About Michael Chekhov

Michael Chekhov and His Acting Technique

Michael Chekhov was a theatre artist, theorist, and teacher who left a legacy of a profoundly far-sighted and comprehensive method of actor training. Nephew to Anton Chekhov, the celebrated playwright, Michael Chekhov was part of the twentieth century revolution in acting started in Russia by Stanislavsky. Chekhov, a staring actor and director of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, focused on the use of the imagination and the inner/outer (psycho-physical) connections in the way of the actor, expanding on Stanislavsky’s ideas.

Chekhov wrote one of the most articulate and practical books on acting, To the Actor, which today is still a revelation and an inspiration to actors. His long career took him from Russia, to theatre and film companies in Europe, England, and New York, and finally to Hollywood, spanning the twentieth century evolution of acting in our western world. His accomplishments might be ranked amongst the contributions of the great thinkers of other fields, helping to lift acting up to the level of an art form.

Chekhov’s ideas made stars out of Yul Brenner, Beatrice Straight, Gary Cooper, Anthony Quinn, and many others, but because these ideas are primarily of interest to the actor exploring their inner processes, his teachings have dwelt quietly in the hearts of actors and been less well known to the public at large. His students have continued to teach his ideas and now the Michael Chekhov Association, founded by his student, Joanna Merlin, has been established to teach and promote his approach in a global network.

Chekhov’s technique goes straight to the essence of human experience, defining it in terms that an actor can isolate, exercise, and use as creative building blocks. For instance, we can ask, “What do I know about the spectrum of human qualities?” We can exercise with these ideas about qualities until we are very good at embodying them. Then, this psycho-physical experience becomes a creative tool by which a character can be artistically portrayed. Working with these essential elements, such as qualities, sensations, atmospheres, and actions, might be compared to dancers learning a movement vocabulary and then structuring their dances out of those movement elements.

Chekhov witnessed modern actors losing their most valuable asset – their ability to transform themselves through their imaginations. He saw the imagination as a talent that could be developed. In this technique, the actor learns to imagine the character in all the detail a novelist might see in their definition, and then incorporates those images in spontaneous play. In this way actors are always enlarging the scope of their possibilities and at the same time, expressing the full range of their own individuality. The actor is working not only with a more insightful sense of life as it is, but also with the potential of what it could be. The actor can be transformed, and thus the theatre can move forward.

“All true artists, especially the talented creators for the stage, bear within themselves a deeply rooted and often unconscious desire for transformation.”
-Michael Chekhov

©Dawn Arnold