I am so delighted with this review in Youth Drama Ireland , particularly as it talks so lucidly about the the holistic nature of the voice work and the use of M Chekhov in connection with creating the expressive and free voice. Looking forward to running another FEELING VOICE weekend after the production of 12th Night in February
One of the fundamentals of creating theatre is to share. It is an act of sharing. Nowhere is this more true than when you are devising with a group, and especially when the group is devising a piece of theatre based on their experience. So it was with an American student group from Principia College whom I met for two periods of devising; once at the beginning of their trip, and once at the end. The devising of their piece around their trip to Ireland, what they experienced both literally and emotionally, is the subject of their dramatic piece. Indeed this process is not over as the summer intervenes and they recreate and further develop the piece next term with their drama professor John O’Hagan.
I have devised many pieces, particularly with young people’s groups, and with this piece in particular it was important to share the idea that this was not a lecture or a slide show, but a feeling response to their experience. This highlights for me what is absolutely unique about a theatre experience; a direct response from the hearts of the performers pouring their energies into the theatre space, either through the filter of character and story or in this case, the more direct route of their own writing, and their own experiences.
It is very often the case that initially students come at devising very intellectually and make thin work. Once the feeling response starts to happen and the instincts kick in, the work gets deepened. It is wonderful to watch this opening up to the “intangible” as Michael Chekhov would say. Only when you approach the intangible and start to use and express it can an audience truly get a sense of what the experience was like. “Atmosphere” is a very valuable tool in accessing this intangibility, particularly in this group when they wanted to get a sense of place, for example, Dublin, Belfast or Tara.
Whilst you need to also play to the group’s strengths (all of this group could sing beautifully) I am a firm believer that it is unfair in all but the most basic of circumstances not to develop the skill level in the group, so I always mesh a number of skill workshops in with the devising to help the participants maximise their power; except in exceptional circumstances creation is not enough. So in this series of workshops we meshed tools, ensemble, voice and devising together. There was of course a large Chekhov component; we used the imagination and the body first to find expression, which freed many of the students up and widened the range of feelings they could express. Meshing devising and skills work is complex in that you have to choose exercises to suit the material they produce on the day so the leader cannot prepare the exercises in advance, except in a broad way. You as the leader risk more but you also gain more when the magic comes and their devised material is enriched by the skills you have offered.
Because we were always dealing with the participants’ own material it was vital to show the utmost sensitivity towards it. The deviser is usually revealing something about themselves directly, especially in written solo work. It is often not appropriate to use this material as an acting exercise and push the student into difficult areas. A play enables more of a distancing between the actor and the material. It means students can be more robust in their acting because they are playing the impulses and feelings of the characters rather than themselves. The work is seen through the atmosphere and situation of the play ; it is not theirs but they nonetheless have to inhabit it in order to perform successfully. Often with devising the work is very very close and as a leader I am aware of a delicate balancing act, which often involves how much they want to reveal.
This, along with rules of composition which we touched on and the creation of a rough structure and some deep honest work was the total of the time i spent with them. it was amazing to actually see them in their first tentative days and then in their last days in Ireland, like a beginning and an end in itself. Thanks for such an enriching experience.
I will be returning to atmosphere specifically in the summer school Journey Through Atmosphere,August 24 -27th being held on the NUI Galway campus. We will be working with Pericles, a play with a myriad of journies and atmospheres. Plays with Journies, like devised pieces about journies seem to me to have atmosphere almost as their engine. check out http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com for info or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The idea of a youth theatre ‘ graduating’ may seem to some extraordinary and rather grandiose, but it is an essential marking of something finished and something beginning, of the ending of an experience and the beginning of new ones. It encapsulates a sense of achievement, fear, time passing, letting go of old friendships or at least modifying them, and looking to new worlds and to the future. Galway Youth Theatre with which I was heavily involved for many years for a while had graduation dinners and gave certificates at the end of the two year programme. At the time I wondered about the wisdom of this because the kind of experiential learning in the programme was very different to college and eventually the graduation was dropped for a number of reasons, but it made it even harder for some people to leave and many I felt, overstayed their time there. Youth theatre has after all the identifying factor of youth in the title, and probably needs defining as such in order to maintain its integrity.
I was recently asked by an out-of-town Youth Theatre to lead a workshop of people who were on the cusp of finishing their time there, and I decided to develop this theme of departures and new beginnings to help facilitate or at least open up this question of saying goodbye and to hopes for the future. The workshop, though defining its remit as a Chekhov Technique workshop ( a powerful technique which involves finding sensations and feelings through the imagination and body) had this other, dare I say it, therapeutic remit in equal measure with the skills focus.
Rather than defining the journey of the workshop with the particular skills which is what i would usually have done, I split the day into three aspects of this kind of developmental change we were seeking to explore . DEPARTURES was workshop one. In this workshop in addition to our on-the feet skills, we looked at the opening of Act 4 from THREE SISTERS. Workshop two, JOURNIES culminated in The Machado poem, ‘Traveller there is no way.’ and NEW WORLDS/ THE FUTURE was workshop three which culminated on a prospective arrival, goal or issue up ahead for each individual, through short devised pieces. It was extraordinary in its variety. What was challenging as a teacher/ facilitator was to unite the two goals of the day, the therapeutic and the drama skills in equal measure.
Besides being an incredible joyous acting technique, Chekhov Technique is also therapeutic. It has many similarities with body therapies and emphasises a unification of voice, body and imagination which can only be a step towards holistic health for the actor. This does not weaken the technique’s power to enable us to create artistically; rather it strengthens it. Ideally all art is therapeutic in the broadest sense of the word. With Chekhov we are invited to experience aspects of our world we are frequently unconscious of – like atmospheres for instance, or radiating and receiving energy. The fact that you can use an exercise like the ‘Ideal Centre’ exercise for your own sense of confidence in everyday life, in addition to it being a springboard for the energy of your character, is enriching. I would hesitate to call such an ability a ‘transferable skill’ but if you want to see it that way, I suppose that is what it is. There are a whole range of Chekhov skills to be used in Applied Drama in just this way.
One very effective exploration we did in this workshop was an adaptation of the timeline exercise suggested in Lenard Petit’s excellent book. THE MICHAEL CHEKHOV HANDBOOK [published by Routledge}. i made a line on the floor. It was the line of the present moment . You had to imagine what it felt like behind this line, in the past. What was the atmosphere like there? Was it comfortable or not? Was there a pull to stay there? Was there a texture, smell or taste to this past atmosphere ? Did you have to work hard to consider moving on ? Were others pushing you forward? What was your relationship to the line itself and what did it feel like to step over it? you were asked to step into that atmosphere of the past. Then, what was the atmosphere of the future like? Finally you were invited to step forward into the future. In discussion afterwards, the exercise allowed us to discuss safely the whole question of moving on, how the past or some of it stays with us, feelings of wanting to stay where you were and not move forward until you had no choice. some people rushed towards the future; others were a little tentative.
If the workshop held something for the young participants, in addition to the skills, acting techniques and coping exercises we worked on, I hope it gave them a sense they were on a journey , their own journey; that the day we had just had together was part of a bigger journey they were making, but with its three components of DEPARTURES-JOURNIES-NEW WORLDS the day we had together exploring these things was also an end in itself.
This week I went to the extraordinary town of Ballitore in Co Kildare to take part in ‘Joining the Dots’ a youth theatre project which this week is offering learning in alternative performance skills not always part of the youth theatre vocabulary , or if they are, to be given a bit of space to be explored at a deeper level. I and Sarah O’Toole went there to introduce the young people to some Chekhov principles. Griese Youth Theatre which is the focus of this project, run by the inspirational Leish Burke, is an extraordinary mix of professionalism , care giving and social inclusion , and this project is supported by the County Council and the Arts Council [and hopefully others]. It was and is absolutely brilliant. I say is because the 30 young people are spending their final day with Louise Lowe making site-specific work. If anyone is in the slightest doubt about the efficacy of drama to encourage more rounded and joyful human beings, they should pay this youth theatre a visit.
The sixteen young people in my group of 16 – 20 year olds came to explore some basic Chekhov technique and I could see instantly how the easy access to the feelings through gesture appealed to them. Once working with qualities of movement , it filled me with a great sense of positivity and joy as a number of them started to really let go and and more fully experience what it is to be fully awake in the way Chekhov understands it, which is important not only for performance but for experiencing the world in a more full way. Often when working with radiating and receiving , young people get a touch embarrassed and giggle but there was remarkably little of this. Above all though, it was watching them respond to the exercises which reconnect to the imagination which were really powerful.
What I love about teaching theatre , and especially Chekhov are these moments of breakthrough when people realise something about themselves, the sheer power of their imaginations and their acting skills which they never felt before. It is more exciting for me than almost anything.
To show or not to show? that is the question…
This teaching question as to whether on a short course you can or should develop a performance, however rough it might be, is a perennial one. In this case, this is particularly true when you are primarily exploring skills. The danger is that if you introduce a perfomance element then for the young people ( and sometimes yourself) this is all the weekend can be about. After all, surely you need as much of your precious time as you can to teach skills? The issue is though, that you have to be honest with yourself and understand that you are only exploring the skills, so that actually trying to use them is all part of the process. The young people almost always like to perform, and if they are truly enjoying it, some of the things you are teaching them are likely to stick. It gives the course a structure too.
We opted for low key performance, just to the other group, [Sarah took the younger group of incredibly imaginative and funny 13 – 15 year olds] so there was very little pressure. A main goal of making the piece was that they might experience how radiating/ Receiving, qualities and atmosphere might be applied. We also did a little work on gesture.
Whilst ultimately the areas I chose to work on, became somewhat governed by what I thought the young people might be able to use within the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice I had brought in, it was vital that the introductory exercises which made up two thirds of our time together were completely free, imaginative and not tied to the piece . This was an important discipline otherwise they would have got no sense of the power of the work overall . It had to be Technique first, piece second. This discipline is as hard for the facilitator as it is for the group! It was also important to explain to them them that the Technique could be used, indeed was primarily for work with more conventional plays.
Whilst developing a piece does not mean that these skills can always be utilised fully because the participant has not had the time to master them, but only meet and hopefully experience them, it does give them an idea of where the work might lead. This is a vital component of youth theatre work when one is so often only introducing an experience, technique or way of working to a person. In other words you have to make sure that it works for them to some extent right there, after only a few hours. To be crude , they need once or twice at least an instant ‘hit’ in order to retain faith with the work. This is more true in youth theatre than other of the many fields I have worked in. Then you might be in with a chance that they might seek out more classes, read, practise etc.
In order to make the piece valuable for our learning however, I was very structured about the style of the content and our goals because I wanted to keep the skills they had explored uppermost. By using the skills they of course went deeper which made them [I think] feel good. Had I allowed them complete license with the story ( to send it up for instance ) the performing exercise would have had a totally different focus.
Having said that, they still had a lot of creative choices to make. We used very clear building blocks; three subgroups of five making four tableaux of their part of the story, We then added transitions which were then developed for qualities of movement, rhythms and atmosphere. We then added ensemble work which involved qualities and atmosphere, then finally one short dramatic exchange of dialogue within each group which involved psychological gesture. Our opening was a use of archetypes, another area we explored in our exercises. This strongly structured creation is something I will use again when teaching Chekhov to young people, because it gave very definite indicators as to ways of using the technique, whilst at the same time presenting a serious and powerful 8 minute piece with which I hope they were pleased.
An absolutely fantastic two days. Leish Burke and Griese Youth Theatre I salute you.