Tag Archives: Theatre Training

Thoughts on Finishing the Book.

Finally the proofs of ‘What Country Friends is this?’, are gone to Nick Hern Books. Viola the girl plucked from the sea whose brother she believes is drowned speaks this line as she arrives on the shores of the dreamlike country of Illyria. It seemed like an apt title for a book about working on Shakespeare and Chekhov Technique, working with young actors, be they in youth theatre, school or on college courses. It would, I believe be useful too for young directors.

It covers basic work, voice and ensemble, teaching and directing. Whilst essentially a book of practical exercises I hope it explores much of the philosophy on the power of theatre particularly as it pertains to the involvement and education of young actors. This philosophy is not something floaty or esoteric but something visceral and gutsy and alive which can be transmitted and shared. I feel that working creatively, developing your imagination, listening to your body, finding your voice and connecting them all together is amongst the most powerful gifts you can offer to people. I truly hope that the book gives teachers/facilitators/ directors this feeling of my own passion and belief in theatre and the arts in general. You may not always agree with my approach but I hope it will stimulate you to find your own way.

The book, which uses scenes from many Shakespeare plays, culminates in exploring a foundation week plan for a production of Twelfth Night which I did with students on the Drama programme at the National University of Ireland Galway in 2018. I feel I want to offer a special thanks to them for their extraordinary commitment to the adventure we went on.

It is a strange feeling when you finish a practical book which covers such an important part of your life ; for me the book is like a vessel for holding experience which can then be shared, the learning I have gleaned from those who taught me and of course especially the young actors I have worked with. I have felt this sense of completion even more with my two teaching books than with plays I have written. 

Making the book , getting it out there (It was due to be out last year but got delayed because of Covid) gives one’s experience even more meaning than it had before. I realised this when TEACHING VOICE came out in 2016. It is a great opportunity.

check it out on www.nickhernbooks.co.uk to prebook.

Artistic Choices

Lately I have been thinking a lot about directing through Chekhov Technique and how to help people  make choices, given the myriad opportunities offered through the Chekhov elements you can apply to a role or production. How does one make these choices? It can be confusing! These confusions are in all acting techniques of course, but with Chekhov the palette we create with is so utterly rich that it can seem overwhelming. When I first started with the Chekhov technique I was extremely daunted by all available possibilities for the character and when I asked one of my extremely wise teachers, they said, “there will just come a time when you will know what to use.” To some extent over the years, I have found this to be true but when you are teaching the technique in short courses or for a production, people need to feel some confidence quickly or the technique they learn may well stay locked in the workshop (or Zoom) room. It is a leap that people have to make between understanding and trusting themselves and the technique, and then learning to filter out what works for them for a particular character or production. It is something I am working with a lot with my Hamlet class.

In The lightbulb-like Chart for Inspired Acting in Michael Chekhov’s On The Technique of Acting, it is suggested that once we find one element and light then lots of the other bulbs will ‘go on’ automatically. There is some truth in this I think; when you discover an atmosphere for a character , an imaginary centre may come automatically or a vision of the physical body of the character. However, I would suggest that starting from an atmosphere, for instance will not necessarily yield the same results as when you start or express the character through psychological gesture. The character might have a different sort of base line or emphasis.

I wondered if there might be a way of actually putting the exercises into further categories to help us make decisions about what to use. Whilst on the one hand this feels horribly compartmentalising it might feel something like clarity. Forgive me because you will need to know something about Chekhov Technique to get the most out of this.

When I am directing I look at the play, consider my available timetable and then decide what elements I have to focus on. I would not focus on the same elements if I was directing The Importance of Being Earnest as opposed to Othello. Of course there are other considerations; the level that the actor is on, and how comfortable they are working with the technique. There is also the issue of time constraints. 

It seems to me there are overall three types of Chekhov elements (I try to avoid the use of the word ‘tools’ which does not feel right for me). The first covers the basic range of the instrument; the Four Brothers; opening oneself to the power of imagination: radiating/receiving (which includes centres); understanding and developing sensitivity to directions of energy(understanding the body as a membrane or vehicle for energy) ; listening and acting on the sensations and feelings thrown up by gesture in the body (looking again at directions and qualities of movement) ; understanding and being able to use these elements of the work by concentrating their effects within the body and letting them act on you. 

Secondly there seem to be the elements of the work which are primarily expansive  and imaginative like atmosphere , both personal and general , archetypes, imaginary centres; elements which puts the performer and character in a kind of imaginative vortex, more powerful than we ourselves, whilst at the  same time with us being the creators of it. General atmosphere appears to come from outside us yet paradoxically, we are the creators. In this second group i might suggest that the imagination leads the Body

Finally there are those elements which give us structure; psychological gesture, Form, basic centre, triplicity, form and polarities. These are elements which seem to provide a somewhat structured understanding to our creative endeavours and give some of the more imaginative and expansive elements, a definite focus.  In this case the Body tends to lead the Imagination.

If this is true, and I would be interested to hear your comments, then I wonder whether this helps in any way to assisting with choices for actor or director. If you ask the question what do you need for the character/production most importantly at the start, putting the exercises into three basic types might be helpful. 

Through short scenes we can find a whole world, a whole production or a whole direction for the character if we only have the courage to embrace them…

Michael Chekhov gave a particular suggestion when directing which can be terrifying to actors, He suggested not to direct the play in sequence, to sometimes take the performers by surprise. It suggests to me that working with short snippets of scenes from all over the play, can actually open the doors and reveal amazing aspects of the characters’ relationship to each other, and suggest the atmospheres in which they might exist.

In the course I am leading called TO BE OR NOT TO BE each participant creates their imaginary production in which they will play the central character of Hamlet. They then apply things they have discovered about their production to one of the big central soliloquies of Hamlet. So we begin in directing territory and continue into acting territory. Michael Chekhov says in To The Actor:-

“A good actor must acquire the director’s broad all-embracing view of the performance as a whole if he is to compose his own part in full harmony with it.”

My thinking behind this is to link directly our imaginative discoveries to the performances we give, and stop over-thinking and over-talking to the extent that  these ideas remain just talk and do not feed into our experiential performance. The discoveries we make in workshop through our imagination can be revelatory and huge. Describing your image of Elsinore, or getting into your body one word or theme the play might be about  through gesture takes you off into worlds. This is similar to another thing teachers notice all the time, a question they ask…How can actors who produce amazing work in workshop find it so hard to use that work to make their performance deeper? For the word ‘workshop’ here you can substitute the word ‘rehearsal’. This course is an attempt to tackle that issue with my fellow explorers. 

Though everyone is to ultimately play Hamlet (which shows an extraordinary abundance of Hamlets and an amplification of the idea of Creative Individuality , something which underpins Chekhov’s work) we spent time exploring Hamlet’s relationship to others. for some reason Zoom lends itself to exploring these powerful moments. I don’t know why, perhaps because we are more focussed on the face of our partner. In the most recent session we explored rich short exchanges of big moments in Hamlet. Hamlet and Horatio as he attempts to tell his friend that the Ghost of his father is walking; the moment the Ghost tells his son that he has been murdered; the short exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet when she returns his gifts, and finally the initial exchange between Hamlet and Gertrude in her bedroom. 

We explored first through expansion and contraction  and then experiments in our pairs through particular Psychological Gesture. This opened up a wealth of possibilities One thing that occurred to me (we were an odd number so I partnered one of the group) when I was working as the ghost is that HOW the ghost  gives Hamlet the news, perhaps with love, perhaps psychologically lifting his son in order to prepare him for the massive task in hand, or perhaps entrapping him and forcing him to take revenge or a whole myriad of other possibilities completely dictates aspects of the production way beyond how I, the actor, Max wishes to play the role. Obviously with the actor playing young Hamlet this is an obvious observation but it is true of any of the major characters.

This is proving an exciting exploration and one which is hoping to help us really connect the role of the actor with that of the director and enable participants to truly connect their vast imaginative plain with the root of their performance.

After this course which ends in two weeks, CTPI is taking a break till the end of August where we will still be online. More on that later, and on my upcoming book, “What country Friends is This?” on Shakespeare, Chekhov Technique and young people which has been delayed due to Covid but which should be out before too long published by Nick Hern Books

God bless Us, Everyone!

Here is, as Chekhov might say, my ‘lab assistant’ moment after four on your feet weeks looking at Atmosphere and A Christmas Carol. After the final session, I felt we could have gone on for three weeks as some of the participants started to create pieces around episodes in the book. It made me realise yet again the profundity of exploring something through the Chekhov Technique especially through atmosphere because it does not come through the direct route . What I mean is that exploring atmosphere is much less of an ego driven experience. You are not considering what a character is doing you are creating an atmosphere when as Lenard Petit says, “the atmosphere is playing you”; in other words you are surrendering to the moment and not involving yourself too much in whether you are doing it right or doing what the character might want. You are seeking the character who is responding to outside influences which your imagination is creating.

I said in my last blog that a rich vein for us with the character of Scrooge was a general atmosphere of Generosity surrounding , enveloping and swirling around a tight package of meanness . How the personal atmosphere dwelt in and managed the general atmosphere gave a strong prompt to the conflicting problems of Scrooge; how he managed them and how they made him feel. We had done some exploration of the atmosphere of the three ghosts, Past, Present and Future. But something we touched on yesterday were the Cratchits and a possible polarity in their situation and the atmosphere surrounding them . I suggested a personal atmosphere of happiness with a general one of drudgery.  It was extraordinary how, when the general one was added, the actors tended to lose a little of their sparkle in the greeting or work harder to break through the thick blanket of drudgery around them. The conflict gave texture.

As intrinsic as atmosphere is however, used alone it can give the characters a lack of agency and make them appear victims of everything that happens around them . It can also give the piece we create a lack of ‘feeling of the whole’. Whilst the reactions between personal and general may well provoke a response, they are not an act of will. So there is something the character is trying to ‘do’ irrespective of atmosphere, even though the atmosphere might distort and alter it. Let’s take the Cratchits again. Whilst on the one hand they may have a collective personal atmosphere of Happiness, amidst a General atmosphere of Drudgery, they are embracing each other, supporting each other, lifting each other, in very difficult circumstances; that is what they are doing, specifically and without that ‘doing’ we ignore the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of the character and the piece can easily lose its shape.

Without the atmosphere though, we lose what Chekhov calls, ‘the oxygen of the performance’. We need both.

Our work today made me feel that the book was not about Christmas at all, that Christmas was merely a symbol in the novel, a window of opportunity for us to be kinder to one another and see things differently; that Scrooge was Everyperson, not necessarily simply a mercantile miser from Dickens world, but someone given an opportunity , a magical opportunity to look at his whole life and consider how he has come to where he is, something we all do eventually, ruminating on our successes and failures, brave moments and cowardly moments, things we could have done better and things we should not have done at all. When Scrooge  accepts his life he then makes a choice and changes unequivocally. Ultimately we played a lot in class with the atmosphere of redemption/salvation.

God bless Us Everyone. (As Tim says)

The Most Important Thing

As I wind down my recent bank of online classes I reflect on what I have learned, most of which has been discussed in previous blog posts. It has been challenging and testing but extraordinarily rewarding ; finding ways to accent differently, aspects of the Chekhov Technique; to still be creative and exploratory. Now my groups will stop until September when a new batch will begin. This gives me a little chance to reflect. 

What am I doing? This question has been asked in our wonderful international group of Chekhov teachers which meets weekly as we consider more and more about what this shutdown means and our response , not just to the pandemic but to other issues in the world. The assembly of this group has been one of the more exciting things that has happened in the pandemic to me as we discuss everything pertaining to our work, comparing approaches, philosophy and more practical issues. It is a strong support and a fountain of wisdom.

I wrote something to the group …

We are hampered in our art because we cannot perform or teach in an actual space. So we are teaching (many of us online) like all artists in times of plague anyway we can. That is kind of revolutionary in itself. And it seems to me that if our purpose is to make the intangible tangible we can do that online almost as well as in the room. In some ways better than in the room because the participants are committing in their own space. In some ways it is more ‘out there’ but in a smaller more personal way…….This is not wasted activity but it is not going to topple Trump or Johnson or Bolsonaro. This seems to be one of the dilemmas. How do we affect change? Can we? What I am saying I think is that we can affect change but it is perhaps smaller and personal than we would like.

I thought back to when I was living through the AIDS pandemic. I am not trying to compare the pandemics here; but the challenge of facing into changing behaviour or dying was there. However, it is not the purpose of the story. In 1984 I was sitting in a sunny London park and someone I had worked with in a tv show cycled up to me. I had not liked him much and I didn’t want to talk but I could see that something had changed for him. He looked sour and stressed… he told me through a tight scornful mouth he had AIDS. Death strode through the bright sun, through the people lounging and playing in the park, towards us. He told me he had decided to stage a one man show because he did not know how long he would be alive. There was no cure for AIDS ( as there isn’t now). I listened inwardly with a fist of fear in my stomach as he spoke. I floundered awkwardly. I asked him why he wanted to put his energies into a show that would be poorly attended (as many one person shows are)? He said with great determination, “ because I believe the most important thing is to ‘do it’. That’s it. It doesn’t matter where you do it or how many people see it but that you do it.”

I have remembered that meeting since that moment. I do not remember how our conversation ended, nor whether he got to do his show. I did hear he had died.

So in answer to the question, ‘what am i doing?’ I answer, ‘I am doing it, because that is the most important thing’.

A final extract from my note to the group:

I think we are all in our ways trying to improve the perception and response of people; to get them to develop, transform, enrich and explore their spirit, in the way J – described towards the end. And this is not nothing. It is worthy of the ‘fire’ of which we were speaking. It is championing the spirit.

A Year of Workshops

It has been an amazing year of Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland workshops. Seven weekend workshop and one four-day summer school all well attended on various aspects of learning the Michael Chekhov Technique and involving some application of the tools. Each workshop has had its own unique atmosphere and feel of the learning we were all undertaking. Participants have really hurled themselves into the work in a most inspiring way and I have been fortunate this year to have a strong consistency in the group. This year also saw a collaboration with Declan Drohan of Sligo IT with whom I taught two of the workshops: Enter an Actor, working with Chekhov Technique and solo performance and this year’s summer school, Blood on Iron, working with Gesture, Archetypes and Composition using Buchner’s Woyzeck.

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Enter, An Actor

In our second workshop, The Epic Voice,  I was keen to offer some of my own developments of the Chekhov work focussing on Voice. Connecting the Voice to the Body and Imagination gives an incredible flexibility to tone and intention; it is so much more playful and surprising than a purely technical approach. We worked with poetry, in particular Afterwards by Thomas Hardy and the opening chorus of The Jealousy of Emer by Yeats. What was a really joyous experience was when I asked the groups to create a piece with sound and instruments based upon the poem, its rhythm and atmospheres.

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The Epic voice

The following workshop in March focused on Imaginary Centre and Imaginary Body and the play we used was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. One of the things that resonated with me was how creating Imaginary Centres for the characters fulfilled the rules of Chekhov’s chart for Inspired Acting where getting one element of the technique could inform everything – Imaginary Centre could create atmosphere.

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Next up, in May, was a group working on devising and adaptation, using tools of composition, qualities of movement and atmosphere. We worked on the novel of Kafka’s The Trial and in two groups created powerful pieces, one from the beginning and one from the end. A major lesson for me was that instead of trying to create story first, it was more useful to begin by creating the imagery or the underlying world in which the story existed and then add the story later. This for me was quite a revelation and created two pieces of great richness .

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The Trial

In June (on the midsummer weekend) we worked primarily with Archetypes, which felt like a much freer workshop, and of course (finally) we were working with a comedy. The atmosphere was completely transformed in our workshop space. We worked a lot with Imaginative Voice too, marrying Chekhov’s psychological gesture with the way we used the language.

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In August Declan and myself explored composition, qualities and imagination, with a group for four days using Buchner’s Woyzeck. Despite my trepidation that this might be a gloomy choice of play, the mood was decidedly lifted by the dark satirical humour of it .We worked joyously with the Grotesque.  It was also wonderful to explore something short (something I rarely do!) that felt manageable. Declan and I are hoping to explore more in this way when we start to consider Chekhov technique with Brecht for three full days in January, working with Fear and Misery.

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October brought a workshop which primarily dealt with images on a play which was simply conversations and ideas, Churchill’s Love and Information. This workshop was a revelation in that exploring images first allowed the performer to use the imagination to play with the words and the situation in a really free way. It was a development, if you like, of the workshop in which we used The Trial and made me consider even more how to use the Chekhov technique with devised original shows.

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And finally, for our recent weekend, our committed group explored Good v Evil; playing King Lear. I wanted to really explore whether this idea of Good v Evil could be really used as a performance element as Chekhov suggested and in a way that was as nuanced as he described. I felt we most certainly could and that this was important for us as artists in these days when it is easy to obfuscate and confuse. This does not make the morality of the characters simpler but actually more complicated. We explored other polarities too pertaining to the play. We will be exploring Polarities further in the March workshop on Comedy when the whole thread of a character can be based upon the route between pain/pleasure, honesty/ deceit, hot/cold etc. etc.

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One of the things I have really gleaned from my committed groups this year is that the Chekhov process is one of simplicity and commitment from which emerges complexity; it is a complexity which is organic and it comes, not by knotting oneself to the literal limitations of ones own life, but by following the integrity of the Imagination; this process creates for the audience and performers both deep characters and fully rounded worlds.

Thank you to all the participants of this year’s courses.

Next year  –

In addition to our three spring workshops, we are very delighted to run a workshop led by Lenard Petit, director of The Michael Chekhov Acting Studio New York and author of The Michael Chekhov Handbook for the Actor. This workshop will run  May 22 -26th. This is most definitely a date for your Diary !

75429324_2135890316719738_2122911152257105920_oBooking now for our three workshops in January/February and March and Lenard Petit’s guest week,  check out www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com or the FB page or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com

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.

 

 

 

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