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Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Cynthia Ashperger

Michael Chekhov Association's Conferences 2000-2002

MICHA and its Activities

In June 2002 I participated in the fifth Michael Chekhov International Conference (MICHA) at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. MICHA is an organization dedicated to spreading Michael Chekhov's acting technique. The teachers who “originally had questions about the technique” (Merlin) initiated the formation of the organization in Berlin in 1992. At a conference at Emerson College in Boston, the formal aspects of MICHA were set. Currently small but growing steadily, MICHA attracts actors, directors, and acting teachers from all over the world.(1) As a result of the conferences Michael Chekhov's technique is introduced into more university acting courses across North America and Europe every year. The technique is currently taught at the theatre schools and departments at Brandeis University in Boston, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, New York University, Roosevelt University in Chicago, Rutgers in New Jersey, Ryerson University in Toronto, University of Georgia in the Republic of Georgia, University of Tel Aviv in Israel, University of Zagreb in Croatia, University of Windsor in Ontario and Yale University in Connecticut, among others.

MICHA conferences have three main components: workshops, performance and scholarship. All three coexist during the conferences, which typically last between one and two weeks. Days are usually reserved for studio classes, starting with a warm-up at 9:00 a.m. and going until 5:30 p.m. with a lunch break. The participants are divided into beginner and advanced groups. During the course of a conference one or two dramatic texts are used, on some of which Chekhov left extensive notes. In 2000 we worked on The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, in 2001 on Maurice Maeterlink's The Blind and Jean Anouilh's Antigone, and in 2002 we used Nikolai Gogol''s The Government Inspector and Arthur Miller's The Crucible. In previous years the choice of texts has also included Shakespeare.

Actors, directors, and acting teachers attending the conference are guided by the need for a new actor training, which will differentiate itself from naturalist aesthetics. Simon Callow expresses this need with a degree of clarity worth repeating in the 2002 documentary on Chekhov's time in England, The Dartington Years:

It seems to me that it is very, very important that we find a new approach to acting at the beginning of the 21st century. The idea of an actor as a chap who stands and imitates life as we recognize it has run out of steam, I think Chekhov had such a different idea of the theatre, so much more profound notion of what acting is, which was that actor is able to fundamentally engage the deepest levels of the audience's self. Not just the psychological, mental, or indeed the purely sensual or emotional, but to go to the part of the audience which is deeply buried and help to bring it out. In that sense he reminds me very much of Charles Laughton […] who wasn't a religious man, but who said that the job of an actor was to reveal the God in man. I'm sure that Chekhov would absolutely subscribe to that too. (Callow 2002)

Upon attending the conferences, many of the acting teachers such as myself change their course outlines. The students respond well to psycho-physical acting, which is Chekhov's main concept. Many of the exercises that foster psycho-physical involvement can be done with many students working simultaneously, which is invaluable for teachers who have large classes (and the numbers are not getting any smaller). The exercises are designed with a view towards theatricality and encourage imagination and intuition, which are the two fundamental idea of Chekhov's method, and which oppose the use of personal experience in acting.

The fact that Chekhov's technique was applied to a diverse group of plays at the conferences, allowed participants to fine tune their approach by choosing the appropriate technical means for each task. For example, at one moment the emphasis was placed on creating the atmosphere and imaginary space in a work such as The Blind, then on creating a character and his/her relationships in The Cherry Orchard or on gestures and imaginary body in The Crucible or on extreme characterization and play in The Government Inspector. As a rule, many instructors at MICHA work on the same material so that the students experimented within the same scene or play, while focusing each time on voice, acting, movement, or clowning. Generally, though, the faculty has a holistic approach towards the work and these categories are only an organizing principle. Voice classes can be filled with as much work on movement as any other class. Sometimes clown and acting teachers team up to work on scenes.

Chekhov's many devices, such as qualities of movement, atmosphere, movable centres, imaginary body, character, and the incorporation of images and Psychological Gesture, place a large emphasis on the body and movement as a way of influencing our psychology. Chekhov called this the “psycho-physical” approach. The instructors at MICHA stress the uniqueness of body training and encourage students to trust their bodies. This can be physically very demanding and participants can be sore by the end of a given conference. However, the physicality of the method is one of its two greatest appeals. The other is its use of imagination. A great deal of time and energy is spent on training it. The body must be married with the imagination in order for the psycho-physical principle to work. For example, Chekhov created drawings of the characters he was working on and then used his technique to learn how to embody them. The initial drawings and the photographs of the finished creations are an astonishing proof of his ability to embody his imagination.

Intuition and the body guide the actor in this technique as opposed to self-referred analysis. We invoke images and gestures rather than thoughts. The actors seek sensations rather than subtext. Even though the emphasis is on the psycho-physical as opposed to psychological, we must not forget that Stanislavskii, whose early technique included personal memories as a means to achieve truthfulness on the stage, trained Chekhov. Thus, the actor's ability to be truthful seems to be given in this technique and the focus is on strengthening the actor's will to play and encouraging the actor to seek the joy of transformation rather than seeking the personalized self-revelation.

Most MICHA faculty members are not opposed to starting with or using personal experience, yet the question of just how much of it one is going to use remains. Due to this there are faculty members who adamantly oppose employing anything personal in creating a character. The main argument against the use of personal experience and knowledge is that they are exhaustible but imagination is inexhaustible. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I also agree with the consensus by the teacher of Chekhov's technique that the best choices are informed by imagery and not by intellect. The main question we ought to ask is not why something occurs in a play but how it occurs. If we answer why, our answers will be rational explanations, if we answer how, the answers will come to us in pictures which we can then embody.

”Are you sure you want to be in this terrible business, you are so young?” (Merlin) was the question Chekhov asked Joanna Merlin at their first meeting. After fifty years, she still remembers the gentle spirit of Michael Chekhov. Joanna Merlin is a faculty member at the Graduate Acting Department at New York University and the Actors' Center in New York City. She embodies the North American legacy of Michael Chekhov, and feels the need to pass on the knowledge, which she does through her style of teaching--very open, encouraging and again, gentle. Her latest contribution to the field of Michael Chekhov studies is a book titled Auditioning (2001), in which she uses the principles of Chekhov's technique and tailors them to the audition process. “Misha never directly criticized a student. He would always say ‘That was good, now let's try&rsqou;” (Merlin). Merlin is very clear about the personal versus imaginative issue of the technique:

It is not a question of censoring ourselves, but if we only go into the personal experience we are limited. It also becomes a kind of psycho-analysis in terms of re-examining how we felt at some painful situation and Chekhov felt that there is no need to go through all that pain and suffering, that you needed a certain distance in order to use personal emotions, so that they evolve into something else that you can use. The problem with some of that type of acting (certainly not all of it) is that it stops you from access to imagination. I mean you are using your imagination to some extent obviously but it is a question of how creatively you can use your imagination and Chekhov said the more you use your imagination the more developed it would be. (Merlin)

The first four conferences were a forum in which teachers of Chekhov's technique could compare the different ways it is taught today in North America and Europe. The Russians have recently been reclaiming Chekhov, whose name for many years was erased from theatre and cultural history by the Soviets. Ironically, the Russians must now rely on Americans with first-hand knowledge of Chekhov and his technique to guide the way. The Americans, however, are eager to find out how Russians use the early Chekhov and how his technique has developed in Russia. For example, the Russian version of Chekhov's main work, To the Actor, contains information that the English version of the book does not. This resulted in a new version of To the Actor being published this year in English with a translation of the missing parts by Andrei Malaev-Babel, a Russian-American who is a theoretician and a practitioner of the Chekhov technique. The exchange of information between the Russians and other practitioners of Chekhov's technique has been the motor driving the last few conferences. Not only did the Russians come to teach in North America but also Lenard Petit of Rutgers went to a conference in Lake Baikal in the summer of 2001. He speaks of it as a profound learning and teaching experience and believes that the differences between the different Chekhov teachers is liberating: “I am not an 'orthodox' Chekhov teacher. Chekhov created a situation in which people can be free. As an artist you bring the artistic freedom to the work. You are there to interpret things” (Petit).

MICHA is not only interested in pedagogy but also in performance, which is the ultimate goal of the exercises. The differences in the approaches and applications of the technique are most visible in the festival component of the MICHA conferences. Performances at the 2000 festival included Mrs. Ripley's Trip by Hamlin Garland performed by The Actors' Ensemble of New York. That same year students from Rutgers performed Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which was directed by Lenard Petit. In 2001 the actors from Russia's Kaluga State Drama Theater performed Long Day's Journey Into Nights, and in 2001 The Actors' Ensemble presented a work in progress, Tina Howe's Painting Churches, which was directed by Scott Fielding. Stylistically the acting and staging has ranged from realistic to expressionistic to grotesque. There seems to be a real need by a lot of the participants to create new work to which Chekhov's principles are applied to entire productions. Such productions are currently being rehearsed by MICHA members at Washington's Stanislavski Theatre Ensemble, and Actors' Ensemble in New York and the Actor's Ensemble in Zagreb.(2) Also, there are a lot of student performances that are now directed by Chekhov teachers holding university positions. I believe that creating and sharing these productions are the next step MICHA's members must collectively take. The conferences could then act as a yearly forum during which results could be shared among members.

The proliferation of the Chekhov technique as scholars and practitioners join the revival is gaining momentum. MICHA's teacher training workshop last January in Spencertown, New York was filled to the capacity, and the MICHA conference returns to Europe this year, nine years after the initial conference in Berlin. No longer a fledgling organization, just prior to the conference in Amsterdam, MICHA is organizing a workshop in New York City. There are already firm plans to hold the conference in Croatia in 2004, while continuing with the winter training sessions for teachers. The initiatives for the organization of the conferences come from the faculty and students alike. The strong European connection reflects MICHA's attempts to remain true to Chekhov's legacy. After all, he was an international teacher and artist, who lived in Russia, Europe, and America, and his technique cannot be confined to a single continent. Resurgence in the practice of Chekhov's technique has coincided with a rise in Chekhov scholarship, which is symbolized by the use of Michael Chekhov's photograph on the cover of Twentieth-Century Actor Training.(3)

My experience has proven to me that Chekhov's exercises can only be fully understood in practice, when they are transmitted by a teacher to a student. I initially read his book To the Actor in 1992 and was very skeptical about it. I attended the MICHA conference for the first time more to assure myself that what Chekhov suggest is impossible rather than to become a convert. I believe it is the direct transmission by the teachers who have learned and applied the method that made the difference in my understanding of it and enabled me to teach it. Chekhov's exercises are best understood in practice.

Spirituality and Michael Chekhov

In 2002 Ragnar Friedank from Germany joined the faculty together with the mask teacher Per Brache who focuses on Chekhov's attempts to bring Eastern philosophy to our Western way of thinking. Since Chekhov tells us that the East knows the secrets of concentration that the West must learn, Per Brache's workshops take students to Bali where they discover the connections between Chekhov's material and Hindu and Buddhist exercises for the mind, body, and spirit.

Chekhov might have tapped into this knowledge intuitively as his western technique resonates with Eastern practices that merge body and spirit. The Chekhov actor's Higher and Lower Selves, together with the impermanent character's self, have the potential of uniting into a perfect whole. It is in the body that the full potential of an actor's spirit lives, striving to overcome the boundaries of that very body. The body's union with imagination can enable the actor to transcend age, race, nationality, and gender, thus allowing a deeper understanding of our humanity.

Although spirituality is not often mentioned at the conferences, it is present in the classrooms and studios of today. The notion of an actor's task, which could be expressed as the revelation of the god in man, can be greatly aided by the actor using the Higher Self. This self is the most compassionate and loving part of the actor, which is able to form a connection with the intangible or the divine. Generally, the exercises focusing on the Higher Self involve a degree of trust, faith, and communion with the unknown. The imagination helps the actor cross the dividing line between the Everyday Self and the Higher Self. Thus, Chekhov's technique approaches the aims of the theatrical traditions of No theatre, which was born out of Buddhist thought. Instead of focusing on the story, this type of theatre focuses on the moment and the ability of the actor to transmit purely spiritual content.

As I interviewed the teachers at the 2001 conference, only about half of them wanted to talk about the spiritual side of Chekhov. Among the reasons given for this silence were the insistence that spirituality is apparent in the work and the belief that discussing the spiritual aspect of the technique is pointless. Yet according to Mala Powers, executrix of Chekhov's estate and his student for many years, Michael Chekhov cannot be understood without knowing something about his spirituality (Powers). Since the existence of the Higher Self cannot be scientifically proven or measured, the tendency is simply to avoid discussions about the spiritual. However, it is Higher Self that attracts many artists to Chekhov's work. Instead of acting in order to benefit oneself, and actor can begin to think of acting as a compassionate and giving activity and of theatre as a place of secular spirituality. The pendulum is swinging in the direction of the spiritual and a need for art that transcends the materialistic view of the world.

Chekhov wished to foster inspiration and a spirit of exploration by developing his technique. Judging by the future workshops and conferences, his wish has come true. In acting schools, ensembles, and companies all around the globe the spirit of Michael Chekhov is alive and well. In the Lessons for Teachers of His Acting Technique Chekhov states, “In our school we must fight this English habit to live with the head and brain only. In our lessons we must emphasize the speaking and behavior and the contact with our being” (20).


Notes

  1. The three conferences that I have attended in Connecticut were taught by an international group of teachers. In 2000 there were seven faculty members: Marjolein Baars from Holland who teaches clowning through the Chekhov technique, Sarah Kane from the UK whose focus is voice, Slava Kokorin from Russia who teaches acting, and Andrei Malaev-Babel who is from Moscow but now resides in Washington, DC and runs the award-winning Stanislavski Theatre. Lenard Petit participated from the American side. He teaches movement and clown at Rutgers and runs Chekhov classes in New York City. Ted Pugh is also from USA. He is a cofounder of The Actors' Ensemble of New York, which focuses on Chekhov's work and stages productions in upstate New York.
    In 2001 the conference was dedicated to the memory of Beatrice Straight, the Oscar winning actor responsible for bringing Michael Chekhov to Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1941. The faculty numbered fourteen. It was fortified by Jack Colvin, who like Joanna Merlin studied with Chekhov for many years. Colvin is an accomplished TV and stage actor who is currently the artistic director of The Chekhov Studio on the West Coast. Despite difficulties in speech, due to a recent stroke, Colvin lectured on two separate nights and demonstrated “The Three Sisters Exercise.” He learned it directly from Chekhov and a description of it has not been published. It is precisely this kind of gem that a teacher can collect at the MICHA conferences.
    At the same conference David Zinder who teaches at Tel Aviv University introduced his specific way of working with the imaginary centre and the body. He found out about the Chekhov technique through his connection with the “theatrical-hybridist” extraordinaire, Eugenio Barba and the Odin Theatre. Zinder's book Body, Voice, Imagination: A Training for the Actor has recently been republished. Fern Sloan, the other founding member of the Actors' Ensemble of New York worked mostly with qualities of movement and PG. The Russian director Rosa Tolskaya lectured on how Chekhov's work applies to the principle's of Anatoli Vasilyev's Player's Theatre.
  2. Although the two ensembles share the same name, they are unrelated.
  3. For more information about Twentieth-Century Actor Training, see the list of works cited.

WORKS CITED

  • Callow, Simon. Interview. The Dartington Years. Dir. Martin Sharp. MCCUK, 2002.
  • Chekhov, Michael. Lessons for Teachers of his Acting Technique. Ottawa: Dovehouse, 2000.
  • Hodge, Alison, ed. Twentieth-Century Actor Training. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Merlin, Joanna. Interview by author, 19 June 2001, Wallingford, CT.
  • Petit, Leonard. Interview by author, June 2002, Wallingford, CT.
  • Powers, Mala. Keynote speech. MICHA Convention. Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Waterford, CT. June 2001.
  • Zinder, David. Body, Voice, Imagination: A Training for the Actor. New York: Theatre Arts Books-Routledge, 2002.
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