Tag Archives: Three Sisters

Where has it all gone to? 3 Sisters discoveries from Anton’s nephew!

In the final presentation of my MA Chekhov Technique class, six of the students performed the opening of Act 2 of the 3 Sisters by Anton Chekhov. As we worked on scenes from the first two acts, each act had a prevailing general atmosphere and for Act Two it was helpfully suggested by one of my students that it was fog or mist. This seemed a perfect atmosphere for the act as everyone starts to radically lose their way without really knowing why. it gave the characters a sense that things are not quite right. By using this general atmosphere, the first scene of Andrey and his wife became a  tragic pivotal scene with them losing each other, rather than watching a weak man dominated by a wily desperate woman. Andrey became a lost confused soul and Natasha a woman full of disappointment testing her husband to see if he would ‘man up’ and take charge of the house.  With regard to the ‘fog’ the whole cast of characters is on its way to confusion but at the moment it is not possible to quite discern what is wrong.  Anyway, this wonderful idea for an atmosphere fed not only the act but the whole play with a what was for me a wonderful new direction. This is the wonderful thing about atmosphere and indeed all of Chekhov Technique work – it leads you to avenues you would never imagine possible without over-engaging the intellect. The Higher Ego and the Creative imagination are the leaders of our creativity.

In an earlier class on Chekhov’s theory of composition this group started to look at the idea of good and evil in the play and someone said it appeared that the family and their situation create a vague hole into which evil creeps..” In a way everyone is culpable; all the characters, not just the usual culprits – Natasha and Solyony. The fog/ mist atmosphere really brought that out.

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations through our work was in tackling the comedic aspect of the play. In Act two Vershinin and Masha come in from the cold night about to start their affair. This scene played very passionately by my two actors was interupted by a raging exhausted speedy Irina desperately trying to cling onto the idea of going to Moscow, pursued by her puppy Tusenbach .She is totally oblivious to the sense of subdued passion in the room as Masha and Vershinin try to act normally. The resulting scene kept the tragedy and comedy running side by side, and I learned something.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of many of Chekhov’s full length plays working really as comedies whilst at the same time retaining the human tragedy of the characters. I have seen some very unsatisfactory versions at each end of the spectrum, treating the play as high tragedy and others at uneasy comedy. And now I wonder. Is this comedy in A. Chekhov’s play rather more like the idea of tragicomedy which exists in Jacobean drama and which I am very familiar with. So the playing engine of the work is not that one scene is serious and one is funny but that both of these qualities exist in the same scene at the same time. This dynamic rubs against its opposite like it does in the best tragicomedies of Thomas Middleton, actually heightening both tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Interesting.

 

Making an Entrance

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Ronan Cassidy, John Cullen and Mary Monaghan in workshop

‘She really made an entrance ‘. We all know and understand this saying instinctively as we have all entered a room for a party or an event and felt eyes on us. I am fascinated by this element of performance and my next workshop MAKING AN ENTRANCE, LEAVING THE STAGE NOVEMBER 24TH – 26TH is going to consider and explore it with the participants.

In the past, in what are euphemistically called ‘well made plays’ often bound for the West End or Broadway, these entrances and exits were often punctuated with histrionic moments as characters came and went. A particularly campy exploitation of this power is present in James Goldman’s hit play THE LION IN WINTER from the 1960s . This comedy, based on a fictional meeting between the royal family of Henry 2 (which was later made into a movie) gloried in outrageous witty remarks made as people came in and out. Ultimately this process became formulaic and was often not rooted sufficiently in the reality of the situation nor did an entrance move towards an exit emotionally. The movie tried to redress this balance by setting the whole thing in a freezing castle and offering some more in-depth performances. However, the play for me is superficial and little more than a series of witty exchanges. However, it tells us something. It tells us that something happens to the character as they pass through the scene and that movement must be a genuine movement even if they do not make their objective. The fact they fail in their objective is an emotional movement in itself. It is a journey. As Michael Chekhov would say, it is “a little piece of art” from entrance to exit. Chekhov’s exercises which explore this element of form help the actor to give full meaning to the entrance and exit as a small beginning and ending to a journey we the audience are privileged to observe.

So how do we make the entrance meaningful and yet not melodramatic, taking advantage of the moment when we come in to the space as the character?  After all the audience is full of curiosity about who we are , where we have come from, what we might do and how the characters already onstage respond to your presence. the way we do it is by radiating our energy, not necessarily in a grand fashion but in the subtler way of imagining the energy emanating from our entire being.

I remember Philippe Gaulier saying in a workshop I attended, that when you entered the space, even if you did nothing more than bring in a message, for a moment you were the most important person on the stage. I am not always sure that it is quite true for every entrance or character but frequently it is so, if only for a few seconds. Certainly the audience is highly interested in a new character, a new energy entering the space. Their curiosity is aroused, even if what has been happening up to your entrance is pretty interesting. A new energy, a new dynamic opens to the audience; a new perspective. When the new actor is somehow not tuned in, the whole performance can be mortally wounded, because it is really disappointing. Your entrance is like your part in the relay, your piccolo solo in the orchestra, your dive into the swimming pool. You have to be sensitive and ready.

I think more than anything you have to bring on the atmosphere of the next room or wherever is immediately off stage. When I say the atmosphere, that’s what I mean. I do not mean the colour of the carpet or what pictures were on the wall necessarily, but what it feels like to have walked through that outer room. I remember seeing a really good actor coming onstage as if coming from a snowstorm, hanging up his overcoat, shaking it, shivering a bit, chatting away rubbing his hands etc. Despite all this carefully observed detail, all I could think was, ‘wasn’t that clever?’ At the time I did not know why but now I think I do. The details meant nothing without bringing on the atmosphere of the street. What he did felt to me studied and external, however accurate it might have been.

And then there is the past. I remember watching an exercise where actors were asked to imagine the past of their characters in a long chain behind them as if they were at the head of their life parade as they made their entrance. it reminded me of Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol. Of course, what is in your ‘life parade’ might be holding you up and propelling you into the room rather than holding you back.

Then there is the impact your entrance makes upon the others in the room, to say nothing of the audience. Right now I am working with some students on the opening of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Something came up where we had to consider how everyone tolerated the strange Solyony. He enters making an irritating remark. |These continuous objectionable and insensitive remarks exacerbate an atmosphere thick with the past even though everyone is attempting to celebrate Irina’s birthday. We should immediately consider him an outsider. For me, he has a personal atmosphere which collides with the general many times. The connection between the personal atmosphere of the character and how s/he adapts to the atmosphere in the room is an absolute key to making the first moments true for yourself.

Making an Entrance, Leaving the Stage is now taking bookings. It takes place on November 24-26th [ a weekend]. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and check out the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com

Directing and Composition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jerry Fitzgerald. MA alumni. working with first principles. photo:Sean O’Meallaigh

Starting again on teaching the basic tenets of Chekhov in a fairly methodical way and for its own sake fills my heart with joy. Whîlst on the one hand I love running short courses that start with a more specific exploration, it has its restrictions. I am leading a weekend later in late November focusing specifically on entrances and exits, working with threshold, atmosphere and composition about which I am very excited, but because of its length, the weekend focuses equally on application as well as raw training. It means of course that the application may not be as effective in the longer term though the immediate impact on participants is still often profound. However it may not stick as well as it would if they had undergone a more thorough basic training. So going back to the nuts and bolts, through repetition, of ideal centre, feeling of ease and form, radiating and receiving, qualities of movement and imagination etc is for me like plunging back into the wonderful pool of exhilaration and discovery when I first found this way of working myself. I watch people experience this work, many of them for the first time, some tussling with nervousness or with the rubrics of their past training which put the intellect and the why of the character first, instead of the Chekhov work which asks us to plumb the imagination, the body, and the how and the what of the character at the forefront of discovery. I watch the penny suddenly dropping as they get a rush of feeling when they make a gesture and a realisation that acting is a channelling and a release of energy rather than a forensic exercise which often inhibits and restricts their creativity. This does not happen immediately of course. It happens with work; with practise.

At the same time I feel it is imperative in these early stages to reassure them that the ultimate goal of this work does ultimately lead them to an emotional understanding of the text where they can be open to their fellow actors, the playwright, director and audience in a way which they may have thought impossible. For those who find making the connection between voice, body, imagination and feelings tricky at first, this reassurance is especially important.

Another aspect of going back into the basics is that it focuses me back into my own practise with regular work at home alone in my wild garden, weather permitting, on the basic rubrics myself.

In a few weeks we will be starting short scene work on Chekhov’s 3 Sisters. I had thought of using The Crucible and then decided that exploring that dark, grim atmosphere for 12 weeks if only for a few hours per week was just too much. I feel that when we explore a text with the technique, especially at the beginning, it needs to be one with a variety of atmospheres and intentions because the work can be so intense and powerful, that something as unremittingly oppressive as The Crucible may not be the best play to start with.

When Irina cries out in Act 3  of the Three Sisters in despair ‘ I can’t even remember the Italian for window!’ This is of course ridiculous. She is not starving and does not have a terminal disease. It is not really a tragedy. And yet on another hand it is; she realises her life is falling apart and her dreams are going to remain dreams. In a sense her life is already over. This moment, when she expresses this realisation that her dreams are unachievable, is something I suspect every single person has experienced at some time in their lives. To make her dilemma wholly successful the actor has to somehow make us feel the ridiculousness of her statement and yet at the same time have the utmost sympathy for her predicament. Chekhov technique thrives on this complexity… These wonderful invisible yet palpable polarities which exist within characters, between characters and between characters and audience.

Composing Chekhov with Chekhov

“In 1812 it was Moscow that was on fire. God bless us weren’t the French surprised!” Three Sisters. Anton Chekhov. Act 3.

Chekhov’s Three Sisters is one of my favourite plays. I was first introduced to it at LAMDA decades ago where we used it for scene study, and the infectious enthusiasm of the teacher opened me to the feelings and complexities in the play.

One of the first things I did when I started to explore the Michael Chekhov work (Anton’s actor/director nephew) was to watch the amazing set of Michael Chekhov Association DVDs in which they used pieces of the Three Sisters to develop and reveal the work with an exciting group of actors, many of whom are now Chekhov teachers themselves. I remember two particular moments; one when the Doctor (Mel Schrawder) is criticised for giving Irina a samovar for her birthday, and another when Anne Gottlieb worked on Masha’s confession in act 3. The revelation of the kind of depth the Chekhov technique gave to the Chekhov play made me realise there was another play underneath the one I had seen several times, and taken part in.

So now with my MA Chekhov group many years later we are working on a work-in-progress of act 3 of Three Sisters, where a fire has raged in the town and the house in which two of the sisters live is acting almost as a hospital. For me the principal pervading atmosphere here is fire/chaos/destruction, but within the ‘set’ itself there are different atmospheres within the space which augment and support the action. These atmospheres, as in life, give direct influence to the way the characters behave.

Whilst the most powerful atmosphere is the one I described above, this is at its most powerful offstage right, where the rest of the house is full of people, suffering, exhausted and stressed. I imagined that stage left is the secret place, the servants stairs, the back way, darkness, death, the place where you try not to be seen and, more realistically, the stairs to Chebutykin’s rooms, the character who heralds in the real darkness of the act. It’s where Natasha goes to leave the house in secret. The room itself which makes up the set has the atmosphere of a makeshift shelter, a place where you are still aware of the chaos but to some extent are free of it. As soon as you start to consider and use these atmospheres, the play begins to transform itself into something deeper. It is a way I had not considered using Chekhov technique in an apparently realistic play, and yet it makes perfect sense. If I consider my living room, there are different atmospheres if you sit in a different chair.

When I think back to a professional production I did of The Glass Menagerie many years ago, I considered how strict I was about the entrances and exits, about how many stairs there were to the fire escape, and I wonder in retrospect how much it served the characters’ offstage lives, and how much more relevant it might be to consider the atmosphere of the various exits and rooms off the main room of the house. What is the atmosphere of Laura’s bedroom? This is not to decry the realistic circumstances, (what does it look like etc?) but they will surely fill your imagination once you understand the atmosphere.

One of the most exciting things about the Chekhov technique is around the composition of the performance and the feeling that together with design and the actors we are creating a score for the play. This score has climaxes and a beginning middle and end. Some other techniques explore this mode of looking at art I know, but with Chekhov it appears to come as much from a deep understanding of character and the intangible, the unseen energies moving around what is happening in the play as with a piece of music.

Like an orchestra, each actor needs to accommodate this score with the journey of their character. This I know can appear an anathema to some people, but ideally the director does not come with this all worked out, or at least is able to change things as the group works on the atmospheres and journies with the cast which run like motifs through the play. Nor is it a primarily intellectual exercise. Curiously this ‘developing a score’ makes the work of the actor more focussed but in a strange way more free.

Directing through Chekhov (Michael) is one of the most satisfying discoveries I have made artistically, and something I want to teach and explore more in order for the technique to thrive.

In the Spring, I will be running weekend workshops in Galway, Ireland, particularly with this focus.  Contact maxhafler@iol.ie