Tag Archives: Theatre

Adapting with Chekhov

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In 2003 I directed a production of  Kafka’s The Trial in an adaptation by Steven Berkoff for the Cuirt Festival of Literature with Galway Youth Theatre. It was a success. We revived it, took it on tour to England and got an incredible review in the Irish Times by the late Eileen Battersby.

Berkoff’s stark version is intensely theatrical, a full throated ensemble version of the text and the young actors threw themselves into the performance with enthusiasm and precision. Berkoff demands an ensemble be onstage throughout and be focussed, disciplined and inventive. In that we were extremely successful.  However, looking back, the adaptation itself has a hard unbending edge to it from the very beginning and affected where we went with it.

I remember reading the novel before I did the production and really missing the kind of mysterious depth I feel is in it, a kind of overwhelming onset of thick darkness as if the unfortunate Joseph K is drowning and cannot escape. There is the feeling of a labyrinth in it, different from the empty doorframes Berkoff used in his adaptation and we used for ours. In the novel K is a much more likeable chap than the uptight guy created by Berkoff. I never saw his own production so maybe I am misjudging it. But for me that harshness in the adaptation meant that the production was hard to evolve. It was hard to make a journey. Indeed, the way it seems in the adaptation it seems like it is K’s nightmare which does not give the other characters anywhere to go. As we were working from that adaptation, I got the actors and designer to embody that view, which was theatrically effective, but also lost something.

Maybe you always lose something when you adapt. I have been interested in adaptation for a long time, having, in another period of my life, written a lot of plays and made a number of adaptations for theatre companies in Ireland and the UK. Right now I am writing a book about Shakespeare and part of it is about editing and transposing; how it can be successful and how it can be a disaster.

I was teaching Ensemble and Devising at NUI Galway for many years and over my final years with Ensemble, more and more of my Chekhov training was coming into my approach; imagination, qualities of movement, atmosphere, gesture and composition were incorporated as other things were let go. Composition and Form are particularly important as there is such a danger in adaptation and devised work that a piece can lose its thread and become shapeless.

I have always been a big believer that the Chekhov Technique is not only for regular plays but for a much wider body of work, and more people are using the work in that way. So in the weekend of May 17th -19th for Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  I want to look at episodes in this novel, The Trial, and explore them through the Michael Chekhov technique, to see if we can find something different, something deeper. One thing I have found with the Technique is that I always discover something new with anything we look at in these courses.

If you wish to attend, email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to place a deposit and book your place. The weekend is being held at NUI Galway, runs from May 17-19 (The 17th is only a short evening session). The cost is €90 for the weekend.

 

 

Body

IMG_5703In many plays, the idea that our character has a different body is generally limited to how we are clothed, our size, a disability perhaps, or age. That’s if it is specified in the text at all. Yet our bodies are the vessel for everything we are.

Like most things with Chekhov technique any accusations that our exercises are ‘floaty’ are completely refuted by the fact that what the technique explores is the reality of things as they are; in this case how we relate to our bodies and how the character relates to his own body.

In our workshop this weekend, as we explored the troubled characters in The Crucible, I began by asking the group to make considerations of their own bodies. This needed to be done with a degree of delicacy and limited sharing; the most important thing is for the actor to experience the body rather than talk about it, in any case. I asked everyone to consider how our bodies affected how we dress, what colours we wore, where our weight was centred, what parts of the body we liked and what we didn’t like and how those responses affected our every move; it is a sobering thing for actors to consider and experience. If we like our hands we are going to move them differently to how we would if we don’t like them. If we think our lips are attractive, we will use them differently.

So what if the character has this interconnected relationship to their body?  By putting on the body like a coat, we can find out.

This work on Imaginary Body goes so much further than just creating a convincing and particular shape for the character; it gives you a huge part of the character’s psychology. The body dictates how we breathe, our level of confidence and health, the tensions which build up in us; as we age the frame is restricted  and can freeze us into a cypher of everything that has happened to us through our lives.

How we relate to the body makes resonances and echoes in every single thing we do. To take an example, if Abigail Williams is aware of her sexual power from the start it makes a very different character to an Abigail Williams who does not.

Furthermore we have the impact of the environment on the bodies of the characters. On examining the hands of the characters, we considered those who had soft hands and those who did not . That one fact created a whole layer to a possible world; those with rough hands, physically strong but somehow in another world from the likes of the preachers and judges who govern the play. The soft-handed are trying to preserve their status, maintain control and impose morality upon the townsfolk. How do they feel about their hard-handed brethren? Do they feel superior, closer to God, fearful, guilty about their own inactivity?

It was interesting how both the power of Imaginary Body and Character Centre created really strong atmosphere on their own in our studio, though we did little work on atmosphere directly. It reminded me of Chekhov’s Chart for Inspired Acting where Chekhov said that if you inspire just one area, if it is effective, many of the other elements of the scene will fill effortlessly. Working for a good while on the idea of everyone having a centre that was a large spade brought the smell of the earth into the room; a sense of digging in; a world that was rough and shifting as the characters spoke to each other.

Very powerful.

IMG_5698The next Chekhov weekend is Actors Are Magicians, working with Form , atmosphere, directions and Tempo principally. It is here in Galway and runs from Friday evening till mid afternoon Sunday. We will be working on chapters of The Trial by Kafka. It is for Directors, actors, students and devisers. book by emailing chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and visit the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

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.

 

 

My Kingdom For a Horse! -Opinion

After hearing great things about the Druid Shakespeare project which played in the tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2015 where they tackled several of the History plays and which I sadly missed, I was looking forward to RICHARD 3 which played in the Town Hall Theatre Galway for a week before going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.  Everyone I asked who saw the play earlier in the week praised Aaron Monaghan’s performance but were less complimentary about other performances and other aspects of the production.

Aaron Monaghan is a very talented actor and made a cracking start as Richard but as the production progressed he seemed to get lost in what seemed to me a very unfocussed production in both style and direction. (With my voice teacher’s hat on, and on the evidence of last night’s show, he also needs to do some serious voice work on the later scenes). In the end though, a talented actor cannot stand alone even in a huge role and needs the full focus and guided support of the other performers. Too often I felt many of the smaller roles were not inhabited either vocally or physically and they looked lost. Consequently, there seemed no world created by the actors in which the play could live.

Many people might think that it is the set, lights, music and costume which provide this sense of a world, this atmosphere, but these elements only partly contribute to it. In any case we were not helped by the design in this respect and nor were the actors. In a forbidding industrial set, the actors inhabited the space in sparkly colourful ‘medievally’ costumes. This contrast between set and costume went completely over my head and did not seem to be embraced by the actors.

In truth though, it is the actors and director who create a strong sense of the world, by the atmosphere they create. (Michael Chekhov calls atmosphere, “the oxygen of the performance”). Too often the scenes at court particularly gave no sense of the viciousness, backstabbing  and jockeying for position which is there in the play from the start. Interestingly the play has the feel of a Jacobean play, sharply juxtaposing comedy with horror and tragedy, even though it is a fairly early work by Shakespeare. This Jacobean sense was well served by some good editing.

Without atmosphere the actors are like fish in a goldfish bowl with no water. And that was the overall feeling it gave me. Every so often, through many of Richard’s early soliloquies, in the scene where Clarence is murdered and at least the first of the subsequent executions, the atmosphere would pour in and I felt like I was watching something with some dynamism. The performance of Marty Rea was in large part responsible for this. His emotional power and sense of inhabiting the whole of his character is palpable.

The lack of atmosphere and passion in the later scenes with the struggling, angry and grieving women was extremely disappointing. Too often I was playing out the scene in my imagination in response to the text and thinking ‘wow’ rather than watching the performers perform. Why was this? There simply was not enough emotional and vocal energy in those scenes which should tear me apart as I watch them. Are we not seeing enough of horror on the news to get some sense of what women are going through right now, trying to ‘speak to power’? These scenes had enormous potential to make these connections but I did not feel they were there.

In general, the characters did not go on a sufficient journey within scenes nor through the whole play. It is very tempting to believe that the energy of this play is Richard’s villainy but it is also about the culpability of those who choose to serve him and those who abandon him – a situation mirrored particularly in Macbeth as all the lords, one by one, change sides and leave Macbeth to his fate.

In terms of a character ‘journey’ let’s consider act 4 sc 4; the scene where the three devastated women meet. Queen Margaret, when asked to teach them to curse, says:

“Compare dead happiness with living woe.

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,

And he that slew them fouler than he is.”

She leaves and the two wronged women then encounter Richard on his way to Bosworth. Richard has to deal with his mother’s curses. Indeed, her emotional journey seems to be that she learns to curse effectively, to channel her rage. When she leaves, he tries to get Queen Elizabeth to collude in getting her own daughter to marry him. The scene with Queen Elizabeth, who has had both of her other children murdered by Richard already, is very challenging as she tries to express her rage and save her child and herself. In my opinion, Richard is beginning to fail once his mother’s curses have been delivered, perhaps even earlier when he is abandoned by Buckingham. Without this real diminishing of his power, how can he then be visited by ghosts and delude himself into saying he was not a murderer?

Finally, I would have to say that, whilst I understand the acoustics of the Town Hall Theatre are tricky, having worked there myself, there were too many times when people did not root their breath sufficiently. Without breath, all the passion and intensity for the character will not radiate into the space. Without rooted breath you may also harm your voice. A voice coach would have been far more use than a movement director in my opinion. On that note, there was some very embarrassing “ensemble” work and ‘fighting’ which I would have been ashamed to see in a youth theatre, never mind a heavily funded project going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Ultimately, as a friend of mine remarked, the real star of the evening was the writer. Whilst I still enjoyed the evening I was only occasionally moved. I was baffled as the obligatory standing ovation took place, and I and my friends stared open-mouthed at a lot of backs.

The Sacred Space

“a place where prayer has been valid”. T.S Eliot.

I have rehearsed and worked in many strange and often inhospitable places but whatever has happened I have for many years tried to instil in people a respect for the space. When we make work we can do it anywhere under the most challenging circumstances because, of course, it is the work that is important. However, the work exists in a space and if the room is cold or inadequate it can be a huge challenge, because that space tells everyone whether you and your work are respected in an institution or by society at large. As artists are continually under-valued, this issue of a clean, resourced and purposeful space can be a sensitive one.  I feel we are very lucky in NUI Galway to have a new theatre building which has two lovely studio spaces.

The whole concept of space is fascinating. Right now, Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland is remounting Lorna Shaughnessy’s SACRIFICIAL WIND, a retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and we are taking it up to the prestigious Heaney Homeplace in Northern Ireland. The venue is beautiful and extraordinary with a theatre inspired by a Greek Amphitheatre. The audience are on three sides with tiered seating . There are more seats at the sides than the front. When we performed the piece over a year ago in the Cuirt International Festival in Galway Ireland,  in the Town Hall Theatre Studio, a small end-on studio space with seating on the long side of the studio, it made for a wide stage space. The piece, extremely powerful, was very still, confessional, and formal. This space was almost entirely the opposite type of space to the Heaney Homeplace.

Working within this almost promenade setting in the new venue has given us the opportunity to open up the piece into a much more physical almost Shakespearean presentation, in the way the characters explain and justify their actions around and during the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In fact, and this is what is most interesting, it is the space itself which has demanded this change rather than any demand of mine or the actors. Things we used to find gloriously effective do not alway work in this different configuration. This is not merely a question of the technical considerations but something that happens when people inhabit a particular space and creating a new dynamic.

When I start teaching next week with my undergrad group on Shakespeare, part of the course involves looking at the shape of Shakespeare’s theatre and how that structure affected the nature of the drama and the way the plays were written; particularly with relation to the connection with the audience which the thrust stage provides.

And do these shapes and spaces not have something to do with atmosphere, that most potent element explored in detail by Michael Chekhov in his technique? That the shape of the space and its purpose help create an atmosphere uninfluenced by those who enter that space? That the atmosphere has, of itself, great power and its own demands on what happens within it?

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Orla Tubridy Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning – The Sacrificial Wind

Catch The Sacrificial Wind at the Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy Co. Derry +44 (0)28 7938 7444 on the 22nd September 7.30 http://www.seamusheaneyhome.com

or on the 28th September Free performance at the ODT on campus at NUI Galway at lunchtime 1pm . You will need to arrive early to ensure a seat.

“A little piece of Art”

IMG_4174CHEKHOV TRAINING AND PERFORMANCE IRELAND SUMMER SCHOOL

“A little piece of Art”
Finding a sense of form in the character, the piece or the play through the Michael Chekhov Technique.
NUIG Galway
August 16-19th 10 – 5.  Tutor Max Hafler
For Actors, Students, and Directors .

Michael Chekhov said that everything you did onstage, every exercise, every improvisation, every scene, every play needed a ‘feeling of Form’ and a “feeling of Entirety”. Each piece had to be “a little piece of Art”. We are going to explore these two fundamental planks of Chekhov Technique to enable us to create more believable and focussed characters and performances using the psycho-physical technique which through the imagination and the body takes us to new realms.

Getting the whole understanding of form in our bodies is crucial. How do you start a scene? What are the dynamics? And how does the scene end? And what happens in between? Working with tableaux, gesture and transformation, we will work with a yet to be decided text. This technique will give a strong grid on which to work, yet at the same time give you as a performer/director an immense freedom. It is both completely practical and helps the performer to express the invisible.

It is going to be exciting.

some thoughts

Of course these ideas  of Form and Entirety are not new in consideration of art but they are too often dismissed or ignored by practitioners as outmoded or outdated, that they make smug or complacent art, as if life could be tied in those kind of parcels. I would question whether theatre has the slightest responsibility to imitate life in quite that kind of way, even if this was true.

Form and Entirety [or wholeness] are related of course but are not quite the same thing. I would say that Feeling of Form is something the performer practises that becomes an inate performance skill  whereas a Feeling of Wholeness is a state that is discovered both as a character and also through the experience of the whole play.

We have to accept that Form and Wholeness are woven into our lives. The two things we know for sure are that we are born and we die; a beginning and an end. Because we understand this on a fundamental visceral level, it is not surprising to me that we often look for this quality in art. The end we seek in our plays and films is not necessarily a comfortable easy end; nor is it always an attempt to just have our own values expressed and validated. Remember, if you look at a play or film with an ending which appears inconclusive, the creators have decided that ending for a reason.  It is still an ending.

In my real life experience, endings are beginnings with new challenges and obstacles and pleasures. At least they are changes – the start of a new consideration, some new way of being. The end is a stopping and pausing point. however, in a work of art it offers a deep satisfaction because it is a pinnacle, a place for the characters to rest and take stock before they move on. In a fictional narrative, it leaves us with a feeling, a question and a resolution all rolled into one – if it is powerful that is.

So, in addition to needing a ‘Feeling of Entirety’ for the whole piece of art, we have a feeling of form for the character. What about the beginning, the start of the character’s journey? What are the energies and desires he brings into the space and how does he seek them?  Chekhov always talks about How and what  being the most fundamental questions which lead to the answer of Why someone does something.

When working on entrances and exits in another workshop, we observed that the moment you entered was one of your moments of ultimate power. The audience are intrigued by a new energy, by a feeling that the arrival of this person is going to change things, alter the dynamic. Finding a starting point through psycho-physical exercises is a nuanced and exciting exploration. Finding the end point gives you somewhere to go.

booking details

If you are interested to book for this course , please contact chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com. the cost of the course is €180 for tuition only

 

 

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.