acrobatics or fencing either, other than the fact that those disciplines make us proficient and aware of the body. Sometimes, in fact, if we have been trained substantially in strong physical disciplines like dance, it can initially be a bit of a hindrance. The gesture-training Chekhov encouraged is not some kind of offshoot of dance, though it can be used as an effective element tool within modern dance. Chekhov technique is about using the body as a vessel for sensations and feelings; to use it as a conduit for energy. If all this sounds airy, it isn’t. As soon as we start to practise using the body in this way we sense an openness within us to a wealth of possibilities we might never have thought of. Chekhov’s approach can be very specific as to the energies moving in the character by using this technique.

Psychological Gesture is a way of finding the intention of the character. What is the character trying to do and how are they doing it? It is not a realistic presentation of the character but how they are inside; what is going on for them.

Let’s suppose you are playing Antigone in Anouilh’s play. What might we say she is doing through the play? There are many ways to find this gesture, but why don’t we say she is trying to show/offer/expose something. She wants to show people their hypocrisy. She will not compromise.

See how this works for you when you offer something in front of you in a bold gesture with both hands, your hands palms up. When I did this, I tried to keep my arms out straight so this offering was not open but really focussed, as she is. I repeat the gesture over and over. I see what/if the gesture is generating a sensation inside me.

How do I feel when I make this gesture? I find that I feel defiant, a bit sanctimonious, both strong and weak at the same time. I am offering/presenting but at the same time I am almost offering my hands to be tied or restrained. My breathing gets sharp. Then I start to make a sound.. Then I say “I am going to bury our brother.” I feel this voice in my neck.  I feel a strong chest with energy focussed in my heart area . The offering makes me feel sacrificial but also self important. It makes me feel as if my energy is moving backwards even though it appears that I am aggressively moving forward. This one gesture gives me a whole psychology, not a heady discursive one, but something that is moving strongly and powerfully inside me, a psychology I can act with.

Then, supposing I use the same gesture slowly. I feel more vulnerable, more defeated… Amazing.

Before we consider that finding the psychology through a movement might be considered simplistic, let us consider our own lives. Consider how we are constantly meeting similar obstacles and dealing with them with the same energy in the same way over and over again. Psychological Gesture can be a physical manifestation of that very life reality. Indeed, most of Chekhov’s elements are about how we live our lives.

Of course, Psychological Gesture is not something we show as performers to the audience. It is a tool, an element of the work.

Within the body lies so much of who we are at any moment. It is quite literally a channel through which all our energies and experiences come. It is the manifestation of our history and even though so many of our cells are replaced and replenished through our lifetime, there is something that is manifestly us. It is alchemical and impossible to define, so much more than ‘body memory’. When you align this psycho-physical work with the use of a vibrant imagination, your potency as an artist flourishes.

Finding it in the Body, a weekend workshop in Michael Chekhov Technique led by Max Hafler Oct 12 [evening only] then Oct 13 and 14 [10-5] will be held at NUIGalway,Ireland. There are still a few places left. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com for further 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.

 

 

Comedy cuts

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Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond’s The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen. Me being VERY SERIOUS INDEED

As a young student actor I could never get the hang of comedy. For one thing, the kind of comedies we ended up exploring were so far from my experience (The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton was one) that I simply could not take them seriously. Even before classmates I would get the giggles when performing. I simply could not help it. I comforted myself that Laurence Olivier had had a similar problem as a young actor and hoped for the best that this giggling would stop. It took a long time and I comforted myself further that I was really a dramatic actor and that comedy was not my thing. I remember hating the idea that in comedy you were really,  it seemed to me, out to get the audience’s approval; that the result needed to be laughter or at least, a smile, and you knew whether you had succeeded or failed almost immediately.

Looking back, there was a misunderstanding of what acting was which caused the problem. For me at that time, acting had to be ‘real’. I was good at being emotionally true to my inner life, as narrow as it was, given that it was completely defined by my version of my young self. I had difficulty understanding the relationship between character, play and audience clearly; to understand that, whilst you had to enjoy the game of the play and enjoy making people laugh, you had also to work from an inner truth; that it was actually possible to do this. But you had to work on all of these levels at the same time to be effective. I would explain this now as truly activating the Higher Ego, as Michael Chekhov explains it, and developing the ability to shift the attention from the audience, the character, a consciousness of the humour and back again. It’s needed for all theatre work but for comedy in particular.

At LAMDA I remember exploring the Idea of comedy with an extremely interesting but misguided teacher who asked us to create something comedic out of a real tragic incident of our lives. This was an extremely unwise basis for an exercise and left many of us angry and disturbed. We attempted to recreate a tragic incident in a fellow student’s life who as a boy had hit a cricket ball which had struck and killed one of the fielding team. He had felt that he had killed the boy. This must have been extremely stressful for the student and was in addition very unsuccessful. All the improvisations based around this exercise were a failure. However, despite the fact that I strongly disapprove of leading a student into such tricky emotional territory, comparing tragedy and comedy is often a good place to start in order to define comedy and get a sense of what comedic energy actually is. Chekhov explains this simply and effectively. There are lots of safe ways to do it.

Then, when working on a student production we took to Edinburgh I began to get a feel for comedy, whilst working on a Japanese play when I played a messenger. I knew I was being funny in a stylised, physical way which felt more comfortable because I was not trying to pretend this was ‘real’. It broke a boundary for me and I enjoyed it and began to gain confidence in comedy. I got even more safely into humour in several tv plays as a young professional because there was no audience to contend with and through that I became much more aware of my own sense of humour and started to feel safer with it. Also, on TV,  I was able to hang on more firmly to the sense of ‘truth’ because there was no immediate feedback from an audience.

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not subtle but sharp and funny . Malcolm James as Simonides and me as Gnotho in my version of Middleton and Rowley’s OLD LAW 1990 . Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. director Tony Hegarty photo Amrando Atkinson.

But it was only later when I truly experienced the full contact with the audience that I started to truly understand the game that is comedy.; the constant movement of energy; the playfulness… and I started to really enjoy it. It was as if comedy required a complete acceptance of the theatrical experience which I felt at the time could somehow be ignored in drama or tragedy. I now understand that even with the most ‘realistic’ work, a degree of ‘radiation’ is essential . In other words, ‘real’ never quite cuts it – whatever that actually is. One of the things I found so liberating about the Chekhov Technique, something, by the time I found it I already knew, was that theatrical artistic truth is a completely different animal to ‘real’

Very much looking forward to my course Chekhov Comedy Composition and Cucumber Sandwiches which starts on Tuesday in Galway