Playing with the Michael Chekhov Technique: The Transformed Actor
“My imagination has to be powerful enough to dictate to my heart, to my body, to my narrow ideas. To develop our imagination means to lift it so high that it is inspiring me as a free thing.” - Michael Chekhov
Transformation is a powerful achievement. It is part of the original impulse to become an actor. It is also a direct result of artistic inspiration.
Training in the Michael Chekhov Technique has a propensity towards increasing the capacity to transform. Understanding the similarities and the differences between human things develops this capacity. When we engage our imagination we open up possibilities to accept new things. Then we can apply our will power into expressing something new, something we have imagined.
It might be misleading to say to young actors – to do great acting you must learn and know about yourself – because in the end you must follow Stanislavsky’s dictum: “It is I in the given circumstance.”
Yes, you should know yourself, and how you relate to this or that experience. You must determine to find out how you become angry or sad, jealous and confused. You will uncover what has deep meaning to you. And you will know this is what you can act, or how you can act. You understand and relate to life in your way, what you do, even as an actor will always be you doing it. All roles become a portrait of you.
The limits of this are obvious. Something more must be present in the performance, some kind of ‘global reach’ away from the personal, something transformational. When you are always the same then you only show the same thing over and over, which is merely the small and limited image you have of yourself. To merely study the self, engenders a vanity among actors that is essentially limiting in artistic terms. The way you feel about this event or that person, place or thing, does not necessarily serve you fully as a creative artist.
Successful performance is an outer as well as an inner event where direct contact is made up of two things: the creative impulse and an audience. It happens in the moment when we receive something, and then as we give it out.
What do we receive? How do we give it out? Who is receiving? Who is giving out?
Your point of view is more than a thought or a feeling. This thought or feeling has a very clear effect upon your body. Your body is your body, but at the same time, it is a human one, and the body of your brother and sister and cousin and neighbor, which is essentially the same as yours. It is flesh, bones, vessels, vital organs, and nerves. There is also an animating energetic force that remains unexplainable, yet at the same time undeniable. This force within the body takes you through your days, and the quality or intensity or awareness of this energetic force informs you of your health and your attitudes. Your movement is a result of adjusting to the energetic movement within. Your involvement with life puts this energetic force into movements that change from moment to moment.
What we really must study is the human being, and how the human being adapts and adjusts to the world. How human activity is always a reflection of humanity, a larger picture of the whole.
Your body is also your instrument and the instrument needs to be tuned and played. Your skills as a performer need sharpening. It’s the imagination not the facts of your personality that will enliven the performance. You study and train in order to set up within your body the ability to receive the performance you want to express, the performance that resonates with your audience. Using your imagination and your will are required for this resonance.
Training the body to respond to the will in a creative way is not the same as training the body with conventional physical exercises. When we train the body for acting as a performing art we have to understand the most fundamental and objective things about it: This body is the body of a human being, this body is mine, it stands up on two legs, and it is in a direct relationship with gravity. This body can move and it can be still, it can struggle in its movement, or it can move easily. The body communicates to the psyche by means of sensation, and the body knows all sensations.
To say I feel happy or sad, in love or in pain is only possible because I am having a sensation of these conditions. My happiness, which I believe belongs to me as a special way to feel happy, is actually the sensation of happiness, and it is the same for every other human. What makes mine special is that I am alone in the specific moment of it, but the sensation I feel is the same sensation you feel when you say you feel happy.
What needs attention, what needs to be accepted, explored and embraced in the training is the fact that sensation is movement, inner movement. Our response to the inner movement is an acknowledgement that some thing is moving within us. We are awakened to the inner movement by the impulse to move outwardly. The reaction to the inner movement produces outer movement. The outer movement, which we shape into recognizable form, is the performance. The inner movement is reactive to the outer world, and the outer movement is a reaction to the inner movement. Creative engagement with this is a step towards transformation and consistently excellent performance.
In training, the actor is greatly assisted by making objective connections to humanity as opposed to drawing close to the personality. When the actor relies only on the personal, then we see an imitation of his or her life. There is truth in it for the actor because it belongs to the actor’s personality, but it does not come close to transformation.
Transformation can occur when the actor wills the inner movement, which is the essential truth of living, and forms the outer expression through a fine connection to the instrument, the body. This is at the very core of psycho-physical training
In the words of Michael Chekhov: “Is it not, in the majority of cases, merely a happy accident rather than a triumph of skill when an actor is able to awaken his feelings whenever he wants or needs them. True artistic feelings, if they refuse to appear by themselves must be coaxed by some technical means, which will make an actor the master of them.”
One of the many technical means Michael Chekhov suggests is called, the 3 Sisters. Gravity is the means of understanding the 3 Sisters. Gravity is a force we contend with all the time. We are essentially numb to it until we succumb to it.
Falling is the first of the 3 Sisters, floating is the second, and balancing is the third.
All that moves downward is in a condition of falling. There are many specific sensations that are downward moving, and this direction of movement is easily sensed as soon as soon as we are made aware of it. All that moves upward is in a condition of floating and there are many specific sensations that are upward moving. Balancing is work or movement. Actively seeking balance to stop falling, or to stop floating, which provokes sensations that are empowering.
Lenard Petit in A Christmas Carol
The actor in performance engages the energetic in much the same way that a martial artist does. In both cases the practitioner uses developed physical skills to express inner dynamic forces of falling floating or balancing. The actor can imagine the scene in terms of these three movements (sensations). They feed the inner truth of the circumstances, and at the same time put the actor in touch with the expressive body that must perform. The actor responds to true impulses and is allowed to leave the personality out of the action.
When put into practice it becomes quite possible to answer the questions posed at the top of this essay:
What do we receive? We receive impulses from the sensations.
How do we give it out? We give it out by moving in very specific ways that belong to the moment, to the circumstances, and to the character.
Who is receiving? The conscious actor receives the impulses. The engaged audience receives the expressions of the Actor, and perceives the Character.
Who is giving out? The Transformed Actor, the Character
Michael Chekhov wrote: “The inner life of the [imagination], and not the personal and tiny experiential resources of the actor, should be elaborated on the stage and shown to the audience. This life is rich and revealing for the audience as well as for the actor himself.”
Lenard Petit as Cyrano
In a performance the performer has a large responsibility to create and sustain a unique and stunning event for the audience. This requires developing skills that transcend charm and grace and natural talent. Acting is a performing art that happens in the now. It does not need your history. It needs your Courage, Dedication, Imagination, Presence and (body) Wisdom in order to succeed. •2016
Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”
LENARD PETIT is a founding member of the Michael Chekhov Association, MICHA, and the Director of the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio in New York City. Author of the Michael Chekhov Handbook, for the Actor, he has been working in the theater for forty years collaborating with other artists to create original works for the stage, cinema, and television. He has directed plays and performance pieces on and Off Broadway, and in Great Britain. As an actor, he has performed in works by Julie Taymor, Meredith Monk, Richard Foreman, Ping Chong, and many others. One of a handful of teacher students trained by the original members of Michael Chekhov’s Theater School, in 2016, Mr. Petit was invited to create a Michael Chekhov Workshop and Festival in connection with The Shanghai Theater Academy Theater Arts Festival Shanghai, China. He has been invited to teach Master classes at The International School for Film and Television in Munich, Helsinki University, as well as master classes and workshops in, Amsterdam, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Berlin, Oslo, Reykjavik, Brussels, Zurich, Dublin, London, Riga, Vilnius, and Irkutsk, Siberia. For twenty-five years he taught the Chekhov Technique in the MFA and BFA Acting programs at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. www.michaelchekhovactingstudio.com