Inside the Chekhov Studio

 

The Anton Chekhov Book Club is a Show

273x398ACBC16v2

I was talking with a friend tonight and she was confused. She thought I went to a book club called the Anton Chekhov Book Club. I said I did ..but… that its not a book club. The Anton Chekhov Book Club is a show. A live theatre show, The Anton Chekhov Book Club.

Two years in a row our little book club show performed at Chicago’s Stage 773. A terrific ensemble of fellow actresses, designers, directors, and a brilliant stage manager, met in a church to rehearse. After digging through over 200 short stories by Anton Chekhov, we chose our favorite stories by the illustrious storyteller for The Anton Chekhov Book Club. 

Like the women we are portraying, we have spent quality time with books by Anton Chekhov, so I guess in a way we really are a book club. Our book club (acting ensemble) goes beyond talking about the stories we read. We inhabit the world, sense the atmospheres, envision the places, enact the circumstances, and most of all, become the characters. We also channel Anton as we try to see what he sees.

Actors love Anton Chekhov. He reveals human beings in a way that makes an actor’s work easy for he plumbs the depths. Or, as Lydia Avilova wrote, “He understands everything.” Anton Chekhov is at heart a joker. He always has a twinkle in the eye, a laugh behind his seemingly serious face. When he gets sober and sometimes critical of the cruel things people do to each other, he does it with clarity and compassion. Most of the time he pokes with a smile.

The stories we have chosen for The Anton Chekhov Book Club Returns are a mix of poignant and hilarious, leaning towards the light hearted. We’re living in serious times and getting a bit goofy is becoming a necessity. As we compare our world to Anton’s, we realize our world is safer, more just, and less repressive than his and he laughed so we can, too.

Audiences have seen the plays of Anton Chekhov, but not many have seen his stories on stage. They should. The stories translate wonderfully to the theatre. Our cast of four women cross all casting boundaries. We play men as well as women, characters older than ourselves and much younger. We try to capture images of the characters in our mind’s eye and allow that to influence our actual bodies. We are hoping our audience will see our characters, not just us. Each story takes us on a journey into the souls of ordinary people in moments of yearning, worry, frustration, or joy. We’ll keep the 19th century Russian flavor, but as we get closer and closer to these stories, the distance between that time and ours, the world of Anton and our Chicago, diminishes and we exist in a time warp.

The Anton Chekhov Book Club and The Anton Chekhov Book Club Returns enabled us to celebrate life through Anton Chekhov’s point of view. Will we do another? Absolutely! There’s many more stories to explore.

© Dawn Arnold

Dawn Arnold is Artistic Director of The Moving Dock Theatre Company / Chekhov Studio Chicago.

GalwayBay

Galway Bay – Moving Dock’s first show

 

How Does This Chekhov Technique Work?                 

The urge to perform is always met by the question, “How will I do it?” It is an invitation to create that is exciting and intimidating all at once. How will we take the ideas and impressions we have about the characters we will perform and arrive at that place of confident, radiant expression we seek? Each artist ultimately forms their own process, but fortunately we don’t each have to invent the wheel. The mysterious ‘how” has been sought by dedicated artist-teachers who discovered principles that work.

Michael Chekhov is world renowned as one of the brilliant thinkers on the subject of the art of the actor. In fact, you might say that Michael Chekhov spent his career focused on the ‘how’ and his solutions form a solid foundation of technique, or practical knowledge. His ideas have been helping actors and singers bring out their talent and deliver the performances they have within them to give.

If you are unfamiliar with the Chekhov Technique, you are probably curious about what you will be doing. It is difficult to really get a sense of it without actually doing it. It is a ‘doing’ not a ‘talking about’ approach. Direct experience is the only way in. Chekhov wrote one of the most inspiring books about acting, To the Actor, yet his ideas can’t be understood in the thinking realm alone. As in music and dance, Chekhov Technique functions experientially.

What are our goals? We want to know the character deeply and truthfully. We want to understand what drives the character, what motivates their actions, what struggles they wage within themselves and with others. When we perform, we want to feel we are the very embodiment of the character, moment by moment, as we speak or sing.

In order to accomplish all that, we have to be ready to go after those goals with whole-hearted, whole bodied participation. Chekhov created a series of psycho-physical explorations that get us to a place of receptivity and engagement. In these explorations we are active mentally and physically in a simple but focused way. The process is up-on-our-feet experimenting, sometimes playing with others in ensemble, and sometimes focused on our own discoveries in solo concentration. All of our work is active improvisation, guided by points of focus.

In my teaching of the technique, I refer to the explorations that prepare the actor as essentials and teach these first. After that we can use Chekhov’s tools for characterization that guide us to create dynamic and very specific characters. Once these aspects of the technique are a working process for us, there are more fascinating ideas that are specific to the rehearsal and performance.

Essentials

We start with ourselves for our instrument is our thoughts, awareness, felt sense, and our active, expressive body. Our body is so much more than we typically accept. You might say we are expanding our sense of our body. Learning to listen to our impulses and impressions we reconnect to things we know without words. We are also developing our imagination, a muscle that needs as much of a workout as the body. When once asked to explain his technique, Chekhov answered that it was, “imagination, concentration, and radiation.”

Among these essential concepts of the technique, we learn the process of the psychological gesture which is the tool for understanding and embodying the inner life or essence of the character and the scene. This technique of the psychological gesture will become our modus operandi, showing us how to take ideas and images and translate them into something doable.

Though we are primarily interested in the process, everything we explore could potentially be an acting choice, and later will be. One thing that impresses actors in a Chekhov workshop is that they find themselves immediately connecting as an actor – they are acting! – and often in a way more connected than they usually are, with very little preparation. These essentials are an actor’s practice. They put us in a state of awareness and expressiveness, ready to design the the character.

Characterization

Working with archetypal ideas, the raw material for characterization, we expand our understanding of human experience. We make a distinction between ourselves and our characters. There is no fear that our objective view of the character will distance us because we have already learned a process for embodiment, how to take the images or thoughts about the character we have and own them. We have a way to make the objective subjective. In this way we can know so much more about the character to create a vivid interpretation.

Now, all those questions we want to ask the character come into play. Envisioning them in their world, we can work with them, so to speak, asking them what Chekhov calls ‘leading questions,’ and then learning to take on what we discover. Once we have embodied the ideas, they become something known in a felt way. When it is time to perform, our heads will not be struggling to keep all these things in front of us. They will be known and all we then do is act or sing spontaneously and freely.

Are you getting the idea? Good! Of course there is more and many Chekhov actors will tell you that the creativity of this approach to our art form never ends. The ways to apply the tools of the technique are wonderfully inventive and seemingly endless. While it takes a while to get it into your system, the technique is actually quite simple. The reason some of us continually return to workshops and classes is because it is so much fun!

© Dawn Arnold, Artistic Director

The Moving Dock Theatre Company / Chekhov Studio Chicago
Further musings can be found on my blog: Dawn Arnold’s Gestures.

 

 

Music and Chekhov Technique – Made for Each Other

ChekhovStudioChicagoIntensive-15_2

We’re about to have our second special workshop for singers in our Studio. This is exciting for me, bringing my music and acting worlds together. Whether it was classical violin, musical theatre, Scottish fiddle, or making the soundtrack for one of my shows, I have always found music the most direct expression of feelings and the deeper meanings of life.

I’ve also done a fair amount of creative movement to music and lip-syncing in my time so I know this is true – the inner experience of music and the music are intertwined, even if you aren’t the one singing. Maybe more so if you aren’t the one singing. Riding the wave of your favorite performer’s skilled rendition, you are free to follow where your heart leads.

When you are the one who is going to get up on stage and expose the inner workings of your (character’s) feelings, yearnings, impassioned pleas for understanding, it’s another story. In the effort to get past the technicalities of singing, learning the music and the role, and preparing to perform, the desire to make deep connections to your song can remain unfulfilled.

Intellectual understanding isn’t enough. It creates a conflict. The head says, “This is what I am singing about.” The music says something else, something more than can be explained. This is the realm of the inner life, inner gesture, that is being outwardly expressed as music and poetic text.

We enter and inhabit this realm as we explore our acting via the process of the inner language of gesture. Actors (and singers) who are working with the Chekhov Technique are learning to speak this original human language. Working with this language, they are ready to hear where the music will take them. Music and the language of inner gesture were made for each other for they are essentially the same thing.

Why do we hide what we feel? Could it be that the logical, rational communication of the everyday world isn’t a form that can express these yearnings of soul? In musical theatre and opera, characters burst into song when they can no longer contain their inner state of being.

In the Studio, as I work with actors to explore the inner language of gesture, we discover how much lies beneath the surface of human experience. We open and expand ourselves, realizing our greater potential for knowing. Then we contain it again when we need to perform realistically. What we have found becomes inner power to outer simplicity. But working with music, instead of containing what we find, we have a means for giving it to the world freely.

I rejoice in this freedom. Welcome singers to our Studio! We will discover and perform magical moments where our grasp of the inner life becomes music.

© Dawn Arnold 

 

Theatre of the Future – Expanding by Means of Our Profession

This week, at the Michael Chekhov Association’s annual International Workshop and Festival, my alma mater for Chekhov training, there is also an Open Space to consider the Theatre of the Future. For theatre practitioners who are acquainted with the ideas of theatre visionary and teacher Michael Chekhov, this is an invitation to open thought and ask questions that move us and enliven our efforts in our art.

In Chekhov’s published writings he advanced this idea of the Theatre of the Future.

“The actor in the future must not only find another attitude towards his physical body and voice, but to his whole existence on the stage in the sense that the actor, as an artist, must, more than anyone else, enlarge his own being by the means of his profession…”

Michael Chekhov
Lessons to the Professional Actor 

Of all arts, the actor most uses himself in his creativity and performance. Chekhov invited actors to awake from the stupor of their everyday existence and engage their imaginations to envision and inhabit their roles. His approach expands our sense of who we are even as we work on our art and our profession.

As many times as I have done or taught the gesture of expanding in a Chekhov workshop I am struck by the immediate shift in the perception of being. What are we doing when we expand? It is more than the physical move of expanding. Indeed, Chekhov is adamant that what we do is never merely physical, that we are always dealing with our ‘whole existence’ when we do these acting exercises. However conscious we may be or to what degree we might be considering all of our existence when we expand, there is no question that this one act takes us to a different state.

If this can happen with one acting exercise, what could happen in a whole role? In a whole show developed in this way? This has been at the heart of Moving Dock’s work since it’s inception, practically exploring this idea of the Theatre of the Future. Sometimes we have jumped off with expansive projects such as Unsung Stars. At other times we have concentrated on the development of actors through the workshops and classes in Chekhov Studio Chicago.

Lately we have realized that more actors are beginning training in Chekhov but don’t have many opportunities to explore the possibilities of the Theatre of the Future. Gradually we are adding options to our Studio offerings to give the Chekhov actor a chance to expand.

This year we offered a summer Intensive for the growing network of Chekhov actors to test their skill in rehearsal and performance with our Performance Intensive. This is the second time we tried this and we were excited by what we learned. We’ll continue to explore this addition to our Studio. We also launched the Red Shoes Solo Show project for advanced Chekhov actors to delve into the creative side to the Chekhov approach.

The Theatre of the Future begins with the thought that acting has a nobler purpose and a greater potential than we all might have believed when we got started in this art form. There is so much more we can do to expand individually and together.

© Dawn Arnold

Visit us on Google+  Moving Dock Theatre Company / Chekhov Studio Chicago