How does the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique Work?

              Three PG's

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
 

 

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