Tag Archives: Theatrecorp

Why, WHY? Masks and Curtains.

The Duchess is admonished by her brother. [Zita Monahan and Darragh O'Brien]

The Duchess is admonished by her brother. [Zita Monahan and Darragh O’Brien]

Whilst rehearsing the scene in Duchess of Malfi last week where the two brothers discover their sister has had a baby, and vent their rage at her disobedience, we first explored the ‘what ?’ And the ‘how’ of the scene; how does the Cardinal respond to his brother, rather than Why. What and How revealed a myriad of possible Whys, some of which were helpful and many which were not. It is so much easier to follow what and how and desperately important when you are dealing with such a labyrinthine story as  Duchess of Malfi. I can imagine if we had been a more table-work type company we could have spent months filleting the text. Months we do not have. And to what avail? To kill the creative impulse by creating a thin ice of intellectual understanding based only upon our direct life experience – a narrow sort of truth. This approach does not mean you ignore the text ( how could you even consider that with such visceral and profound stuff ?) Ultimately the language moulds the physicality, psychology and being of the character. ‘My mind is full of daggers’ says the Duchess, as she despairs and rages against her tragedy. This image alone conjures up her psychological state at that moment – get that into your body by making a stabbing gesture

But why do many actors feel they have to start with ‘Why?’ when it unleashes a whole confusing gamut of unactable facts? Starting with why seems to offer little or no juice, when it comes to playing. What is it that seduces them? WHY? ( Now I am asking why! ) Is it our idealised Method based background as actors? Or our sometimes misguided faith in science where the WHY appears to the outsider to be the only important result? Or is it a desire to make us feel as artists that through exploring WHY first, we are doing something ‘real’ and ‘important’ ‘adult’ and ‘serious’? Anyone who has worked psychophysically knows this process of exploring the piece through Imagination and body  is every bit as serious and a lot more demanding than an intellectual poring over the script at a table for hours where your energy is often finally sapped before you get up to work.

‘Why’ for me is like the ‘masks and curtains’ the Duchess speaks of. It has a place but it is mainly obfuscation . It protects us from the raw feeling and intuition necessary for our work. Also, the ‘Why’ may be labyrinthine but it is logical. Life, character and emotion are often not logical yet as performers we still have to grasp the character’s journey and intentions. As someone said when doing Measure for Measure two years ago, where we used Chekhov Technique as the bedrock of the rehearsal process, working on her journey through gesture rather than discussion,’I could never have put this character’s journey into words but now I understand it.’

A brilliant example of the dubious nature of WHY was Simon Russell Beale’s discussion of his performance of King Lear [The RNT production] where he suggested Lear might have some kind of Alzheimers . Who cares? In this case the WHY actually diminished his performance in my opinion.

I am not suggesting that actors and directors ignore WHY but explore it later in the process. In ‘real life’ we can know why something happens without having any real understanding of it. Nowhere is this more true than in the academic approach to theatre when students are sometimes encouraged to believe they can go out and do it without the real rigours of training. We can understand an approach from a book but without practise and learning through the body we have no experience of it and no learning we can effectively put into practise. Imagine if you read about how to play the violin but hardly did any practise, or learned the rules of basketball assiduously but only played  now and again?

On March 3rd , my co-tutors and myself at CORE theatre college will be running an intense but part time course for 10 weeks in Galway which will include three performances in May. This course puts the imagination, the body and creativity at the centre of the performers work. The HOW and the WHAT before the WHY. The imagination and the body before the intellect. Teachers are trained in Chekhov and Lecoq and there will also be a voice module. There are only a few places left for this course so if you are interested check out http://www.coretheatrecollege@gmail.com . And Theatrecorp’s production of The Duchess of Malfi plays the Black Box Theatre Galway 3rd – 7th February phone 091 569777.


‘She died young’. Duchess of Malfi. Rehearsal log Theatrecorp. week 2

After our first exploratory week involving finding atmopsheres, qualities and centres for this extraordinary play, we began this week to apply some of those discoveries to the text.

posterbleed - CopyThe last two days we have been working on one of the most horrific acts in Theatre , act 4 of the Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, which we are presenting in the Black Box Theatre Galway with an eight strong cast in early February. For those unfamiliar with the play, this act involves the capture and psychological torture of a woman whose only crime is to marry against the wishes of her brothers. With only her waiting woman and her two babies for company, her deranged brother locks her away, then in a bizarre charade pretends he has killed her husband and presents her with a dead hand which she presumes is his. The brother then sends her inmates from an asylum to attend on her. They taunt and molest her, and then finally there is a disturbing charade at the end of which she , her waiting woman and her two babies are murdered.

After working on this act on Thursday, we actually discussed the possibility of having ten minutes relaxation/ debriefing or whatever after we rehearsed this scene, the intensity of it was so profoundly horrible. To those not familiar with theatre and the depth of the work, most particularly when rehearsing and working with different qualities and atmospheres, often doing sections of a gruesome scene over and over,this can sound a bit precious, but it actually isn’t . When working with the body and imagination, powerful feelings flow through you. Even though it flows through , it can also leave a residue and this needs to be considered. Act 4 has the atmosphere of a torture chamber.

When I watched this scene for the first time today, I realised something. The brother and his lieutenant who have facilitated this torture and murder sit empty and exhausted near her murdered body and start to argue and blame each other for her death. By the end of the scene , I realised that both men were completely destroyed by their actions; how Webster understands that violence destroys the perpetrators as surely as it does the victims.

It made me think about the violence in France this week.

Someone said to me how much they loved the play because of the bloodbath ; so often the play is dismissed as some kind of Jacobean soap opera. However, for me this is a deeply political and moral play about decay, corruption and what can happen to those who refuse to bow to it. The gruesome poetry is magnificent. The cynical realisations of the characters are not so far from our own, and given the society in which we live the so-called excesses of the play are not at all far fetched. It is grotesquely funny in places, juxtaposing the deep downward feeling of tragedy and pain with a kind of wriggling upward struggle for energy and life, as if they are all trying to escape from a trap. One image in the poster of a decaying rose reminds me of how things die, pass and change, and against that backdrop how we endeavour to take our breath .

Adapting and Distilling the Duchess of Malfi


Condensing Malfi to a tighter text for 8 actors whilst at the same time maintaining what I believe is the thrust and shape of the play has been an interesting challenge. For me one of the most important factors is to maintain the atmosphere and dark philosophical Vision of a critical elitist world which crumbles and sinks into the mire of its own madness and violence, taking almost everyone with it.

It is delicate work . I have already returned some text I had sliced away.

I have done a lot of adaptations over the years, since I worked on Celestina, De Rojas extraordinary play/novel for the Actors Touring Company, and adaptations for Commonweal of Faustus and The Old Law, A Jacobean play by Middleton and Rowley. The latter involved me in writing a version of the play , with my own scenes and speeches, developing the female characters in particular. This incensed some of the national right wing critics who were annoyed I gave the play a definite left wing bias, that was only hinted at in the original, though the adaptation got many fine reviews, as did the production.

What was exciting was that because I wrote in the style of the original play, my own contributions were not discernible except to the few scholars who were familiar with the play. In 2008 the original play was performed in Stratford-on-Avon. Unfortunately despite some strong performances it remained for me a museum piece, and I think they would have been well served to have done an adaptation. My own, whilst overlong, was far more relevant to the world right now and far more likely to engage audiences. In fact when I did my version with students at MIT many years later I cut it drastically. It is an interesting play, essentially a black comedy about euthanasia and the effects of legislation on society.

Michael Chekhov, when discussing Shakespeare, thought a director and cast should feel free to shape and edit his plays, and at one time I would have thought this an anathema. But as I have come to understand Chekhov’s rules about composition ,( which are shared by other techniques too) and understood that the plays were frequently co-authored, which made for repetition and occasional lack of clarity, along with the fact that there are often pieces which are incomprehensible to a modern audience, I have become much more free about the subject. Also, the obvious practical issues about performing these large plays with a more modest cast  inevitably make editing essential. Chekhov’s idea of form and his suggestion to treat the play almost as if it was a music score is an exciting consideration, and can hone not only the direction but also the whole creative team contribution.

However, there are dangers when distilling the work, of the whole play evaporating. In his short but wonderful book, Evoking Shakespeare, Peter Brook discusses the dangers of modernising a text or setting it in a different time, reminding us that whilst, as directors, we can do what we want, that we are losing something, or at the very least, changing something fundamental, whenever we make these kinds of changes.

So what are the essences of the Duchess of Malfi? A corrupt fetishistic class ridden world, which devours itself , yet is nonetheless desired and admired by the people who work for it, until they realise all too late that when you are sucked into that world, you yourself are inevitably tainted. In this world, that means usually you pay with your life.

Here is a change I have made. For me the issue of class is strong in the play though never fully explored,, and I have accentuated this a little through the character of what was once Delio, Antonios friend. He is a courtier in the original and his rather rakish behaviour In certain scenes sits uncomfortably for me with his main role of confidante to Antonio, The accountant and personal assistant to the Duchess, who eventually becomes her husband. Of course a purist might say that this is what Webster was trying to say, that even the nicest people are corrupted, but his contribution is not coherent enough to really make sense to me.  In the original he seems as corrupt as the others, and I was anxious to seek an energy in the play of someone who was a good person but who was not  tainted by the actions of the court. It is interesting Delio begins and ends the play, and that must be our abiding impression of him as a good guy, the Horatio of Malfi.

In our production the character Delia is being played by an older woman , and I sense she might come from a lower class even than Antonio. This allows us to connect with a Character, an outsider, who has to deal with the horror of what transpires, someone whose fascination for the court is obvious right from the start, in the lines she/he is given. It gives Delia a strong pertinent resonance for the present Day to which we can all relate as we look on at ineffectual and corrupt government elites across the globe. Whilst this is not in the original , we are not not living in the 17th century either, and ultimatately the play has to communicate to us now. Having said all this I have been very careful not to increase the stage time of the character, which would have unbalanced the play . It is all a delicate balance.

The Duchess of Malfi plays in the Black Box Galway February 3rd – 7th

Thinking of Anouilh’s Antigone

‘These people are about to act out for you the story of Antigone.’

I am so looking forward to rediscovering this play in the Theatrecorp production in November, using Chekhov Technque as the bedrock of the rehearsal process. When I first came across Anouilh’s Antigone, or more accurately , Galantiere’s translation of this 1940’s play, I was 15. At that age, I competed in more than my fair share of drama festivals, and must have seen more versions of Antigone’s confrontation with her sister Ismene than a person could stand, to the point that I would sigh when I saw it in the programme…and sit back to watch yet another young aspiring actress trying to squeeze terror out of herself .This scene and the one in Ring Around The Moon by the same author, where the two young women bitch and have a physical fight, were very popular choices for teenage girls and their front room drama teachers around this time!


Despite this, I nonetheless have remained fascinated by Antigone. Of course the theme is attractive for artists and young people. A heroine refuses stubbornly and determinedly not to compromise, preferring to die rather than tread the path of a life of privilege, ease and pragmatic survival. It is said that the play focuses as much on the theme of impending adulthood, and accepting the world as it is (or not) as it does on politics. Sometimes I wonder whether they are not the same thing.

Many many writers have written versions of Antigone’s story including Brecht, whose version I suppose I ought to sympathise with more, but I don’t . What is so appealing about Anouilh’s for me is that whilst I completely sympathise with Antigone’s action to bury her brother and defy the King, the arguments both for and against Antigone’s action are aired passionately and equally by Antigone and Creon in the fantastic central scene in the play, and that despite the fact that Antigone’s feelings seem to be condoned by the playwright, her motives are seriously challenged.
And this, I feel is the challenge of the play. As people in the world, we justify everything we do and don’t do, and our justifications have consequences, often severe ones, even for people we never meet. I am thinking primarily of our consumer choices here.

The disturbing exploration of Antigone’s decision suggests that we have to choose our path, and to live with that choice, whatever it is. This is uncomfortable. Antigone’s view tells us that Creon, Ismene and the rest will never be happy. They will compromise and live life at a different level to her, a level laced with compromise , with less real dignity and truth.

Of course this muddying of Antigone’s motive could have been as a result of the fact that the play ran for 500 performances in Nazi occupied France . The fact that Anouilh was ultimately suspected of sympathising with the occupiers, and the fact that Creon is presented sympathetically though not triumphantly, does make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I am thinking this setting of 1944 might be extremely pertinent in some ways given the rise of the Far Right in Europe now, most particularly in France. But then, it depends. The tone of the play could be seen as ultimately defeatist against the oppressor, and that is the last thing I would want an audience to feel.

Two other things influenced me in the choice of this play. One of the great Chekhov teachers and I am pleased to say a friend, Ted Pugh, of the Michael Chekhov Association told me of a reading they did of the play, and reenthused me as to what a wonderful and challenging play it was. The result was that I used the play for a series of Chekhov workshops last autumn. During a powerful presentation of a short scene towards the end of a class on Psychological Gesture, two actors were working on the very scene I mentioned at the beginning of this piece where the two sisters confront each other about whether they can bury their brother . One of the actors, tears in her eyes quietly said to the other, ‘but Antigone, I don’t want to die….’ I was incredibly moved. it made me realise how much people want to live, and what they are prepared to do to hang on to it.

I am looking forward to starting it in September! Check out the Theatrecorp link. http://www.theatrecorp.org



Psychological gesture and rhythm


In the Chekhov sessions this week we have been working a lot on Gesture and its power to create not only intention and feeling in the character but also have offered us deep insights, particularly into characters normally seen as villains and fiends.

I am working with three different groups right now, There is a Shakespeare group, using Chekhov primarily working with THE DREAM, an Intro group working with THE CRUCIBLE, and my own theatre group working on pieces of Shakespeare for modern environments and shortly ANTIGONE by Anouilh.

For those not so familiar with the Chekhov Technique, I would define the psychological gesture primarily as a way to find the deepest intentions of the character in a scene, a moment, or even through a whole play through bodily expression, through gesture and movement. It can also be used to explore layers of language ( something we explored extensively in the Shakespeare class this week) and many other things too! Refining and practising the gesture evokes sensations and feelings in the body , which clarifies and further explores in a visceral and dynamic way what the character wants and feels.

What continually astounds me about the use of psychological gesture as an acting tool, is its amazing creation of nuances and layers, however simple the gesture is. In the Intro group, two of the students playing Abigail and Mary in THE CRUCIBLE were working on gesture. The two gestures they created were remarkably similar, with elements of a pulling embrace and a holding. Later we pondered on why this was, and I offered the idea that the two girls both needed love, respect and power in the community ( their pulling hungry embrace), and then came this tremendous opportunity for revenge on a society that totally disrespected and restricted them. But their need is to be loved and respected. The idea that Abigail and Mary both want this, despite being so incredibly different , and that somewhere in all the horrible things they do is a deep search for love and respect is an amazing thought, and offers the actors something one rarely sees in this play when it is performed.

Similarly when working on the Shakespeare Theatrecorp project, one of the actors is working on one of Goneril’s speeches , and she came up with a remarkably similar gesture to the student working on Abigail, and it suddenly provoked in me a whole raft of feelings when I was watching, that Goneril too was somewhere searching for love and acceptance even if it was buried deep inside her. Where else does her love for Edmund come from?

I remember once when I was doing my A levels long ago the class was asked to write our first essay entitled The Evil of Goneril and Regan. I went on an imaginative flight about what it must have been like living In Lear’s court, what a tyrant he was, how he really only seemed to care for Cordelia in the first place ( and what victory it must have been for the other two to have got rid of her in such a humiliating fashion). How suddenly the two ignored sisters got the chance to get their revenge. You get the idea.

I got an F. I was devastated. This was because apparently this was not the style or approach I needed to use to pass the exam at that time. I did back up my imaginative flight with some textual references, but my efforts were considered far too fanciful.

Back to Psychological gesture. Of course both Abigail and Goneril could be described as manipulative, masking their ‘evil’ with a smile . But there was something about their similar gestures which struck me, that for both of the characters there was a need there.

It then made me ask the philosophical question of other characters who do bad things, how many of their vile motives and actions come initially from some kind of human and needy desire which is not necessarily about cruelty and destruction, even when these things are the result. For some characters of course this vulnerability is very deeply buried, and I am not trying to exonerate evil acts here either in characters or real people. But this analysis of these gestures reminds me that things are not so simple. I will return to this theme when I start working on Antigone I am sure.

The other powerful thing given through Gesture is an inner rhythm, which is one of the most amazing things of all; that in working with the gesture through the speech, the actor gets a feel for the character’s rhythm, one that is often completely different to her own.

If we consider our own lives, there are many situations which provoke us, and we feel the push and pull of a possible response. If your boss says something you don’t approve of, for instance, a movement happens in your body, things stir, as you weigh up whether to wade in and say anything or not . Whilst these inner tussles appear to be intellectual, they are initially responses to your impulses, backwards and forwards, so we very often find ourselves, particularly in emotional situations, with a certain pattern or rhythm. The use of Psychological gesture works deeply on this level, and as one of the actors said last night, just because you have the same gesture for a speech or character, you can still vary the gesture in quality or pace to create different sensations and feelings for the character.

What an enriching and thought and feeling provoking week!

Chekhov, Ensemble and Theatrecorp


Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conoir Geoghegan

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

When I was at a Chekhov conference in Zurich in 2013, we were asked to put forward ideas about how Chekhov Technique might be used in the future, and someone said how he would like to see Chekhov being developed in devising and more experimental forms of theatre, as well as in text-based plays.

I have been using Chekhov in my ensemble/devising class for the MA Drama programme at NUI Galway for several years. The technique is an extremely successful way to unite a team of performers in a deep way, and is highly effective even though the performance is going to be in a different style and created in a different way. While the goal of some exercises  may be different when working towards a text, they are still the same exercises. The qualities of moulding , floating, flying radiating for instance which normally focus on finding psychological states/ sensations through movement and movement, in order to eventually address dialogue and conventional character, in this class excite a bodily awareness which come as much from the imagination as physical flexibility. Again, they are still the same exercises, with a slightly different focus.

When the students work on their non verbal folk tales in my class, we work through a lot of Chekhov’s atmosphere exercises which help the students with their feeling of ensemble as well as the creation of what they believe is the appropriate atmosphere for the moment or environment in which they are playing. It helps them create the score of the story and to return to it authentically and swiftly should it be needed. We also explore a lot of archetypes through the imagination and the body. Archetypes are so near the surface in myths and folklore that it gives ready access for the student and allows them to explore their own unconscious, safely, and often think and experience  outside the box of what an archetype actually might be. The lack of intellectual exploration suits devising, along with the desire to connect voice,feeling, body and imagination, which should I feel be at the heart of all live performance, devised or otherwise.

When students move on to their site specific work towards the end of the semester, which works to creat a non-narrative piece with the feel of a piece of music, Chekhov work helps thematically again through atmosphere and gesture in a very pure way. Chekhov inspires, often through abstracts, the most concrete and actable forms.

Darragh O'Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Darragh O’Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Right now I am building an idea for a series of sessions with the Theatrecorp group, using Shakespeare and modern locations. In addition to considering and feeling the atmosphere of the location , we need to consider the subtle interplay between the text and the location in a very literal way, which is more than just the character and the play from which the speech is taken, but responding also to the atmosphere of the location and what is happening in the world right now, what the words suggest now. It is not an intellectual exploration, though the way I am describing it might make it sound that way. For instance when an actress stands at the statue of Equality and looks across at Galway’s Cathedral, in almost the same spot where the Galway Magdalen laundry once stood and speaks a speech of defiance from Catherine of Aragon , which appears in Henry 8th, we are looking at many layers of meaning. These layers can be looked at in much detail using the technique with very little discussion. This is powerful and though text based, it is not a conventional approach to it. it is not based first and foremost on character and the situation in the play but on text through gesture, and the effect of the atmosphere and environment around it.

The photos are both from our first session on the Shakespeare work. Very exciting.

Theatrecorp and a Question of Technique.

Theatrecorp, which specialises in World Theatre Classics and adaptations is now planning its next production. Go to the link of Theatrecorp on this page to read something of the company history.

When Theatrecorp produced its seventh show, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, last year, it was the first show we had done where the show was created using the Chekhov Technique as the main plank of the rehearsal process. When I say this, I do not mean to say that it was the only way we created the work, but that it was the main theatrical language we used. In fact, I actually excluded very talented people who had had no experience with the Chekhov work, so keen was I to follow this through and use it as a directing process. The first week of this process is well documented in the Michael Chekhov Association  newsletter 2014 which you can access by going to their website http://www.michaelchekhov.org so I am not going to go into too much detail here about the nuts and bolts journey of that initial exploration.
What are the drawbacks of using one technique? Might this be restrictive ? I would argue that all techniques have within them certain dangers when they are too solely and too rigorously applied, especially in ensembles where any inherent dangers in the technique are thereby multiplied by the practitioners. However, on the ‘plus’ side, one technique gives a company a basic common language with which to work, putting everyone on the same page and hopefully making powerful work.If you truly believe that theatre is a group endeavour, a technique common to all, at least in part, can only be positive.

Of course , everyone brings their own background and training to any play so that one technique and ensemble is also enriched by the sensibility, training and focus of every person in the room.

Professionally, however, this diversity is often a free-for-all in journeyman productions when actors and director collaborate for only one production,(a common scenario as we all know) because friction can arise through the different working processes of the director and the different actors. I can always remember one actor raging at another in a full rehearsal room ‘ I do not use your fucking technique,and don’t try and make me!’

As an aside, when I was auditioning actors in London, it was often possible to tell where a person had been trained from the way they performed their audition pieces. This is how profoundly technique and training affects your work. This might sound a bit grandiose, but it is very true that acting techniques are very much philosophies which are not just about how they ask us to look at theatre but how to look and react to the world in which we live.

For me, many method-type processes are by their very nature, inward-looking, ego-driven and materialist. They are very craft-driven, with the ‘actor’s tool box’, very much to do with being an effective worker in ‘the business’. Chekhov is much more concerned with the mystery of creation, and a refusal to simply reproduce photographic representations of ‘real life’. He also asserts the status of the actor as a creative artist, as opposed to an interpretive one.

As a director, the principal focus Chekhov offers to me is the shape of a production through his work on composition, exploring themes and polarities and working with atmosphere. Because Chekhov believed that atmosphere, was the ‘oxygen of a performance’ in which the characters lived and told their stories, to explore these general atmospheres thoroughly can only really be done through an ensemble which uses the technique. Exploring these atmospheres thereby gives a ‘score’ for the play, which all the participants can share as they work on their roles. This score can be alarmingly and magically  different to any conceptions I as a director may have had at the start. And for me, that magic, for which I mean transformation, is what makes this way of working so special, producing surprising artistic choices.