Acting Techniques: Chekhov
“All you experience in the course of your life, all you observe and think, all that makes you happy or unhappy, all your regrets or satisfactions, all your love or hate, all you long for or avoid, all your achievements and failures, all you brought with you into this life at birth -your temperament, abilities, inclinations etc., all are part of the region of your so called subconscious depths. There being forgotten by you, or never known to you they undergo the process of being purified of all egotism. They become feelings per se. Thus purged and transformed, they become part of the material from which your Individuality creates the psychology, the illusory “soul” of the character.”
(To The Actor by Michael Chekhov)
An actor who follows the teachings of Michael Chekhov would see a need to move beyond the notion of being able to relate to a character in order to portray him or her. They might in fact argue that sharing experiences might limit their performance and distract them from the realms of possibility.
Michael Chekhov was born in Russia in 1891. He was the nephew of the great playwright Anthon Chekhov, who authored The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Michael Chekhov studied under Konstantin Stanislavski where he studied Stanislavski’s new methods of ‘affective memory at the Moscow Art Studio where he stayed for 16 years.
Chekhov used his learnings to innovate theatre but fled Russia in 1928 when he was warned his productions were too experimental and reactionary. Today Michael Chekhov’s work is trained through using his five guiding principles.
While Stanislavski encouraged actors to create naturalistic performance mirroring real life drawing on their personal experiences Chekhov’s technique focused on working with impulse and imagination. Stanislavski wanted an actor to draw on their own experiences, of love or death to act as a bridge between their own feelings and those of their character. Chekhov took a ‘psycho-physical approach’ nurturing imagination grounded in physical action. His approach is about the truth of a moment and creating that event in real time for the actor. Chekhov encourages an actor to draw on their imagination rather than their experiences. Chekhov calls this process the ‘Creative Individuality’ which allows an actor to pull in their unconscious rather than conscious reality. This involves visualising the energy exchange between characters as well as the mind-body connection. Training connects the actor’s mind to their body teaching an actor to move with authenticity.
Radiating: This is an energy and ability of an actor to wilfully send out his or her thoughts, feelings and becoming attuned enough to be able to radiate this in any given direction.
Receiving: This is the actor’s ability to absorb the atmosphere, the energy from other actors and even the audience which exists in the space ‘in-between.’
Chekhov’s technique is broken down into five principles:
1. The actor must train his or her body through the use of psychological exercises.
Chekhov’s technique encourages an actor to create a link between action and inner response. His physical exercises are intended to trigger an inner psychological response. As the actor trains their body should become fine-tuned to naturally respond to these actions. There’s a harmony created between the body and impulse, thought and desire without the baggage of excess thought weighing this down. In doing this the actor can create real harmony within themselves and in doing so creates a reality in their character.
2. The actor must use intangible means of expression while acting and rehearsing to achieve tangible results.
If the tangible are the body, speech and voice then intangible elements include emotions, imagination and sensation. Chekhov’s method emphasises the use of the intangible. A gesture is performed outwards, but it’s motivation and the emotion behind it is all inside the actor. Chekhov encourages an actor to use the intangibles within their acting.
3. The actor must employ a creative spirit and the higher intellect to unify the various aspects of the performance.
Chekhov believed each of us has a higher creative spirit within us which plays a strong role in developing our artistic talents. This is created through a synthesis which connects elements allowing an actor to create the whole of a character. Our critical thoughts stop this creativity. His exercises are designed to overcome that problem.
4. The purpose of the Chekhov method is to embody each component of the method as a means of awakening all parts of the method in order to evoke a creative state of mind.
As an actor learns each point of his method, they awaken other points naturally. One point triggers the possibility of another as there is a oneness and integration within each point.
5. The actor must penetrate each separate point of the Chekhov Technique and then determine to what degree and by what means it frees his or her talent.
Chekhov’s techniques were designed to free an actor from the burden which other techniques may place on them.
Chekhov’s students included Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck. Other actors who use this technique include Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, Jack Nicholson, Jonny Depp and Helen Hunt.
The psycho-physical technique relies upon drawing emotion from both the mind, and the body. In this technique, these two things are connected. This also makes sense because many psychology experiments have shown that when someone does the body language of an emotion (for example, smiling) the person will eventually feel that emotion (which can mean certain chemicals, like serotonin or the chemical that makes you happy, are released in the brain just by doing the physical action. Literally, fake it till you make it can work to your advantage.
In this exercise, you explore how our bodies and minds are connected with a warm-up.
Warm-Up: (10 minutes) Triangle Flow
Purpose: to get the students thinking about how their bodies can communicate abstract feelings.
The class should get into their groups for the performance, and then further divide so that everyone is in groups of 3.
Each group will get into a triangle (or a diamond if there needs to be a group of four), with everyone facing the same direction. The leader of the triangle will begin the stretching and moving. Make it slow, deliberate, and meaningful as a warm-up. It may be a good idea to demonstrate this before having the students do it.
Then at some point, the leader must find a way to non-verbally switch to another leader. After a while, that leader must find a way to switch to another leader.
After 5 minutes, stop the students.
What were some of the things you were feeling or thinking while doing your physical exercise? Was your body and mind connected? If yes, in what way? If no, why?
Instruction: (5 minutes) Psychological gestures
Let’s explore this idea of connectedness by doing psychological gestures. But first, let’s remind ourselves what a gesture is.
1. Thinking back to the viewpoints article, what is the definition of a gesture?
Answer: A shape with a beginning, middle and end.
2. Does anyone feel like they can describe psychological gestures?
Answer: A movement that embodies the psychology of a character.
3. How are psychological gestures related to viewpoint gestures? How are they different?
Psychological gestures are a specific acting technique used to get into character, and to explore the relationship between mind and body for the character. They are always gestures (shapes with a beginning, middle, and end) but they are not to be used in a drama work necessarily. Only in the preparation of a dramatic role.
Chekhov was trained by Stanislavsky. He notes in his book on acting that Stanislavsky’s methods work for Stanislavsky because he is naturally very connected to his body. However, Chekhov argues that most actors, especially beginning actors, are not very connected to their bodies. Because of this, actors need to prepare for their roles in very physical ways, not just by understanding the psychology.
Have the step by step instructions written on a board.
Step 1: Create gesture in your mind.
Step 2: Begin to rehearse the gesture. Make it huge, full of energy, and abstract.
Step 3: Continue doing the gesture in a large, non-realistic way, while saying the line.
Step 4: Begin to make gesture more realistic, while saying the line. Keep the energy!
Emphasise and demonstrate the difference between realistic gestures and abstract. Go through the rest and ask for questions. Demonstrate quickly the whole process. Make sure the board is somewhere students can still see it. This will be a good visual for students who get confused or behind.
Activity 1: (10 minutes) Making Psychological gestures
Step 1: As a class memorise the following line: “Will you please stop what you are doing.”
Step 2: As a class we are going to practice putting our objectives into our body through gestures. I will tell you an objective that goes along with the line of dialogue you just memorised, and then you have got to follow the steps:
Your character wants to get their friend to talk about what they have been keeping secret.
What would that feel like in your body?
How would you express the urgency of the situation?
Begin to see the gesture in your mind. This gesture should represent this desire, or your objective. Make sure the gesture is moving, big and abstract. Encourage students to over exaggerate. Feel the gesture in every part of their body.
Step 3: Now, begin to make the gesture. Remember, the more abstract the better. Feel free to change it as you are doing it. Repeat it over and over exploring how this gesture influences all of your muscles, joints, etc.
Step 5: Now, begin saying the line of the character while doing the gesture. Make sure your voice, your intentions, and your body are all in sync.
Step 5: After a minute or so of repeating this over and over, have the students gradually stop doing the psychological gesture, and just say the words. They should begin to find gestures and movement that seem more realistic, but maintain the intent, and expression of the psychological gesture.
Step 6: Now try this process again, but with a different objective:
Your character wants to make themselves resist a delicious doughnut.
Step 7: Try the whole process again but this time with a line and objective from your favourite movie.
1. What was your experience with this? Did the gesture help you in any way? If so, how? If not, why?
Important! Don’t throw out this technique just because the first time you tried it, it didn’t work. Finding true connectedness between your body and mind takes LOTS of practice. Years and years for many actors.
Project the scene list onto the screen: (or whatever list you create for your class)
Odd Couple: Two characters, male or female
Barefoot in the Park: 1 male, 1 female
Our Town: 1 male, 1 female
Antigone: 1 male, 1 female
Measure For Measure: Two characters, male or female
Clean House- 2 women: 1 man
Activity 2: Basic script analysis (10 minutes)
Step 1: Take the next ten minutes to read over your script, decide who will be who, and then come up with a main objective. You only have 10 minutes to do this.
Step 2: Look for smaller objectives your character has within the scene, as well as places where your character’s objective changes. Write down each changing objective.
Step 3: Now, take one part of the scene where you feel your character is fighting really hard to achieve their objective. Come up with a psychological gesture and make a video recording of you doing this.
Michael Chekhov’s own books include:
· To The Actor on the Technique of Acting
· On The Technique of Acting
· On Theatre and The Art of Acting
· The Path of the Actor
Lenard Petit, from Michael Chekhov Acting Studio in New York City wrote ‘The Path of the Actor.’
· Michael Chekhov Studio: London https://www.michaelchekhovstudio.org.uk/
· The Chekhov Collective UK https://www.michaelchekhovstudio.org.uk/
· Michael Chekhov UK http://www.michaelchekhov.org.uk/classes/
· Michael Chekhov Acting Studio: New York http://michaelchekhovactingstudio.com/